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The Religion of the Poor: Rural Missions in Europe and the Formation of Modern Catholicism, c. 1500-c. 1800.

The Religion of the Poor: Rural Missions in Europe and the Formation of Modern Catholicism, c. 1500-c. 1800. By Louis Chatellier (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xiii plus 246 pp.).

The first point to make about Louis Chatellier's The Religion of the Poor: Rural Missions in Europe and the Formation of Modern Catholicism is that the book is not about the "poor" according to any sociological sense of that term. Rather, "poor" is used in a medieval sense as an antonym to "powerful." Further, Chatellier restricts its meaning to country folk, aspiring in this study to consider the people most opposite to the urban and aristocratic elites he has considered in his other works, most especially The Europe of the Devout. "Poor," then, is best understood as the equivalent of the idea of the "rustic," as that latter term is used to designate a social type. His use of the term "mission" also requires a bit of explanation. Implicitly rejecting the line of interpretation best represented by Jacques Le Goff, Chatellier regards the rustics about whom he is speaking as nominally Christian. The missionaries who visited their villages were not introducing Christianity, but updating it. In that sense the ter m in American English that best conveys the religious phenomenon Chatellier is describing is "revival." In sum, The Religion of the Poor, is about Catholic revivalism across the European countryside.

It is about Catholic revivalism during the early modern era, yet the point Chatellier is making is that this revivalism is best understood by reference to medieval models of religious enthusiasm. Chatellier's thought-provoking argument is that the Counter-Reformation did not convert the Catholic rustic to its values, rather the Catholic rustic forced the Catholic church to reform and to refine earlier medieval Catholic sensibilities.

Perhaps the best access point for an appreciation of the import of Chatellier's argument is the work of John Bossy, in particular the latter's ground breaking essay "The Counter-Reformation and the Catholic People of Europe" (Past and Present no. 46 [1970]). Chatellier's ideas can be considered cultural historical counterweights to the social (sociological) historical ideas Bossy advances there and in his later works. Both scholars concentrate in their work on spelling out the impact of the emergence of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) upon Counter-Reformation (post-Tridentine) Catholicism. Bossy used Durkheim to construct an idea of that impact that emphasizes the boundaries the Jesuits helped impose upon lay Catholicism. Bossy's argument was that those boundaries acted as a funnel, channeling Catholic devotional life into a bureaucratically controlled, urban centered, rationalistic religious experience very similar to the other state maintained religious experiences that emerged on the modern side of the Reformation. Chatellier argues in The Religion of the Poor that the effort to use these boundaries to rein in rustic devotional life failed, yet the effort triggered the evolution of a new rustic devotional sensibility. This new sensibility rejected the pessimism spawned by the re-embrace of Augustinian rationalism by Counter-Reformation Catholic elites, favoring instead an optimistic assessment of the efficacy of penance which looked backward toward the pastoral strategies devised by the mendicant friars (Franciscans and Dominicans) during the later Middle Ages. Bossy sought to show the common sources and similar patterns of evolution of Jesuit Catholicism and Calvinist Protestantism. In effect, Chatellier tries to show the common sources and similar patterns of evolution of rustic Catholicism and Methodism.

There is not much food for thought for social historians in The Religion of the Poor. Chatellier builds his case almost exclusively upon anecdotal evidence. The only aggregate data he presents have to do with the geographic distribution of missions across identified countrysides, and the purposes behind these maps do not become apparent literally until the book's final paragraph. He offers no sophisticated explanation of how country people forced clerical authorities to listen to their demands. He suggests simply that the former voted with their feet, responding with their presence to devotional activities which appealed to them, and which took their needs into consideration. Chatellier does a magnificent job evoking the theatricality of rural missions. He presents early modern Catholic missionaries as the forerunners of modern television evangelists. Like the latter, the former were first and foremost performers who offered many rural communities their only exposure to non-local forms of entertainment. Like contemporary television talk show hosts, these missionaries likewise understood the cathartic power of audience participation, challenging individual penitents to provide the spark for collective venting. Chatellier's point is that rustic Catholicism appealed to the heart, not the head. While it might assimilate newer modes of expression, such as literacy, these newer modes were embraced only to the extent to which they more effectively communicated age-old sentiments. The implication, then, is that rustic Catholicism was impervious to social change. Ultimately, as a social phenomenon, it was about the relationship between a confessor and his penitents. Thus Chatellier's story was not about progress and change, but about the rediscovery of a constituent element of Catholic Christianity dismissed as unessential by the Counter-Reformation church.

The section of the book of most interest to social historians would be in the second part, where he discusses the problems missionaries encountered in grafting post-Tridentine Catholicism onto rural roots. Here, in his discussion of the application of the new moral and devotional values of the Counter-Reformation to the problems of rural, often impoverished populations, he is on the terrain previously covered by Bossy. Here also, however, his argument is that Counter-Reformation era missionaries succeeded only to the extent that they took upon themselves the responsibilities the mendicant orders once accepted, mostly those involved with arbitrating social conflict. They did this primarily by promoting new devotions, such as that to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which celebrated a very medieval idea of love or caritas. As Chatellier points out, these devotions were promoted despite a rain of condemnations by more intellectual-oriented (read Augustinian) members of the church. The devotions only survived because of popular support.

In the end though, this was enough. In 1979, Pope John Paul II announced to the Catholic faithful that he recognized that "spiritual life" was not "confined to participation in the liturgy," a statement which reversed four centuries (since the council of Trent) of pressure by parish priests and bishops to confine spiritual life in exactly that way. Rather, the pope invited Catholics to continue in "the other exercises of devotion which you have lovingly preserved for centuries." (Chatellier, p. 231). As Charellier notes in his final paragraph, the devotions the pope had in mind had first emerged in those regions he had mapped out earlier, as a result of the missions he just finished describing. They, not the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent, or even the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, were the true legacy of early modern Catholicism for the modern age.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Barnes, Andrew
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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