Domestic Devotions

Domestic Devotions

The Place of Piety in the Italian Renaissance Home

Day 3: Domestic Devotions in the Early Modern World, 1400-1800

Whilst looking for a suitable way to begin the chronicle of day 3 of our Domestic Devotions conference, a remark by Deborah Howard came to mind. During the roundup session, Deborah reminded the audience that our purpose was to mix up periods, geographical areas, faiths, and to pursue a thematic approach. This choice proved successful beyond our expectations. The papers have shown the continuities and similarities of domestic devotional practices across time and space. However different the social, cultural, religious and political contexts might be, private devotion seems to provide answers to the same crucial questions. As suggested during the round table, the historical approach to religious practices within the household should be somehow backed up by an anthropological one. In fact, dealing with domestic devotion means engaging more with communities or networks of believers rather than with one’s private relation to the Divine. Even if prescriptive sources call for a most intimate dialogue with God, for seclusion, for separation from the outside world, domestic devotion is inevitably affected by – and responds to – the urge for contingency. As such, if on the one hand domestic devotions show a certain degree of resilience to external pressures, on the other hand they are characterised by a good deal of flexibility and pragmatism.


Concluding discussion. Image courtesy of @placeofpiety.


During the same discussion, Abi Brundin insightfully pointed out how religious practices at home had to cope with a number of circumstances – everyday duties, material needs – that ineluctably led to a compromise with the precepts handed down by religious authorities or prescriptive texts. This observation led us to consider domestic devotion as part of a complex and, I would say, polyphonic experience. Private piety should always be thought of against the background of communal life, be it that of the family (or, more appropriately, kinship) or that of the social community. A certain set of devotional practices seems to mark one’s belonging to a group, either social or religious. This is certainly true of early modern Europe, where religious divides caused the members or sympathizers of unorthodox or marginalized communities to display their religion only within the household. Whilst it is rare to find individuals professing a religion almost entirely of their own (one could think of Ginzburg’s Menocchio, from his seminal book, The Cheese and the Worms), it was fairly common for devotees to gather and affirm their identity as a group in the house. This was the case with the Catholic community in the Lutheran region of Upper Lusatia illustrated by Martin Christ. Christ presented the case-study of Johannes Leisentrit’s hymn book, Geistliche Lieder und Psalmen first printed in 1567. This collection of psalms and spiritual songs included both Catholic and Lutheran texts: a significant overlapping, that shows how confessional boundaries in private piety can be blurred, as shown also by Greg Salazar in his paper Daniel Featley’s The Handmade of Private Devotion: a ‘Calvinist Conformist’ household devotional work. Leisentrit’s work was intended to prompt devotion through communal singing in the house. Apparently, the gathering of small communities of devotees within the household to sing psalms and songs was a practice common to both Catholics and Protestants, and it likely worked to strengthen the ties of religious minorities. Kathleen Ashley (Psalm singing at home: the case of Etienne Mathieu, a Burgundian Protestant) beautifully illustrated how in late sixteenth century Burgundy Huguenots used to gather inside the house to sing the Psalms in the condemned version of Clement Marot. This raised jurisdictional issues that are quintessentially political. Is the house a private space? To what extent is it subject to the authorities’ control? As we can infer from this example, domestic devotion can be a straightforward political matter. After listening to many papers, especially during day 3, I have the strong impression that domestic devotion is a means of building and/or tightening up social bonds. Domestic devotion is moulded by external political events, as Tara Alberts (‘House-churches’, ‘oratories’ and lay devotional practices in seventeenth-century Vietnam) has shown with reference to eighteenth-century Vietnam. The persecutions of Catholic priests coincided with a rise in the number of conversions. As a response to the ostracism of the local authorities, converts began to choose the house as a privileged place of piety. This led them to give shape to unorthodox practices, somehow including the previous “idolatric” cults.

There were other ways in which domestic devotion could help a community to build up or renew its identity, as demonstrated by the fascinating case-study provided by Igor Sosa Mayor (Eating bones and producing relics: martyrs’ relics and their consumption in southern Spain in 1628). In seventeenth-century Spain a community accidentally found some bones, allegedly relics of local saints martyred during late Antiquity. This pushed the locals to dig up the bones and to grind them in order to bake them into devotional cookies that were later sold and even shipped to America. Whilst introducing a new form of devotion, intimately domestic (people looked for the bones, ground them, baked them, even impressed upon them the image of the saints), this riveting story calls into question crucial issues such as the role of relics and sanctity in the seventeenth century. Also, it shows how a “popular” form of devotion could shape the identity of an entire community – not necessarily in opposition to other confessional forms (as for the case of Spain, one should remember the tensions between the Catholics and the Moriscos, illustrated in Borja Franco Llopis’ paper The Moriscos’ domestic devotions viewed through Christian eyes in early modern Iberia, exploring the fictitious and ‘nicodemite’ forms of Christian private devotion adopted by Muslim communities). The devotional relevance of food was also the subject of Flora Cassen’s paper, The sausage in the Jews’ pantry: food and Jewish-Christian relations in Renaissance Italy. As we know from archival sources, food was strictly connected to religious identity: people were frequently denounced to the Inquisition on the basis of their dietary customs. This concerned mainly the Jews, and was explored in Cassen’s paper, in which food was regarded as a marker of identity and of belonging and exclusion. Finally, food and banquet in Muslim world were the subject of Marion Katz fascinating paper Commemoration of the Prophet’s birthday as a domestic ritual in fifteenth- to sixteenth-century Damascus.

Sosa Mayor’s paper introduced also the important question of the economics of devotion. The bread was a source of income for the community: but if we look closer at devotional practices, economic matters are often implied. This is one of the issues raised by Anna Wainwright’s paper on widows and devotion (Warriors of devotion: Agostino Valier’s Instruttione della vera et perfetta viduità). Drawing on Agostino Valier’s treatise, Wainwright highlighted how the strictly devotional practice suggested by churchmen to widows, who were never to re-marry, was also a means of controlling their familiar patrimonies.

Generally speaking, however difficult gendering domestic devotions may be, women were the privileged addressees of conduct manuals, many of which were explicitly devotional, as is the case with the Decor puellarum, first published in Venice in 1471, and the subject of Philip Gavitt’s paper (Ritual, memory, and the body in the Decor Puellarum (1471)). The role of women in domestic devotion was the focus of many papers on day 3, ranging from Gabriela Ramos’ Living with the Virgin in the Colonial Andes: a study of images of private devotion of Our Lady of Copacabana in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to Emily Fine’s account of the religious life of an English mother, Elizabeth Grymeston, and her spiritual legacy to her daughter, collected in a work published in 1604 and entitled Miscelanea. Meditations. Memoratives (Dying devotions: mothers’ written legacies to their children). As a matter of fact, it is hard to overestimate the agency of women in domestic devotion. One might simply think of the social role played by witches/sorceresses/enchantresses/healers. Their rituals, based on a mixture of folkloric (or, in the terms of their time, superstitious) beliefs and orthodox prayers, were pivotal in establishing and re-casting social ties, as Guido Ruggiero explained in his book Binding passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage and Power at the end of the Renaissance (1993). Once again, we are taken back to the micro-politics of domestic devotion, as a tool for controlling the social body, more then merely a matter of one’s intimate solace and spiritual consolation. This theme emerged strongly on the last day of our conference, and is particularly relevant (and problematic) in the Italian case, where political power was fractured. Religious heterodoxy and political opposition go hand in hand and often merge into each other: semi-public spaces like apothecaries were a place of exchange of both political and religious discourses, as, among others, Joanna Kostylo has shown in her Friday paper The Renaissance pharmacy as a site for Protestant worship.


Keynote address by Professor Virginia Reinburg. Image courtesy of Dr Ezra Plank (@ezraplank).

All these fascinating themes featured in their complex intertwining in Virginia Reinburg’s keynote lecture, The Book of Hours Between Home and Cosmos. Building on her seminal book, French Books of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600 (2012), Virginia gave us a rich insight into the domestic devotion of French families during the Renaissance. Books of hours were certainly a bestseller in the Renaissance: intended primarily for women’s devotion, they ended up being a family possession, carefully treasured and passed down from generation to generation. Family history was often recorded in books of hours, which thus became a sort of family archive. Subtracted from the almost exclusively feminine sphere they were intended for, they became a familiar devotional object. Evidence from French manuscripts testifies to the complexity of books of hours: images and pilgrimage badges could be pasted onto them or sewn into them, further prayers written in the margins, all of which enriched the already articulated dialectic between words and images typical of these books. Illuminations often depicted the devotee at her devotion, within the house or in a private chapel, showing her in her intimate dialogue with the supernatural. As a consequence, sacred and profane time merged into one another; their boundaries dissolved and the Divine was brought to earth. Books of hours contained a variety of prayers, often introduced by rubrics, the folkloric content of which is most relevant for us: they offered relief from the most common misfortunes of everyday life. They thus testify to the persistence of ancient cults well into the sixteenth century. Finally, we might recall how books of hours were also used as primers for children, who learnt how to read from their (primarily Latin) texts.

This final day of our conference offered a variety of suggestions and themes for further reflection that will certainly enrich our understanding of devotional practices, whilst also providing an invaluable comparative overview of early modern private piety.

The Domestic Devotions team and conference attendees during the concluding discussion. Image courtesy of Dr Ezra Plank (@ezraplank).

The Domestic Devotions team and conference attendees during the concluding discussion. Image courtesy of Dr Ezra Plank (@ezraplank).

Here is the link to the Storify page with all the tweets from day 3:



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