The primary goal of the conference, Domestic Devotions in the Early Modern World, was to bring together friends and colleagues from around the world to discuss issues surrounding the practice of religion in the home in broad comparative perspectives. The event was a great success, and the enthusiasm, participation and collaborative spirit of all the participants meant that the conference was both greatly productive and enjoyable for us. Thanks to our social media team, the conference was also a successful online event, with our PhD students Katie Tycz and Irene Galandra Cooper helping to share our discussions across the globe by means of a chorus of tweets (#placeofpiety)!
The day opened with the first of three planned sessions on Material culture: objects in the home. Erin Campbell, of the University of Victoria was the first speaker to speak on Reforming the family: the material culture of devotion in the Bolognese domestic interior. Taking as a point of departure Archbishop Gabriele Paleotti’s writings on the family, her paper examined the wealth of visual and material culture of devotion that permeated the Bolognese home. Campbell introduced the concept of the ‘sacred ecology’ a term which incorporates not only the material culture of the home but also acknowledges the inter-penetrability of the domestic interior and the wider world. As Paleotti argued in his instructions for familial prayer, the home environment should be a space devoted to the sacred, where everything (furniture included) concurred to promote a righteous and fervent attitude to praying. To represent this ‘sacred ecology’, and also to show how objects practically shaped people’s devotional attitudes, Campbell made use of a sample of inventories. For example, the inventory of the widow Caterina di Nicolai di Armis. Caterina’s contained a series of books typical of Christian prescriptive literature. These inventories demonstrate how the house was a fluid environment where spatial, visual and material arrangements facilitated the spiritualization of the family, and from there, of the whole city.
The second speaker, Katherine French, a medieval historian from the University of Michigan, enlightened the audience with her findings on The material culture of domestic piety in late medieval London, arguing for the relationship between housewifery and piety from the perspective of the pre-Reformation London house. French maintained that although London endured recession in the fifteenth century, the levels of consumption of London’s merchants and artisans increased. Archeological findings also confirmed this point. Archeologists found clay figurines or statues of the Virgin coming from the Rhine valley that were most likely imported to England in bulk; dishware, especially Mazer glasses and trinkets or jugs, several Paxes with or without the Agnus dei, spoons and bowls with the inscription VV for Virgo Virginum [Virgin of Virgins]. Busts of St John were another popular item in Londoners’ homes, as the saint was commonly believed to cure epilepsy. While the relatively small size of these objects did not come at a surprise (as French says, they most likely were meant to be portable and carried around the house while performing daily chores), what it is of interest is this scholar’s rather cautious view of the likely significance of all these objects into Londoners’ households. These devotional objects – French claims – did not necessarily create a sacred house, but certainly reinforced the idea that religious thinking was frequent and recurrent throughout the day.
After a much needed coffee/tea break the day continued with another session, the second of the three scheduled on Reading, writing, image + text with Suzan Folkerts of the Rijksuniversiteit of Gronigen presenting her paper on From monastery to marketplace – and to the home: on the uses of Middle Dutch gospels in manuscripts and print. Folkerts is leading an ongoing project enquiring into the appropriation of the Bible by investigating ‘scribing’ practices. Departing from a medieval tradition that focused on the Passion and Resurrection stories in the Gospels, Folkerts investigated to what extent the medieval tradition influenced the translations of the new Lutheran Bible and the reading habits of the lay people.
Piotr Bialecki, a PhD student from the University of Warsaw focussed on a very different type of source, the diary or memoir book (Ital. Libro di ricordi or Ricordanze) of Luca Landucci, a Florentine apothecary who dutifully kept records of his daily life and activity between 1450 and 1516. Although the diary of Landucci has been the object of several investigations already, Bialecki explored how the diary is pivotal in investigating how the message of Girolamo Savonarola, a central figure in Landucci’s writing, was internalized and transposed into a very private and individual familial context. Bialecki ultimately argued that the very act of writing became for Landucci an act of piety and spiritual reflection.
The central attention to the Word of God for Calvinism, where the Scriptures are the real and only source of knowledge formed the basis of the investigation of the third speaker, Ezra Plank (Pepperdine University), who explored Bible reading in early modern Geneva. As Plank mentioned, Calvin said that every little home should become a church of God. In their daily life and errands people were actually encouraged to attend sermons. Yet, as Plank argued, “evidence from the consistory records suggests that the Genevan concern with a domestic piety marked by Bible reading in the home was not as prominent as previously characterized. On the contrary, the Scriptures were thought of more as tools for evangelism and building confessional identity than for domestic piety, biblical literacy, or religious education”.
After a refreshing lunch provided by St. Catharine’s College, work resumed with the second keynote lecture, which took place in the McGrath Centre. Introduced by Deborah Howard, Debra Kaplan, from Bar-Ilan University (Israel) informed the audience on Living spaces, communal places: early modern Jewish families and religious devotion. Kaplan insisted on one crucial point: to read the Torah would have marked particular passages of one’s life. However the Torah was not only read, it was also employed as an amulet. One point in common with Katherine French’s paper was the insistence on housewifery and housekeeping as a ‘metaphorical’ place for religious activities. In Jewish households housekeeping was also considered a moral issue and domestic and religious activities (as well as domestic and communal spaces) often overlapped. The equation of sin to a dirty house meant simply that a woman performing her household duties should be considered as a ‘moral’ individual.
Later in the afternoon the third and last session discussed material culture and was chaired by Lucy Razzall. Angela Clarke, of the Italian Cultural Centre in Vancouver, spoke of a typology of saints (St. Francis, St. Lucy, St. Cecilia, St. Barbara and Catherine of Alexandria) depicted on Deruta maiolica pottery. These saints were especially called upon by lay women during onerous passages of their lives (like marriages and difficult pregnancies) when they sought special emotional or spiritual solace. As Clarke argued, the Franciscan order designed a whole array of liturgical apparati featuring also the image of St. Francis to assist women in their daily act of prayer. These Deruta maiolica objects could ultimately help people to perform their daily religious duties in the privacy of their homes.
Marie Lezowski, of the École Française de Rome, concentrated instead on Milan, illustrating the relationship between the faithful and his/her personal items within the practices of domestic devotions. She focused on a particular type of objects, those of smaller size and portable, such as relics, images, Agnus Dei etc. These objects were produced in great quantity in the district of Milan, and from there they were imported to the city. Some of these objects, coming from a church, or a chapel or oratorio, were brought into people’s home, and in many case re-shaped. For these reasons they became closely scrutinised by a judge specifically bestowed with this duty by the archbishop. Ecclesiastical control very accurately guessed that these objects were used in a ‘familial’ context, but their provenance and spiritual implications also made them responsible for creating a ‘personalization’ of the sacred.
Magdalena Mielnik of the National Museum in Gdansk explored the literary world of moralistic advice for women by analyzing a compendium for pastors, called Moralia Gedanensia, written by Johannes Botsack and published posthumously in 1699, in which he mentioned ideal subjects for preaching and sources for further study, especially aimed at guiding young women’s piety. As Mielnik argued, the influence of Italian thought is highly visible in moralistic works in the Reformation Era, as the works of authors such as Leon Battista Alberti and Francesco da Barbaro were well known.
The last session of the day, Living saints/holy women took place in the Ramsden Room and was chaired by Abigail Brundin. Veronika Capska (Charles University Prague) explored how Anna Katharina Swéerts-Sporck (1689-1754), a Bohemian noble lady, ran her household. Aside from showing how she built and maintained her social networks and actively used them as a means of material and cultural exchange, the paper analyzed the way the house served as the physical place in which one wrote spiritual letters, read, translated, produced devotional textiles (sacred vestments scapulars, alms bags, etc.). Capska examined the networks of Swéerts-Sporck primarily in an attempt to decipher how she provided and received spiritual consolation and advice, and also how she exchanged devotional materials, such as books and needlework.
Jennifer Cavalli, of the Pacific Lutheran University explored the role of court-sponsored female advisors at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, and particularly during the life of Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), marchesa of Mantua. Charismatic characters such as Osanna Andreasi (1449-1505) or Stefana Quinzani (1457-1530) are known to have advised ruling couples in state and spiritual matters. However, in respect to genre, while they directed their prayers and protection to the effect that men be saved or protected on the battlefield, their intercessory prayers for women were instead directed to efface lascivious habits and to promote true faith by cultivating interior piety. The paper argued that these holy women were often at the center of larger female spiritual networks that included both lay and religious women and men, connecting the domestic and the public sphere.
The last paper of the session, by Lorenza Gianfrancesco of Goldsmiths University in London looked at the specific case of another of these holy women, a humble Franciscan tertiary called Giulia di Marco, whose influence in Neapolitan society extended to the Viceroy and his wife, as well as to other members of the highest aristocracy. Giulia enjoyed intimacy with noblewomen and men over a few years in the first decades of the seventeenth century when they gathered together expressing a communal “form of ‘sublime’ physical and spiritual religious devotion”. These meetings were abruptly interrupted by her being denounced to and summoned by the Inquisition, which was followed by her arrest and conviction to life imprisonment. By looking at the case of Giulia di Marco, Gianfrancesco sought to unveil the history behind a non-conformist, an unorthodox devotion that took place in early modern Naples, a city long believed to be ‘an outpost of Counter-reformation culture’.
During the entire event, the debate was open to everyone in the audience. The participants shared their views and thoughts on the different themes presented during the day. Many comments followed each session and the keynote lectures thanks to the active and lively participation of our team and to the participants at the conference.