Friday, December 5, 2008

General Exam II: Early Modern

Here is my second general exam. It was in Early Modern Europe and given to me by Dr. Robert Davis. Like the first exam it consisted of three questions, of which I had to answer two. I had twenty four hours in which to do it and I had a word limit of 2500 words. Again I went a little over the limit.

Part I: Renaissance Italy
Compare and contrast the ways that Martines, Muir, and Nussdorfer present the civil societies of Florence, Venice, and Rome respectively. What aspects do each emphasize or neglect? How do their approaches aid or limit their ability to provide a holistic explanation of the society they are trying to examine?

A major part of Jacob Burckhardt’s legacy to Renaissance studies was his emphasis on civic life, particularly festivals, parades and other forms of civic rituals, in order to define the Italian Renaissance. I cannot think of another field whose historiography is so dominated be these issues as Early Modern Italy. Burckhardt saw this civic life as a demonstration of a supposedly newly found individualism that had not existed during the Middle Ages. I would like to discuss three examples of scholars, Laruo Martines, Edward Muir and Laurie Nussdorfer. Each of these scholars, in their own way, confronts this issue of civic life in various Italian city states.

Lauro Martines is the most directly anti Burckhardt. In Power and Imagination: City States in Renaissance Italy, Martines, utilizing a fairly Marxist perspective, portrays the Italian republics not as beacons of humanism or individualism but as oligarchic structures, under the rule of various aristocratic families. What Burckhardt saw as the expression of a common culture that served to elevate everyone Martines sees simply as the manifestation of an oppressive aristocratic culture, one that was in decline; a narrative that owes itself in many respects to Johan Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages.

One of the interesting things about Power and Imagination is that it is not really about Renaissance Italy, at least not as commonly understood. The book is really about civic life in Italy during the late Middle Ages. For Martines this is the real locus of the Italian Renaissance. It was during the late Middle Ages that you had the major economic revolution, which helped bring about the rise of the Italian merchant class, who then took power away from the aristocracy, creating the Republican civic culture of the Italian city states.

For Martines, what we usually associate as part of Renaissance culture is really merely a reflection of the upper class and its values. Martines makes a big deal how the forces that shaped the Italian Renaissance came out of the struggle between various oligarchic structures such as nobles against merchants, or between cities. He then paints the flowering of humanism as being an extension of this power struggle. While I do not disagree with Martines on this issue, I fail to see why this is important. Yes, Burckhardt’s claim that the Renaissance touched all classes and was a reflection of a common will is naive. Martines, though wishes to hammer on this issue as if it was something bad for some reason, something that serves to discredit Renaissance culture. I fail to see the point of all of this; as long as we treat Renaissance humanism and Renaissance art as part of high culture and do not pretend that it has any greater significance there should not be a problem.

Martines work on Savonarola, Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Italy, can also be seen as being anti Burckhardt, though it is a very different sort of book. (And may I say a far more readable book.) It focuses on the city of Florence during the reign of Girolamo Savonarola (1494-98). Savonarola is the sort of figure who, if one is going to dogmatically insist on Burckhardt’s vision of the Renaissance, should not have existed. If Florence was so full of the spirit of “reason” and if everyone was embracing their newly discovered individuality and casting off the “chains” of medieval Christianity then how did this Dominican preacher take over the city and turn it into his own personal theocracy? This question becomes all the more damning in the hands of Martines as he presents Savonarola not as an anomaly but as part of the fabric of Florentine culture. Martines accomplishes this by calling attention to Savonarola’s connections to the Lorenzo de Medici and to Pico della Mirandola, who played a major role in bringing Savonarola to Florence, as well how Savonarola played a role in the thought of Guicciardini and Machiavelli, who experienced Savonarola’s Florence first hand. In as sense, Fire in the City is less about Savonarola than it is about Florentine civic culture leading up to Savonarola, during his reign, and in its aftermath.

Unlike Power and Imagination, Martines does not get caught up with his concerns of class conflict. The Florence he presents is one in which power functions on different levels, which interact with each other. There are the various city councils, which, for the most part, were the province of the upper classes, there was the Church and then there were the various street gangs, which contained a lot more aristocrats than one might have suspected. Savonarola interacted with all three of these power structures and each of them was crucial in his rise to power and his eventual downfall.

Edward Muir’s Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice is the most Burckhardt like of the works under discussion here in that he is the most invested in interpreting ritual as a means of analyzing society. He takes a far more anthropological approach than Martines; the influence of Clifford Geertz on Muir is readily apparent. In a sense one can see Muir as the anthropological apology for Burckhardt. He relies on the same sort of sources as Burckhardt did, visitor accounts and their descriptions of Venice and its customs. Of course Muir has no interest in waxing lyrically on how the Venetians cultivated the “human spirit” and represented true republican virtue. On the contrary, Muir deconstructs the discourse of Venetian liberty as the means to justify the existing power structures in place.

Venice was famous for its tradition of republican government and political independence. Venice was supposed to have been founded as a republic at the end of the Roman empire and had maintained its heritage throughout the Middle Ages. As Muir is quick to point, much of the history that the Venetians put out for themselves was pure myth. Muir exams the origins and development of this reputation, paying particular attention to the sixteenth century, when this myth of Venice was most potent. For Muir the civic rituals served both to uphold this legend and to maintain stability. The primary myths that Muir deals with are the founding of the city and its special relationship to St. Mark, who was supposedly buried there, its protection of Pope Alexander III in 1177 and his recognition of Venice’s special status and the rescue of twelve Virgin Mary statues from Dalmatian pirates. These legends served to grant a special authority to Venice, particularly in regards to fending off the claims of the papacy. It was not enough though for the Venetians to have such legends; these legends needed to be actualized within the public sphere. This is where ritual comes into play. Civic rituals such as the marriage to the sea and the bridge battles served to play out that image of the city as an ancient bastion of free republican men. This might have been a legend, but by engaging in these rituals the legend gained a reality all of its own.

In the discussion of Italian civic life the traditional focus has been on cities such as Florence and Venice. Rome in particular has generally been ignored. The problem with Rome is that it is overshadowed by the papacy. One can all to easily get the impression that the people of Rome were passive ciphers, ruled by the papacy, without any civic culture of its own. Laurie Nussdorfer’s Civic Politics in the Rome of Urban VIII offers an important correction to this view. Focusing on the reign of Urban VIII (1623-44), Nussdorfer argues that the lay Romans managed to sustain a civic government under the absolutist regime of Urban VIII.

While Venice may have needed to invent a republican tradition going back to classical times, the city of Rome was the seat of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire; if any Italian state could claim to be the bastion of free republican people it was Rome. Nussdorfer analyzes the popular government that was in place, the Senate. It was based on the Capitoline Hill and saw itself as the heir of the Roman Republic. As such it possessed the traditional capital to more than hold its own against the papacy, even a pope as powerful as Urban VIII. Nussdorfer sees the Senate as representing lay members of the urban elite. It carried out the work of local government, and served as a symbol of the Roman voice in public life. In particular, Nussdorfer looks at specific events such as the plague threat of the early 1630s, the War of Castro (1641-1644) to show how the Senate, through the various lower committees was capable of challenging Urban VIII.

The problem with Burckhardt is that his narrative of the Renaissance was, in truth, an aristocratic narrative. It failed to seriously consider other aspects of Renaissance culture; worse it papered over these issues, thus denying that they even existed. As with Martines’ Fire in the City, Nussdorfer tries to move past the issues of free society versus aristocratic rule and high versus low culture for more holistic perspective. Nussdorfer analyzes different power structures and how they coexisted and competed with each other, thus giving us a more nuanced view of Renaissance politics. Muir in his own way also succeeds at creating a holistic picture of Renaissance Venice in that, while he is concerned with such upper class issues as republican freedom and classical antiquity, and the civic rituals created by those in power to perpetrate this legacy, he also considers how these issues affected lay people and how they participated in them, thus creating a Renaissance culture that truly does go from top to bottom.

[During the summer, when was reading Martines, I was meaning to write a post contrasting him with Burckhardt, but I never got around to it. So I ended up writing it after all.]

Part II: Early-modern Violence
2) Pretend you were asked to give a scholarly talk on Christian violence against Jews in early-modern Rome. Based on the reading you have done on violence, how would you structure your talk? What issues would you stress, which of the works you have read would you rely on most heavily and why? What tentative conclusions might you come up with?

[This is the one I chose not to do. I really am not familiar with the issue of anti Jewish violence in Rome. If I had to do this question I would have taken one example, the burning of the Talmud in 1553 and used that as a platform to compare it to medieval anti Jewish attacks carried out by the Church, particularly the Paris burning of the Talmud in 1242. This would lead me to discussing the debate between Kenneth Stowe and Jeremy Cohen on this issue. It is funny; now on both of my European history exams I have been given a question relating to Jewish history and both times this was the question I ended up turning down.]

Part III: Magic and Religion
3) Offer a thorough explication of Keith Thomas’ thesis in Religion and the Decline of Magic. Then select several of your other readings in religion and magic, such as Clark, Ruggiero, Christian, Mack (or others as you see fit), to show how more recent scholarship has modified, elaborated on, or rejected Thomas’ thesis. Draw your own conclusions.

Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England functions at two different levels and different readers may find themselves reading almost two different books depending on their interests and from where they are coming to it. First there is the micro issue; as the subtitle indicates, this is a book about beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. And when Thomas says England he very specifically means England, not Ireland, not Scotland and not even Wales. For this element of the book Thomas advances a very specific thesis; that the rise of Protestantism did not kill off magical beliefs in England. On the contrary the fact that Protestantism deemphasized the magical elements of traditional Christian beliefs simply allowed for the rise of more explicit forms of magic. For example if the local priest no longer engaged in exorcisms one could easily find a cunning man/wizard or a wise women/witch to step in to fill the void.

If this was all that Thomas was about Religion and the Decline of Magic would be of little interest to those not studying Early Modern England. There is another work interwoven within the book, which is of crucial importance to anyone studying Early Modern Europe. Using England as a case study, Thomas offers an overarching look at magic and other types of supernatural beliefs, common during the Early Modern period, and integrates them into the general narrative. Magic becomes critical for understanding popular culture and takes center stage in any attempt to deal with Early Modern social history.

Thomas postulates a medieval popular religion, based around magic, which continued from the Middle Ages through the Early Modern period, undisturbed by the Protestant Reformation or any of the major theological shifts that occurred within high intellectual circles. On the contrary, this popular magical culture, rather than be influenced by high culture, maintained a hold over the high culture.

The most important thing about Thomas is that he takes magic seriously as an intellectual endeavor pursued by rational and sane individuals. If Thomas had wanted to he could have easily written something like Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Thomas could have turned Religion and the Decline of Magic into a catalogue of all the foolish and “superstitious” things that people in Early Modern England believed in before they were “enlightened” by modern science. Thomas, though, allows us to confront Early Modern society with all of its magical beliefs and walk away still respecting the people who lived then.

As I have already pointed out, Religion and the Decline of Magic, is a book that goes off in many different directions. This is a book about many diverse fields, witchcraft, alchemy, astrology and prophecy. Thomas comes at the field from so many different directions, anthropology, intellectual history, history of religion and social history. On one hand this is a mark of his genius and makes for a very useful book. On the other hand, despite the book’s eight hundred pages, Thomas never adequately covers any one field, even in terms of just the English context. This creates a situation where Thomas, by definition, could never have hoped to be the last word. I would like to offer two examples of scholars, Stuart Clark and William Christian Jr., that come to fill in what Thomas does not adequately deal with, both in terms of geography and in terms of specific fields of study.

Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons: the Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe deals with Early Modern perspectives on witchcraft. There is quite a bit on England though the spotlight is mainly on continental Europe. Like Thomas, Clark is interested in getting around the Whig model of witchcraft equals superstition, which equals rabid religious fanatics living in darkness unaided by the light of science. Also like Thomas, Clark does not see witchcraft as being either a mostly Protestant or Catholic phenomenon; witchcraft crossed religious lines and was a critical role in the common European culture. Clark, though, takes the issue of witchcraft in certain directions that Thomas either ignores or downplays. Clark focuses on witchcraft in terms of intellectual elites; for Clark, it is the elites who push the idea of witches. This allows Clark to make a far more effective argument for the importance of witchcraft and its fundamental “rationality.”

For Clark, the charge of witchcraft, that someone made a pact with the Devil, is premised, ironically enough, on a certain skepticism about the efficiency of magic. There is an essential shift between the charge of sorcery and the charge of witchcraft; with sorcery the issue is the malicious use of the supernatural, but with witchcraft the issue is the pact. If a person made a pact with the Devil, or some other demonic power, than they have committed an act of heresy and arguably an act of treason as well. It does not matter if Satan actually gave them any power or performed any wonders for them. In fact it makes perfect sense that witchcraft would be futile; clearly Satan is a liar and a fraud, with no real power, so obviously his promises are empty lies meant to entrap the hearts of the unwary. So the entire paradigm of superstitious witch hunters and their enlightened rational critics falls apart. Supporters of witchcraft charges, such as Martin Del Rio or Jean Bodin, were not less skeptical or less “scientific” than people like Johann Weyer or Reginald Scot, who opposed such chargers.

To take this a step further, witchcraft played an important role in the emergence of the Scientific Revolution. If one believed that Satan could not do actual miracles but could only use his extensive knowledge of the secrets of nature to create the appearance of a miracle and if Satan was now marshalling all of his efforts for one last effort to seduce mankind in these end of times than it would be only logical for the faithful to fight back through these same natural sciences. Through an ever growing knowledge of the natural sciences, both in its naturalistic and praeternatural varieties, one could combat Satan’s lies and demonstrate that he, unlike God, is unable to perform genuine miracles. Also, since it is the end of days, God is obviously going reveal the many secrets of the world that have lain hidden since ancient times in order to aid the faithful in their fight against Satan. So by pursuing the natural sciences one was taking part in this new revelation and helping to defeat Satan bring about the Second Coming. It is this sort of view that underlies the work, for example, of Francis Bacon and his New Atlantis.

William Christian Jr.’s Local Religion in Sixteenth Century Spain parallels Thomas in that Christian is interested in popular beliefs, in his case late sixteenth century Spain. Unlike Thomas, Christian is very focused on one particularly method and on one source, mainly a survey that was taken about the religious beliefs of those living in the Spanish Empire, during the later part of the sixteenth century. What was discovered was that the Catholicism practiced by those living even in rural Spain, let alone the natives in the New World, was not very deep and hardly in keeping with official Catholic dogma. Like Thomas’ sixteenth and seventeenth century Englishmen, the Spaniards of Christian’s sixteenth century rural Spain are continuing to practice their own particular brand of religion, one that dated back to the Middle Ages and was continuing unabated, despite any theological shifts such as the Council of Trent. This popular religion was heavily invested in the religion as magic paradigm, that religious rituals and objects contained a physical power, which could be harnessed to the benefit of the believer. If Thomas dealt with popular culture and the ways that it flowed into popular religious beliefs, Christian writes about popular religion and how it related to popular culture. Christian takes a far more sociological perspective than Thomas. While Thomas tends toward the anecdotal, Christian brings graphs and attempts to offer hard numbers. While Thomas is interested in giving a general picture of English popular culture, particularly as it related to the occult, Christian is keen on emphasizing the differences from place to place. In fact one of the main focuses of Local Religion (And probably the most tedious.) is his effort to catalogue local shrines and local saints to figure out which place had a shrine to which saint and how popular various saints were.

Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, while seeming to deal with just England, was a paradigm shifting book that changed the field of Early Modern history, forcing a radical reappraisal of the interrelationship of religion, magic and popular culture. Thomas, despite his genius, is not able, though, to fully explore this new world of his. What he does offer is a road map, which one can take, on one hand, when dealing with other European societies besides for England and also when dealing with the specific fields of the various supernatural and occult beliefs that played such an important role in fashioning Early Modern Europe.

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