F. Thomas Luongo

title.none: Thompson, Religion of the Italian Communes (F. Thomas Luongo)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.023 05.09.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: F. Thomas Luongo, Tulane University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Thompson, Augustine. Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes 1125-1325. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 502. $65.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-271-02477-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.23

Thompson, Augustine. Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes 1125-1325. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 502. $65.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-271-02477-1.

Reviewed by:

F. Thomas Luongo
Tulane University

Augustine Thompson's Cities of God is a masterful introduction to the vibrant religious culture of the Italian republics in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Thompson has set out to fill a significant historiographical gap. The considerable scholarship of the last thirty years devoted to Italian civic religion in the Middle Ages has focused largely on the mendicant orders, female sanctity, and heresy. What has been missed is a sense of the day-to-day religious life of citizens, and so Thompson seeks to recover "the religious world of all in the Italian cities who considered themselves orthodox Christians" (2). Thompson challenges the dominant historiography of the Italian cities, which has treated the medieval communes as essentially secular entities, with "religion" or "piety" consigned to the margins, and to minor chapters in the standard surveys. Thompson takes seriously the religious rhetoric and rituals embraced by lay governments to present the Italian republics in north and central Italy in the High Middle Ages as "simultaneously religious and political entities" (3). Thompson paints a clear, and often vivid, picture of civic religious life, by drawing from an impressive range of both unpublished and published sources, especially civic and ecclesiastical statutes, local liturgical regulations and commentaries, and hagiography devoted to both well-known and obscure urban saints. Thompson's command of the relevant scholarship in both Italian and English also makes this book an excellent introduction to the secondary literature in this field. The first part of Cities of God, on the relationship between ecclesiastical institutions and the identity of the city, struck me as the most stimulating and original section of the book, as well as the most directly revealing of the special character of the religion of the communes. In Chapter One, Thompson focuses on the cathedral complex, the "mother church" of the city, as the center of civic religious life. The relatively small size of dioceses in northern and central Italy allowed for a degree of consolidation not possible elsewhere in Europe, and focused urban religious life to an unusual degree on the cathedral. The cathedral provided the model for liturgy and religious practice throughout the city and its rural territory, and maintained a monopoly on baptisms, leading to the intense attachment of citizens to the city's baptistery. The cathedral's influence spread throughout the city through a system of urban chapels. Thompson attempts to reconstruct the atmosphere of the dense network of urban chapels in cities like Florence and Bologna, arguing that neighborhood identification would have been derived from participation in the local chapel. The network of churches gave these cities coherence and identity; in effect, civic communities were collections of chapels. Thompson also describes the activities and character of the urban clergy, from the bishop and cathedral canons down to the neighborhood chaplains, and argues that the activities of clerical confraternities give a sense of active piety and esprit de corps of the urban clergy that contrasts with literary tales of scandalous priests and belies simple accounts of the mendicants eclipsing the secular clergy. Chapter Two follows on previous scholarship on lay confraternities, especially the work of G. G. Meersseman, to describe pious societies as expressions of a vibrant and autonomous lay piety, as well as the roles they were assigned by communal governments in the secular administration of the cities. Thompson surmises that "communal corporations derived their structures from pious societies like these rather than vice versa" (74), that is, the very structure of the commune was based on a religious model. While Francis of Assisi, and thus the mendicant movement, emerged from the twelfth-century culture of independent lay penitential societies, Thompson notes that by the 1270s "penitent autonomy began to suffer from the attentions of their most successful offshoot" as these groups were absorbed into the Franciscans and other mendicant orders. In Chapter Three Thompson turns more directly to the sacred character of the city itself, recounting how the communes in their origins involved cooperation between lay officials and the bishops. Thompson makes the interesting observation that before the rise of the Popolo in the thirteenth century, Italian civic statutes lacked religious references. But as the communes of the Popolo developed more distinctly "lay" governments after around 1250, meeting in new palazzi rather than in churches, they also "steeped the city's 'secular' legislation in heavily religious language and imagery" (137), promoted new and politically-loaded saints, and engaged in large-scale investments in city churches and chapels. Just as Richard Trexler saw Renaissance Florentine ritual as a response to a perceived lack of political and social legitimacy, Thompson hypothesizes that the newly secularized communes needed their own divine legitimacy as they separated from ecclesiastical authority. In line with his overall argument for the special character of the communes before the fourteenth century, he concludes that religious identity and republicanism went hand-in-hand; communal assertions of divine legitimacy were most visible at moments when republican independence was endangered. Chapter Four contains rich illustrations from a variety of civic statutes and liturgical books to describe the ritual life of the city, a subject that has received much attention in the history of late-medieval and Renaissance Italian cities. Thompson asserts that civic rituals before 1400 were not the focus of the kind of administrative concern and expense they would become, for instance, in late-medieval Florence, and that they were more participatory than later rituals; civic rituals only became "spectator events" in the age of princes, after the end of communal independence (158). Chapter Five concludes the first part of the book by focusing on the saints that were produced by the city-republics. Here and elsewhere Thompson uses hagiographical texts as representations of more generalized religious values, with little inquiry into the dynamics that produced the saints or the place of hagiography in cultural discourse. (To give an example from Chapter Nine, do vitae emphasizing that saints experienced visions and other spiritual gifts in churches mean that laypeople in general thought prayer correctly belonged in churches? Or is it possible that the authors of the vitae were seeking to direct lay piety into churches and away from domestic spaces?) Nevertheless, it is revealing of the character of civic religious culture that the hagiography of urban saints emphasizes in a special way traits such as neighborliness, civic responsibility and the kinds of orthodox devotional practice available to all laypeople (like visiting shrines). Thompson concludes, "communal holiness flourished in community; it was social" (194). In the second part of Cities of God, Thompson describes from several perspectives the religious observance of the city, emphasizing the communal religion that was experienced by all groups within the city and which was essential to the community's practical understanding of orthodoxy--as opposed to the doctrinal distinctions later insisted on by mendicant inquisitors. In Chapter Six, Thompson uses ritual books and other proscriptive literature to describe the practices associated with the divine office and the mass, and finds in lay literature, among other sources, evidence for the laity's participation in the public rites of the church and even lay appreciation for the qualities of good liturgy. Secular clergy complained that the mendicants drew away their congregations by more expert performance of the Mass. In short, "any idea that the Italians of the communes could only stand mute and passive at their Masses begins to look a bit absurd" (258). Chapters Seven and Eight address lay practice from the perspective of the liturgical calendar, beginning with the period from Christmas to Lent, and then from Holy Week to Pentecost. Regarding penitential practice, as distinct from the understanding promoted in pastoral guides and confessors' manuals, Thompson concludes (mostly from hagiographical anecdotes) that the laity in the Italian communes used confession as an act of penance in itself, a way of being humbled. The focus of civic religious life was Easter, which served as a celebration of communal identity. It was a ritual innovation in the Italian republics in the period that children were baptized en masse during the Easter Vigil, a rite by which children became citizens as well as Christians: "Mass Easter baptisms and their civic significance seem distinctly communal Italian, symbolic of that epoch's particular union of Church and city" (314). In Chapter Nine, Thompson makes effective use of examples from the lay devotional manuscripts to elucidate a piety that emphasized the cross, the Virgin Mary, and the Eucharist, and the central role in lay prayer life of basic Latin prayers like the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria, unlike the more dominant role vernacular prayer would play in the later Middle Ages. Thompson usefully treats collections of edifying exempla like the Fior di virtu, containing moral wisdom suitable for civic life drawn from pagan classics as well as Christian authorities, as a form of religious literature rather than a strictly secular (or proto-humanist) genre of book. A final chapter details, from ritual books and synodal legislation, civic practices regarding death, from the "drama of the deathbed" to burial practice and prayers for the dead. Finally, an epilogue clarifies some of the changes wrought to civic lay religious culture by the mendicants at the end of the period Thompson studies, especially in the coopting of lay penitential societies and the policing of doctrinal orthodoxy. For lay citizens, orthodoxy was not so much a doctrinal issue as a matter of participating in the religious practice of the community and being a respected friend and neighbor. It is perhaps inevitable in a book of this breadth that certain issues beg for greater depth or complexity of analysis. For example, a link between the cities' republicanism and the particular flavor and vitality of their religious culture is central to Thompson's portrait of the high medieval communes. This connection defines, for instance, the chronological scope of the book: Thompson argues that the lay religious culture of Italian cities changed in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries not only because of the influence of the mendicants, but also because this period saw the end of the "age of communes," as the republican cities were transformed into signories or survived as oligarchies. But he does not argue the connection between civic piety and political institutions and culture in depth or with the specificity of, for instance, Maureen Miller's argument for the relation between the emerging commune and the bishop's court in The Bishop's Palace. Thompson presents many suggestions of links between civic piety and political life, for example, in the role played by cathedral and neighborhood churches in community identity, as well as the pious character of ostensibly "secular" associations like the Bolognese Societa delle Arme. One suspects that Thompson's insight is basically correct, but I think a different kind of extended argument--perhaps a different kind of book--is needed to show that the communes were "religious organisms in themselves" (103) and to justify fully Thompson's generalizations about the relationship of religious and political change in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Whatever is left unproved in this book, Thompson is successful in demolishing the image of the commune as an essentially secular institution. And he is absolutely convincing on the vitality of secular religion in the city, and the importance of taking seriously the piety expressed in the rhetoric and actions of communal governments. He accomplishes splendidly his main goal of shifting attention away from the special cases (mendicants, heretics, mystics) to the more ordinary, but no less vibrant, day-to-day religion of communal cities. I found this an immensely informative and stimulating book, one to which I expect to return repeatedly in my own research and teaching. With this book Augustine Thompson has done a great service to the history of medieval Italy and medieval religion in general.