15.05.17, Van Dussen and Soukup, eds., Religous Controversy in Europe, 1378-1536

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Marcela K. Perett

The Medieval Review 15.05.17

Van Dussen, Michael, and Pavel Soukup, eds. Religious Controversy in Europe, 1378–1536: Textual Transmission and Networks of Readership. Medieval Church Studies, 27. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. pp. 350. ISBN: 978-2-503-54428-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Marcela K. Perett
Bard College Berlin

This collection aims to comment on the relationship between "rifts in communities, institutions, and alliances" and "textual production" (1) during the tumultuous period between 1378 and 1536. Sometimes described as the "long fifteenth century," the period was defined by increased challenges to authority accompanied by variety of local attempts at church reform, both of which stimulated production of texts. The central claim of the collection is that the persistent debates about the nature of Christian life and Church government, characteristic of this period, precipitated a shift in attitude to communication networks and textual production. What is new is a "greater self-consciousness among controversialists of the opportunities for innovative, sometimes large-scale production and dissemination, and the possibilities for procuring, using and responding to texts" (11). This shift also had implications for how texts were read, for what purpose, and by whom. These larger questions are sketched out in the editors' introduction, which is worth reading as a stand-alone piece, but the way in which the individual articles contribute to the editors' central claim is not always clear. Three distinct kinds of articles are included: on innovative textual forms, on textual networks or the circulation of texts, and on the use of university learning in non-university contexts.

Four authors comment on the emergence of new textual forms, for a specific purpose and usually in response to the demands of a specific historical situation. Anne Hudson's "Opera Omnia: Collecting Wyclif's Works in England and in Bohemia" examines two sets of manuscripts of Wyclif's works in an attempt to uncover their original purpose. She concludes that the first set (ÖNB 1337-43, 1647, and Wolfenbüttel 565) was produced as a part of an opera omnia, intended for the perusal by a single patron. Examining the second set (ÖNB 3927-35), Hudson speculates that it was produced as a lending library of works, to be sent out to interested parties in single volumes not as a whole collection. Behind these innovative ways to organize Wyclif's material, Hudson discerns an effort to provide reliable texts that could be made accessible to interested and diverse recipients.

Michael Van Dussen's article, "Aristotle's Tetragon: Compilation and Consensus During the Great Schism," examines another kind of text, a forged letter exchange (Tetragonus Aristotelis) occasioned by the Great Schism. Attributed to such academic and political high-fliers as the universities of Oxford, Prague, and Paris, as well as Pope Urban VI and King Vaclav I of Bohemia, the letters advocate a solution to the schism. They all agree on an imperial intervention that would set up Urban VI as the one true pope, thereby both advocating and enacting a consensus. This forged collection had little discernable effect on events, but its existence suggests an enterprising way of thinking about texts and their uses during a divisive and stressful moment in history.

Lucie Doležalová turns to another novel use of texts in her "Verses on the Effects of the Eucharist: Memory and the Material Text in Utraquist Miscellanies." She examines three fifteenth century Utraquist miscellanies (both Latin and vernacular), focusing on verses about the salutary effects of the Eucharist. Doležalová sees them as having originated in the university milieu (originally as part of the Sentences). This background story, which is not the focus of the article, reveals a text that had become vernacularized and disseminated to the laity. The fact that the Hussites copied and used them underscores their popularizing efforts and shows that even catechesis could be employed for factional purposes.

Fiona Somerset's piece, entitled "Textual Transmission, Variance, and Religious Identity among Lollard Pastoralia," shifts our attention from Bohemia to England and from texts to authors. Somerset examines six versions of the same short Lolland text (one version edited in the appendix) on the ten commandments and the seven works of mercy, each of which adapts and reworks the original material in a deliberate way that "appears to exceed what is required in order to suit the text for a lay audience or new setting" (73). Somerset interprets the fact that each author rewrote the text as evidence of an on-going cultural (and religious) conversation.

The second group of essays addresses the question of circulation networks, illustrating the extent to which they were shaped by individual preferences among authors, subsequent readers, and transmitters. In his "Academic Circles: Universities and Exchanges of Information and Ideas in the Age of the Great Schism," R.N. Swanson shows the increasing prominence of university men and university connections during this time, highlighting the new role of universities and its members in their capacity to shape the opinions of policy-makers and other parties involved in the controversy. Analyzing a handful of texts generated by the universities of Paris, Toulouse and Vienna, Swanson is interested to uncover sociological links ('weak' or 'strong') involving universities and masters. He suggests that we pay close attention to their fluctuation in our effort to understand how these links "help to shape, and give shape to, the complex networking surrounding the construction, dissemination, and preservation of the texts generated within the universities in response to the schism" (25).

In his "The Council of Basel and the Distribution Patterns of the Works of Jean Gerson," Daniel Hobbins discusses the distribution patterns of the works of Gerson in order to get a better idea of fifteenth-century communication systems. He discusses four mechanisms: (1) distribution channels, (2) distribution circles, (3) regional networks, and (4) major repositories or terminals. These overlap and augment each other, but not in a systematic way. The Council of Basel aided the distribution, but even so, only those books that were available could be copied; in fact, the lists of available works was rather limited. Committed book-hunters had to look elsewhere, for example, the Melk monastic house (with ties to the University of Vienna) which tried to assemble Gerson's opera omnia some fifty years before printed editions.

A different take on distribution networks and their importance in presented by Marina Benedetti's "Wandering Heretics, Wandering Manuscripts: The Case of the Waldenses (Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries)." It is her analysis of the little book (parvus liber) that Waldensian preachers carried with them that most enriches our understanding of manuscript networks. Written in the vernacular, the little book contained Biblical texts, but also outlines for sermons, religious poems and even medical prescriptions, and most often it travelled with the barba. Sometimes these books would be left behind, available for viewing and consultation and perhaps even to symbolize the presence of the preacher and what it represented. Benedetti also highlights the importance of a safe and stable network of trust that facilitates the movement of the preachers (and of their books) through the Alps.

The third group of essays comments on the transfer of academic learning to non-academic audiences. The circumstances of such a transfer varied as did their purpose, but none was without consequences. In her "Theology Goes to the Vernaculars: Jan Hus, 'On Simony,' and the Practice of Translation in Fifteenth-Century Bohemia," Pavlína Rychterová examines Jan Hus's vernacular work on simony, which is really a translated adaptation of Wyclif's work of the same name. Rychterová is most interested in the way in which Hus adapted it as a way of understanding his purpose. She finds that Hus omitted Wyclif's scholastic argumentation in favor of simplifying summaries and added illustrations from sermon collections. It would seem that Hus avoided scholasticism in the vernacular version in order to create a new catechetical tool for both clergy and laity. But Rychterová also argues that unlike the works of the previous generation, Hus's translations were carefully crafted in order to inspire individual and collective action on behalf of the reform movement in Bohemia.

But not all clerics saw scholastic discourse as a hindrance when working with the laity. In his "University-Learning, Theological Method, and Heresy in Fifteenth-Century England," Kantik Ghosh examines three different views of academic theology that clashed in the middle and later decades in England, the aftermath of Wyclif's heresy. Ghosh discusses three documents, Bishop's Fleming's charter for the foundation of Lincoln College in Oxford (1427), Thomas Arundel's censorship statutes, known as the Constitutions (1407-1409), and the writings of Reginald Pecock, the bishop of Chichester condemned for heresy in 1457. Bishop Fleming defends traditional academic theology as practiced in the university whereas Thomas Arundel dismissed it as scandalous, and capable of offending pious ears. In contrast, Bishop Pecock embraced change, insisting that all inquiring laity should be taught the academic method so long as they are willing to be guided by those better trained. But scholastic learning and method had by now become entangled with heresy, rendering them suspect and unsuitable for wider consumption.

That the introduction of academic learning to the laity was sometimes a dangerous undertaking is illustrated by Marie Barral-Baron's "Philological Practice and Religious Controversy: Erasmus, Critical Reader of the Vulgate and Patristic Texts." The author shows how Erasmus' work on correcting the text of the Vulgate, when it was made public, undermined the laity's trust in the authority of the Catholic Church. The laity lacked the learning to be able to cope with their doubt, which played into the arguments of the Reformers and contributed, to Erasmus's great sorrow, to tearing apart of Christendom.

But academic learning could be made dangerous deliberately, as shown by Pavel Soukup, who examines the invective "Mohammedans" used by Utraquist priests in Bohemia and, sometimes, also by their followers. In his "'Pars Machometica' in Early Hussite Polemics: The Use and Background of an Invective," Soukup shows university men thought of Islam as a perversion of the Christian faith, which is why, Soukup decides, Utraquist priests thought it fitting to describe their opponents as "Mohammedans." It was a ready-made label, with an instantaneous negative connotation. Its use (though sparsely documented) among non-university folk illustrates how ideas spread from the university milieu and with what purpose: not for the elucidation of the laity, but rather to marshal them in the direction that suited the Utraquist leadership.

The last text in this group and in the collection touches on these themes somewhat indirectly. In his article "The Anti-Waldensian Treaty Cum Dormirent Homines: Historical Context, Polemical Strategy, and Manuscript Tradition," Georg Modestin examines what Peter Biller described as "the single most important literary text on the Waldensians from the later Middle Ages" (211) as a kind of manifesto against Waldensian error. The author, fearing the possibility of a Waldensian take-over, wrote a highly rhetorical document intended to persuade the heretics to return to the church, as had happened elsewhere. The author addresses the heretics directly, using simple language to explain the fundamentals of Catholic theology. The document continued to be copied until 1470s and circulated primarily through Augustinian and Benedictine houses concentrated in the southern parts of the Empire. Written in Latin and consigned to monastic networks, it may have been used as a manual for heresy-hunters rather than to dissuade heretics themselves.

The collection comments on the relationship between religious controversy and textual production, showing that religious controversialists often relied on new kinds of texts or new uses of traditional texts in order to disseminate their partisan, and often controversial, message. But, interestingly, when it came to employing their university learning, most leaders shied away from it, making it clear that their intent was not to educate but to mobilize. The fact that most of the essays about religious controversy deal with either the Lollards in England or the Hussites in Bohemia skews the picture in favor of texts that exaggerate disagreement in order to promote the formation of new groups and their identities. Not all texts were written for partisan reasons, as the editors point out in the introduction, many more were created with the expressed purpose to promote and disseminate the teachings of the mainstream church.

The collected essays also suggest that, like textual forms, distribution networks were malleable and far from impartial in what they disseminated and to whom. They too were created for specific purposes, served particular interests, and reflected personal proclivities and interests. In the case of both texts and networks that helped disseminate them, the collection underscores the increasing willingness of authors to create and disseminate new kinds of texts in order to promote their interests in the ongoing debates about the shape of Christian life and government. The essays collected here do not offer the last word on late medieval textual production, but illumine the way in which disagreements about religion shaped and transformed traditional notions of authorship, textual production and dissemination.

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