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16.05.14, Erdélyi, A Cloister on Trial

16.05.14, Erdélyi, A Cloister on Trial

I relished the prospect of reviewing Gabriella Erdélyi's reinvestigation of a case of Augustinian friars disposed of their convent in the market town of Körmend, Hungary, in 1517. The record of this cloister on trial appeared to hold great appeal, and not only because it promised yet another example of bad-boy friars. The friars in question might be boozy, womanizing, lazy bums (or maybe not!), but I looked forward even more to learning what the record would reveal about tensions in relationships at the many levels of society around religious change. I found it intriguing that the author aimed to develop as her central thesis that the record shows evidence of a broad-based lay agency in reforms that, she asserts, we heretofore wrongly imagined as top down endeavors. At an initial reading I found it of considerable interest that the business of the neighborhood barkeeper conflicted with the agenda of local reforming do-gooders, that the regional landholder conspired with a Hungarian cardinal to manipulate testimonies (the former was the nephew of the latter), and that the cardinal found himself in a political wrestling match with Pope Leo X. It is thanks to Leo's intervention that we have the evidence presented here; and yet, international legal procedure gets applied to the whole business in a way that suggests that those in Rome deemed the entire matter to be of peculiarly puny importance, very far removed from the weightier matters that pressed upon the papal court. This all presents to the reader as tantalizing stuff. To tantalize, however, is to leave expectations unfulfilled.

Erdélyi opens her book with an introduction and a first chapter that lay out basic elements of the case, recorded and preserved in the papal archives and uncovered by her in 1998 when she visited Rome searching for documents linked to Hungarian religious matters. The essentials are these: In 1517, Tamás Bakócz, Cardinal and Archbishop of Esztergom, evicted the few Augustinian friars remaining in their convent home. He then gave the convent to a group of Franciscans. The dispossessed friars appealed to the pope, who let the minor brothers continue to hold the property while he launched an investigation. A judge took depositions from witnesses in the spring of 1518, which testimonies provide the source basis for the book.

One metaphor for the operative structure of A Cloister on Trial is that of a prism: following the introductory material, the author treats each of several chapters as a look into one of the prism's facet. The second chapter offers background about Cardinal Bakócz. In it, Erdélyi concludes, following a rather indirect style of argumentation, that the cardinal's relationship to reform, his investment in Premonstratensian, Benedictine, and mendicant communities, his entanglements with religious and secular leaders, were always politically intricate. Chapter 3 externalizes Erdélyi's cogitations about the discourse between the hum-drum of formal protocol and the desires of various elites to control the legal process. What emerges most strongly here is that the men charged with managing the case--the judge and notaries--either cared little about their work or underperformed at the insistence of their paymasters. The judge, for instance, showed little interest in going beyond the perfunctory, often redirecting his questions or stopping them altogether just before a witness seemed ready to admit some hidden agenda.

Chapters 4 to 6 are for me the most revealing of both Erdélyi's analytical strengths and the limitations of the material she has at her disposal. In the first of these we meet the witnesses. They were all men, forty-nine in total, mostly young. Thirteen lived in Körmend and ranked among its higher status residents while the others lived in nearby towns and villages. This is a slim sample when put in the context of other trials in this place and time. No women testified to the friars' indiscretions, although women regularly testified in many other cases in the region at this time. The judge called very few older men to witness, although they likely knew better the history of the relationship of the friars to local barons, the cardinal, and leaders of other orders. We are told that public reputation, fama, played an especially prominent role in the testimonies, although the assertions of common knowledge come from a very thin slice of society. The witnesses agreed that the friars spent much of their time drinking and the rest of it cavorting with women or otherwise ignoring their spiritual duties. But the testimonies converge around a few tenuous narratives: while the witnesses report on a small set of incidents, their recollections diverge significantly with respect to dates and details. It appears that they were coached, albeit, apparently badly coached. An obvious possibility emerges: the entire episode, from eviction of the Augustinians to the lop-sided testimony, is not evidence of efforts at a broad-based lay reform against errant religious but rather a well-choreographed manipulation against the friars by a small group of social elites. Unfortunately, Erdélyi's desire to discover features of everyday life more congenial than mere collusion and cheating prevents her from recognizing the obvious. From this point, the remainder of the book might be read as a struggle between reader and author about what is really going on.

Essential to putting the case in a broader temporal context is agreement among the witness testimonies that the Augustinians had left their convent in disrepair. The friars were few in number and only had access to meager resources. They lacked deep-pocketed patrons willing to invest in the convent's upkeep. I wonder whether the patrons they sought were the very ones rallying against them. This requires some explaining. Perhaps, for example, Körmend's moneyed locals felt embarrassed and then angered at the friars' constant requests for aid. Enter the Franciscans, who had recently gained a foothold in several nearby towns and appear to have been angling for additional sites for new establishments. They asserted that they were coerced into taking over the convent, and that they would gladly give it up (of course, this comes from them as an afterthought, as something they would have done once the trial proved their possession wrong, which, of course, it did not). An important point worth noting is that the Franciscans did little more than their Augustinian brothers to care for the facilities put in their care. In the years of their tenure, they also remained bereft of sufficient support, failed to make repairs, shrank in numbers, and, in time they too abandoned the friary. Maybe what we learn from this is that middling townsmen in sixteenth-century Hungary were cheapskates who reneged on promises made to religious communities.

The titles of succeeding chapters--religion; morality; ritual and community--convey Erdélyi's unease with how to confront her principal source. Hopelessly big and broad in their scope, these chapters search without finding much, raising some points of conjecture that they cannot hope to answer. A final chapter, ostensibly about Cardinal Bakócz's nephew, the local landholder, Peter Erdődy, seems particularly at sea in the back and forth up and down tossing and turning through which Erdélyi fails to find stable suitable relationships between lay, baronial, and ecclesiastical agency, between religious, political, and cultural variables, between short term and long term changes processes. See for example the distress call in the words leading from page 187 into 188. A related signal of the author's difficulties in grappling with her evidence is her insistence, very much without adequate demonstration, that her methods are novel. The declaration of methodological novelty in chapter five appears to refer to the identification of a network among various members of society in and around Körmend. The application of network theory to the study of social groups is, of course, not new; nonetheless, Erdélyi seems to think that by italicizing the word network, along with the words structure and variants, she can make the old new again.

Ultimately we can not know whether the record presents us with veritable evidence of friars passed out drunk in the streets or scandalously exercising their loins in the company of suspicious women. It is just as likely an alternative that local elites and their cronies simply wanted the Augustinians out in order to make room for the increasingly popular Franciscans. The testimonies are untrustworthy and too few to come to conclusions. It is on this point that A Cloister on Trial falls flat. Surely Erdélyi recognized this before I did. In fact, the history of her work on the trial record is itself evidence of her inability to crack the case (and here I feel considerable empathy in acknowledging that she likely feels this truth painfully). The case has been before her for nearly two decades, since her discovery of the record of testimonies in 1998. In 2006 she published a transcription, which included an introduction nearly as substantial as the present book (the parts of the book that offer broad background and context are new, but they provide little that helps us to answer the most pressing questions). Erdélyi should not be faulted for digging more and more deeply to get to the heart of the matter. She has considered the evidence at various scales of analysis, for example by trying to see the interests of a laity as distinct from that of the local landlord or by recognizing the goals of regional ecclesiastical potentates as different from the scope and interests of the pope. I suspect, however, that for all of this effort she feels some disappointment at the results. She has remained open to whatever truth emerges from her various triangulations of the source, whether that is that the friars were guilty as charged or whether local elites cooked up the evidence of their wrongdoing. But in the end A Cloister on Trial has come to no conclusion, only (on page 223) a vague assertion: something about an emerging thesis of growing lay agency.

It is unfortunate that the only way I can summarize is to offer a bit of advice to writers: if your thesis is still emerging then it is probably not yet ready to publish, if it involves growth then you need to describe change from one point in time to another, and if it treats an amorphous concept like lay agency then you need to carefully define your terms.