Too often the Later Middle Ages are characterized as a period of decay and decline. Yet in the church of the fifteenth century, various religious and secular figures vigorously tried to change European culture to be more in line with their vision of a Christian society. This so-called Observant movement, which ranged from Portugal to Hungary, is the subject of this collection of essays, . Through preaching and writing, the Observants sought to increase religious discipline, piety, and charitable acts. The scholars in this volume present a wide-ranging and instructive overview of the Observant movement through serious attention to sources.
In the introduction, James D. Mixson summarizes the medieval background, key reformers and institutions, and current scholarship. Clearly, the recovery from the Great Schism galvanized leaders to call for reform in specific clerical orders and society at large. Familiar names such as Geert Groote, Bernardino of Siena, Giovanni of Capistrano, Catherine of Siena, Girolamo Savonarola and orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, beguines, Augustinian hermits are explained here and appear throughout the essays. The authors of these essays build on the work of Herbert Grundmann and Kaspar Elm to research how the Observant reformers reflected and reached into their cultural context.
The opening essay by Gabriella Zarri further contextualizes religious reform in the "Observant Century." First, the papacy was rebuilding its primacy after the Great Schism and conciliarism, as well as reasserting its temporal power in Italy. Second, the position of secular clergy was more ambiguous as bishops competed with secular princes. Third, the rise of Renaissance humanism lent support to the reformist movement, both of which arose in Italy at the same time. Fourth, spiritual and religious texts spread the movement across Europe, and particularly to the Low Countries and the Brethren of the Common Life and to Germany and the Congregation of Windesheim. Finally, women took up reform, for instance Colette Boylet of Corbie who worked with the Poor Clares.
In chapter 2 Mixson himself writes on the overall "conceptual frameworks" and how they functioned. He sees the reformers expressing a sense of decline from the previous high standards of their predecessors and founders of orders. As a cure they recommended ordinances and rules. They also thought those "at the pinnacle of the spiritual estate still seemed most in need of conversion, most in need of law and order" (67). In dialogue with one another, the reformers tied religion to statutes, trying to convince others to convert toward good behavior.
This appeal to the past has made the Observants seem opposed to innovation. Alison More argues against that notion in chapter 3. She particularly notes the success of the new "tertiary" or "third orders," that allowed lay men and women to better participate in organized religious life. While the promoters of these new Franciscan and Dominican tertiaries claimed to draw on the activities of founders, no good evidence exists that Francis or Dominic or Clare of Assisi or Catherine of Siena or other contemporaries envisioned these kinds of organizations. Thus the re-writing of myth into history and building of communities that had never before existed were inherently innovative.
The theme of writing is continued in chapter 4 by Anne Huijbers, who notes that Observants were composing more of the history of their orders and founding saints than their opponents, the Conventuals. Recent historians are suggesting that a distinct genre of reform-themed chronicles flowed from these efforts. Such authors set up a model of dark decline which was then reversed by the new light of reform. Their efforts helped the Observants eventually to outnumber the Conventuals in leadership positions.
In chapter 5, Pietro Delcorno focuses on concrete efforts by Observant reformers to improve education and pastoral care. Most important was preaching, especially as promoted by Giovanni of Capistrano and Bernardino of Siena. Delcorno draws on recent scholarship that these preachers were not entirely at odds with contemporary and later humanists. Education about proper virtues for the common people and priests alike followed from bonfires of vanities, theater, and catechisms. An appreciation for Bernardino of Siena's contribution to the Observant movement is provided by Caroyln Muessig's essay. Whether Bernardino's preaching actually succeeded in transforming his audience, however, is still open to question.
Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli's essay moves off on a completely different tangent, as she connects pawn broking with the Observant movement. The main avenue of reform was "mounts of piety," institutions which provided small loans at low interest rates to "the less poor of the poor" (204). Since the creation of wealth through the commercial revolution was leaving many urban residents behind, Franciscans and Dominicans proposed these new financial organizations to help those near the bottom to improve their economic standing. The main difference between the two was that the Franciscans wanted to charge interest while Dominicans did not. Of course, these mounts of piety competed with Jewish lenders, as did the new major banks. Reformers actually aimed to further restrict and expel Jews from Italian towns. There was no room for Jews in the moral vision of many Observants.
Neither was there room for superstition and magic, as explained in the essay by Michael D. Bailey. He admittedly cannot offer much direct connection between Observant Reform and a growing fear of a diabolic conspiracy of witchcraft, yet the two movements coincided in time. Many Observant reformers were warning of the dangers to Christian faith of astrology, charms, non-religious incantations, folk healing and belief in demonic intervention. Bailey focuses particularly on Bernardino of Siena and Johannes Nider as developers of a new theology for heretical demonic pacts with women as witches.
Suspicions of heresy even tainted notable religious women in Observant reform, as described in Tamar Herzig's essay. Important female Observant reformers, such as Colette of Corbie, Alijt Bake, and Magdalena Beutler, were inspired by the famous Catherine of Siena to call women to a more devout and disciplined life. Yet Catherine's uniqueness, with an ascetic and mystical lifestyle accompanied by ecstatic visions, made male reformers uncomfortable. Led by Jean Gerson, Johannes Nider, and Girolamo Savonarola, men tamed radical aspects among subsequent religious women and instead encouraged them to live in monastic poverty, obey the church hierarchy, practice penitence, and reside properly enclosed in the cloister.
The last few essays, collected under the heading "Observant Legacies," deal with manifestations of reform in the sixteenth century. First, Bert Roest looks at how some Observant reforms struggled in the face of the Reformation. Just as the Observants had gained the upper hand in their orders, the need to combat Protestants completely changed the landscape. Many scholars have asserted that Observants failed to match Protestant skill in sermonizing. Instead, Roest argues, their homiletic collections, which are now more accessible than ever, show how Observant preachers did reach the common believer and did not always focus on polemical conflicts.
Second, Timothy J. Schmitz in his essay illustrates the power of the new Catholic monarchy to use reform for its own purposes. King Philip II of Spain forcibly combined different branches of the Jeronymite order in his realms. He justified these unifications with arguments of improving the financial position and religious observance of the monks, but really it suited his own vision of royal authority.
Finally, Bert Roest explores how Observant Franciscans and Dominicans began mission work in the new Spanish possessions in the Americas. Contrary to their own portrayals of early missionary success and the acceptance of those accounts by historians, Roest shows that missionaries did not gain much ground for several decades, only really making inroads among indigenous peoples after 1520. The writings of the missionaries also gave a false impression that Europe's own rural population was more infected by superstition than it actually was.
All these essays provide an excellent introduction to current research about the Observant movement. As is the nature of any such collection, there is some repetition and redundancy, but overall the editors have done a fine job of selecting and organizing material that illustrates activities and ideologies of reformers. The essays not only encapsulate the current status of research, but also point the way for further investigation. There remains rich ground for more scholarship in this area, which will further qualify how late medieval religion and spirituality was not moribund and decaying, but innovative and renewing.