16.10.31, Little, Indispensable Immigrants

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Janine Larmon Peterson

The Medieval Review 16.10.31

Little, Lester K. Indispensable Immigrants: The wine porters of Northern Italy and their saint, 1200–1800. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015. pp. 240. ISBN: 978-0-7190-9522-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Janine Larmon Peterson
Marist College

Lester K. Little's newest monograph adds to his decades-long contributions to medieval studies. Two of his previous books, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy and Liberty, Charity, Fraternity: Lay Religious Confraternities at Bergamo in the Age of the Commune, pioneered studies on the interaction of piety, lay devotion, and the urban economy. Professor Little revisits these topics in Indispensible Immigrants, which examines the life and cult of a local saint known by several names but most frequently referred to in Italian religious historical studies as Albert or Alberto of Villa d'Ogna. Alberto was a wine porter whose cult supposedly flourished in such northern Italian towns as Cremona and Parma between his death in 1279 and his canonization process in the mid-eighteenth century. Although Salimbene de Adam, the outspoken and vituperative Franciscan critic and Alberto's contemporary, disparaged Alberto's veneration, the papacy officially recognized his cult in 1748. Many scholars are familiar with Alberto mainly through Salimbene's brief account in his Cronica. Professor Little, however, examines all of the chronicle and hagiographical sources through the time of his canonization process. Expanding upon previous examinations, he places these sources within the medieval socio-economic background of the wine porters who saw Alberto as their patron saint, as well as the early modern political and religious context that influenced some Dominicans to promote him as one of their own holy tertiaries (or laypersons officially connected to the Dominican Third Order) although there was little evidence to suggest Alberto had this institutional affiliation. In doing so, Little skillfully informs his readers about the daily experience of medieval wine porters, lay piety, the construction of cults, the institutionalization of the canonization process, and the saint's role in the social and cultural life of a late medieval Italian town.

Indispensible Immigrants is structured in three parts: "Alberto"; "The Wine Porters"; and "Sainthood." Three chapters compose each section, and a "Prologue" and "Epilogue" frame this material. Part I discusses Alberto's life and his cult. Little's treatment of Alberto of Villa d'Ogna unfolds as if it was a story, weaving together both medieval and later sources to create a coherent narrative. This approach enhances the readability and accessibility of the events, although it somewhat elides distinctions between the sources used to create the narrative. As a result, this initial approach may be less helpful for those who take a more historical approach to hagiographical sources, since a chronology of the texts is not clearly articulated in the text or presented in the notes to these three chapters. The presentation does serve, however, as an effective means of introducing and engaging readers who are new to the topic. Any questions that scholars of religious history or hagiography might be left with are addressed in detail in the book's third section.

Part II discusses wine porters in medieval Italy. The breadth and amount of information that Little condenses from a wide range of sources in this section is impressive. Medieval historians frequently lament--and often justify themselves to their modernist colleagues--about the lack of evidence regarding "lived experience" in the period they study. Little's three chapters on the physical experiences and daily life of the brentatori (or wine porters), how the geographical context affected these workers in northern Italy, and how townspeople perceived and remembered them are rich and detailed through exacting research. Overall, little of this section is specific to Alberto of Villa d'Ogna since information about his background and life is sorely lacking. Nevertheless, these chapters are very successful in bringing to life the role of the brentatore in pre-modern Europe and demonstrating a) just how unique a wine porter saint would have been, even in this period of many Italian saints from the lower classes, and b) how lay saints had built-in cults when they came from a particular community. The ties that created this community, and from which emerged the longevity of Alberto's cult, are clearly outlined in this section of the book.

Part III focuses on how Alberto of Villa d'Ogna became a saint. In this section, Little discusses more thoroughly changes in the canonization process and hagiographical issues, answering some of the questions raised in Part I for more specialized scholars. The timeline of Alberto's hagiographical sources is laid out in a more chronologically direct way in this section. In addition, Little uses cases of other lay Italian saints in a comparative manner to enrich the reader's understanding of Alberto's role as a saint and the significance of his cult. Chapter 8, on "Sainthood and community," includes valuable information on the material aspects of his cultic veneration, although perhaps it could engage a bit more with theoretical issues about what constitutes a "community" and the saint's cult as a process of construction. Unsurprisingly, considering his previous seminal works, this chapter's focus is Little's persuasive discussion of how Alberto's cult, and those of other lay saints, "respond[ed] to the crisis of urban poverty" (133). A consideration of the sources, and problems with hagiographical texts in general, are addressed in chapter 9. For example, in chapter 9 Professor Little does an admirable job tracing how members of the Dominican Order posthumously presented Alberto as a Dominican tertiary, a reinvention that ultimately led to a papal proclamation of sanctity. Thus a major contribution of this chapter is the examination of the trajectory of Alberto's "afterlife" and how it responded to changes the papacy made in the canonization process in the early modern period, eventually leading to Pope Benedict XIV officially sanctioning his cult.

Indispensible Immigrants takes a little-known yet regionally important saint and uses him to add to a larger discourse about sanctity, the socio-economic background of lay workers in thirteenth-century Italy, local and contested saints, hagiography, the role of communities in the construction of cults, and the early modern canonization process. That is an ambitious goal but one that overall Professor Little achieves through painstaking and extensive research. The stylistic choices, however, might necessitate some adjustment by readers comfortable with a traditional approach to historiography. Part I engages with the possibilities of creative non-fiction for medieval historiography to draw the reader into a new subject. The lack of historical specificity that this approach might engender is addressed in Parts II and III, in which the wealth of accrued information shines brightly and would appeal to scholars of socio-economic history and medieval religion, respectively. In many ways, therefore, the three sections can stand alone. As the inclusion of a "Prologue" and "Epilogue" might suggest, this is a work meant to attract a more general audience to the field in the tradition of many great micro-historical studies, rather than one whose argument would engender academic debate. As always, however, Lester Little's painstaking examination of the source material and what he is able to elicit from it makes Indispensible Immigrants valuable for more specialized scholars as well. It is a welcome contribution to his already-renowned scholarship and a tribute to a little-known Italian medieval saint. As a consequence the book itself will be indispensible to medieval and early modern scholars who work on Italy, saints, cults, the papacy, lay piety, and town life.

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