Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.08.09 Folkerts (ed.), Religious Connectivity in Urban Communities

22.08.09 Folkerts (ed.), Religious Connectivity in Urban Communities

Nearly fifteen years ago, John Van Engen characterized the long fifteenth century (c. 1370 - c. 1520) as a period in which there were “multiple options” available for the devout “to appropriate religion for themselves.” [1] Numerous scholars before and since have examined how the laity, the religious, and the “semi-” or “extra-” religious pursued different paths to devotional practice and expression. Religious Connectivity in Urban Communities provides a fruitful contribution to this historiography, demonstrating further the diversity of ways in which the urban populace could engage with and shape the religious life of late medieval Europe. The contributors’ use of “connectivity,” that is, the relationships and networks that bound together different individuals, institutions, and places, as a lens for the study of religious life in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries immensely benefits the volume’s overall sense of argumentative unity.

The editor, Suzan Folkerts, explains in the introduction that underlying the volume’s emphasis on “connectivity” is the contributors’ “search for a material, socio-economic basis for cultural phenomena” (11). Folkerts adds that one of the aims of the essays is to investigate “how producers and consumers of religious literature, artefacts, and rituals were engaged in the creation of social cohesion” (12). The majority of the articles in the collection do indeed firmly place themselves within a material approach to culture, many examining not simply devotional texts, but the codices into which bookmakers copied or printed them, in which readers annotated them, and through which owners exchanged them. This approach fits alongside a growing number of studies which have addressed medieval religious and literary cultures by examining the book as a physical object, hoping to ascertain--among other things--who used a given book, how they used it, and what those answers might tell us about broader spiritual, economic, and social trends. Once a fairly niche sphere, codicological and manuscript analyses, buttressed by medieval studies’ broader “material turn,” have moved toward the center of the field. This volume contributes profitably to that trend.

An-Katrien Hanselaer’s article and Folkerts’s own essay, which concludes the volume, exemplify the manuscript-based approach taken by the majority of contributions in Religious Connectivity. Hanselaer examines nineteen vernacular manuscript miscellanies that survive from the third order house of Sint-Catharinadal, which had begun its life as a community of women connected to the Devotio moderna in the southern Low Countries before it adopted the Franciscan habit later in the fifteenth century. Giving special attention to the texts copied within these codices, Hanselaer seeks to uncover what kinds of literature the women “used for self-definition and self-presentation” (127). Hanselaer finds that they read texts from a range of religious traditions, including works authored by Franciscans, Dominicans, and Cistercians, mystical treatises, patristic literature, as well as texts specifically associated with the Devotio moderna, the latter providing the women a connection to their roots in that movement. As Johanneke Uphoff and Delphine Mercuzot also do for their contributions, Hanselaer includes a helpful appendix of the codices examined. Folkerts’s article, meanwhile, traces the fifteenth-century circulation of Middle Dutch Bible translations and other vernacular religious texts within the city of Deventer--the hometown of the Devotio moderna’s founder, Geert Grote. Examining the ownership notes and other physical traces that survive in many of these codices--including evidence that one book had been chained to a lectern (270)--Folkerts demonstrates the frequency with which these books exchanged hands between the laity and men and women in religious life.

In addition to the many articles examining manuscript codices, early print books, and reading practices, Religious Connectivity presents a wide array of other methodologies for the study of late medieval religious culture. Marina Gazzini’s contribution on confraternities in the Italian communes takes a more historical-textual approach by surveying confraternity statutes compiled across northern Italy from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Megan Edwards Alvarez, an archeologist, draws from both documentary and material evidence to reconstruct the religious practices of the Butchers’ guild in the Scottish town of Perth before and after the Reformation. Cécile de Morrée examines the re-use of melodies as recorded in print and manuscript Middle Dutch songbooks to suggest that religious communities in Netherlandish cities often appropriated melodies from the wider urban soundscape and applied devotional lyrics to them. The volume, therefore, provides a rich mix of methodological approaches to the problem of urban religious culture, although it certainly emphasizes codicological analyses.

Religious Connectivity also aspires, admirably, to approach its subject from a broad geographical perspective, including investigations of much of western Europe. The first three articles offer an initial tour of the Latin west, moving from Gazzini’s article on Italian confraternities, to Europe’s northern periphery with Edwards Alvarez’s examination of the Scottish burgh of Perth, back to one of the continent’s urban cores with Corz Zwart’s engaging study of an Utrecht alderman. Given the volume’s origin as a conference held at the University of Groningen, as well as the Low Countries’ status as one of the most urbanized regions in medieval Europe, it is perhaps understandable that five of the book’s ten articles deal with that region. Yet there are notable gaps in coverage--for example, an examination of some of western Europe’s non-Christian urban communities, such as Jews in the Rhineland or Muslims in Valencia, would have been welcome. Giving the volume greater reach, however, are the articles by Elsa Kammerer and María José Vega, both of which approach their subjects from broad perspectives that encompass much of western Europe. Kammerer examines the spread of printed Figures of the Bible in Dutch, French, and German speaking regions in the sixteenth century. Kammerer considers printers in cities across the continent who saw themselves as in direct competition with one another, a dynamic which led them to produce particularly beautiful illustrations in order to attract as many consumers as possible. José Vega, meanwhile, traces the proliferation and transformations of an allegorical dialogue, and how both Catholics and Protestants throughout western Europe deployed it for polemic purposes in the sixteenth century.

Despite its many strengths, the volume does focus on one unnecessary and even distracting theme: the contributors’ frequently repeated contention that scholars should not consider the sacred and the secular as clearly differentiated categories or spheres of life in the medieval period. Rather, the editor “plead[s] for an integrated study of social, cultural, and religious symbols and practices” (14). I find nothing wrong with this line of argument itself, which is precisely why I could not understand why it was stressed so forcefully throughout Religious Connectivity. Rather, I find the position fairly uncontroversial and hardly requiring a defense at the present time. Folkerts herself, in the introduction, cites three major historical works (by Vauchez, Duffy, and Brown), dating from the 1980s to the 2010s, which take the approach she advocates. One might add Public Life in Renaissance Florence by Richard Trexler (1980), Worldly Saints by Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner (1999), and Cities of God by Augustine Thompson (2005), as just three other works (there is a long list) which have been published in the last forty years and engage with the overlap of the sacred and the profane in the later Middle Ages.

Rather than rehashing an old argument, the volume would have done well to highlight further one of its greatest strengths: just about all of its essays explore the laity as agents in shaping the religious life of late medieval Europe’s cities. Corz Zwart’s article examining the manuscripts of devotional literature owned by the Utrecht alderman Dirck Borre van Amerongen, for example, suggests that in the compilation process, Dirck himself had selected the locations for the numerous marginal “notae” within his manuscripts. In my own encounters with similar marginalia in fifteenth-century Italian manuscripts, I have considered the monastic scribe to be responsible for selecting passages for emphasis. I will now have to consider the (possibly lay) readers’ input as their source. Similarly, Johanneke Uphoff provides an account of laypeople giving devotional reading materials to religious institutions, whereas most previous work on the topic has emphasized the transition moving in the opposite direction, or from religious institution to religious institution. Delphine Mercuzot, in her article on William Caxton’s printing of indulgences and a short vernacular vita of the Welsh martyr Winifred, aims to discern Caxton’s own agency--as well as that of other urban lay elites--in shaping the religious literature of late fifteenth-century Britain. The contributors of Religious Connectivity shed light on urban laymen and laywomen, demonstrating that they were not passive recipients of religious knowledge from an overbearing clerical elite but active shapers of the religious world in which they lived. This seems to me to be a far more interesting and important contribution than the well-trodden observation that the sacred and the secular were not so strictly divided in the medieval as in the modern world. And indeed, the volume’s largely material approach to its subject provides an avenue to explore the religious contributions of groups and individuals from social strata which would be otherwise difficult to study as they typically did not author original texts.

Religious Connectivity in Urban Communities brings together a series of closely researched articles on religious life in the cities of late medieval western Europe. Its focus on the theme of “connectivity," as well as its emphasis on urban book culture lend the volume a commendable level of argumentative cohesion. Its contributors show how the urban laity, through a variety of means, shaped the religious world in which they lived and how they played a direct role in the transmission of religious knowledge in the Later Middle Ages. Overall, this is an informative, engaging read, and one that I recommend for anyone interested in the lived religion and material culture of late medieval western Europe.



1. John Van Engen, “Multiple Options: The World of the Fifteenth-Century Church,” Church History, 77.2 (2008): 257-284, at 269.