Sharon Strocchia and Nicholas Terpstra: ‘There are always cracks in the wall’

Sharon Strocchia is an authority on female monastic communities, parish life and urban ritual in renaissance Italy. Nick Terpstra, also an Italianist, is an expert on early modern civic religion, confraternities and charitable institutions for children. Here they discuss, among other things, the nature of boundaries as urban communities changed between the 15th and 16th centuries. (27-3-2011)

David Rosenthal: It seems to me you’re both interested in ideal communities, imagined communities, in specific kinds of ways. The monastic female communities which you, Sharon, have written extensively on, are in the first instance very actively imagined. You. Nick, have been very interested in lay confraternal brotherhoods – and sisterhoods to some extent, though we know a lot less about that. So one of the things I’m interested in is how you think ideals about community bounce off what we understand about how they actually operate. You’ve also both worked on how both ideals and realities change over time – especially between the 15th and 16th century. So I’m also interested in how you see larger forces changing the shape of urban communities.

Sharon Strocchia: Regarding the ways in which various ideals inform the realities of communities, how they are constructed, who belongs, who’s in or out – I think that the model that’s held up for female monastic communities in 14th and early 15th century Italy is the apostolic family. There’s a leader who’s the proxy for Christ, and then a number of followers who are all supposedly equal in spirit. The number of members really is very small – usually ten or twelve women – so that the imagined apostolic families recreated in monastic communities have a very intimate feel. Imitating the apostolic family meant that only a handful of people could genuinely live out their spiritual ideals together.
      I think that the ideal of  this holy family within female monastic institutions changes over time in very complex ways. Other kinds of family groupings, particularly the holy family figuring Joseph, Mary and the Christ child, come to be represented visually more often in the 16th century. Recurrent bouts of plague certainly kept convent populations low for most of the 15th century, but I think that at the same time, the apostolic ideal became less powerful as an informing model for women’s monastic houses. Other kinds of ideological forces, primarily civic in nature, begin to either erode or replace the notion that a handful of women gathered in a kind of fictive household constituted the ideal community. These notions of community really begin to change by 1500, whether in terms of face-to-face relationships or strong interpersonal bonds. So the informing ideology changes in tandem with realities.

DR: What is the changing relationship, then, between these religious houses and the city? This has been one of your themes, to insert them as much as possible within a neighbourhood then, as you say, an increasingly civic context. What were the ideological shifts that changed the way these communities thought about themselves? How do you see that process happening?

SS: I think there’s a dynamic interplay between forces on the grounds and changing notions of what a religious community is or could be or should be. One of the governing forces that’s driving change on the ground is the need to have safe places, so to speak, that are honourable places for women who are not able to find a respectable place in society, or at least their families or various social groups think that they are best suited to one kind of residential situation versus another. Notions of the ideal size and scale for communities can and do change – I’m thinking here of Nick’s major orphanages and custodial institutions – depending on the nature of the institution itself [Terpstra, Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance, Johns Hopkins, 2005; Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence, Johns Hopkins, 2010]. As one kind of constructed community among many, female religious houses had to navigate between the ideal religious life desired by and for female monastics, on one hand, and other urban social needs on the other. What happens in 15th century Florence is really exciting because an older medieval notion of the apostolic family embodied in small, intimate religious groupings gradually gives way to the sense that larger constructed communities carried greater political and spiritual heft. As Italian convents became more instrumental to urban elites during the 15th century, people changed their minds about the possibilities of finding and serving God in a broader range of settings. The monastic ideal for women no longer was confined to just the anchorite, the recluse, the group of 12 with the abbess. It could be a group of 100 or 200 women.

Nicholas Terpstra: One thing that I see is the importance of  the model or metaphor of the family. Through the 15th century it operates at the level of individual communal groups, which then collectively create the social and civic whole on something like a republican model, complete with the exchange of offices and circulation of authority. What you see is that internal corporate notion of the family becoming projected on to states as a whole, with different states engaging in different forms of projection. This is one thing that struck me in comparing Florence and Bologna in the 16th century. Bologna tries hard to maintain some kind of republican power sharing to balance out intensely competitive oligarchs. In Florence it’s more clear that Duke Cosimo I is going to be the pater patriae in a real way – that is, not in the indirect behind-the-scenes manner of his 15th century ancestor Cosimo, but as a true head of the house or father of the nation. When you examine this transition politically, it’s clear that the corporate model to some extent still functions internally in these states, particularly with the guilds, confraternities, and corporate or kinship groups that make up civil society. Yet as the republic refashions itself around the model or metaphor of the family, it gradually loses its real republican elements. There’s a certain amount of window dressing to keep up the appearance of continuity, but the family model is the one that goes forward into absolutism. And Duke Cosimo as the head of the family-state then becomes the head of all these other little families, that is, the groups that make up civil society.
     While I’ve looked a lot at confraternities, for me it’s never been about those groups in isolation or even fraternalism as such. The focus has always been about civic religion, legitimating discourses, and invented traditions as the language of politics. It’s really about how religion, charity, politics and gender intertwine to create communities, to legitimate power structures, and to create new institutions.  Usually these mutate over time. In this language of power, sometimes the words stay the same but the ideology flips around. That’s what been fascinating to me about studying civic religion, civil society and social capital. A good part of the ethos that you have expressed in the 15th century draws on 14th and 13th century models and is itself transformed in the 16th century.  Really, the only way for a legitimating discourse to maintain its legitimating function is for the words to the stay the same even if the underlying realities change fundamentally.
     That’s where I found useful Mary Ann Clawson’s notion about fraternalism as a cultural form and social resource – and I think this is what Sharon’s pointing out too. The model of the family and particularly the holy family is imprinted so sharply on the individual and collective consciousness, it’s so clearly the language of social organisation. But how you frame that family, and what size it becomes, and who acts as the parent at the top, well that’s always very flexible and open to manipulation. I think what you have in some of the debates of the time are precisely disagreements about the limits and definitions and roles and responsibilities of the family as a political metaphor. So while in Florence, the duke becomes the head of the family, in Bologna there’s a desperate struggle between republicans and oligarchs to claim the family metaphor and use it either horizontally or vertically. Because there is no single head, it’s more complicated. The oligarchs are clever enough to pick up on republican ideology even as they are trashing it and trashing the republicans. And they’re the ones who succeed of course.

DR: One of the things it seems to me is also changing are boundaries. Are boundaries becoming less porous between various kinds of community in the 16th century, to do with growth of states, to do with religious groups, in terms of class or gender, or in terms of a perception of pollution?

SS: I haven’t studied the 16th century as much as the 15th, but for that reason I’m coming to the archival material with fresh eyes. I think one could make an argument for boundaries becoming more calcified, or at least better defined. There’s certainly a greater interest in articulating boundaries between social groups in the 16th century. But I still wonder about that notion for a couple of reasons: Italian urban communities are very heavily networked, and we are only beginning to understand how men and women of different classes, ethnicities and religious identities defined community for themselves. Some communities are more obvious, since they were embodied in formal institutions like convents or guilds, while others are loose, sometimes short-lived informal associations. How did these very different types of communities connect with each other? What kinds of information, goods and practices did they exchange? The impression I get so far from the work I’ve done in the 16th century regarding communities is that there was a thick undergrowth of personal associations linking clusters of individuals – subterranean networks so to speak – that  might offset whatever greater boundedness and greater determinacy was occurring. It may be that there was a compensatory process at work. I’m thinking of the research on ghettos and Jews that shows how different religious groups in Italian society were being marked out more definitively in the 16th century. Or to take another example: Nick has described a process whereby righteous members of  religious brotherhoods in Bologna began to ramp up the rhetoric that separated them from their wayward or “impure” brothers, and then translated that rhetoric into disciplinary action against them. He’s made a persuasive case that this kind of separation was already going in the 15th century. What we don’t know at this point, though, is what else was happening in the political and social relationships of Jews or confraternal brothers that might give the appearance of inclusion/exclusion, and what kind of informal social exchanges began to mitigate that disciplinary process.

NT: That’s where I find Benedict Anderson’s work on “imagined communities” very helpful. He’s looking at the expansion of nationalism in the 19th century. You can’t speak about nationalism in the 16th century, but you are looking at ideologies and at the gap between ideology and the implementation. What I’ve found interesting in the prescriptive literature is that clearly there’s a greater emphasis on defining boundaries between insiders and outsiders and a greater will to enforce those boundaries. There’s a sense of boundedness and of communities having walls and limits. As an ideological construct it’s expanding steadily, but there’s always a great gap between the construct and the social reality, not just in an Italian town but anywhere. Thinking again of civic religion, the fascinating thing is that this is becoming a greater preoccupation within cities and states, and it results in the extraordinary series of expulsions of dissidents and outsiders that begin picking up in the 15th century and carry on until the early 18th century. Anderson talks about imagined communities of the nation, and in the Renaissance and Reformation you can talk about imagined communities of faith – each city favoured by the Virgin and given a mission by God. Dissidents and the ‘impure’ had always been expelled.  But part of the difference between these new expulsions and the medieval ones is that you have a more powerful state apparatus behind it. So it becomes a mass phenomenon. At the same time, there are always divergent voices. There’s always a dialogue. There are always people who are immune to the ‘pure community’ ideology, or places where it doesn’t bite, or just doesn’t get off the ground. But when it does, it has extraordinary effects for sometimes hundreds of thousands of people.
     I’m trying to maintain the sense that it’s not a monolithic total change. There is discussion, there are gaps and loopholes and exceptions. But that said, and looking at it in the context of the exile and expulsion project I’m engaged in now, it seems to me that this idea of a pure, imagined community of faith becomes the governing ideology for so many people and so many states. I would say that there are more people around in 1517 who are concerned about purity and contagion in their communities than there are people concerned about their personal salvation. Their personal salvation is something that they don’t necessarily have an immediate grip on, but what they do grasp very strongly is what contaminates their community. If we’re going to look at the Reformation as a popular phenomenon we have to look beyond theological constructs and into some of these deep fears and hopes about community. We have to see how the ‘new’ theology first rose out of these depths and then turned around and came back as a language that reshaped them. This is the funny thing, the advantage, about coming as an Italianist into an area like Reformation studies that has been defined by Germanists and northern Europeanists. You see things differently, and you see different things. They barely even know you’re there, so it’s a subversive kind of action. Sometimes Reformation studies seems extraordinarily inward looking – they are all having intense conversations together about theological ideas that they’ve discussed for generations. One of the more fascinating opportunities as an outsider to the field is to precisely to explore some of the issues coming out of Italian studies about community and how its defined and protected.
     Again, there is the question of how that translated into reality. In one of our sessions at the RSA conference, Andrew Gow looked at the Jews of Augsburg, and what happened with the expulsions that started in 1438 [‘In and Out of the Window: Jews In (and Out of) Tri-confessional Augsburg’, Exile, Expulsion and Religious Refugees panel, Renaissance Society of America, 2011]. What nobody’s looked at is where they go. They just move outside the city walls, and settle in the suburbs. They’re always going in and out. So they’re expelled from that pure space that’s bound by the city walls, but not really expelled from the broader community. They are expelled, though, from a sense of what it is to be part of the pure imagined community. Many of these German cities later develop towering public sculptures in the form of a tree, and on the tree’s branches are representations of all the local guilds and crafts. You’ll never find on that tree any Jews, or Jewish occupations, or characters. So in a sense the notion of who makes up the community is very bounded and very visual – even in towns where almost half the population is Jewish! How does that shape people’s sense of community, of inside and outside, even if they moderate the actual implementation of it – as they often do – and just push the Jews out to the suburbs?

SS: Another example of the growing social concern with establishing boundaries both within communities and between them moves from Nick’s meta-narrative of Europe as a whole to what happens in Catholic Europe and women’s religious communities in particular. For instance, we don’t see an intense social concern with convent walls in the 15th century. Many Italian convents really have very low perimeters; they’re not enclosed behind massive, fortess-like walls. That sense of separation is very much a 16th-century phenomenon, in which the sacred space occupied by these young virgins who were given to God had to be clearly delineated and protected. At the same time there are always cracks in the wall, ways to look over the wall both from the inside and the outside. Certainly part of the push by the Council of Trent is to purify the enclosures by saying that only women who have taken vows can reside in the community. Convents can’t include older women who really just need a place to live and are willing to cede their goods to the community and so forth – they have to be pushed out. These religious houses are microcosms of the process that Nick is describing for much of Catholic Europe in terms of purging, purifying, defining and redefining religious communities: only the right members are inside, everyone else is on the outside, and the perimeters are more clearly defined and policed. But the process of purifying and enclosing convents is not as easy as it seems. Even after Trent, elite families want to have it both ways: they want convents to be “pure” religious communities uncorrupted by worldly affairs, but they also want to have full access to their sisters, aunts, and daughters living in these houses. So Catholic reform sets up many instances in which we can look at small-scale communities as microcosms of a much larger process – and those two things inform each other.

NT: Absolutely, and that also true for the charitable institutions I look at. They become enclosures as well: foundling homes, orphanages, and many shelters, but particularly ones for women and girls and for the poor. The wall goes up, but if we look at further records, we find complaints about how porous the wall is and how porous the members both inside and outside end up making that wall. The prescriptive literature for these enclosures – like statutes and rules – can be compelling, and for an earlier generation of historians it was almost blinding, because they assumed all of these regulations, which were often extraordinarily harsh, were followed as put down. But you don’t have to go too far in to the records to realise that the people ultimately responsible for these homes are tearing their hair out for decades afterwards, saying, “Why can’t we make these rules stick?” They complain that “we’ve had this guardiano who for 30 years hasn’t observed the regulations”.
     We recognise this from what we know of Italian society now, a society where people “find ways around” – the wonderful term arrangiarsi. I don’t think it’s just dealing in stereotypes. It’s a culture, certainly in our period, that’s as wedded to the notion of people as it is to the notion of boundaries – and people usually trump boundaries. It’s not that they tear down the walls, because the walls have a certain convenience of their own. But there’s a porousness of Italian society around individuality that we find compelling in our work.

DR: Talking about purity and boundaries puts you I think on some kind of ethnographic playing field, so I wonder if could ask to elaborate a little further on how you would describe your approach to the communities you study. And more generally, in terms of approaches, where do you see the field going at the moment?

SS: I think the approach to early modern communities has to be as rich as the communities themselves. There has to be a very expansive toolkit that works almost seamlessly. One of the things I notice is how effortlessly a gifted historian today blends a variety of different tools. So in contrast to, say, the pioneering social historian Richard Trexler, who foregrounded certain kinds of symbolic anthropology two decades ago, scholars today are able to be more nimble and use those same concepts which have become part of our mental furniture, when the material warrants it, or when those approaches will open up new insights – but not necessarily use symbolic anthropology only. The same is true with various kinds of feminist theory. Nick was talking earlier about views of prescriptive literature that were just stifling, that blinded us to what happening on the ground – and I think we know now that practices have a life of their own, which in certain cases only encouraged people in authority to reissue rules and regulations using stronger language.
     I would say two things about the theoretical constructs guiding Renaissance studies today: first, that it’s very hard to put your finger on a single defining element; and second, that that’s a very good thing. Many contemporary approaches are intertwined and work together to give us insight into evidence that can be pretty opaque. To take the example of boundedness: one could look at a various ecclesiastical decrees that suggest lay people should not be coming into women’s cloisters, and that various transactions between discrete communities should not be occurring. Those decrees get ramped up over the 16th century, and of course the capstone is the Council of Trent, where in theory you have a neatly laid out template of how communities of women should operate. They should be removed from the world, with very little commerce of any kind with others. If we took that pronouncement at face value, we would have a very static view of history and certainly of how female religious communities are embedded in 16th century life. What we need to do is to set that picture in motion. What sets these norms in motion for me is looking at the varieties of exemptions, first of all, issued by these same ecclesiastical authorities, because they know that there are other imperatives, they know that Italian society needs both boundedness and contact between worlds that have been artificially separated. But lay families as well as high church officials want to have it both ways. One of the things I’ve learned about prescriptions of all sorts is that they can be activated at crucial moments and made very powerful, and we as historians ignore them at our peril. But we get a more rounded view of social realities by looking at the circumstances in which prescriptions and other rules are either left latent or ignored, because doing so might serve other important purposes. The point I’m trying to make is that societies not only need to have a variety of tools and mechanisms, but also ways of getting around those mechanisms, of contravening their own normative pronouncements in order to remain nimble, responsive to contingency, and able to adapt. I think that’s in part how historical change occurs. The theoretical tools needed to approach that complex historical reality have to be equally diverse – and so feminist tools, anthropological insights, poststructuralist views can help us crack open what is going on at a particular moment in time.

NT: If we’re talking about methodology, one of the things I learned out of my last project is the importance of reading into the silences, and the silences that happen in different documents about the same institutions. As you bring them together you have to balance which you think is the strongest narrative, because you’ll have competing narratives. So in the case of Lost Girls, where I was looking at the Casa della Pietà orphanage, there is an official, authorised history, which gave a very particular slant on the home, and which looked like it had all sorts of authority – one of the girls of the home was one of the early authors, and some of the early stages of the text were almost contemporary with events. It was something like a convent chronicle that had evolved over time. My doubts about its narrative only grew after I’d started looking at other documents in other archives, and that was when I came across other silences. The key thing about the “official” convent narrative was that it said very little about the fact that so many of the girls were dying and it gave a very coloured view – a very acerbic view – of the women who were running the institution. It tried to suggest they weren’t really running it. In other archival documents you could see that the women were running the home on an intense day-to-day basis, not just distantly engaged as a board, but right there in the daily grind of the place. What seemed to emerge was that the convent narrative was more clerically oriented. It focused on everything the clergy was doing, and was silent on the women. The women’s narrative in a sense responded to that as a reciprocation; their records were all about the nuts and bolts of administration, with very little about the clergy. I got a better sense out of the women’s administrative documents about why the girls were dying. I had to take these silences together.
     This is the kind of project you can only do once you’ve been in the archives for a while and have got a better sense of what the records do and what they don’t do. You also start to see what the records look like physically, and read into that. What was striking to me was the excellent physical condition of the beautiful volumes that were produced from the 1550s, when the places opened, and then the gradual disintegration you could see in the way papers were collected and records kept – or not kept – by the 1580s. It took time, experience, and entering the archives with a hermeneutics of suspicion. At a certain point you find the voice you find most compelling, and that’s the voice you then start to expand on. I got that from Natalie Davis, who gave advice on how to write this up. She said one of the key things for her was to give voice to people who had none. That’s the priority that was driving my narrative. There are others who have written on the same institutions and who have taken a different approach. I don’t think that’s such a problem. In terms of where the profession is going, there’s more of a postmodern sense now that accepts different narratives. Here’s the narrative I’ve heard and reconstructed, but I don’t mean to make that the only possible one. I don’t get a sense of the profession now having the same kind of fundamental ideological splits that it had when we were coming into it, with the titanic debates, really ad hominem struggles, going on during the Sixties and Seventies.  It sometimes made them interesting but these intense debates often were pointless.

SS: One of the big questions that comes up in tandem with postmodern approaches is how to write history responsibly. This is both a practical and ethical question. If we accept that there are several different, often competing narratives contained within the sources themselves, how do we evaluate those claims and produce a judicious narrative of our own? Over the past few years, scholars have been trying to work out a conceptual vocabulary for the practice of history that is responsible to the evidence, to certain traditions, historiographic and otherwise, to respecting but not being bound by disciplinary boundaries. I think one important area of conversation for the profession and certainly for the field of Renaissance studies is how one takes this expanded toolkit and still works in a responsible fashion.

DR: Nick said just before he was interested in recovering lost voices, while you have been interested not in the lost voices so much as the lost activities of female religious communities. Your work speaks to the field of female agency, and it’s not just about what women can, but what they can’t do, which seems to me one of the interesting features of monasticism.

SS: I think that issues of agency are important to most historians. For me, coming out of a second-wave feminist moment, I saw that doing women’s history was possible after having been told in graduate school that there were few sources for writing the history of Renaissance women. Then I discovered that it wasn’t a matter of reading between the lines, or reading into silences, but that in fact there were gobs of material out there for helping us to understand the historical experiences of women in relation to other groups. So I’ve been interested in issues of agency for a long time. In the book you’re referring to, Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence [Johns Hopkins, 2009], I do try to talk about the limits of agency, how community enables women in certain ways and constrains them in others. What I’ve become more interested in the last couple of years is the fact that creating and sustaining community requires a great deal of energy. Community isn’t something that just happens, it has to be continually reaffirmed, in some cases revivified, and that’s true of these convent communities as well. That realisation leads me to ask about the practices and the people who help to sustain and enliven community on an everyday basis. I’m trying to get down to a nitty gritty, almost pedestrian level mentally in terms of approaching documents so that I can then go back up to these larger questions of how community creates society. I have to go small to ask the bigger questions.

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