Sabrina Corbellini, Chair History of Reading in Premodern Europe, Department of Medieval History, University of Groningen, the Netherlands
International conference “Über Religion entscheiden. Religiöse Alternativen und Optionen im spätmittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Christentum”, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany
19-21 October 2017
Reconstructing an Urban Reading Public: A Spatial Approach to Religious Reading in Late Medieval Italy
Recent research has shown that the fifteenth century is characterized by high levels of involvement and commitment in religious activities of urban laity and the growing diversification of “possibilities” to integrate religious activities into daily and worldly life. It was, citing the seminal contribution by John van Engen, a period of “multiple options”, discussions, choices and even conflicting attitudes. Although a throughout analysis of the fifteenth century transformations and their significance for the early modern “religious plurality” is still a desideratum, this presentation aims at discussing three central issues in the study of fifteenth century religious life: a. the possibility for lay believers to access, read, comment and discuss religious texts, mostly in the vernacular (although the access to Latin texts should not underestimated); b. their strategies to find and select their reading materials and “navigate” through the abundance of available texts, in order to create their own religious persona; and c. the creation of “sacred networks”, including lay and religious alike, that facilitated the transmission and the availability of texts and contributed to the dissemination of specific reading habits and techniques.
In order to scrutinize and better grasp the interconnectedness and the intersection of these three pivotal issues for the understanding of late medieval and early modern religious transformation, the late medieval religious text panorama will be analyzed through a spatial approach, i.e. focusing on the reconstruction of “spaces for reading” in the late medieval urban cityscape. Which were the channels of dissemination of religious knowledge? Where could the late medieval reading public find religious texts? Which were the conditions for accessing religious texts? And most importantly who were the agents in this process of dissemination of religious texts and in the creations of lieux de savoir religieux in late medieval Italian cityscape? And how were these readers trained to engage in process of selection, discussion and interpretation? Fundamental in this approach to late medieval religious readership is the application of the concept of lieu de savoir (places of knowledge), “lieux de savoir”, places of knowledge, created by the French historian Christian Jacob. In Jacob’s definition a “ ‘lieu de savoir’ is a space of construction, materialisation, inscription and social transmission. It is strongly linked to a dynamic and genetic approach to knowledge situated in a spatial and social framework. Moving from one space to another, knowledge is built, transformed, divided and merged, it changes its status and value, it lives or dies, it moves through time and space and through human societies”.
In order to reconstruct the late medieval Italian reading public and their interaction with religious texts, in particular in the vernacular, I will describe and examine three groups of sources that convey essential information about “spaces of religious knowledge”:
1. Manuscript miscellanies, which will be studied as “snapshots” of late medieval religious textual culture, registering the presence, circulation and transformation of religious knowledge and outcomes of processes of selection and adaptation in a period of textual dynamics and interpretational plurality. They are moreover material evidence of late medieval “geographies of reading” and bear witness of the active search for texts and books, contributing to an essential step in research on late medieval readership: moving away from a research focused on individual book owners and heading towards the awareness of the formation of “communities of readers” literally gathering around books and reading, and actively getting involved in an exchange of objects and of textual knowledge.
2. Archival sources, such as testaments and probate inventories, reporting evidence of book ownership, the creation of “links and flows” of transmission of religious textual knowledge and the formation of a “shared reading cultures” across the traditional boundaries between lay and religious individuals and groups;
3. Catalogues and inventories of late medieval libraries, testifying of the seminal relevance and ethical dimension of creating spaces and places dedicated to books and reading, real nodes in the religious knowledge transmission networks and at the very heart of the construction of religious textual dynamics.
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