Jesse Spohnholz and Gary K. Waite (eds.), Exile and Religious Identity, 1500-1800, Pickering & Chatto, London, 2014.

Jesse Spohnholz and Gary K. Waite (eds.), Exile and Religious Identity, 1500-1800, Pickering & Chatto, London, 2014. ISBN-13: 9781848934573; e-book: 9781781440797, pp. xv + 266. HB £60; $99; eBook £24.

Reviewed by: Antonella Cagnolati, University of Foggia (Italy), September 2014.

The most important and long-lasting political phenomenon to mark the beginning of the Sixteenth Century was the construction of the modern state. Within their territories, whose borders were becoming increasingly rigid, kings and princes were busy shaping their domains and strengthening their power by means of extensive bureaucracies. Their ends were also achieved through the rigorous preparation of laws that were to be considered valid throughout the entire country, and setting up a tax system to replenish the royal coffers, which often resulted in the severe hardship of their subjects. Accompanying this process was the development – in terms of social and cultural issues – of the social category of “people”, a heterogeneous mass that had to be reflected symbolically in the sovereign state according to various factors, such as a mythical genealogy, common folk and cultural anthropology; a people who shared the same language and religious affiliation.

The monolithic view advocated, for understandable reasons, by those who in power (thinking in particular of Spain, France, England – the three great nations that came into being during the modern age), a view based on a close link between politics, religion and society and the identification of the king as a staunch defender of religious orthodoxy, disintegrated completely with the advent of the Reformation. This disintegration gave rise to schisms that would be almost impossible to reverse, resulting in new concepts of personhood and nationality mapped from religious identities. The most obvious consequence of this far-reaching process was the fracture between national identity – and therefore obedience to the king and the laws of the state – and adherence to a particular religion. Individuals who identified with a religion different from that practiced by the majority ran the risk of loosing their property, goods, status, and equality in the eyes of the law. Although some minority groups perceived as “different” were tolerated within the confines of a state, many were forced to live and practice their faith in secret or to flee.

The experiences of exiled men and women – who went in search of a new homeland and a better life – is a fascinating area of ​​research for historians of the early modern era. This has made exile a seminal topic of research and the subject of numerous high-level scientific conferences, for example the conference ‘Early Modern Migrations: Exiles, Expulsion, and Religious Refugees 1400–1700’, held at the University of Toronto (19–21 April 2012). Some papers presented during this event have been incorporated into the volume under discussion here, Exile and Religious Identity, 1500-1800, edited by Jesse Spohnholz and Gary K. Waite, for the series Religious Cultures in the Early Modern World.

As the editors so rightly state in their Introduction, ‘exile is a critical analytical framework for understanding the early modern world’ (p. 7). In recent years historians have predominantly focussed on the Jewish diaspora and the ‘international’ Calvinist edification, often analysing and elucidating how single communities have used biblical models to explain their collective exile—focussing on narratives about the persecution of God’s ‘Chosen People’. However, if we are to depict a more meaningful panorama and shed further light on the dynamics of exile – rather than merely describing it in static pictures that have by now been thoroughly explored – these frameworks need to be extended and a strong trans-national perspective adopted.

In this reviewer’s opinion, the volume Exile and Religious Identity, 1500-1800 applies an innovative and original strategy to this undertaking. First and foremost, it addresses several shortcomings that have traditionally plagued the historiography of exile. It highlights the fact that an efficacious comparison between the various experiences has not yet been made, and that language differences have often represented a stumbling block for scholars, preventing in-depth, cross-cultural and far-reaching analysis. The editors also point out that work undertaken within the strict confines of research disciplines have prevented the fluid exchange of ideas and discoveries between researchers from different fields (p. 2). The fundamental thread linking all of the essays in this volume is the aim not to trace the history of exile, but to study and faithfully reconstruct particular features of the experience as it manifested in different places and communities, for example how the trauma of exile helped to create religious identity in several key phases, the first of these being the crucial moment when the homeland is abandoned, with all the accompanying material and psychological difficulties. This is followed by the stage when the exiled are either welcomed or rejected in a different land. Subsequent narratives that centre on the experience of exile and acceptance, or exile, rejection and conflict, frequently give rise to shared mythographies that get transmitted as cultural heritage and conserved as a precious memory passed down to future generations.

Another central question that the essays bring to light concerns exile as a strategy (whether implicit or explicit) behind the formation of peoples and geographic-scale antagonism, for example the opposition between the Catholic realms of the Mediterranean and the Protestant countries of Northern Europe. They also show how diverging schools of thought are created following the experience of exile in ‘other’ places like South America.

Another undisputed merit of the essays that make up this volume is that they present to us a variegated social universe, made up of writers, prophets, merchants and artisans. This demonstrates that complex and sophisticated articulations of faith are not the preserve of a certain social class, nor limited to the elite. The fact that the authors have drawn from a variety of fascinating and heterogeneous sources in addition to considering a wide array of individual people is also worthy of note: secular and ecclesiastical records, laws, treaties, educational texts and literary works all testify to, and enable us to understand, how exiles perceived their experiences, both within and outside their own communities.

The volume is divided into several sections, including an insightful Introduction (pp. 1–7), notes to each essay (pp. 197–254), and an index of names (pp. 255–265). The essays themselves, thirteen in number, are presented in three parts with distinct underlying themes (pp. 9–196). The essays in Part I, ‘The Experience of Exile and the Consolidation of Religious Identities’, highlight a phenomenon common to both the Reformed faiths and the Catholic religion, namely the strengthening of the bonds of identity within the exiled community. By drawing on different sources, such as the consolatory letters, or Trostbriefe, from Lutheran Germany (Hans B. Leaman, ‘Count Every Step in my Flight’: Rhegius’s and Luther’s Consolations for Evangelical Exiles, 1531–3’; pp. 9–23), examining the cult of relics (Liesbeth Corens, ‘Saints beyond Borders: Relics and the Expatriate English Catholic Community’, pages 25–38), the complex webs of familial alliances among the exiled (François Moreil, ‘The Reformed of Orange: Community Identity and Exile’; pp. 51–65), and the strong engagement of noble women such as Anne Percy (Katy Gibbons, ‘Religious and Family Identity in Exile: Anne Percy, Countess of Northumberland in the Low Countries’; pp. 39–50), the authors of the essays demonstrate the exiles’ consolidation of identity, their strength of spirit, and the creation of support networks that withstood the test of time.

The essays in Part II, ‘The Experience of Exile and the Destabilization of Religious Identities’, analyse various different figures, and show how the religious identity of an individual can be altered upon contact with different realities, which act to modify their understanding of their faith, a case in point being Dirck Volckertz Coornehert (Mirjam van Veen, ‘Dirck Volckertz Coornehert: Exile and Religious Coexistence’; pp. 67–80). Such an experience can even strengthen a person’s faith to such an extent that the ambiguous connotation of ‘prophet’ is conferred, for example upon Justus Velsius Haganus (Hans de Waardt, ‘Justus Velsius Haganus: An Erudite but Rambling Prophet’; pp. 97–109), or give rise to a mutation in religious faith, as in the case of Isaac Nabrusch (Tomás A. Mantecón, ‘Isaac Nabrusch, Christian and Jew: A Pious Man at Life’s Many Crossroads’; pp. 81–96).

This volume bears witness to the fecundity of new historiographical methods, and demonstrates the richness of the cultural category of ‘exiles’, which stood out as a distinctive feature of European society at the dawn of the Modern Age. It also provides a viewing glass through which to observe the process of change. This book has great value for all those who undertake to investigate the Early Modern World, and it is to be hoped that the example it has set in such a brilliant fashion – both in terms of methodology and for having considerably widened the range of sources to come under scrutiny – will be followed by other scholars with a strong interdisciplinary bent.