Maria Crăciun and Elaine Fulton (eds.), Communities of Devotion: Religious Orders and Society in East Central Europe, 1450–1800, Ashgate, Farnham, 2011.

Maria Crăciun and Elaine Fulton (eds.), Communities of Devotion: Religious Orders and Society in East Central Europe, 1450–1800, Ashgate, Farnham, 2011. £58, 50, ISBN 9780754663126 (hardback), pp. 284. 

Reviewed by: Veronika Čapská, Silesian University in Opava, February 2013

The volume seems to confirm and strengthen the trend to move beyond the research on religious orders ‘per se’.  For example, Silvia Evangelisti pleaded for a joint study of married and cloistered life and for blurring the boundaries between them.[1]The late Medievalist June L. Mecham has also emphasised the ‘fluidity’ of the boundaries between regular and extraregular lifeandhas proposed the term ‘cooperative piety’ to conceptualise the interaction between professed religious and lay people.[2]Mecham’s concepts have been lately taken up and tested by a group of researchers who contributed to a volume on regular and secular female communities in Central Europe in the long eighteenth century – it covers approximately the same region as the reviewed volume since most essays were related to the former Habsburg monarchy.[3]In their Introduction, the editors Maria Crăciun and Elaine Fulton state that the aim of the volume is to contribute to ‘a broader discussion about the relationship between religious orders and the worlds in which they operated’ (p. 24). To this purpose they suggest an interesting term ‘communities of devotion’, which is related in content to the above mentioned concepts, and specify this as ‘a term that may be applied not only to the religious orders at the heart of each chapter, or to the secular worlds and societies in which and with which those orders operated, but, crucially, also to the interaction and intersections between the two’ (p. 24). This emphasis on shared devotional models and on the transfer of devotional practices (p. 1) between regulars and lay people seems to be very promising for future research in the field.

However, the work’s purpose and conceptual framework in the Introduction could have been elaborated on in more detail. It would have been useful if the concept of community, which resonates in current scholarly discourse, could have been defined not only in terms of social interaction but also with respect to its level of perceptions and imaginations (Benedict Anderson,[4]Anthony P. Cohen[5]). Similarly, the second key term of the volume, ‘devotion’, deserves deeper attention since in the historiography of the twentieth century, the study of lived religion – described also as piety or devotion – has provided an important alternative to religious history conceived as history of theological teachings. Moreover, in connection with religious orders the conceptualisation and analysis of religious virtuosity (Max Weber[6]) and asceticism (e.g. Michel Foucault[7]) represent a solid tradition which might have served as inspiration. In this respect the volume could have been to a greater extent embedded in broader interdisciplinary and historical discourses.

The editors also express another chief purpose of the volume, that is to contribute to ‘the historiographical reintegration of the two sides of Europe’ (p. 20). It has to be appreciated that the collection of essays brings together scholars from three western (UK, USA, France) and three post-communist (Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic) countries and it can only be regretted that the volume does not have more chapters.

The Introduction is followed by nine contributions, which are organized in a loose chronological order and, last but not least, has an Epilogue by Ronnie Po-chia Hsia. The first chapter by Maria Crăciun explores the piety of the urbanized German speaking Transylvanian laity and how it was influenced by the mendicants, primarily by Dominicans and Franciscans, in the period of 1450 to 1550. The study employs both visual and textual evidence as it explores the lay commissions of mendicant related pieces of art placed in parish churches and testamental bequests for mendicant churches.

In the next essay Marie-Madeleine de Cevins poses a question about possible influence of Franciscans on popular piety in the Hungarian kingdom at the end of the fifteenth century. To explore this issue she uses as her main sources the sermon collections of two famous Franciscan preachers, Pelbart of Temesvár and Osvald of Laskó, and arrives at the conclusion that ‘at the time of their production, the piety they expressed was more programmatic than actual’ (p. 90).

The chapter by Carmen Florea focuses on the so called third path, that is on the membership in what Florea calls ‘devotional associations’, such as confraternities, third orders and journeymen fellowships. Her study explores devotional associations connected with the Dominicans in urban centres in Transylvania within the context of the practice of charitable devotion and social networking.

Gabriella Erdélyi contributed with a highly interesting case study of an attempt to reform the convent in Körmend in western Hungary on the threshold of the Protestant reformation. She analyzes a trial over the Augustinian friary in the context of late medieval changes in lay religiosity and employs interpretative tools offered by economic anthropology as she argues that the Augustinian friars disturbed the economy of the sacred. Erdélyi emphasises that the friars failed to credibly fulfil their role of mediators with the sacred which was expected from them by the civic community and thus disturbed the balance in the rules of coexistence with the lay townspeople.

Whereas the preceding chapters focus on the era immediately before or after the Protestant Reformation, the following essays concentrate on the period after 1550. Rona Johnston Gordon explores the complex process of creating favourable circumstances for the post-reformation revitalization of the monasteries in Lower Austria within the complicated conditions of existing rights and privileges of both church and state authorities.

Elaine Fulton analyzes the role of the courtier and Rector of Vienna University Georg Eder in the lengthy and strenuous process of Jesuit establishment in the then largely Protestant capital of the Habsburg Composite state. Fulton argues that ‘in Georg Eder the Jesuits had found a man whose ability, position and passion meant that he not only made a significant contribution to their Viennese mission in its troubled early decades, but that he could on occasion do what they themselves either felt unwilling or unable to do’ (p. 189). Moreover, Fulton emphasises that the relationship between Eder and Jesuits was one of mutual aid and benefit.

In the subsequent chapter Christine Peters explores another example of an arduous Jesuit mission in the predominantly non-Catholic environment as she takes the reader to Transylvania in the 1580s. In the Post-Reformation conditions of disrupted diocesan and parish structures the first Jesuits could build on the continuity of lay Catholicism and on ‘a strong popular culture rooted in sacraments’ (p. 226). Nonetheless, Peters argues that the Jesuit mistreatment of rural subjects contributed to the overall failure of the first Jesuit mission.

Martin Elbel examines the impact of Franciscan pilgrimage upon lay society in the Bohemian lands. Since the key concept of the volume is that of a community, it would have been interesting to connect the narrative more to this central notion and to test the idea of Benedict Anderson, that a pilgrimage is a realization of a sacred imagined community, an act which gives it concrete features.

Finally, Greta-Monica Miron explores the role of the Basilian monks in building the Transylvanian Uniate (i.e. Greek-Catholic) church and in forging the identity of this new religious community in the course of the eighteenth century.

Ronnie Po-chia Hsia conceives his Epilogue as a brief tour in front of a triptych and in this figurative way he offers a valuable overview of the whole volume. This collection of essays also points towards further needed research with its omissions: it geography gravitates towards the Hungarian kingdom and particularly Transylvania which naturally leads to downplaying other regions of East Central Europe. Regarding the concrete religious orders, the volume is dominated by Franciscans and Jesuits and although they represent key forces in the late Middle Ages and confessional era, respectively, there were religious institutions which definitely deserve deeper attention in the future, such as the Paulines, one of the few orders which originated in conditions of East Central Europe, or the Trinitarians, whose mission of ransoming Christians held captives by non-Christians made them a highly relevant and flowering order in this part of Europe.

Despite these points, Communities of Devotionoffers a fascinating insight into the role of religious orders in various social environments of East Central Europe and provides a valuable basis for further research in the field of shared lay and regular devotional cultures.[8]

[1]Silvia Evangelisti, ‘Wives, Widows, and Brides of Christ. Marriage and the Convent in the Historiography of Early Modern’, 43:3 The Historical Journal  (2000), 233−247.

[2]June L. Mecham, ‘Cooperative Piety among Monastic and Secular Women in Late Medieval Germany’, 88:4 Church History and Religious Culture(2008), 581−611.

[3]Veronika Čapská, Ellinor Forster,  Janine Ch. Maegraith and Christine Schneider (eds.), Between Revival and Uncertainty. Monastic and Secular Female Communities in Central Europe in the Long Eighteenth Century/ Zwischen Aufbruch und Ungewissheit. Klösterliche und weltliche Frauengemeinschaften in Zentraleuropa im „langen“ 18. Jahrhundert(Opava: Silesian University 2012).

[4]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism(London: Verso1991).

[5]Anthony P. Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community(London: Tavistock 1985).

[6]Max Weber,Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie(Tübingen: Mohr 1980).

[7]Michel Foucault,‘Technologies of the Self’inTechnologies of the Self: a seminar with Michel Foucault, eds. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 1988), pp. 16−49.