Michael J. Halvorson and Karen E. Spierling, eds., Defining Community in Early Modern Europe, Ashgate, Aldershot and Burlington, 2008.

Michael J. Halvorson and Karen E. Spierling, eds., Defining Community in Early Modern Europe, Ashgate, Aldershot and Burlington, 2008. £65.00, ISBN 978-0-7546-6153-5 (hardback), pp. vii + 364.

Reviewed by: Jessica Harris, Queen Mary College, University of London, December 2010

The word “defining” in the title sets the tone for this incredibly varied and wide-ranging volume. The chapters in Defining Community in Early Modern Europetackle both the linguistic terms used to define the fluctuating and overlapping nature of “community” and the variety of models that can be described by this definition during the early modern period.  The book is very ambitious, bringing together works by scholars from different backgrounds which cover a huge range of geographical areas (France, the German Empire, Northern Europe and Italy) and a myriad of themes, religions, political groups, nations and peoples.

In the introduction, Karen E. Spierling and Michael J. Halvorson discuss the historiographical debate on community and the problematic nature of assigning such a definition. This is because the word “community”, despite providing an important linguistic framework, structural guide and a set of boundaries, can at the same time through its very nature, act as a linguistic constraint, over-simplifying and limiting discussions.  It can be stressed that this is an issue which perhaps cannot be resolved and therefore is a continuing theme throughout the book, as the scholars grapple with the desire to avoid ambiguity yet need to employ the word due to the existing discourse and a lack of alternative models.  Spierling and Halvorson give details of over a hundred years of the developing historiography on the question of defining community from Ferdinand Tönnies’ influential description of Gemeinschaft, the pre-modern, personal relationships which he contrasts with the modern, impersonal Gesellschaft(p. 3).  Later historiography of the 1960s and 70s began to focus on the development of communities during the Reformation and by the 1980s, greater archival work was being carried out to assess the effects of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on a wide-range of population groups and also to consider the popular and official reasons for reform.  This book looks to bring together a wide range of research and ideas on the definition of communities from across Central and Western Europe, using the rituals and changes to religion as a starting point for the discussions on the creation, identities, constraints and conflicts of early modern communities.

A key theme that recurs throughout Defining Communityis the concept of local and rural communities versus urban or national ones and the development and effect of reforming ideals on these different settings. Linked to this desire to separate types of community is the theory, first introduced by the nineteenth-century sociologist Georg Simmel, that communities can be seen as sets of overlapping circles, where boundaries and distinctions blur as commonalities such as location, religion or politics create ties between individuals or groups (p. 7). There is also an important discussion on the formation of communities running through the different chapters. In the introduction, this is talked about with regard to the edges and boundaries of communities, where conflict may be expected to occur.  However, Spierling and Halvorson argue that this was not always the case and that conflict could result from opposition to rules established by religious institutions or from rituals, which could just as easily unite and well as divide.

Other important themes that can be drawn out from this volume are the ideas of inclusion versus exclusion.  In the excellent second chapter, ‘Communities of Worship and the Reformed Churches of France’, Raymond A. Mentzer looks at the use of the Lord’s Supper, communal psalm singing, collective fasting, baptism, sermons, catechism and adult classes, liturgical rituals and funerary rites in holding together the French Protestant community (in opposition to Catholic beliefs and rituals).  He highlights the role played by these events in dictating the social calendar but also the way in which they acted to bring strays back to the flock: for example as the Lord’s Supper approached those that had been barred were given the chance to seek redemption or the way that the Church attempted to strengthen familial ties, mediating arguments and shaming those that did not comply (plus there was always the final resort of excommunication).  The part played by food in an event is also discussed by Steve Hindle in ‘Beating the Bounds of the Parish: Order, Memory, and Identity in the English Local Community, c. 1500-1700’.  This is a fascinating area for discussion: the promise of food, the shared experience of eating together and the importance of celebrating dates in the social or religious calendar commemorated whilst extending back to the past with the recreation of an important event that over time became ingrained in a community. The role of memory and commemoration is a common theme in the creation of communities: Susan R. Boettcher in her chapter ‘Late Sixteenth-Century Lutherans: A Community of Memory?’ discusses the way Lutherans looked back to shared historical experiences to withstand the opposition of the Old Church, and used art and architecture to project the new ideals and visual signs of the Reformation to contribute to a communal memory.

The third chapter by S. Amanda Eurich, ‘Between the Living and the Dead: Preserving Confessional Identity and Community in Early Modern France’, is well placed within this volume. It ties in with Mentzer’s work, looking at funerary rites and the role of wills in shaping the collective memory of the community.  Again, the need to “belong” was intertwined with the moral and spiritual dictates of the overarching religious framework (in this case, French Calvinism) and wills allowed the dead to sustain the living whilst commemorating God.

 Sarah E. Dinan’s chapter: ‘A Community of Active Religious Women’ will be of particular interest to historians of women religious.  The French Daughters of Charity was created after Trent and great care and tact was employed in setting up this community of women who provided direct help to the poor without being enclosed.  Dinan highlights the fascinating structure, social classes and hierarchy of this company where by 1633 elite women fulfilled the role of administrators, directing the younger women from lower social ranks who carried out the hands-on-work.  Of special relevance to this volume is the need for the women to define themselves and the community as something that did not threaten the orthodoxy of the Church: to create a definition that could explain and justify their need to exist outside the cloister.  The development of books of Rules, greater emphasis placed on virtues such as poverty and charity and the incorporation of the important figure of Louise de Marillac as a spiritual exemplar helped set guides and boundaries for the community. The use of ritual and also images, texts, relics, liturgy, shared events and letters recur throughout the chapters as was of enhancing or enforcing a communal spirit: this is not to say that these were always introduced without opposition, this is highlighted in John M. Frymire’s ‘Demonstrationes catholicae: Defining Communities through Counter-Reformation Rituals.’

The role of the insider and the outsider and the permeability of communities is also present in many of the chapters such as Kathleen M. Comerford’s ‘ Jesuits, Politics, and Heretics in Siena, Montepulciano and Lucca’ and Sean Cocco’s ‘Contesting Vesuvius and Claiming Naples’.  Karen E. Spierling in ‘The Complexity of Community in Reformation Geneva: The Case of the Lullin Family’ gives an account of how Jean Lullin moved from insider to outsider and then back again; Michael J. Halvorson looks at insiders and outsiders at the edges of two communities in ‘Lutherans Baptizing Jews: Examining Reports and Confessional Polemics from Reformation Germany’ and Claire S. Schen addresses penance and readmission into the community in ‘Breaching “Community” in Britain: Captives, Renegades, and the Redeemed’.

The idea that a community need not be constrained or defined by geographical location is highlighted by Dean Phillip Bell in the chapter ‘Jewish Communities in Central Europe in the Sixteenth Century’.  He writes “Jews did not all understand community in the same way” (p. 143). This chapter shows how ideas on community were not necessarily formalised but that it could be opposition that acted to determine the creation of a community: in this case it was often interactions with outsiders that defined Jewish communities.  Bell demonstrates how external authorities imposed administrative policies such as ghettoes or confederations of settlements which did result in a sense of community but one which was adaptable to new situations and the instabilities that dictated its very existence.

This volume is particularly suited to academics interested in this period, more so than for the general reader due to the complexity in assessing definitions of community.  At times it is difficult to switch between the more thematic essays and those which are microhistorical in approach: it may have been useful to group together the different methodologies. However, the number of chapters using case-studies would have resulted in such a divide being difficult to demarcate. It does mean that the introduction is vital in drawing out key themes and making comparisons between the findings but since this is such an ambitious work covering a huge range of examples, there is great scope here for comparative studies in the future.  The more community is discussed, the more apparent it becomes that it is an incredibly complex and multi-layered concept which definitely benefits from the interdisciplinary approach, as seen in this volume.  Here the scholars not only looked to define these very varied communities, they then interpreted and analysed them: drawing on models and concepts from sociology, anthropology and history to interpret the formation and perpetuation of communities in early modern Europe.