This past week historians descended on Boston thicker than a Nor’easter snow storm! This is an enormous conference, not least because it is open to as wide a collection as possible of the fields and subfields under the history umbrella. In hundreds of workshops, innovative ideas are presented, discussed, have sex with each other and create new little ideas that will grow in the work and research of both the presenters and the audience. These are great moments for those of us in the field to develop professionally and grow in the field.
I have a couple of thoughts that I would like to share this week from the conference and which I will spread over a couple of posts.
Rhetorics of Reform and Medieval Religion
The Semiotics of Pious Reform and Insurgent Historiographies in Early Islam, Thomas N. Sizgorich, University of California at Irvine
A Conversation Across Centuries: Reforming the Secular Clergy in Western Christendom, 800-1200, Maureen C. Miller, University of California at Berkeley
Reform, and Ever Reforming: From “Movements” to Conflicts, from Persons to Institutions, from the Twelfth Century to the Fifteenth, John H. Van Engen, University of Notre Dame
Comment: Mayke de Jong, Universitiet Utrecht
I have been interested in various reform movements in the Medieval period, spending the most time with the Carolingians and the 11th century. In most cases, I was concerned with the intended reforms and not their relative success, in other words: trying to grasp what was intended in these reforms on the part of specific reformers though not necessarily how successful any actually were. The reason for this is obvious–we have the documentation for the reformers so we can make that effort to get inside their heads, but determining their successful or unsuccessful implementation is not as well-documented. But, this is where the challenge is and historians are remiss to ignore it. This was, to a large degree, the substance of the talks. The word “reform” has started to lose its currency in much the same way that the word “feudalism” has.
Whereas Miller turned to material culture to try to trace attempts at clerical reforms and actually ascertain to what degree the reforms were implemented, Van Engen discussed the difficulty in the idea of “reform” for an institution that should be continually devoted to self-reflection and, thus ideally, self-correction. The point is this: to really return a sense of substance to the word, it would behoove us to stop considering reform in terms of waves of movements, and instead focus on the changes that occurred (or didn’t) as a result of calls to reform. De Jong congratulated the presenters on this precise point when recalling the work of Robert Markus (recently deceased and remembered) who suggested that the real work for scholars would be to look at the spaces and places that changed and shifted in the Church’s history. (This is what he did so well in The End of Ancient Christianity.)
Without this revision to our approach, the word “reform” seems to require definition and explanation every time it is used. It also means that we need to leave behind the purely intellectual history of most previous reform discussions and try to tease out the actual effects of these propositions on the ground.
This is what Miller did in her presentation regarding the priestly vestments and their evolution through the period of the 800-1200 reform movements, seeking evidence of these alterations in the material culture–a challenging task given the limited number of sample artifacts. Her project is clearly attempting to rectify not only the problems with our discussions about reforms but also the means by which we gain insight to movement on the ground. In addition to the vestments, she made use of the regional liturgical legislation as a method for inter-textual reading against the legislation that was coming out of Rome which faced unique challenges that were not experienced in most regional churches.
Van Engen compared the resistance to these movements among the clergy as being frequently resisted among large segments of the targeted population to a hypothetical reform in academia wherein professors would lose their offices and instead congregate together as a return to academia’s purer roots! Given that, it seems worthwhile to identify actual successes or setback in such programs.