Sacred Peripheries in the Early Modern Catholic World

AHA Session 86
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Fairfield Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Kenneth J. Andrien, Ohio State University
Nancy E. van Deusen, Queen's University

Session Abstract

This panel explores the many and diverse notions of the sacred and the significant role they played in 17th- and 18th-century Catholic lands, from the Americas to Europe.  The papers of this session make clear that in the early modern era local communities preferred and often took advantage of their own indigenous use of the sacred, manifested in objects, places, practices, and beliefs, as a means of creating social cohesion, defining cultural identity, and exerting local autonomy in the face of authority at the religious and political center.  At a time when the political authority of the state was intertwined with the religious authority of the Catholic Church, and when the chief aims of both church and state authority were to standardize notions of sacred into one mainstream or orthodox Catholic version, expressions of the sacred that diverged from those mandated at the center demonstrate both the peripheries of power in Catholic lands as well as the omnipresent tensions between the poles of Catholic authority and Catholic populace. 

Smidt’s “Sacred Shrines and Profane Parishes” exposes the defiance local parish priests faced when trying to mandate reform in the rural and urban regions of the Barcelona diocese, even when that reform program had the sponsorship of the Spanish monarchy and its upper clergy.  Through a study of letters written by individual parish priests reporting resistance at the local level of all ages, sexes, and professions, this paper reveals local conceptions of the sacred, the disparity between them and those common to the clergy, and the limits of monarchical authority even at the height of its consolidation in Spain. 

Wotherspoon’s “Contours of Lay Religious Practice in 17th-18th Century Chalma, Mexico” exposes the unique obstacles faced when trying to transplant Catholic notions of the sacred from European to American soil.  By focusing on sacred practices related to pilgrimage and lay hermits in Chalma in New Spain, Wotherspoon’s paper exposes the difficulties which Catholic authorities confronted in their desperate and incomplete attempts to create religious order from the ground up in Colonial Spanish America as well as the resulting inconsistent messages they conveyed on what was orthodox and sacred.

Noyes’ "Cheres reliques, chers oriflans" exposes the potential that the sacred has to express political opposition to the centralized state authority, here in the form of the Bourbon monarchy in 17th-century France.  The Ascension Day festivals Noyes studies reveal how processions, images, and local saints were employed to release frustration and voice opposition to the impositions of the French state and the perceived lack of control over local affairs.    

Directed towards an audience of those generally interested in popular religion and culture, this panel’s transatlantic coverage could also attract scholars who seek a transatlantic perspective in history.  While the Catholic nature and geo-political boundaries do not inherently limit the audience, scholars with specialized interests in Colonial Spanish America and Early Modern France and Spain would find the panel of interest since it shows the potential of the sacred to impact all facets of life.

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