Roisin Cossar brings a new perspective to the history of the Christian church in fourteenth century Italy by examining how clerics managed efforts to reform their domestic lives in the decades after the arrival of the Black Death.
Priests at the end of the Middle Ages resembled their lay contemporaries as they entered into domestic relationships with women, fathered children, and took responsibility for managing households, or familiae. Cossar limns a complex portrait of daily life in the medieval clerical familia that traces the phases of its development. Many priests began their vocation as apprentices in the households of older clerics. In middle age, priests fully embraced the traditional role of paterfamilias—patriarchs with authority over their households, including servants and, especially in Venice, slaves. As fathers they endeavored to establish their illegitimate sons in a clerical family trade. They also used their legal knowledge to protect their female companions and children against a church that frowned on such domestic arrangements and actively sought to stamp them out.
Clerical Households in Late Medieval Italy refutes the longstanding charge that the late medieval clergy were corrupt, living licentious lives that failed to uphold priestly obligations. In fashioning a domestic culture that responded flexibly to their own needs, priests tempered the often unrealistic expectations of their superiors. Their response to the rigid demands of church reform allowed the church to maintain itself during a period of crisis and transition in European history.
This is a major contribution not only to the history of the late medieval family and the Italian church, but also to historical methodology. With her subtle analysis, Cossar persuades us that scholars must be attentive to archival documents as carefully crafted instruments of those who participated in their creation, rather than as transparent windows onto the past.
Cossar’s research has implications for our understanding of the state of the clergy and their relationship to the laity on the eve of the Reformation in Italy. It is a rich study based on testaments, inventories, and visitation records, and it is a rewarding read that will find a broad audience among not only historians of religion and of Italy, but also historians of other European areas.
An original and important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on clerical concubinage between the Gregorian reform and the Council of Trent and to the social history of late medieval Italy. Cossar’s exploration of the composition and dynamics of the household embraces all its components: the priest himself and his domestic partner, of course, but also their children, the priest’s mother, servants, and slaves. Specialists will welcome her arguments for treating archival records as crafted artifacts and seeing Venice as more closely resembling its neighbors on the north Italian mainland. All medievalists will want to take note of what Cossar has to say about church and religion, culture and society, families and households, in Italy in the half-century after the great pandemic of 1348.
- 240 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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