Popularizing Reform in Early Modern Europe

12 April 2018 - 13 April 2018

King's College, Cambridge

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Iain Fenlon (University of Cambridge)

Inga Mai Groote (University of Heidelberg)



Beyond the most obvious characteristics of the Reformation, the long sixteenth century also faced a number of fundamental reforms in the religious, legal, and economic fields. This workshop explores how such ideas and programmes were actually implemented on a local basis. Traditional discussions of these processes often feature either a grass-roots movement based upon the ideas of a single personality or group of activists, or a top-down procedure principally driven by governmental authorities. Both these versions share a focus on normative sources, and judge implementation by the extent of the gap between expectation ('theory') and actual lived 'practice'. Within this framework, rituals, literary and practical texts, and the arts have primarily been seen as modes of propaganda, and its audience as passive. While nobody will deny such stabilizing and legitimizing effects, the transformative potential of popularization has so far been underestimated.

The workshop aims to consider, from a deliberately interdisciplinary perspective, the ways in which reform ideas were popularized, through both written and performed media, as a distinctive mode of implementation. Successful popularization rested much less upon actual normative expertise or authority, but rather constituted an authority in its own right, even if frequently quite distant from the dogmatic or systematic ideas that it attempted to popularize. New groups of experts and sites of communication were established in the course of this development, and in some cases novel expertise as well.

Transformations of popular rituals both religious and civic, such as processions, constitute one arena in which these phenomena can be observed in some detail. In the field of religious instruction, musical and textual repertories were created that help to disseminate and to impart new theological ideas; their use by the different confessions is connected to a variety of spaces, both private and public, where larger groups could interact. In the case of music, this process led to the establishment of the figure of the teacher-cantor in Protestant regions. In that of jurisprudence, transformations of law as enshrined in town ordinances in both Germany and the Low Countries favoured not only the careers of academically-trained jurists, but also the production of popularizing manuals and handbooks which sought to harmonize the spheres of learned jurisprudence and traditional law. In the field of medicine, customary treatments and learned medicine had to be harmonized and were controlled by physicians of different backgrounds. In these and other ways, the growing demand for knowledge and information encouraged specialized commentators to operate at a pragmatic level. This resulted in the widespread production of new types of popular encyclopedias, as well as handbooks and topical anthologies addressed to a wide readership. 




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and the Musikwissenschaftliches Institut, Universität Zürich.


Administrative assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk