The first book to come out of Boydell & Brewer’s partnership with Durham University IMEMS Press, British and Irish Religious Orders in Europe, 1560–1800: Conventuals, Mendicants and Monastics in Motion demonstrates how, far from being peripheral, the stable communities of conventual religious in mainland Europe acted as important centres of religious and secular activity in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. Read more about the Catholicisms, c. 1450-1800 series.
‘Conventuals, Mendicants and Monastics in Motion’ is a combination that on first glance might appear ever so slightly odd. To begin with there’s that natural temptation to look upon convents and monasteries as ‘insular’ and ‘enclosed’ institutions, not only shielded from the events of the outside world, but whose inhabitants shied away from all things ‘secular’. Yet, as with most history, the reality is never quite as clear cut as it might first appear, a case in point brought to life in this recently published volume. British and Irish Religious Orders in Europe, 1560–1800: Conventuals, Mendicants and Monastics in Motion is a collection of twelve essays, each illustrating various aspects of the history of female and male British and Irish communities, for whom the concept of ‘motion’, either in a physical or metaphorical sense, played a pivotal role.
For those young men and women of Britain and Ireland with a vocation to the monastic life, there was only one option: to bid farewell to their homelands and join one of the many exiled religious communities spread across Europe’s Catholic states. What might come as a surprise to many though is that these religious houses, far from being inward-looking and closed off to the outside world, were in actual fact open and cosmopolitan, and important centres of religious and secular debate, with many of their members embracing the latest philosophical, political and religious movements of the day.
One of the global intellectual movements that many of these religious participated in was the Enlightenment. To some, ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Catholic’ might sound like strange bedfellows, yet the reality was that many religious wholeheartedly embraced the movement, participating in surprising ways. The ‘Director of Public Works for Salzburg’, and architect of the prince-archbishop’s Rococo Schloss Leopoldskron, for example, was in fact a Scottish Benedictine, Bernard Stuart. Similarly, it might raise an eyebrow to read that glass manufacturing in Bavaria was honed by one of Stuart’s confrères, Ildephonse Kennedy. Yet the volume is filled with such seemingly surprising stories: dead to the world these men and women certainly were not.
The volume has its roots in the biennial Early Modern British and Irish Catholicism conference, jointly organized by Durham University and the University of Notre Dame. One of the conference’s goals has always been to explore the connections between the centres and peripheries. British and Irish Catholicism has all too often been daubed with the ‘peripheral’ brush, branded as an insignificant and unimportant outlier on the European stage. Historians in recent times have readdressed this imprecision. Collectively, it was our intention to recapture the roles played by conventuals and monastics in this volume and recover their place in a historiography that was in danger of overlooking them. With this in mind we deliberately chose not include to include studies on the Jesuits, who have been over-represented in this historiography. One of the most striking examples of the periphery impacting the centre, and vice versa, comes in a chapter ‘Recycling an Island’s Past for a Global Catholicism’, which illustrates the impact that a small and seemingly insignificant group of Irish Franciscans had on the global Church. The lead actor in this chapter is an Irish Franciscan friar, Luke Wadding. From his base at the Irish College of St Isidore’s in Rome, Wadding used his influence to insert the Irish Church, a peripheral player, at the very centre of the global Church. Among his boasts, Wadding, seemingly unperturbed by the fact he was in actual fact Scottish, helped claim the medieval theologian and Doctor of the Church, John Duns Scotus as an Irishman. Similarly Wadding and his brother friars were successful in having the feast day of Ireland’s patron, Patrick, inserted in the Universal Church calendar: Ireland was now firmly located on the global stage.
Yet whilst ‘motion’ is the book’s overriding theme, there were constants that bound together all those under discussion. Apart from an understandable loyalty to their faith, an affinity to homelands pervaded these continental cloisters. But national sympathies sat alongside a commitment to the Church’s global reform movement, the Counter Reformation, with the local co-existing seamlessly alongside the international. An example of this harmony can be seen in the life of the enclosed English convents of northern France and Flanders. In these houses British and Irish nuns saw themselves not only as combatants in a global missionary effort but, as one chapter illustrates, –defiant loyalists to the Stuart cause – straying unrepentantly into the political world with neither geographical disconnect nor restrictions of enclosure proving a barrier to their participation.
One of the most striking themes to come from the volume is the importance that these convents and monasteries played in the transfer of ideas. The English Benedictine monks at Paris were a delightful example of this: their embrace of the ‘modern’ was not linked to religious or philosophical trends, but rather to the surprising field of horticulture: the monks were avid gardeners. St Edmund’s, located in the heart of the ‘Latin Quarter’, had close ties with the Sorbonne, with many of its brethren brushing shoulders with the French nation’s greatest minds. Out of this wonderful coexistence the monastery not only became a grateful recipient of the latest philosophical and scientific approaches, but as the monks ran a school for expatriate boys, they in turn acted as a vital conduit through which these ideas were transferred from the Continent to Britain and Ireland. A nice reminder that this ‘motion’ in which friars, monks and nuns were a part of was a two-way movement: the peripheries and centres interwoven.
This guest post was written by Cormac Begadon, the Sepulchrine Fellow in the History of Catholicism at the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University.