Friday, December 18, 2015

Franco Mormando's "The Preacher's Demons": Book Review

The Preacher's Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld ...

Bernardino of Siena was an extraordinarily popular preacher during the first half of the thirteenth century. His fame exploded suddenly, and his sermons drew in many all over Italy. In spirited, earthy, conversational language, he urged his listeners to reform their lives in fidelity to the Catholic faith.

So far, nothing unsurprising. But Harvard historian Franco Mormando delves into the archives to go beyond hagiography. In this well-researched and accessibly narrated 1999 study, he presents a Franciscan friar who sought to suppress the freethinkers, whom he condemned as heretics and as witches--a latter category that his contemporaries in the crowds seemed less worried about than him.

Also, he combated the "sodomites," a blanket term that seems to call into scrutiny and damnation any who violated the strictly procreative and marital relations permitted the faithful. As with heretics, Mormando demonstrates how these relatively small elements threatened the social framework and religious power which orthodox teaching inculcated. He studies the sermons within their context and rather than selecting portions out of context, as many scholars do, he seeks a total understanding of the circumstances, despite a sketchy record of much of the saint's life and career, to relate this to us.

Finally, Mormando looks at the anti-semitic depictions Bernardino promoted. He finds a more varied picture. Some portions call on Catholics to love (in a general way) their Jewish neighbors and to help them; other sections castigate them in the all-too-familiar fashion. But the historical portrait is more nuanced here than Mormando's predecessors and indeed some of Bernardino's confreres in the mendicant orders have perpetrated. The saint wavered, thus. in how he advised regarding the Jews.

In closing, the historian finds the anxiety Bernardino conveyed emanated from his own heart. Left orphaned at a young age, raised among four domineering women, left to the care of the Franciscans, these factors may have marked him deeply. "Undisguised animal fear" drove the men and women of early Renaissance Italy, despite its many achievements, in ways that all of us also know all too well.
(Amazon US 12-9-15)

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