Windler, Christian

Zwischen Observanz und »Welt«

Religious Observance and the "World": Regular Clerics' Practices of Self-Positioning in the Long Seventeenth Century

Research Project at the Department for Early Modern History
October 2018 to September 2022
funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation

The importance of religious orders for the Catholic societies of the early modern period has often been emphasised in historical research. However and with the exception of the Jesuit order, their internal organisation, as well as their position within society, have seldom been systematically studied by newer approaches to the field. This project aims to tackle this gap in research by focusing on the Benedictines, the Cistercians and the Capuchins, who were as important as the Jesuits among the newly founded orders of the 16th century, but have received disproportionately less attention from scholars. The orders chosen represent various ways of organising the orders’ internal affairs, as well as varying relationships with secular subjects, rulers, and the papacy. The project builds on studies which have shown the polycentric character of the early modern Catholic Church and the diversity of local Christianities. It probes into the practices regular clerics used  to position themselves within their political and social environments. As a result, the project focuses, firstly, on the characteristics and the institutional grounding of the organisation of the orders and their monasteries, and, secondly, on how order communities interacted socially and politically with local communities, the Curia, and secular rulers. Thirdly, the project reveals the communicative practices members of religious orders tapped to increase their symbolic capital, drawing on their specific lifestyle as men of religion who had a direct impact on the salvation of the laity.

The project focuses on the area of the Old Swiss Confederacy between the foundation of the first Capuchin convents in the 1580s through to the early eighteenth century. This chronological frame has been chosen because the most important Catholic powers sought to broaden their influence during that period, allowing us to study the coexistence of various regional Catholicisms. While regular clerics needed to set themselves apart from Protestants, they also had to create arrangements  with them because they lived in close proximity. With its focus on the long seventeenth century the project ties  into previous research on confessionalisation and the controversies caused by these dynamics, as well as debates on the significance of the Council of Trent for early modern Catholicism. It enquires into how the characteristics of the different orders predetermined the interactions of their members with the laity. One working hypothesis is that the rule observance demanded by the Catholic reformation became a resource of legitimacy which could be deployed in various ways by clerical and secular actors and which facilitated the constant renegotiation of the roles of the religious orders within their shifting political, social, and religious contexts.