New publication on Domestic Devotions in Medieval and Early Modern Europe


Posted 01st April

As we have recently seen, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, places of worship across the world have had to close their doors and, to prevent further infection, faith communities can no longer gather for communal worship in person. In this new reality, daily religious practices in the home have assumed a renewed significance in nourishing the faith lives of the household. The current crisis has made it ever more necessary that the concept of the “domestic church” come into its own.

It is particularly apt, then, that a new collection of articles on Domestic Devotion in Medieval and Early Modern Europe has just been edited by Prof. Salvador Ryan. The articles appear in a special issue of the open-access, peer-reviewed, online journal Religions for which Prof. Ryan has acted as guest editor.

The special issue focuses on lived religion and devotional practices as found in the domestic settings of late medieval and early modern Europe. More particularly, it investigates to what degree the experience of personal or familial religious practice in the domestic realm and the more public expression of faith in liturgical or communal settings intersected. The special issue has a broad geographical range (including articles on England, the Low Countries, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Catalonia, Italy, Russia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Turkey) and spans practices relating to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The special issue can be freely accessed through the following link:

A short summary of the articles and authors follows:

Albert Kohn uses Hebrew texts from thirteenth-century Southern Germany, primarily Sefer Hasidim, to analyze the role of beds in shaping medieval domestic devotion and to show how Jewish notions about the social, moral, and sexual significance of the bed also reflect those identified in late medieval Christian culture. Ragnhild M. Bø explores sensorial engagements with religious artefacts in medieval Norway. Juliana Dresvina’s article traces the visual sources of the English mystic Julian of Norwich’s (1343–after 1416) Revelations or Showings, and suggests that many of them come from familiar everyday devotional objects such as Psalters, Books of Hours, or rosary beads. It approaches Julian’s text from the perspective of neuromedievalism, combining more familiar textual analysis with some recent findings in clinical psychology and neuroscience. Matko Matija Marušić explores domestic devotional practices in Ragusa (modern day Dubrovnik) from the late-thirteenth through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Three aspects are analysed in his essay: privately owned chapels—adjoined to the dwellings of urban nobility, prayer areas and holy images inside the houses, and relics in the possession of individuals. Marta Crispí examines domestic devotion in Catalonia in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, based on the information provided by numerous post-mortem inventories and texts written by contemporary spiritual authors. Karen Ralph considers the major cycles of illumination in two Books of Hours belonging to Thomas Butler, seventh Earl of Ormond (c.1424–1515). The article concludes that the iconography of the two manuscripts reflects the personal and familial piety of the patron and was designed to act as a tool in the practice of devotion.

Anna Dlabačová studies the role of the earliest books printed in the Dutch vernacular in the religious practice of lay individuals and the devout home. These books bridged the gap between catechetical instruction and the private home, literally bringing home many of the ideals and instructions that the clergy would have offered in church and thus increasingly ‘textualizing’ the lives of the late medieval laity. Catherine Lawless discusses domestic devotions by framing them in terms of devotions carried out in the home. It examines how women were advised spiritually by mendicant friars on how to lead a Christian life according to their status as wives, widows or virgins. Sarah Blick uses material culture to examine late medieval domestic devotional practices. These survivals ranged from the very fine examples to their low-quality, mass-produced counterparts, demonstrating that similar devotional interests and practices spanned all social strata. They included pilgrim badges; amulets inscribed with sacred names or prayers; three-dimensional figures; tiny folding pewter triptychs or diptychs; lockets, chains and cylinders; and even bells, whistles and rattles which could acquire a quasi-devotional function. Margarita Voulgaropoulou’s contribution, on icons in the late medieval and early modern Adriatic, examines how icon veneration became deeply rooted in the Catholic societies of the broad Adriatic region, and particularly in domestic households. However, some important crossovers can be identified, especially in instances where these household icons were donated to churches as votive offerings and therefore entered another devotional space as a result, becoming focal points of more public devotion.

Kaja Merete Haug Hagen examines a late medieval paper amulet containing prayers to St Dorothy and the Holy Cross which was found under the floorboards in a demolished part of a medieval wooden stave church in Torpo, Norway. From the perspective of materiality and sensory-based religious practices, this article explores the connection between the textual amulet found in Torpo and the now-lost large wooden cross in Torpo church, and to crosses believed to be wonderworking or miraculous in its proximity. Zuzanna Sarnecka turns her attention to the function of small-scale maiolica sanctuaries and chapels created in Italy in the sixteenth century. The so-called eremi encouraged a multisensory engagement of the faithful with complex structures that included receptacles for holy water, openings for the burning of incense, and moveable parts. Focussing on the response to the Vatican Pietà and perversely using as a point of departure a 1549 remark on Michelangelo as an “inventor of filth”, Grażyna Jurkowlaniec aims to present Michelangelo as an involuntary inventor of devotional images. The article explores hitherto unconsidered aspects of the reception of the Vatican Pietà from the mid-sixteenth into the early seventeenth century. Milena Ulčar, focusing on the early modern Bay of Kotor, in modern-day Montenegro, explores how the use of illegally acquired body parts (through grave exhumation, for example) for healing in the domestic sphere mirrored the function and use of official saints’ relics in more controlled ecclesiastical settings.

Examining Arabic texts of the Ottoman period, Torsten Wollina shows how appropriating the margins and blank spaces for notes of a sacred or revered text with one’s own domestic or family life, any ‘academic’ or ‘religious’ manuscript could be turned into an object of domestic devotion. Placing notes—and thus the names of dear ones—in close proximity to revered texts and the handwriting of esteemed individuals was in itself an aim of a devotional practice. Jonathan Parkes Allen focuses on the important intersections of the domestic with both shrine-visitation and Muḥammad-centered devotion as visible in the early modern Ottoman lands, with a primary emphasis on the eighteenth century. While saints’ shrines were communal and “public” in nature, a range of attitudes and practices associated with them, recoverable through surviving physical evidence, travel literature, and hagiography, reveal their construction as domestic spaces of a different sort, appearing to pious visitors as the “home” of the entombed saint through such routes as wall-writing, gender-mixing, and dream encounters. Devotion to Muḥammad, on the other hand, while having many communal manifestations, was also deeply rooted in the domestic space of the household, in both prescription and practice. Jantina Ellens demonstrates the malleability of some textual aids to domestic devotion. She focuses her attention on Devotions in the Ancient Way of Offices, a Catholic primer first published in 1668, and which highlighted the continual usefulness of medieval devotional practice, but which was subsequently adapted for use by late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century English Protestants.

Terese Zachrisson, in an article on seventeenth-century Sweden, notes how it is a common saying in parts of rural Sweden, when discussing someone lacking in piety, that they went to neither church nor cross. This saying reflects the practice of placing shrines in the fields, along the roads and in the woods as a communal, semi-domestic, site that complemented official church space. In the remote woodland areas of Sweden, the distance between parish churches could be considerable, and many parishioners were not able to attend church on a regular, weekly basis. Here, then, parishioners could kneel and make their prayers when unable to attend church service. Aleksandra Sulikowska-Belczowska examines the role of domestic icons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a material foundation of the identity of the Old Believers movement in Russia, and how icons became a source of heated controversy between Old Believers and the Patriarch Nikon who forbade icons after the ‘western style’ to be painted or to be held in people’s houses. By way of a precise case study, i.e., Palazzo Scordia in Palermo (Sicily) in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Valeria Viola examines familial devotion and its relationship with parts of the house other than the chapel. It aims to problematize the issue of the devotional/non-devotional use of paintings inside the household.


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