Current project: Shepherding a Church in Crisis: Religious Life, Governance, and Knowledge in Early Modern Italy

The sixteenth-century Catholic Church was a church in crisis. In the years following the Council of Trent, it was also a church charged with intense optimism. Ecclesiastical leaders were confident that cultural and religious change was not only possible, but could be precisely directed. The Council tasked the church’s bishops with the burden of carrying out reform, and in so doing, rewrote their job description. Episcopacy was an ancient institution that had to be reimagined for a violently changed present: but what would it look like? Over 600 men in the sixteenth-century Catholic Church, and dozens more in other emerging religious confessions, confronted questions of what it meant to be a bishop as part of their daily experience. My project thus traces the history of an idea, episcopacy, as it was lived out and embodied by Italian bishops who, particularly in the generation after the Council, sought out new strategies and information to reconcile competing historical, legal, and liturgical traditions.

“Al Italie talketh,” reported one English traveler to the peninsula, about how the new Italian bishops acted like “the olde Saincts of the Primitive Church” come to life. In this dissertation, I focus on some of the most talked about: Carlo Borromeo of Milan, Gabriele Paleotti of Bologna, and Agostino Valier of Verona. But I also trace a larger cohort of like-minded individuals—from Corsica to Calabria— who to varying degrees coordinated their efforts to make their dioceses conform to the Council of Trent. They were connected by a dense network of correspondence: a Catholic republic of letters. Wherever possible, I have tried to reveal how each bishop’s work was the product of many hands: secretaries, vicar generals, nuns, scientists, and artists. Using letters, registers of expenses, manuscript drafts of works, and other sources, I show that the story of Counter-Reformation bishops is the history of a broader ecclesiastical culture that underwent drastic change—a culture that, in fact, bishops themselves consciously sought to shape even as they were embedded in it.

Methodologically, this dissertation makes a case for including administrative practices and religious devotion as part of intellectual history. Few scholars in Europe had as much practical impact as, say, Justus Lipsius, whose scholarship on ancient Roman military techniques was put to lethal use in the Dutch army. Yet bishops were scholars as well as religious administrators: their research, for instance, on late antique liturgical practices, could be made into reality in cathedral and parish church prayers and devotions. These reforms, for their part, inspired new inquiries of research. Finally, the central question of this dissertation—how bishops knew to pray, govern, or create libraries and archives during the ecclesiastical free-for-all following the Council of Trent—has broader implications. Epistemology in the early modern period was closely bound up with authority—the auctoritas of canonical texts, of legal precedents for jurisdiction, and of course that of authorities like bishops themselves. To investigate how bishops made epistemological judgments, often on the very sources for their knowledge about being a bishop, cuts to the heart of important debates about the creation and control of knowledge both in early modern Catholicism and early modern Europe.


The Libraries of Elizabethan Bishops

I have ongoing work on the libraries of Matthew Parker, Edmund Geste, John Jewel, Edmund Grindal, and others. I am interested in their methods of collecting printed books and manuscripts, and the ways in which they used their books for various political, historical, and confessional ends.


The Winthrop Family Library - A Collaborative Project


Past Projects


NYSL Exhibit: Readers Make their Mark

(co-curated with Frederic Clark and Erin McGuirl) “Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books at the New York Society Library.” Peluso Family Exhibition Gallery, New York Society Library. February 5 – August 15, 2015.