Edinburgh Research Explorer

Prof Stephen Bowd

Personal Chair of Early Modern History

Willingness to take PhD students: Yes

Renaissance Italy; Catholicism, c. 1450-c.1650

Biography

Informed by the archives of Venice, Florence and Rome I have interpreted ‘religion’ in the broadest sense to encompass beliefs and practices, as well as social and political concerns. Accordingly, in my work on Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), a leading sixteenth-century church reformer, I have outlined how the ideal of a united Christendom and the Venetian model of political and religious harmony were linked and promoted as solutions to the ‘failure of nerve’ in Italian society after the French invasion of 1494. Contarini’s close friend Vincenzo Querini (1479-1514), a Venetian nobleman who became a hermit, was the subject of my first book: Reform before the Reformation: Vincenzo Querini and the Religious Renaissance in Italy. Querini’s attempts to reform himself, the Catholic Church, and Christendom are of interest to historians working on the history of the early modern church since he employed a range of scriptural, humanist, conciliar, monastic, and mystical methods that had medieval antecedents but were also imitated by reformers after the Reformation. On this basis, and in much subsequent work, I have sought to revise the traditional narrative of Reformation and Counter-Reformation and have concluded that between c.1400 and c.1550 there was an unbroken and increasingly popular search for reform and spiritual renewal drawing on the medieval traditions and institutions of the Church, especially monasticism and apocalypticism.

Contarini, Querini and many of their contemporaries lived in an age that was ‘semiotically aroused’ (to quote the medievalist Richard Landes); that is to say, alert to the signs of the Apocalypse. I have explored the interest in prophecy expressed by Italian men and women and have considered attempts to channel millenarianism into socially safe expressions of piety. This drive to control the supernatural was part of a broader concern about the spread of ‘superstition’, the occult and witchcraft in Renaissance Italy. In papers presented at the conference on superstition that I organized in 2001 as well as at a Past and Present conference on the same subject in 2005 scholars surveyed a wide range of late medieval and early modern supernatural and natural beliefs. My own contributions to these events focused attention on the social, religious, and political roots of the ‘occult’ and outlined how it formed an essential and contested part of everyday beliefs and practices. I have extended my interest in this field to sixteenth-century England with three articles exploring the life and work of John Dee, who was characterised as ‘the arch-conjuror of England’ and hated by godlier sort of Protestant for his religious conformity while warden in Manchester.

My interest in Italian religious and cultural history has continued in the form of collaborative efforts to translate and edit works by the humanists who lived in the Venetian mainland empire. These translations are related to my interest in religion and culture since they illuminate moral concerns and legislation about funerals and clothing in the city of Brescia, and elsewhere in Italy, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Building on this research I completed a second book: Venice’s Most Loyal City: Civic Identity in Renaissance Brescia in which I explore the intertwined nature of political, religious, and cultural life in the most populous and prosperous city of the Venetian empire. This is the first historical study in English of this city and region during c.1400-c.1550 and was published in 2010 by Harvard University Press as the second work to appear in the new series ‘I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance’ edited by Edward Muir.

In the course of my work on the culture and society of Brescia I became interested in the Jewish community there and the impact upon them of the Jewish ‘blood libel’ whereby Jews were accused of murdering Christian children and consuming their blood. I co-edited a second scholarly edition of texts, this time of work by Italian humanists on the supposed murder in 1475 of a boy called Simon by Jews in the city of Trent. In the introduction to ‘On everyone’s lips’: Humanists, Jews, and the Tale of Simon of Trent (2012) I discuss this case and some important but previously neglected aspects of humanist writing, notably the anti-Jewish polemic and the saint’s life. I began work on a more general study of Italian humanist texts about Jews and Judaic culture in 2011. This project – initially funded by a British Academy – examined the works of Italian humanists in order to understand how Christians interacted with Jews and interpreted Jewish culture. It has resulted in several publications and a public online resource to encourage and aid further research: http://datashare.is.ed.ac.uk/handle/10283/2070

Debates about the humanity of Jews, who were thought to lack reason and were therefore more completely bestial than Christians, first led me to consider animal and human relations in Renaissance Italy. It was Italian humanists who considered the nature of humanity, especially the ‘dignity of man’, and the human relationship with animals early, extensively and with considerable European influence. Renaissance humanists recovered ancient texts and with them discovered a range of ethical stances towards animals that may have aided the emergence of new sensibilities and sensitivities towards animals. These discussions were influenced by colonisation or contact with other peoples around the world, and they have significantly contributed to many modern concerns with, and categorisations of humans and animals. In a number of conferences and workshops, as well as in a special issue of Renaissance Studies on ‘The Animal in Renaissance Italy’, co-edited with Dr Sarah Cockram (Edinburgh) I have promoted the exploration of evidence for animal-human relations and encouraged scholars to consider a range of key questions about animal-human interaction. I will continue to explore some of these questions in my own work as I address the social and cultural history of warfare and address justifications for violence, which could often turn on perceptions of human bestiality or bestial humanity.

The Italian Wars (1494-1559) were notable for their large pitched battles and heavy military casualties. They were also marked by episodes of mass murder of civilians, often consequent to the fall of a besieged town, which have been largely unexplored by historians. My reading of archival and published sources suggests that the violence of early modern sacks depended on the authorisation and routinisation of actions with the sanction of laws and military customs. These acts, like their modern genocidal analogues, also owed much to the dehumanisation of the enemy and the frustration of unpaid soldiers, especially as the desire for revenge grew in soldiers bombarded during a siege, or grieving for comrades lost at the large and indiscriminate slaughters of battle. It seems that the recollection and presentation of these traumatic events posed a particular challenge for diarists, chroniclers, and artists, as well as for the victims themselves, which they met with a variety of techniques including the adoption of narratives of chivalry or martyrdom, and by silence or self-censorship.  Thanks to the Leverhulme Trust I spent 2016-17 working on a book about mass murder of civilians in sacks during the Italian Wars.

Research outputs

  1. Simon of Trent

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionary

  2. Why mass murder happened

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)

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Research activities & awards

  1. Shadow Agents of War

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in workshop, seminar, course

  2. 'Peasant Resistance to the Gambara Clan during the Italian Wars’

    Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesInvited talk

  3. 'Agents in Times of War'

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in workshop, seminar, course

View all (8) »

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