Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125-1325 / Edition 1

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We know much about the Italian city states—the “communes”—of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But historians have focused on their political accomplishments to the exclusion of their religious life, going so far as to call them “purely secular contrivances.” When religion is considered, the subjects are usually saints, heretics, theologians, and religious leaders, thereby ignoring the vast majority of those who lived in the communes. In Cities of God, Augustine Thompson gives a voice to the forgotten majority—orthodox lay people and those who ministered to them.

Thompson positions the Italian republics in sacred space and time. He maps their religious geography as it was expressed through political and voluntary associations, ecclesiastical and civil structures, common ritual life, lay saints, and miracle-working shrines. He takes the reader through the rituals and celebrations of the communal year, the people’s corporate and private experience of God, and the “liturgy” of death and remembrance. In the process he challenges a host of stereotypes about “orthodox” medieval religion, the Italian city-states, and the role of new religious movements in the world of Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante.

Cities of God is bold, revisionist history in the tradition of Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars. Drawing on a wide repertoire of ecclesiastical and secular sources, from city statutes and chronicles to saints’ lives and architecture, Thompson recaptures the religious origins and texture of the Italian republics and allows their inhabitants a spiritual voice that we have never heard before.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Using a wealth of evidence drawn from civic and ecclesiastical statues, tithe lists, saints’ lives, art, and architecture, Thompson reminds us that the urban environment was densely packed with expressions of orthodox religion. . . . This book is a stunning achievement. Not only is it a masterful study of the Italian church and lay religion, it calls into question prevailing views of communal society and challenges us to rethink the way we apply terms like ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ to medieval society.”
—David Foote, American Historical Review

“Augustine Thompson’s immensely scholarly work has enormous implications for our understanding of the western political legacy. He has successfully shown that the most democratic, the most participatory strand in the Italian civic republican legacy was a specifically Catholic one that was not at all neopagan nor secular in the modern sense. This demonstration should further disturb our lingering tendency to narrate the story of the last one thousand years as one in which forces of ‘progress’ gradually banish the gothic shadows.”
—John Milbank, Research Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics, University of Nottingham

“This brilliant, innovative, challenging, and often surprising book lays out every conceivable aspect of the religious lives of citizens of the medieval Italian commune. It is also a fascinating exposition of the unexpected ways in which civic communes of central and northern Italy from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century were indeed Cities of God.”
—William Bowsky, History: Reviews of New Books

“Augustine Thompson’s Cities of God provides a valuable overview of the religious lives of ordinary lay people in the towns of northern Italy during the central Middle Ages.”
—Maureen C. Miller, Ecclesiastical History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271029092
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 520
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Augustine Thompson, O.P. is Professor of Religious Studies and History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Revival Preachers and Politics in Thirteenth-Century Italy (1992) and, with James Gordley, Gratian: The Treatise on Laws with the Ordinary Gloss (1993).

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Table of Contents



Note on Style



Part I La Citade Sancta: Sacred Geography

1. The Mother Church

2. From Conversion to Community

3. The Holy City

4. Ordering Families, Neighborhoods, and Cities

5. Holy Persons and Holy Places

Part II Buoni Cattolici: Religious Observance

6. The City Worships

7. Feasting, Fasting, and Doing Penance

8. Resurrection and Renewal

9. Good Catholics at Prayer

10. World Without End. Amen.

Epilogue: Communal Piety and the Mendicants



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  • Posted July 10, 2010

    Distinquished Medievalist Reviews this book (not me)

    William M. Bowsky in "History: Review of New Books" 33.4

    This brilliant, innovative, challenging, and often surprising book lays out every conceiveable aspect of the religious lives of citizens of the medieval Italian commune. It is also a fascinating exposition of the unexpected ways in which civic communes of central and northern Italy from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century were indeed "cities of God."

    The golden age of free civic communes came to an end at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when many fell into the hands of lords and despots. While they might have retained the trappings of free republics, in reality those rulers were not interested in long-standing civic values. It was then that communal practices, interconnected values, and languages diverged from those of the church. The exception was Tuscany, where the change took place during the second half of the fourteenth century, when its civic communes also succumbed to princes and despots.

    To understand the structure of this book and the reasons for the sequence of its ten chapters and their contents, one must very carefully read the brief eight page introduction, as it reveals Augustine Thompson's aims and principal theses far more clearly and succinctly than they appear within the individual chapters.

    Church institutions and rituals were a major component of public life in the civic communes of medieval Italy. Thompson argues persuasively that far from being in conflict, religion and the medieval Italian civic republics were inextricably intertwined. He demonstrates that, surprisingly, very many allegedly purely civic practices (as well as civic language) were derived from religious ones. His contentions are supported by a variety of examples drawn from the histories of multiple cities.

    Thompson poses and answers a host of important questions on the basis of a broad knowledge of published and archival sources. A trained theologian, he paints both a theological and an institutional picture of the world that he is examining, a world not restricted to a single city or region, but one that ranges throughout much of the Italian peninsula. He neither focuses primarily upon church-state relations nor upon the upper or ruling classes of the civic communes. Thompson successfully centers upon the laity, that overwhelming majority of people below the upper ranks of communal society.

    Each chapter is separated into discrete subsections, although the connections between one sub-topic and the one that follows it are not always immediately apparent, which makes crucial a knowledge of the introduction. The book is enriched with numerous details unfamiliar to most readers, and Thompson offers explanations of their importance. If there seems to be less emphasis upon heresy and urban monasticism than one might expect, it is because Thompson wanted to maintain his tight focus upon the religious life of the laity.

    Conversi, or lay penitents, appear widely in medieval historical literature. Thompson's fulsome treatment of their history and roles in urban civic life, particularly in the chapter "From Conversion to Community," is the best to date.

    The myriad subjects that Thompson examines can barely be touched upon here. Included are the roles in civic religious life of processions, rituals, sanctity, marriage, hospitals, the Mass, and the divine office, to mention only a few.

    This broad overview hardly sug

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