Final Public Oral Exam: Madeline McMahon

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
June 7, 2021 - 10:00am
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

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


Anthony Grafton, adviser
Yaacob Dweck
Carolina Mangone
Hannah Marcus, Harvard University
Simon Ditchfield, University of York


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 were 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 radically changed present. This dissertation traces the history of an idea, episcopacy, as it was 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. The dissertation traces a cohort of bishops, connected by a dense network of correspondence: a Catholic republic of letters. Each bishop’s work was the product of many hands. Using a wide range of archival and printed 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 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. 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 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 in both early modern Catholicism and early modern Europe.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.