Domestic piety: continuity and change

There aren’t many conferences which can coherently draw together historical topics over two millennia, but one of the most successful for many years has been the Ecclesiastical History Society. I’ve been a member for several years and in January this year I went off to their winter meeting on “Religion and the Household”, which comprised the following papers:

Julia Smith, “Christianity in the early medieval household: new approaches”.

Tara Hamling, “Living with the Bible in post-Reformation England: the materiality of text, image and object in domestic life”.

Callum Brown, “Losing religion: the breakdown of the family chain of memory since 1950”.

I’ll start with Callum Brown’s paper, which, it’s fair to say, was not particularly well-received. The idea of household irreligion was a very interesting one and Callum has done a lot of work on twentieth-century secularisation, especially as it relates to gender. He started off talking about the inter-relation of loss of religion and demographic change. He cited Danièle Hervieu-Léger and her theory of the collapse of the “chain of memory”, in which religious rituals transmitted via the family collapse in the 1960s, at the same time as there are dramatic changes to the nuclear family (liberalisation of divorce laws, the availability of contraception and abortion and a rise in illegitimacy). He contrasted Hervieu-Léger’s emphasis on belonging rather than believing (where religious practices continuing despite a decline in faith) with Grace Davie’s ideas of “believing but not belonging”, where churches and Christians perform tasks (such as prayer and good works) vicariously for the majority of the population.

He then followed this up with some interesting statistics on what he called “hyper-secularisation”, especially the “rise of the nones”, those who say in surveys that they have no religion (i.e. without even a cultural attachment to Christianity). This group is growing substantially in all the English-speaking countries he’s looked at, including the US; one of the most interesting statistics was that New Zealand is now the most secular place in the world, with “nones” levelling off towards 35%.

He then moved onto demography and the work of Ron Lesthaeghe on the Second Demographic Transformation, marked by “sustained sub-replacement fertility, a multitude of living arrangements other than marriage, the disconnection between marriage and procreation, and no stationary population.”

Callum was arguing that there was a considerable correlation between secularisation and such non-traditional family arrangements (though he wasn’t saying which way the causation worked, which is probably wise). And he was particularly interested in how religion was lost in different ways by men and women, which was where we got onto the part of his paper that was less satisfactory. He was playing sections from oral history interviews with people who had lost their religion. In fact, it appears from his website that these were originally taken from a project interviewing those had now become humanists, which is a much more specific sub-group. Callum did point out the paradox that it was very hard to interview those were indifferent towards religion, because by definition, if you interviewed them they tended to become less indifferent. But I still think that by not explaining this background directly, he weakened his argument.

Callum’s main point from the interviews was that women’s families played an important role in a way that they rarely did in male testimony. Women didn’t normally claim to have read their way out of religion, and didn’t refer to science or philosophy. The chain of memory worked in a very different way for men and women, although he didn’t really tease out why this was so. There are complex issues here about whether women respond differently to male interviewers than men do, whether there’s a particular gendered discourse of “rational” atheism that men are keen to adopt, or the extent to which men and women do experience religion differently. (I’d note that any religion which treats men and women differently is almost certainly going to produce different reactions in them). Overall, beyond the problems with the selection of the interviewees, I didn’t think that the oral history and the statistical side quite came together in this paper, which was frustrating, since I’ve found Callum’s work enlightening previously.

I not only enjoyed the other two papers (by Julia and Tara Hamiling) more, but felt they went very well together. Julia was focusing on change in practices regarding relics, as part of a larger project she started on them a couple of years ago. She began with the account of the martyrdom of St Adrian of Nicomedia, whose wife then kept his severed hand in her bedroom.

Adrian and Natalia

Adrian and Natalia before his dismemberment

Julia then talked about the continued role of the bedroom as a place of vision and relic-keeping, a remnant of a fifth-century Christianity that was household, rather than church-based. Early medieval elite buildings lacked the multiple rooms of the classical Roman villa, instead essentially being a large hall with a few sleeping areas. These spaces were not strictly private; kings such as Alfred, for example, might use them for hearing legal cases. But they were also places for sexual temptation, evil dreams, sickness and death, places that needed the protection that relics could provide. We also have information about relics being worn on chains round someone’s neck and Gregory of Tours carried some in his pockets. Julia talked of “tactile piety”, and the private ownership of relics (which might only be tiny fragments).

There’s a different configuration, however, in the Carolingian period. There were a few Carolingian ecclesiastics hostile to relics and more who saw carrying or wearing them as inappropriate. Miracles involving relics are now described as happening in churches or by relics sent into houses from churches. Relics that are “discovered” are taken to churches. Travellers might still have relics with them, but the shape of reliquaries also changed. From the Carolingian period onwards you often have caskets that could sit on an altar, rather than simply hung on a wall. They appear more often as status symbols, rather than purely personal possessions, as in the fifth century. All these changes are gradual and uneven. In particular, there’s still quite a lot of wearing relics in the High Middle Ages and complex boundaries between acceptable practices and what are regarded as amulets or charms. But the ways relics are displayed and used (and thus presumably thought about) don’t remain the same.

From early medieval tactile piety we moved six or seven centuries later, but stuck firmly to material culture for Tara Hamling’s paper. She was focusing on the use of the Bible as an object by people of the middling sort and started off by taking prayer out of the closet. Or more precisely, pointing out that the ideal of the closet as a dedicated private space where you could be alone with your Bible doesn’t really match with the architectural evidence. Such spaces are often remodelled, created via flimsy partitions, and often seem to have been used for safe storage of goods more than as a study. In addition, where there were closets, these would only have been accessible to the master and mistress of the house.

Tara instead looked for material evidence of other places for devotional practice within the household and comparing this to manuals of advice. These manuals include prayers for use on first waking and in one’s bed-chamber, for example, and she’d found one inventory of goods which included an old cushion in the upper chamber for morning and evening prayer. (As she pointed out, this showed that even “private” devotion could have a public nature to it, with the whole household aware of what was going on). Tara also suggested parallels between clothes chests decorated with Adam and Eve, and a “Prayer for Putting On of our Clothes” by Richard Day which contrasted Christ and Adam.

The godly household may have displayed their piety in many other ways. There’s evidence of the walls of rooms including friezes of texts with devotional inscriptions. Items on the dining table might have significance – some imported German pottery included Biblical scenes and Metropolitan slipware included a lot of inscriptions. Bibles themselves might be marked or annotated and some were displayed prominently in public rooms of the house, for example on desks in the hall and/or the parlour. There was also a vogue for the ornamenting of Bible covers, with amateur embroidered versions sometimes copying professional ones or using images inspired by prints within the Bible. Tara talked of an immersive environment of images and texts being created that aimed to convey core doctrinal ideas.

What connected all three papers, in the end, for me was the reminder of the tension between personal religion and official religion. In order to embed a religion in oneself, some kind of frequently repeated recalling of it is needed, beyond that of attendance at an external place of worship. Yet Protestantism, in particular, with its hostility to “ritual” and its emphasis on orthodox belief, makes such internalised devotion particularly hard to sustain. It’s easy to mock tacky religious products, but they do make more sense if placed within very ancient traditions of tactile piety, affective piety and the kind of aural/visual piety visible in Reformation households. Is part of the breakdown of the chain of memory possibly as much about rapidly changing aesthetics (e.g. a rejection of religiously inspired classical music) as about beliefs?


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