Confessional Mobility and English Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe
By Lisbeth Corens
OUP, 256pp, £60/$73.96
This monograph deals with English Catholics’ presence on (and connections with) the European continent after the Protestant Reformation. The book’s content covers mainly the period 1660-1720, although each chapter begins with a contextualising overview of its topic from the Elizabethan period onward.
As the title indicates, Corens seeks to move away from discussing English Catholic “exile”, which she argues is a paradigm of passivity, victimhood and stasis. She prefers the term “expatriates” and argues for the phrase “confessional mobility”. The aim is to acknowledge not only that expatriate experiences could be positive, but that they were often purposeful and active – and also to take into account the fluidity of the phenomenon, whereby Catholics moved back and forth between England and the continent, as did their letters, money and books. Of course, Corens does not deny that “exile” – both symbolically and as experience – was also part of English Catholic history.
The book is divided by themes, each focused on one type of expatriate (although these categories are presented as porous and overlapping): the exile; the fugitive; the educational traveller; the pilgrim; the intercessor; and the record-keeper.
Repeated themes include the purposeful transience of many English Catholics sojourning abroad – from young people (male and female) attending school and then returning home, to the convents and monasteries which constantly prayed, hoped and prepared for an eventual return home. Much English Catholic “exile” was thus not an acceptance of Protestant supremacy in England, but part of a project to end it. Corens draws on the recent blossoming of research into English religious houses in discussing the role of “the intercessor”, showing a sensitivity to Catholic spirituality in emphasising the self-perception of cloistered contemplatives as participating in the conversion of England through prayer – as well as through writing, translating and record-keeping.
The author is keen to emphasise that English Catholicism was not “territorial” since it was dispersed geographically and was to an extent an “imagined community” subsisting in shared beliefs, aims, cultural practices and mutual prayers. Yet it was very much national: English Catholics abroad joined English convents, schools, colleges and confraternities, and while they valued interaction with host societies, they resisted integration.
At times the writing slips into jargon, as during an otherwise interesting section on the political rhetoric of travel passes.
Sometimes, as historians often do, Corens overplays her thesis: for example, she is insistent that the English Bridgettine nuns of Syon (who eventually settled in Lisbon) saw their journeyings as “pilgrimage” more than “exile”. Yet the primary source she quotes in that paragraph uses the word “exile” three times.
No book is without flaws, but this one is a valuable contribution to its scholarly field, while containing much material to fascinate the general reader.
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