2006-07 Symposium on Comparative Early Modern Legal History

Law, Religion, and Social Discipline in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Organized by Richard Ross, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

There has been much scholarship in the last generation on the intertwined use of law and religion in early modern Europe to “discipline” populations. Discipline in this context does not mean “social control” so much as an ambition to cultivate virtue, godliness, industry, and civility. The mechanisms of legal-religious discipline varied among countries, regions, and social groups and the effectiveness and novelty of these efforts have been debated. Curiosity about the nature and effects of early modern legal-religious discipline have animated studies of the English “reformation of manners and morals,” of Calvinist consistories and Scottish kirks, and of Continental and Irish “confessionalization.” Many of these works, particularly those under the rubric of confessionalization, have proceeded comparatively and inquired into the similarities and differences among the methods and implications of Calvinist, Lutheran, and post-Tridentine Catholic programs. On this view, criminal justice and police regulations, church courts and consistories, poor relief, censorship and confessional propaganda, manuals teaching proper behavior and private devotions, catechizing, the Inquisition, and ecclesiastical visitations served as techniques deployed, variously, by Calvinists, Lutherans, and Catholics pursuing parallel disciplinary agendas.

This work on early modern Europe suggests a valuable way to look at New World colonization, which presents a particularly rich site for the comparative study of linked legal-religious discipline. Comparisons might be made less among confessions than among empires. England, Spain, and France each worried about encouraging piety, industry, morality, and order among settlers whom they viewed as unruly, quick to violence, overly greedy, liable to cultural degeneration, and too ready to elevate short-term personal advantage over long-term communal and imperial goals. With varying degrees of commitment, each sought to Christianize, order, pacify, and “civilize” indigenous peoples and slaves. A comparative study of New World legal-religious disciplinary efforts opens up a host of questions. To what extent did the English, French, and Spanish empires see themselves as facing similar or different disciplinary challenges and to what extent did they employ similar or different techniques? Can one understand the seemingly disparate disciplinary institutions and practices of the English, French, and Spanish empires as functional substitutes? How did disciplinary techniques familiar from Europe require adaptation given colonial conditions-in particular, given the exigencies of territorial expansion, the existence of unprecedented racial and ethnic diversity, and the presence of forms of community and relations of domination unknown in Europe? In what ways did religious syncretism and notions of religious freedom coexist with, or flow out of, disciplinary efforts? What tensions emerged between the virtues that disciplinary programs were designed to encourage-for instance, between Christianization and civilization, or between piety and industry? How does the adoption of a comparative perspective alter inherited understandings of patterns of cooperation and rivalry among legal and religious authorities in the British, French, and Spanish empires? To what extent were disciplinary strategies developed in the colonies imported back into European metropoles? In what ways was the British empire a special case given its significant number of multi-confessional jurisdictions, for instance, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ireland, which set it apart from the confessional monopoly obtaining in the French and Spanish empires?

By encouraging a comparative perspective, the conference hopes to enrich, and test, claims about the nature, causes, and implications of legal-religious discipline made from within one national historiography. Contrasting multiple empires could reveal common sequences and dynamics or could highlight the unique and distinguishing features of a particular system liable to be overlooked if examined in isolation.

Panel 1: The Uses of Law and Religion in Justifying and Shaping Colonial Settlement

“Biblical vs. Legal Traditions of Colonial Territorial Possession in the New World”
Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, University of Texas at Austin

“Instilling Virtue in Early Modern English Populations”
Karen Kupperman, New York University

“From Ireland to North America? The Theory and Practice of Legal-Religious Discipline in a Comparative Perspective”
Ute Lotz-Heumann, Humboldt University, Germany

Commentator 1: Richard Kagan, Johns Hopkins University 
Commentator 2: Charles Cohen, University of Wisconsin, Madison 
Chair: Richard Ross, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Panel 2: Christianity and the Problem of “Civilizing” Africans in the New World

“The Paradox of Christian Orthodoxy: Discipline, Customs and Social Memory among New Spain’s Mulatos”
Herman Bennett, Rutgers University

“Rewriting God’s Law: Christianity and Slavery in the Protestant Americas”
Jon Sensbach, University of Florida

Commentator: Sarah Pearsall, Northwestern University 
Chair: Daniel Hamilton, Chicago-Kent College of Law

Panel 3: Calvinist Discipline: A Distinctive Tradition?

“Reform, Renewal, Religion and Social Discipline: Reflections of a Medievalist”
Charles Donahue, Jr., Harvard Law School

“Puritan Jurisprudence in Comparative Perspective: The Sources of ‘Intensity’”
Richard Ross, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Enforcement Mechanisms in Reformed Consistory Courts: Why the Scots Win the Prize in the Calvinist Disciplinary Campaign”
Margo Todd, University of Pennsylvania

Commentator 1: Philip Gorski, Yale University 
Commentator 2: Karl Shoemaker, University of Wisconsin- Madison 
Chair: Claire Priest, Northwestern University

Panel 4: Poor Relief and Marriage: Two Case Studies in Comparative Social and Religious Discipline

“Searching for the English Origins and Puritan Roots of New England’s Practice of Warning Out Strangers”
Cornelia Dayton, University of Connecticut, and Sharon Salinger, University of California, Irvine

“‘Hopes for Better Spouses?’ Pietists and Marriage: Revisiting the ‘Official’ Legal and Devotional History in the Early Modern Atlantic World”
Gregg Roeber, Pennsylvania State University

Commentator 1: Robert Kingdon, University of Wisconsin, Madison 
Commentator 2: Richard Helmholz, University of Chicago 
Chair: Bruce Smith, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign