VHRN Book of the Week

From Penitence to Charity, By Barbara B. Diefendorf, 368 pages; 7 halftones; 6-1/8 x 9-1/4; ISBN13: 978-0-19-509583-8ISBN10: 0-19-509583-9

Winner of the J. Russell Major Prize of the American Historical Association

From Penitence to Charity radically revises our understanding of women’s place in the institutional and spiritual revival known as the Catholic Reformation. Focusing on Paris, where fifty new religious congregations for women were established in as many years, it examines women’s active role as founders and patrons of religious communities, as spiritual leaders within these communities, and as organizers of innovative forms of charitable assistance to the poor. Rejecting the too common view that the Catholic Reformation was a male-dominated movement whose principal impact on women was to control and confine them, the book shows how pious women played an instrumental role, working alongside–and sometimes in advance of–male reformers. At the same time, it establishes a new understanding of the chronology and character of France’s Catholic Reformation by locating the movement’s origins in a penitential spirituality rooted in the agonies of religious war. It argues that a powerful desire to appease the wrath of God through acts of heroic asceticism born of the wars did not subside with peace but, rather, found new outlets in the creation of austere, contemplative convents. Admiration for saintly ascetics prompted new vocations, and convents multiplied, as pious laywomen rushed to fund houses where, enjoying the special rights accorded founders, they might enter the cloister and participate in convent life. Penitential enthusiasm inevitably waned, while new social and economic tensions encouraged women to direct their piety toward different ends. By the 1630s, charitable service was supplanting penitential asceticism as the dominant spiritual mode. Capitalizing on the Council of Trent’s call to catechize an ignorant laity, pious women founded innovative new congregations to aid less favored members of their sex and established lay confraternities to serve society’s outcasts and the poor. Their efforts to provide war relief during the Fronde in particular deserve recognition.

From Penitence to Charity is an important work that goes far to explain the intense religious enthusiasm of the first half of the century of the saints and that shows the crucial role that elite women played in helping to define this spiritualityIt furthers our understanding of the roles that women played in early modern European society and reinforces our view of the Catholic Reformation as a movement profoundly shaped by lay involvement rather than engineered and imposed by clerics.”–Journal of Modern History

“Barbara Diefendorf’s new book on the leading role played by aristocratic and bourgeois women in the French Catholic revival marks the triumphant completion of a trilogy of books transformed our understanding of Paris in the era of the Catholic and Protestant Reformations. Diefendorf’s lucid and straightforward prose will ensure that the books becomes essential reading to students and scholars of the Counter-Reformation. This is women’s history at its best; rather than apply anachronistic interpretative models to slippery evidence, she builds strong narrative by letting female actors speak for themselves and in so doing she permits us to get as close as we can to their world, their experiences, and to the possibilities of female agency in the early modern public sphere.” —The Sixteenth Century Journal

“Relying on an impressive abundance of primary sources, printed and manuscript, Diefendorf identifies several developments during and just after the French wars of the later decades of the 1500s. This book will be very significant for historians of early modern France and for scholars interested in the interactions of religion, gender, and culture.”–Theological Studies

From Penitence to Charity is one of the most important studies of the Catholic Reform to date. This book will change our understanding of the reform movement and gender.”–Renaissance Quarterly

“This book will be very significant for historians of early modern France and for scholars interested in the interactions of religion, gender, and culture.”–Theological Studies

“To say that Barbara Diefendorf’s third monograph is her most significant contribution is saying something indeed. From Penitence to Charity bears all the hallmarks of Diefendorf’s fine scholarly hand: meticulous research, nuanced analysis, and narrative richness. It is, however, a more ambitious project, one that deftly weaves together gender, religion, economics, and politics to explain the spiritual renewal of the seventeenth century. In the process, Diefendorf rewrites the history of the Catholic Reformation in France, and, along with it, the spiritual life of women.”–H-France Review

“The first achievement of this refreshing book is to return to the forefront of scholarly minds the forgotten and overshadowed Parisian women who drove Catholic revival in their city and beyond during and after the Wars of Religion.”–The Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“Diefendorf argues for the enormously positive role of women during the formative years of the Catholic Reformation. She makes her case eloquently and well. Without their collaboration, that Reformation would have been a much different thing.”–The Catholic Historical Review

“[A] significant contribution to the larger story of the “feminization” of religion in France….It could be argued that the Catholic Reformation, instead of being a moment when men controlled and confined women, was a moment when some women imposed their vision of piety upon the church. Diefendorf has composed a very compelling and readable book that offers her audience an understanding of the changing meanings of piety in late sixteenth and early seventeeth-century France.”–American Historical Review

Product Details
368 pages; 7 halftones; 6-1/8 x 9-1/4; ISBN13: 978-0-19-509583-8ISBN10: 0-19-509583-9

About the Author(s)
Barbara B. Diefendorf is Professor of History at Boston University