THE PREACHER'S DEMONS by Franco Mormando


Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy
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Mormando’s (Italian/Boston Coll.) survey of the 40-year preaching career of the Franciscan friar and Catholic saint Bernardino of Siena (1380—1444) is one of only a few book-length studies on this mouthpiece of medieval obscurantism. This book further dismantles the view of the early Italian Renaissance as an enlightened period, exposing the fundamental fears and insecurities of the Quattrocento (feminine magical power, paganism, the body and sexuality, and Christianity’s inherent limitations) through the prism of Bernardino’s sermons dealing with witchcraft, sodomites, and Jews. The friar’s passionate call to denounce witches and burn them at the stake rests upon folklore beliefs that attribute to witches a number of grave sins, including infanticide, blood-sucking, and even fornication with the Devil. Bernardino was just as adamant about eradicating sodomy, by which he understood any sexual activity not leading to procreation. Passing on to Bernardino’s third scapegoat, the Jews, Mormando runs into a problem. While he seeks to downplay somewhat the saint’s notorious anti-Semitism, he advances unconvincing evidence. Indeed, the friar emerges here as a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite, who repeatedly referred to the Jews as the chief enemies of Christianity and proscribed any social or business contact between them and his followers. He also spoke in favor of isolating the Jews and ordering them to wear distinguishing badges. As for Bernardino’s occasional adjurations to “love the Jew with a general love,” this was no more than lip service to an abstract principle of brotherly love and cannot attenuate his responsibility for spreading hostility toward Jews. Unfortunately, Mormando paints his picture of the Quattrocento exclusively though this preacher’s eyes, without presenting the popular reaction to his message. Contrary to the book’s professed goal, we learn more about the anxieties of Bernardino’s tormented psyche and the intolerant streak in Catholicism than about the social underworld of early Renaissance Italy.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-226-53854-0
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1999