The Database Project

From autumn 2023, this blog is re-launched as a companion blog to the database project Diversitas religionum – Criticisms of Religious Orders in Medieval Europe. A Digital Repertory of Works and Manuscripts. The project is under construction, but the pre-launch version is online.

The Project: The relevance of criticisms of religious orders

The database project seeks to gather information and facilitate research on medieval sources documenting criticisms of religious orders during the medieval period. At the moment, the main focus lies on criticisms of the many new religious orders emerging in western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The starting point of the project is the hypothesis that this new diversity of the religious orders contributed significantly to the emergence of a specific critical discourse on religion and religious diversity in Western Europe. We already know that contemporaries noted and sometimes deplored the diversification of the orders as a ‘too great diversity’ (nimia diversitas religionum, nimia varietas religionum),  which led ecclesiastical regulators to prohibit the founding of further new orders in 1215. But the further inmplications – and the sheer volume, longevity and interconnectedness of this discourse – have not been studied exhaustively so far. The database aims to make such research possible. In theory, its reach could be extended to include earlier and later centuries and further regions.

Conceptually, the discourse and debates prompted by the multiplication of new religious orders revolved around the fundamental issues of religious diversity and difference: Confronted with a multiplicity of competing and often quarreling orders and groups, contemporaries necessarily questioned how far the legitimacy of religious lifestyles extended. Though both individuals cultivating the vita religiosa and the emerging religious orders were quite well respected throughout the medieval centuries, their multiplication, which was accompanied by mutual recriminations and conflicts, also inspired a crisis of confidence in the religious life, prompting critics to ask whether a lifestyle that appeared to be so mutable and contested could really offer a guarantee of salvation. Rivalry and competition over resources and patronage also contributed to a climate of mutual accusation and competing truth claims between different religious groups, leading to a relativization of the religious authority of various orders.

This also had consequences for communication and the way the religious life was perceived. Criticisms of religious orders at first often targeted very concrete issues or groups, and typically arose when religious actors aimed to reform religious lifestyles. But a critical discourse  surrounding the diverging religious orders began to question very fundamental assumptions from the twelfth century onwards: Clerics and laypeople who had so far been interested bystanders in intra-monastic reform debates appropriated and generalized many arguments and criticisms, turning them against whole religious orders or even the status group of the organized religious. Renewed bouts of conflicts arose during the rise of the mendicant orders of the thirteenth century, and prompted the translocation of formerly ecclesiastical debates into the urban public sphere. This led to the translation and adaptation of Latin material into many forms of more popular literature in the vernacular – particularly songs and poems, but also sophisticated literary satires and highly elaborate narrative epic. As a result, mixed audiences soon shared and discussed material which offered sophisticated scripts for the contestation and evaluation of competing religious claims, contributing substantially to the formation of a critical lay discourse evaluating the religious ‘options’ on offer in Latin Christianity and thus generating a language of difference attached to the new intra-religious plurality of religious observances.

In spite of their obvious relevance,  these issues so far lack coherent investigation. Criticisms of religious orders have typically been studied in isolation from each other, in separate research fields dedicated to specific religious orders, to lay religiosity, to forms of communication like vernacular satire or Latin scholarly questions, or finally to the intellectual traditions of ‘anticlericalism’ and ‘antifraternalism’. Even more problematically, some modern scholars who identified or sympathized with the medieval religious orders also devalued criticisms, casting doubt on their value and veracity. On a simple pragmatic level, finally, research and editions are disparate: Many relevant texts are edited in out-of-the-way publications and a handful remain unedited. Though some pioneer approaches have made headway, research has often been highly specialized and focused on individual works, manuscripts or persons, foregoing the chance to draw larger conclusions. For these reasons, we also lack syntheses tracing the relevant criticisms of religious orders across the centuries and debating them in the larger context of the evolution of religious debate culture. Some criticisms of religious orders have even been substantially undercounted.

To prepare a more coherent approach and interpretation, the database proposes to inventarize the relevant corpus of works and its manuscript transmission in small steps. Its aim is to offer metadata on relevant medieval ‘works’ (for the moment mainly texts) linked to metadata on relevant manuscripts and early prints, enriched as far as possible with informations about dating, authorship, content keywords, manuscripts and early prints, editions, and key research literature.  By offering this data in a csv format and through a user-friendly search interface currently hosted at diversitas.uni-muenster.de, the project  hopes to enable scholars from various disciplines and research fields interested in criticisms of religious orders to get an impression of the historical development of the discourse, to find starting points for their research, and to gauge the manuscript transmission of relevant works. The database first and foremost aims to document the substance and broad spectrum of relevant textual sources, to make relevant works and their transmission in manuscripts findable and discoverable.

The design of the database system and web interface were provided by teams of specialists at the SCDH Münster and the ULB Münster (see below) . Technically, the project  consists of a database backend (EasyDB), a semi-automated pipeline, and a web interface offering a user-friendly faceted search, programmed specifically for the project with ElasticSearch. By offering both the easy-to-use search engine and the enriched data, to be published in Linked Open Data formats according to FAIR criteria, the database also aims to enable easy access and possibilities of data reuse and visualization for researchers from various disciplines and research fields.

The Gathered Data: Background, Limits, and Plans for the Future

The database project grew from two overlapping research projects I led in the last decade: Most of the data were gathered during the work on the Dilthey Fellowhip “Diversitas religonum. Thirteenth-century Foundations of European Discourses of Religious Diversity”, funded generously by the Volkswagen Foundation and Fritz Thyssen Foundation, 2012-2019. The data modeling and setup of the database were conducted within the research project C3-17 “Observing religion. Criticisms and apology of religious diversity within Latin Christianity, c. 1100-1350”, a subproject of the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics. Dynamics of Tradition and Innovation” at the University of Münster, running from 2019 to 2023. Much of the data refinement, research and input was carried out by research assistant Nils Foege M.A. in 2022/3, who also contributed to the conceptualization of the database (begun with the support of student assistant Charlotte Feidicker in 2020). The shift towards digital research data and a database system was supported and enabled by IT developers and Digital Humanities specialists Dr. Immanuel Normann and Dennis Voltz of the Service Center for Digital Humanities (SCDH) at the University of Münster. Technical support is currently provided by the Collections Team of the University and State Library at Münster and the IT department.

Drawing on the advice of these and other contributors, a provisional plan for the publication and enlargement of the database in modular steps was developed. In spite of the aspirational title, it has been impossible to inventarize or even digitize all texts containing criticisms of medieval religious orders. Instead, the database aims to begin with two or three smaller thematic “collections” of about 20 to 50 works each:

  • A first collection is tentatively entitled “Debating the new religious diversity c. 1130-1200″ and will contain about 20 works focusing on the problem of the multiplication of religious orders in western Europe during the twelfth century.
  • A second collection will gather the criticism caused by the rise of the Cistercians as the most successful new order of the twelfth century, covering only Western Europe from c. 1100-1220.

This summer, I hope to post a description of our data model and extant content, to be followed by intermittent posts on individual works or particularly interesting manuscripts containing criticisms of the religious orders. Watch this space.

About myself: I am a medieval historian based at the University of Frankfurt am Main, Germany (see my website here). Based on the research projects listed above, I have worked on the controversies and polemics generated by the emergence of new religious orders during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries since about 2009. I am preparing a monograph on twelfth-century debates for publication, based on my 2022 habilitation thesis.  Besides aspects of medieval religion, such as religious conflicts and religious polemics (including inter-religious polemics), I am interested in medieval cultures of learning and in theories of history, particularly the relationship between sociology of religion and Medieval Studies.

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