Janine Larmon Peterson on Late Medieval Italy

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We asked author Janine Larmon Peterson three questions about her book Suspect Saints and Holy Heretics: Disputed Sanctity and Communal Identity in Late Medieval Italy and her research on unofficial saints’ cults.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

The accounts that challenge traditional narratives are my favorite. The story of Meco del Sacco stands out. He was condemned three times but was let out on bail instead of executed. Why did local bishops and local monks shield him? What was the cause of a midnight raid on his buildings by local priests and inquisitors? How did a layperson of no fixed status or privilege travel from Ascoli to Avignon twice to appeal his convictions and win both times? Meco’s story is dramatic enough to rival any modern fiction. It offers a surprising glimpse into late medieval Italian society.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

It was only through my research that I thoroughly understood the value of a microhistorical approach in investigating Italian saints’ cults. My premise when I started writing was that the categories of “saint” and “heretic” were untenable. Showing how and why this was so was a main focus of the book. But what I came to realize is that conventional dichotomies such as “popular religion” and “civic religion,” and even non-controversial categories such as “laity” and “clergy,” simply don’t capture the complex and messy reality of late medieval religion and politics. Microhistories of individual Italian towns unlocked the bigger picture.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of medieval studies?

I hope that my book prompts more of a focus on grassroots movements and dialogue with modernists. The construction of local saints’ cults demonstrates “history from below.” My contribution to the discussion is arguing how local efforts challenged the erosion of traditional rights, rather than communities “resisting” some new hegemonic authority. I hope that the book provokes comparisons with other places and times. The examples present an opportunity for fruitful interrogation and collaboration with non-medieval and non-European historians and I look forward to future dialogues on these subjects.

Janine Larmon Peterson is an Associate Professor of History and the Coordinator of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY.  She serves as the Medieval Europe editor for The Database of Religious History and is on the advisory board of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship.

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