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I’ve finally gotten back to reading about early modern Europe lately, which I love. Don’t get me wrong, I can see why people would be interested in Nineteenth Century Europe but it’s not for me. I’m currently trying to finish a book I started before life got busy with moving to Brisbane, being pregnant and studying for uni. The book is about Savonarola and his place in Renaissance Italy.

This has led me to re-read some of my lecture & tutorial notes from a couple of years ago to refresh my mind as to how early modern Europeans thought and how they saw themselves and the world they inhabited. It’s so fascinating! But as always new questions started forming in my mind and I thought I’d outline them here so that those of you who know more than me in these areas can point me in the right direction of who or what to read next to help answer these questions.

So while re-reading my lecture notes on early modern Europe I started to dwell on the concept of thick trust and thin trust societies. For those of you who are not familiar with these terms, we generally live in a thin trust society where we trust strangers and institutions with our money and personal details – eg. We know that everyone’s driver’s licence and passport should correctly identify each person and we trust that the people in charge of our money at the bank will do the right thing with it despite us never knowing the people who look after it. This is generally a modern day phenomenon. In early modern Europe people operated in a thick trust society where generally everyone in the village or town knew everyone – they didn’t have the institutions we have today. Everyone knew everybody’s business, right down to there being witnesses to the consummation of a marriage! Society operated on the relationships everyone had with each other, not with strangers.

This type of thick trust society influenced how people behaved: everyone played various roles with each other depending on what the relationship was – to a degree everyone wore ‘masks’ depending upon who they were dealing with. Your individuality & inner life was not important – that was not what identified you but who your spouse was, who were parents were, etc and the roles you played with each of them. Rituals were important as they helped foster the role playing. Prudence was more important than sincerity. Being caught out – not playing your roles properly was upsetting to people.

Due to my background I have always been interested in Christian church history and this got me thinking about the role the clergy played in the lives of people in early modern Europe prior to the Reformation. As I understand people generally turned a blind eye to the fact that many, if not most, priests had mistresses on the side or regularly visited prostitutes. As long as the priest did his job well and he kept his sexual behaviour hidden all was well. But at the same time the clergy was mocked for this behaviour – so people certainly knew about it. What I want to know is what changed in people and why? Why were people less comfortable with this sort of knowledge by the time of the Reformation? Why were they then so concerned with the hypocrisy of the clergy by the Sixteenth Century? Rituals were also deemed quite worthless and shallow by many then too. Sincerity, not role playing, became more important. Why?

Was it particular thinkers who were influencing people, like Erasmus or other humanists, or were there changes in circumstances, like the rise of urbanisation, or particular events that led society to begin the process of change from a society that valued prudence to one that looked more inward & valued sincerity? Was this change happening simultaneously as the change from a thick trust society to a thin trust society? Obviously I would assume that these changes were taking place at different times and at different rates in different regional areas.

So with the church in mind what came first? The dissatisfaction with the institution of the church and then the importance of sincerity? Or was it that society was changing to one where sincerity was more important and then the dissatisfaction with the church followed? Or am I framing the question the wrong way to get a helpful answer?

I assume there is more than one factor at play here and I’d love to hear your ideas if you have knowledge in this area or can point me in the right direction! Thank you.