Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Stefania Tutino on credulity, credibility, and belief in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius’s eruption of 1660

By contributing editor Glauco Schettini

Stefania Tutino is a professor in the Department of History at UCLA. Her work focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of post-Reformation Catholicism. Her most recent book was A Fake Saint and the True Church: The Story of a Forgery in Seventeenth-Century Naples (Oxford University Press, 2021). Her next book is The Many Faces of “Credulitas,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

She spoke to contributing editor Glauco Schettini about her essay, “The Mystery of Mount Vesuvius’s Crosses: Belief, Credulity, and Credibility in Post-Reformation Catholicism,” in JHI (83.2).


Glauco Schettini: Your article takes us to mid-seventeenth-century Naples and makes us witness a seemingly inexplicable event. In the aftermath of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, black and red crosses began to appear on people’s linens, clothes, and bodies. As rumors about the divine origin of such apparitions spread uncontrolled, Catholic ecclesiastical authorities decided to launch an investigation into their nature. Would you like to summarize the unfolding and the outcomes of this investigation for our readers, as well as its broader meaning?

Stefania Tutino: My investigation uncovered a range of responses at all levels of society, from the most ominous interpretations of the crosses as a sign of God’s wrath foreboding ever more tragic catastrophes, to explanations based entirely on volcanic science and chemical processes. What I found especially interesting is that we do not see theologians or religious figures necessarily reaching for divine interpretations, on the one hand, and secular leaders or natural philosophers leaning toward more secular, “scientific” explanations on the other. Within the Catholic hierarchy, different people held widely divergent interpretations, and by the same token, some political leaders were at least as preoccupied by God’s wrath as their ecclesiastical counterparts. Another interesting aspect of this investigation is the sophistication of information-management systems, so to speak, or the propaganda machine set in motion by both the Roman Curia and the Neapolitan government. Yet another interesting layer in this story is the ways in which potentially supernatural events could become “politicized,” and—the other side of the coin—the fact that religion as an intellectual and cultural category encompassed a much broader set of questions than we might be accustomed to think.

As for the outcome, well, I am tempted not to reveal it and to invite the readers to find out for themselves! Suffice it to say that how the prodigy ended was just as mysterious as how it began. Yet even if at the end of the article readers might not be able to solve the mystery of the crosses, I hope they will feel they have acquired a more nuanced view of the world of post-Reformation Catholic culture.

GS: The story you tell was, as you write, a small but hardly insignificant episode in the history of early modern Europe. With a technique that is characteristic of microhistory, you employ this episode, with all its quirky details, to shed light on the religious culture of seventeenth-century Italy. More than ten years ago, Francesca Trivellato asked if there was a future for microhistory in the age of global history—a question she answered affirmatively. What do you think the future of microhistory looks like? And what can intellectual historians gain from adding a microhistorical approach to their toolkit?

ST: I personally think the future of microhistory looks great, even (and maybe especially) as our horizons get enlarged to a global scale. In this respect, not only do I agree with Francesca Trivellato, but I also think that her considerations on the future of microhistory are already proving true.

One of the features of microhistory that I find particularly important is its ability not to focus on the small for the sake of the small, but to focus on the small to the extent the small can tell us something deeper about the big. I am not a global historian, but the kind of global history I like to read is the kind that merges breadth with depth; that looks at connections and networks, and links, rather than juxtapose, different contexts in a kind of revival of old-school “comparative” history; the kind that poses specific problems in a new light rather than simply extending categories further into space; the kind that plays with scales and examines how specific issues change when we change the scope rather than the kind that simply takes the same unit of analysis and makes it wider by stretching it to cover more ground. For doing all these things, microhistory is a good aid, because few other approaches can teach us about how to make connections as well as microhistory does.

Another aspect of microhistory that makes it exceedingly useful is its intimate relationship with primary sources—nothing will make you more attuned to the need to squeeze sources to the last drop of meaning than the need to investigate a very small phenomenon! Microhistory has a privileged relationship with narrative, not in the sense that microhistorical accounts are narratives (all kinds of history-writing are narratives, not just microhistories!), but in the sense that adopting a microhistorical approach always requires that the historian reflect on the heuristic value of narrative. This is not just an important aspect of our profession, but also an exciting feature of being human and thus being able to use language in that way. Also, microhistory does not like generalizations, and in fact it is a good antidote to the impulse to try to make things neat and simple and one-size-fits-all, which I believe is always a good attitude when studying history. By its very nature, microhistory is inclusive and not methodologically imperialistic: it can live comfortably within a number of different paradigms and historiographical contexts. It offers no grand narrative of its own, but rather seeks to find what does not fit in any given trend or overarching trajectory. In this respect, I think that all historians, even those whose approach is completely different from that of microhistorians, could use a measure of the irreverence toward generalizations, curiosity for the quirk, attention to the discordant that is typical of microhistory.

GS: The story of the crosses reveals the complexity and the internal diversity of what you call “post-Reformation Catholicism.” Throughout the article, you avoid both the term “Counterreformation” and the phrase “Catholic Reform,” which historians have most frequently used to define the multifaceted world of early modern Catholicism. As John O’Malley has reminded us in a book that is now a classic, these terms were forged in the heat of disputes that were academic and confessional at once; they were not just neutral descriptors of historical processes, but also implied a value judgment. Your decision not to use them looks like a way to set aside old debates in order to break new ground. How can thinking in terms of “post-Reformation Catholicism” transform our understanding of the early modern Catholic world?

ST: First of all, I believe that John O’Malley’s discussion of these issues is a classic for a reason: it provides what is in many ways a definitive explanation of both the nature of those terms and their implications. I also wholeheartedly agree with him about the terms “Counterreformation” and “Catholic Reform.” I personally never liked them not simply for all the reasons O’Malley lays down, which you briefly outlined, but also because they never meant much to me. I became a historian of post-Reformation Catholicism at a moment in which the sort of ideological, theological, and even confessional contexts out of which those terms originated were not just criticized, but in fact had started to become insignificant. What I mean to say is that the kind of history of Catholicism which I studied and was academically raised on, so to speak, had already moved away from the history of theology on the one hand, and traditional “ecclesiastical history” on the other, and had advanced toward the much more capacious realm of “religious” history. Thus, for somebody like me, born in 1977, using terms such as “Counterreformation” and “Catholic Reform” seems not just reductive, but also in a sense meaningless. For all these personal and historical reasons, I do think that O’Malley’s definition of “early modern Catholicism” is infinitely more effective at capturing the richness of this kind of history than the traditional alternatives.

You are right, though, that I tend to use “post-Reformation Catholicism” more than “early modern Catholicism,” and this is intentional. I have been starting to notice that in this (otherwise welcome and correct) move to progressively enlarge the range of the phenomena we associate with “early modern Catholicism,” sometimes we are going too far. As I said, I think it is good that we no longer reduce the history of early modern Catholicism to theology, but sometimes we tend to forget that theology mattered quite a bit. The Reformation was an important moment in the history of early modern Europe, and this theological conflict did change the history of the Catholic Church profoundly. The nature and implications of this change went well beyond the realm of theology, but without understanding the theological terms of the conflict, we risk not understanding anything else properly. I like to use the term “post-Reformation Catholicism” as a sign of respect, if you will, for the historical importance of theology, and as a reminder to myself never to lose sight of the vivacity and richness of early modern theology (in conversation with, not in lieu of, early modern religion).

GS: By reconsidering the relationship between credibility and credulity, your article exhorts us to problematize our understanding of belief. In line with the work of historians such as Ethan Shagan, who are trying to show how the very nature of belief changed through history, you suggest that we take early modern belief on its own terms, setting aside contemporary ideas about the proper relationship between belief and rational knowledge. What role do these issues play in your forthcoming book, The Many Faces of Credulitas? And what do they teach us about contemporary notions of belief?

ST: These issues are indeed at the core of my forthcoming book, which is an examination of some aspects of the category of belief in post-Reformation Catholicism. In that book, I make the argument that judgment and credibility became progressively central in the Catholic theological and religious discourse after the Reformation, and I explore the consequences of that centrality for the intellectual and cultural history of early modern Catholicism.

More generally, reflecting on the question of belief in both the early modern and modern contexts, I think that the prevalent view remains one that sees the Enlightenment as a crucial moment of fracture separating the early modern notion of belief (which is confessional, dogmatic, and, save for a few exceptions, intolerant) from the modern one (which is based on the modern secular individual’s freedom to exercise her reason and thus to retain the right to believe in anything she chooses). I see things a bit differently. To begin with, when I look around in the world, I don’t see that pure reason has exactly triumphed. To the contrary, rather large pockets of credulity and unreasonable beliefs continue to exist even in the Western world, the venue in which the modern secular individual is supposed to thrive. And while of course some of those beliefs are dangerous to our society (and quite literally to the health of our communities!) and require serious reflection, others are simply the manifestation of being human as opposed to perfectly functioning computers. But aside from the state of belief today, I am a scholar of early modern Europe, and from my vantage point I see that the Enlightenment view of the progressive triumph of free secular reason is not a correct standard on which to judge early modernity. In fact, as a historian I believe that the Enlightenment itself needs to be taken as a precise historical moment rather than a kind of Hegelian description of how history inevitably unfolds, and that its complexities need to be explored, not denied. In the book, then, I look at early modern belief not from the point of view of the present, trying to establish how much or how little early modern notions of judgment and credibility measure up to modern ideas. Instead, I examine these phenomena from behind, as it were, as distinctive historical developments of a specific theological, intellectual, and historical tradition, in which, I argue, the tension between faith and judgment, authority and autonomy, belief and knowledge had always been at the center of the debate. In both my forthcoming book and this article, I recover a bit of the vibrancy and richness of pre-modern debates over these questions.

Glauco Schettini is a PhD candidate in history at Fordham University, New York. His research centers on religion and politics in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and the Atlantic world. His dissertation, titled “The Invention of Catholicism: A Global Intellectual History of the Catholic Counterrevolution, 1780s-1840s,” investigates how European and Latin American counterrevolutionary thinkers reinvented Catholicism during the Age of Revolutions.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Domenico Gargiulo, L’eruzione del Vesuvio del 1631 (1656-1660)

Leave a Reply