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Hagop and Artemis Nazerian Humanities Lecture

February 08, 2017
05:00 PM - 06:00 PM
Hawkins-Carlson Room, Rush Rhees Library

Laura Smoller presents "Dominicans and Demons: Possession and Temptation in the Cult of Saint Vincent Ferrer"

If people know anything about the Dominican Order in medieval and Renaissance Europe, they know that Dominican friars were involved in the inquisition of heretics and the burning of witches.  After all, the Order produced both an inquisitor saint (Peter Martyr) and the most notorious of witch-hunting manuals, the Hammer of Witches (authored by the Dominican Heinrich Kramer), which identified a demonic conspiracy to breed a race of heretical witches sworn to enmity with all of Christendom.  But was it possible for fifteenth-century Dominicans to think about demons without thinking of the Satanic pact that lay at the center of most witch trials?  The example of the fourth Dominican saint, Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419, canonized 1455), suggests that it was.  By looking at the disproportionate emphasis on tales of demonic possession and temptation in the materials surrounding the early cult of Vincent Ferrer, Laura Smoller identifies a more positive strain of Dominican rhetoric about evil spirits, one that ultimately proposed a reform of the Order that would return the Dominicans to their original purity.  Lurid tales of demonic possession and temptation served, in Vincent’s case, not to focus fears on the newly-identified sect of witches, but rather to return the Dominicans to their roots as a band of brothers, heirs to the apostles and the early Desert Fathers.    

About the Speaker:

Laura Ackerman Smoller received her PhD from Harvard University and taught at Stanford University and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock before coming to the University of Rochester, where she is Professor of History.  Her research has focused on areas of intersection between magic, science, and religion in medieval and Renaissance Europe, centering around two major themes:  astrology and apocalyptic prophecy, and saints and miracles. Her first book, History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre d’Ailly, 1350-1420 (Princeton, 1994), explores a French cardinal’s use of astrology to investigate the time of the world’s End.  In 2014, she published The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby: The Cult of Vincent Ferrer in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cornell, 2014), which was awarded the La conónica International Book Award.  The book examines the canonization and cult of the Valencian friar Vincent Ferrer, a fiery apocalyptic preacher who died in 1419 and was canonized in 1455, tracing the various meanings of the saint from the moment of his death in Brittany to his appropriation by Dominican friars in Spain’s New World colonies.  More recently, she has returned to the interrelationships between astrology and prophecy in a new book project, tentatively titled “Astrology and the Sibyls,” an investigation of ways of knowing the future ranging from around 1100 to around 1600.  Smoller's research has been supported by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  She also serves as editor-in-chief for the journal History Compass.

Category: Nazerian Humanities Lectures