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Goverment of womens's consciences

Chapters for the confessors of the Company of Saint Ursula featuring asceticism, understanding and control.
Gianpietro Belotti



Lately in a miscellany of documents concerning the Company of Saint Ursula kept in the Historical Civic Archive of Brescia, a document was found, perhaps one of a kind, under the title “Ordini instruttori di padri confessori de la Compagnia di santa Orsola.” It is a small handwritten pamphlet, its paper backing badly damaged, with faded ink which makes the reading problematic. The subtitle has the catchy motto: “Ne li quali four ogni dubbio, et oppenione contraria, ogni capace, chi vorrà, plenariamente soddisfatto sarà”. The small title of the first page is “Sommaria instruttione data ai Padri confessori de la Compagnia di santa Orsola”.
It is a small manuscript of ten sheets, without any dates but traceable by its style, script and vocabulary to the second half of the sixteenth century. This hypothesis also seems to be proved by some elements integral to the book which might allow us to establish the rough timeframe within which it could have been written. In fact the date “post quam” can be set certainly by the reference to the Bull of Paul III of 5 June 1544, but not known in Brescia until April 1546. Therefore the fact that it was presented as belonging to the institutional “corpus” of the Company would shift the date later, between the fifties and the sixties of the century.
Other elements can be useful in order to set the date; for example, it can be seen that the theological suggestion of a new evangelism does not feature the typical aims of Church reform; rather, it is kept within the scope of the Company. The same can be said about the suggestion of the controversy against heretics, no longer as the elimination of a real danger as it was in Angela’s works, but as a reassertion of absolute faithfulness to the precepts of the Catholic Church, in the name of adherence to the new expression of belief which was developing in the Tridentine period.
In addition there are no direct references to the Tridentine canons concerning individual confession, even though echoes of that debate can be detected in the propositions on the dispensation from the promise of chastity which seems to meet the cases set by the Tridentine canons. The ability of confessors to pardon any secret sin directly or by referral to the Ordinary was particularly challenged, with the affirmation that no ecclesiastical authority had the power to release someone from the “promise” of virginity in order to marry.
As far as the date is concerned, it is important to consider that the Company divided into two branches more involved in legal quarrels than in the development of teachings. Therefore it is fair to think that the “Ordini instruttori” were written between the end of the fifties and the sixties, in a time rich in the enthusiasm and the ferment of organization after the reunion. Moreover, it is difficult to hypothesize that these were written afterwards, whether for the lack of direct references to the Tridentine canons, or for the initial thesis in which, amazingly, it is declared that in the spiritual government of the Company the “Padri” had to be subordinated to the “Madri”. That relationship seems difficult to reconcile with the spirit of the discipline which was soon to be employed.
Also, as far as the document’s authorship is concerned, we can only guess. However, it seems to us that the writer was not Cabrino or any other priest, as the text is depicted psychologically from the perspective of the penitent, not of the confessor. In fact, the discussion lacks the usual mentions of confessors’ experiences or of empathy, which would be intended to guide the confessor’s behaviour.
Everything directs us towards the hypothesis that the perspective is from inside the Company, chiefly the group of women with leadership responsibilities like the “Colonnelle” or the “Maestre”, recipients of the teaching of Merici and able to pass it on to those groups of virgins coming from noble families who had entered after 1558. That does not rule out important contributions by the priests of the Oratory in drafting or in revising, given the symbiotic relationship of spiritual direction which had been established with them.
The analysis of this document appears in the article by G. Belotti, “Il ‘governo delle coscienze’ al femminile: i capitoli per i confessori della Compagnia di sant’Orsola fra ascesi, comprensione e controllo” published in the “Periodical” of this Centre of Studies.

22 settembre 2012