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Sex, disPlacements, And cross-Cultural EncounterS

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SPACES (Sex, disPlacements, And cross-Cultural EncounterS)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-08-31

SPACES investigates a set of heretical beliefs that circulated in the Italian peninsula between the 16th and 18th centuries. The defendants, accused by the Inquisition, praised the pleasures of unreproductive sexuality, believing that Adam and Eve practiced anal sex in the terrestrial paradise. They were also charged with stating that “all can be saved in their own law”, that is, that the eternal salvation was open to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Analyzing these cases, SPACES explores the relationship between religious skepticism, atheism and sexuality in the early modern Mediterranean world, from a perspective attentive to the cross-cultural interactions between Islam and Christianity.

By defending the lawfulness of unreproductive sexuality (including homosexuality), these radical dissenters stated that the clergy proscribed sexual pleasure to terrify uneducated people and to keep them under control. These statements are an echo of a widespread cluster of skeptical ideas that was labelled in the Christian West as the theory of the “imposture of religion”. These intellectual attitudes were already present in the classical world, but they coalesced after the rise of Islam in the context of the conflicts and interactions between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In all three cultural contexts, there were non-aligned thinkers who, when dealing with interfaith conflicts, concluded that religious fundamentalism was the problem, and that no one could claim monopoly over the truth. Especially in Europe, criticism of sexual bigotry was a crucial part in these cultural constructs.

SPACES objectives can be articulated in two main areas: 1) advancing historical studies on religion, sexuality, gender, and secularization; 2) thinking historically about themes that are relevant to our society, where multiculturalism and the inclusion of sexual and gender minorities are a source of rising anxieties.

As for the historical discipline, SPACES aims to challenge established interpretations that attribute the birth of religious skepticism and atheism to European learned elites. The cases under examination clearly anticipate many themes that were relevant to the development of 17th- and 18th-century Libertinism. These ideas proliferated in middle-rank environments with a high degree of social miscegenation almost one century before the emergence of similar constructs in intellectual circles in Europe. Moreover, they were manifestations of a wider Mediterranean cluster of beliefs shared across religious boundaries. These considerations may contribute to the greater appreciation of the complex nature of “secular modernity” in Europe.

SPACES also offers a historical perspective on themes that are urgent to present-day social and political debates. Fundamentalism is escalating as a defensive response to the problems raised by a globalized world in which socio-economic disparities are growing. In this context, religion has being exploited for political goals as a marker of identity. Sexuality is crucial to these cultural and political conflicts. In western countries the “foreigner”, especially the Muslim, is depicted as an enemy of the rights of women and sexual and gender minorities. This rhetoric is sometimes used to justify international military aggression and internal xenophobic propaganda. Analyzing a common ground of beliefs shared across the faiths and that questioned the idea that any religion could pretend to possess an infallible truth reveals a long history of interactions and influences that has characterized the Mediterranean area, despite and beyond the ongoing religious and political conflicts.
SPACES, hosted by the University of Verona (Italy), started on Sept. 1, 2018 and included a two-year period of research and training at the University of Maryland (US). My work is based on archival material from the records of the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily and several local and central Inquisitorial collections stored in archives across Italy. I collected the majority of the archival material before the start of the project. At the University of Maryland, I carried out bibliographic research, profiting from the resources of the Washington, DC area: Library of Congress, Folger Shakespeare Library, and McKeldin Library. I discussed with colleagues from all over the world the methodology and contents of my research and attended seminars and workshops organized in the area and beyond. I have also undertaken several training activities in digital humanities and in the fields of communication and teaching.

I wrote articles and chapters on the general topic of the research (sexuality, religion and society) and on the specific cases under examination. I already published an edited volume - Mediterranean Crossings: Sexual Transgressions in Islam and Christianity (10th-18th centuries), 2020 - containing contributions of scholars from all over the world and including two chapters of mine. I wrote a chapter on sexuality, religion and emotion in The Routledge History of Emotions in Europe: 1100–1700, edited by S. Broomhall and A. Lynch (2019). I contributed to the critical edition of Daniello Bartoli’s Asia, a 16th-century history of the Company of Jesus in Asia that is crucial to the history of the cross-cultural interactions between Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures in the early modern world. I started to write the main outcome of my project: a monograph on the Inquisitorial cases described above. I summarized the results of this research in an article that is currently under review, and another article on the topic is almost ready for submission.
The cases under examination show how in popular environments the links between sexual transgressions and criticism of institutionalized religions were explored in the early modern period long before the emergence of these themes in learned circles throughout Europe. Analyzing the medieval Mediterranean roots of these attitudes, which cut across the boundaries between the three main monotheistic religions, enables me to revise established interpretations about the genesis of Western-European processes of secularization.

I started this research with the idea of investigating the intersections between sexual and religious tolerance, and their relevance to the history of toleration and tolerance in Western Europe. However, the bibliographic research has allowed me to reassess this issue. I concluded that the concepts of skepticism and secularization are far more relevant to the topic I am analyzing than toleration and tolerance. The fact that the defendants of the cases under examination stated that “all can be saved in their own religion” was more than a simple praise of pacific religious coexistence. This statement contained a grain of methodological doubt that led them to question the reliability of revealed religions per se. What we are dealing with are the seeds of radical atheism in the early modern period.

As for the societal impact, unfortunately the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the success of my project. However, there have been some positive aspects too. The fact that most dissemination activities have been moved online has opened unforeseen opportunities of dialogue with scholars, students, and PhD candidates from all over the world. In terms of academic dissemination, I can tell that the potential of the project has definitely increased.