Historically, any community that contained multiple religions faced unique challenges, especially when those religions also claim the individual’s total allegiance in spiritual, political, economic, and social matters. Those challenges loom even larger when the religions share sacred spaces. Such inter-religious concord and discord regularly make headlines and absorb the time, effort, and resources of local, regional, and international communities. These challenges do not diminish when the religions are subsets of a larger creed, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Intra-religious interactions, while less studied, cause similar disruptions and divisions within communities.
In both cases, inter- and intra-religious interactions, the scholarly and popular focus has been on what divides and separates groups and on significant contested moments in shared communities and sacred spaces. The form, tenor, and duration of such sharing arrangements balanced between forces that aggravated relations between religious groups— pressure to conform, scarcity, violence, war— and those that encouraged peaceful coexistence— pressure to transact, sufficient resources, and the gentle forbearance of everyday life. In practice, such interactions were rarely one or the other. Instead, communal dynamics led to complex interactions that defied such simple negative or positive assessments.
This project explores how the sharing of sacred spaces played out in Europe during the early modern period—a time and place better known for religious persecution, violence, and war. Churches as the centers of Christian worship were the spaces most affected by the presence of more than one religion or, in the case of intra-Christian interactions, denomination, or confessions in a community. Therefore, we use them as test cases in this project. This research aims to identify under which circumstances coexistence and tolerance, or conflict and intolerance, could develop by examining various aspects of communal interaction—from the attitudes of community leaders to everyday interpersonal relationships.
At its center are churches shared between two or more subsets of Christianity, or “confessions”—Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed. In the late seventeenth century, this phenomenon got a name—Simultaneum—but such sharing arrangements had taken shape long before then. Orthodox and Roman church communities, convents and collegiate churches housing lay parishioners, ethnic groups with different languages and customs, and many other sharing agreements predated the early modern period. The shift occurred with the unexpected divisions during the sixteenth-century religious reforms that led to doctrinal differentiation and confessional statements of identity in Europe.
Most early-modern Simultanea were situated within the limits of the Holy Roman Empire—a sprawling and fragmented domain that included parts of what are today France, the Low Countries, Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovenia, and Italy—and the Swiss Confederation. All of them formed in response to the Reformation, which legitimated new forms of Christian religious observance in both the Empire and the Swiss Confederation. However, older intra-Christian relationships between Orthodox and Roman Christianity continued to play a role in developments in Eastern Europe, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean region as Catholic and Orthodox rulers reacted to new challenges with the spread of Islam with Ottoman expansion as well as the Protestant Reformation. In addition, the expanding economic exchanges meant that many individuals lived and traded in regions and countries with different religious allegiances to their own. Their temporary or extended arrival disrupted devotional communities, especially when these individuals and groups joined local worship or socialized and intermarried with locals. Finally, the movement of religious refugees and groups fleeing wars introduced new social and interpersonal interactions between diverse ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups in church spaces across Europe and with indigenous groups outside of Europe.
Taken as a group, these churches and their congregations represent an early and often-overlooked experiment in the practices of tolerance and intolerance. As such, they offer a unique insight into diverse communal and interpersonal relationships below the level of rulers, theologians, and elites. What happened in communities, neighborhoods, and families confronted by religious diversity and its resulting cultural difference is often distinct from their rulers and clergy’s negotiations, conflicts, and peace accords.
Scholarship of the Reformation has overlooked the existence of shared churches (Simultaneum) in large part due to historical interest in single religious groups, with their own distinct
confessional identities, and later political and geographic divisions, rather than curiosity about how religious diversity developed. As a result, scholars often ignored these early experiments in tolerance, missing a unique opportunity to study the dynamics of religious interaction and diversity on communal development.
We will be looking specifically at how diverse intra-religious groups shared religious space to understand how coexistence led to tolerance and intolerance and other forms of accommodations and exchange. We will also explore how such informal and formal agreements changed and created communities.
This digital project will eventually map shared churches in Europe, the Mediterranean World, and the Atlantic World to show where these close contact points occurred and how they developed over time. The completed website will allow scholars, students, and the general public to explore how it functioned through translated documents, curated devotional objects used, and the re-creation of space in select churches. In addition, experts can continue to contribute material on the over 1000 churches in central Europe that we have already identified and help us expand our map to include additional examples. This database will provide a starting point for our subsequent research on these shared churches and their communities.
The project will result in monographs, edited books, articles, and a digital website. We also plan to give talks at conferences, hold workshops and conferences, give public lectures, and seek other ways to distribute our work to scholarly and general audiences. We have and will continue to build additional collaborations and related research projects throughout the project. In addition, we will be employing graduate students to do the data entry, mapping, and digital components. We also expect to engage undergraduate and graduate students in project’s research components and spatial re-creation phases. We intend to make our research results accessible to scholarly and general audiences.