From here to fraternity

Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence
February 24, 1995

A period of alleged "secularisation" in which increasing numbers of men and women enrolled themselves in religious associations. A place where the state's claims to provide for the welfare of its poor rested heavily on the underfunded efforts of self-help organisations. No, not Britain in the late 20th century, but Florence in the early Renaissance. John Henderson's account of the confraternities of 14th and 15th-century Florence, with a particular focus on their charitable activities, offers to clarify the relation between "the secular and the sacred". His conclusion, that the two interpenetrated one another, is hardly a surprising one. None the less, Henderson's approach enables him to set a great deal of new evidence within the context of what continues to be a live debate about the true relationship between religious ideas and philanthropic practice in Christian societies of the past.

The confraternities of medieval Europe have been enjoying some scholarly limelight in recent years - and not without reason, if one dare guess that the majority of all families above the economic level of the absolutely poor contained at least one member of such a fraternity, club, or guild. Varying enormously in the size and social composition of their membership, these associations nevertheless shared a rhetoric of common brotherhood, a habit of collective feasting, and devotional practices that included prayers for living and dead members. A minority were attached to particular trades, but the vast majority were not so specialised. In Florence, as in some other Italian cities, the two most common broad types of late-medieval confraternity were the laudesi and the flagellants. While the former convened, in many cases nightly, to sing cheerful hymns to the Virgin Mary, the latter gathered before the image of the crucified Christ, in penitential fashion. According to the statutes of a flagellant society of 1446: ". . . Once the general confession has been done . . . the Penitential Psalms are to be said . . . Afterwards they are to recite the Orations of Our Lady, of St John the Baptist, and of the Peace . . . Then the Governor shall give a sermon, comforting them, and the brothers shall whip themselves fervently."

The first half of Henderson's book provides a valuable survey of these two categories of Florentine confraternity, both of which were largely, though not exclusively, based in Dominican or Franciscan monastic houses. Reviewing their increasing rate of foundation between the 13th and 15th centuries, a development that is especially striking among the flagellants, Henderson is surely right to reject a facile link with such a specific event, horrendous though it was, as the Black Death of 1348. His emphasis on concerns about provision for burial and for the soul in purgatory is well placed, although (pace both him and Jacques Le Goff) these related preoccupations date from long before the 13th century. With regard to the spread of flagellant devotion after its 13th-century beginnings, Italianists might do well to look across the Alps. The penitential whip may have been less generally in use in the north, but it was from here that, in the course of the 14th century, the emotive pictorial iconography of the dead Christ, or Man of Sorrows, entered Italy. In this connection it is a strength of the book that it takes seriously the role of images in confraternity practice, although this makes it all the more unfortunate that the photograph of the miracle-working picture of the Virgin of the confraternity of Orsanmichele, reproduced on the cover and as a plate, is reversed.

The second half of the book makes a powerful case for seeing the charitable strategies of the Florentine confraternities - the principal example is that of Orsanmichele - as being, at least through the 14th century, both practical and by no means inconsiderable responses to perceived social needs. The recipients of confraternity alms at different periods - many of them women - are plausibly identified as belonging to particularly vulnerable groups in the changing circumstances of a century of demographic upheaval. The notion that medieval Catholic charity was indiscriminate has lately received a number of correctives (one thinks of Barbara Harvey's Living and Dying in England, 1100-1500); this study also demonstrates that its scale could be extensive.

Henderson emphasises the role lay men and (less often, in Florence) women, through fraternity membership, claimed for themselves in the liturgy, and in paraliturgical ceremonies such as processions, sacred plays, and lay sermons. On all of these practices, Henderson offers new and fascinating information. It is ironic, however, in the light of his introductory attack on the excessive piety of older accounts of the confraternities, that - with the major exception of his reassessment of their charitable works - he ultimately says little about their social functions. The sources, though rich in some respects, are not always generous, and Henderson himself is clearly bothered by the problem when he complains that registers of members are scarce, and that the diarists fail to mention their fraternities. But in the circumstances his claim to have dealt with "all types of adult confraternity" may be a little rash. The appearance in the record only from the mid-15th century of fraternities based on parish churches and local chapels, and of similar societies attached to particular crafts, is likely to be the effect, not of a real change but of a civic statute of 1444 that confined confraternity membership to the unenfranchised, having the consequence that numerous previously informal groups were now accorded constitutional respectability. Those clubs of the poorest workers that were repeatedly outlawed throughout the period, and are mentioned in passing by Henderson, may hint at a larger world of unofficial association which only rarely troubled to register formal statutes.

This is, however, a stimulating and suggestive book that deserves a wide readership. En passant, Henderson vividly conveys the scene of many confraternity gatherings. He has tracked down a number of their mediaeval meeting-halls, now converted to cinemas, tourist offices, and coffee-bars. After all, it was another age.

Gervase Rosser is a fellow and tutor in modern history, St Catherine's College, Oxford.

Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence

Author - John Henderson
ISBN - 0 19 8201 7
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £55.00
Pages - 533pp

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