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08/07/2015 in archeology and architecture, art and imagery, genealogy and family history, households and the domestic environment, Italian Peninsula, landscapes and pilgrimage, Mediterranean, Other, Parish Research Today, Parish sources, preservation and memory, Projects, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories, towns and urban environment

When I visit the numerous churches and chapels in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland located south of the Alps, I am always struck by their extraordinary artistic and historical richness. One explanation is the flourishing of devotions and religious art which characterised most Catholic countries after the Council of Trent. This is certainly true especially in the Italian area, to whose cultural sphere the Ticino belonged (even though it fell under Swiss political control in the sixteenth century), but there are other reasons. In fact, a crucial further factor needs to be considered: migration. On the one hand, over the centuries, thousands of people associated with the building trades left their homes in the Lake Lugano region to practice their skills as architects, masons, master builders, stucco workers, stonecutters, sculptors and painters abroad. This phenomenon was generally seasonal and whilst staying in their villages, the artisans helped to build or embellish churches and chapels. On the other hand, many migrants associated with other professions donated substantial parts of their earnings to devotional and charitable purposes.

The migrants’ faith and generosity are still visible in many churches and chapels of these territories, particularly in the Pedemonte region, the Centovalli and in the villages surrounding the town of Locarno. Inhabitants of these places had migrated to different Italian cities – especially Livorno, Florence and Rome – for centuries. Exclusively men, they worked as porters (facchini), coachmen (vetturini), chimney sweeps and food-sellers (rosticcieri), to mention just a few professions. In Livorno and Florence they were even able to obtain the monopoly of the porterage trade.

The following pictures shall help to illustrate the impact of migration as it is still tangible today. (Click the thumbnails to enlarge the images.)

§ Figures 1, 2 and 3 – Chapel of S. Rocco (St Roch, 17th century) in the parish church of S. Maria Assunta (Assumption) in Tegna (Terre di Pedemonte, bailiwick and pieve of Locarno)

On the balustrade of many chapels, and in one case even on a confessional box, we can often find the inscription “B.D.L”, an acronym which means “Benefattori di Livorno” (“Benefactors of Livorno”). The migrants active in Livorno gathered in groups and used to collect money for their parishes and brotherhoods.

§ Figures 4, 5, 6 and 7 – Chapel in Verscio (1740) (Terre di Pedemonte, bailiwick and pieve of Locarno); and Our Lady of Montenero in Livorno (14th century)

References to migration and urban experiences also appear in specific devotions. In many churches of this region, even in small chapels deep in the forests, dozen of paintings depicting the Virgin of Montenero can still be found. Here we can see the original painting at Livorno and a very ‘rustic” copy in Verscio. The shrine of Our Lady of Grace of Montenero is located on a hill overlooking Livorno. The Madonna di Montenero, nowadays patron saint of Tuscany, was already widely venerated in seventeenth and eighteen-century century Livorno. In the chapel in Verscio, under the picture of the Virgin Mary and two further saints, we can see details of the port of Livorno (lighthouse and ships).

§ Figures 8, 9 and 10 – Parish church of S. Michele (St Michael) in Palagnedra (bailiwick and pieve of Locarno), Virgin of the Annunciation in Palagnedra (Lorenzo Cresci, altar piece, 1602) and Virgin of the Annunciation in Florence (fresco, 14th century)

A similarly imported devotion concerns the Virgin of the Annunciation of Florence. A copy of the famous and miraculous painting kept in the basilica of the Annunciation in Florence (fig. 8) can still been admired in the parish church of Palagnedra (fig. 9 and 10), a village in the Centovalli, also in the bailiwick of Locarno. This work of art was commissioned by migrants resident in Florence, as recorded in the inscription under the painting.

These are two very good examples of religious and devotional transfers. Further evidence can be found in rural brotherhoods, where migrants followed customs and devotions they had come across in major cities.


Adamoli Davide, Fratelli per l’eternità. Storia delle confraternite nei baliaggi sudalpini in epoca moderna, PhD presented at the Université de Fribourg and the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano, April 2014 (forthcoming).

Beard Geoffrey, Stucco and Decorative Plasterwork in Europe, London, Thames & Hudson, 1983.

Damiani Cabrini Laura, Seicento ritrovato: presenze pittoriche “italiane” nella Lombardia svizzera fra Cinquecento e Seicento, Milano, Skira, 1996.

Gambi Lucio (ed.), “Col bastone e la bisaccia per le strade d’Europa: migrazioni stagionali di mestiere nell’arco alpino nei secoli XVI-XVIII: atti di un seminario di studi tenutosi a Bellinzona l’8 e il 9 settembre 1988”, in Bollettino storico della Svizzera italiana, vol. 103, fasc. I-IV, gennaio-dicembre 1991.

Muchembled Robert (ed.), Cultural exchange in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006-2007.

Orelli Chiara, “Migrazione e mestiere: alcuni percorsi di integrazione nelle città lombarde e toscane di “migranti” dalla Svizzera italiana (secoli XVI-XVIII)”, in Meriggi Marco, Pastore Alessandro (ed.), Le regole dei mestieri e delle professioni, secoli XV-XIX, Milano, Franco Angeli, 2001.

Rüsch Elfi, I monumenti d’arte e di storia del Canton Ticino IV, Distretto di Locarno IV (La Verzasca, il Pedemonte, le Centovalli e l’Onsernone, Berna, Società di storia dell’arte in Svizzera SSAS, 2013.

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by Pat Cox

Chester Consistory Court Cause Papers of the Sixteenth Century

07/28/2015 in British Isles, Parish sources, Projects, ritual, devotion and religious change

A new project coming soon.

A new project hosted by My-parish will present material from the sixteenth-century church court at Chester. The cause papers, which are the basis of the project, illuminate parish life in an English archdeaconry during the age of the Reformation.

This innovative venture will feature images of the papers juxtaposed with transcriptions, translations and supporting materials for each cause and there is much more information to be found under the ‘Parish Projects’ tab above.

Once the pilot, planned for later this year, is up and running the involvement of a wider community in the transcription and/or translation of the remaining records would be warmly welcomed.

Do take a look at the additional information available and let us have your comments.

Republic revived

02/03/2014 in Media, officeholding and local government, Parish Research Today, Projects, The Alpine Territories

Bote der Urschweiz Front Page 3 02 14 CROPPED

Having planned the bicentenary ‘Gersau 2014’ celebrations for over two years, it was heartening to see the parish church of St Marcellus – site of the historic assembly which restored the independent republic on 2 February 1814 – packed solid for the commemorative Landsgemeinde exactly 200 years later (see the picture gallery on the project homepage). Following the Candlemas service (which included the blessing of St Blasius, protector against a range of diseases, administered to each parishioner) and an outdoor reception by the District Council (lubricated by a specially commissioned ‘Republic Wine’), the sounds of drummers – not to speak of a cannon salute – summoned the audience back inside. What director Roger Bürgler had prepared surprised everyone: Schiffmeister Balz, Gersau’s mythical resistance hero (impersonated by actor Stefan Camenzind, pictured above on the cover of today’s Bote der Urschweiz newspaper), emerged to challenge the congregation to think not just about the past, but also the future. One-by-one, he asked speakers to present their different takes on ‘freedom’: the district mayor, a Swiss MP, a refugee from military dictatorship in Turkey, a historian (who happened to be yours truly), a village jester and delegates from fellow peasant republics Dithmarschen and Gochsheim. In-between, on a giant screen, we saw video clips of Gersau’s dramatic landscape and appeals from current schoolchildren, punctuated by live performances from musicians, singers and – yes – a yodeling duet. Following a colourful procession, proceedings continued in the afternoon with a sold-out banquet, a couple of historical lectures and a full entertainment programme in the school hall. Judging from the media echo (cf. the  podcast report of Swiss National Radio SRF), the day was a great success and succeeded in getting people to engage with the aims of ‘Gersau 2014′.

Launch of the ‘Gersau 2014′ celebrations

12/14/2013 in Events, Parish Research Today, Projects, The Alpine Territories

My current research on parish republics has led to a close engagement with the rural community of Gersau on Lake Lucerne. For over 400 years, this remarkable micro-state ran its own political and ecclesiastical affairs, complemented by a defensive alliance with the Forest Cantons (a new local history has just been published). Following their military invasion of 1798, French revolutionary troops turned the loosely structured Swiss Confederation into a centralized puppet state and Gersau lost its independence. However, as soon as Napoleon was defeated and the political future up for negotiation, the communal assembly of 2 February 1814 decided to restore the ‘free land’ of Gersau. This was a romantic gesture, entirely at odds with the European trend towards large nation states, and it lasted a mere three years, after which the Swiss Diet decreed integration into the neighbouring Canton of Schwyz.

Logo Gersau 2014 Web Cropped

To mark the bi-centenary of this temporary restoration, and to take stock of where Gersau stands today (given comparable pressures towards European integration and globalization), I have teamed up with the local authorities to plan ‘Gersau 1814/2014 – Shaping History’, a year of commemorative and celebratory events. After extensive preparations, the full programme has just been published. From my point of view, the highlights include a ‘imaginative re-interpretation’ of the historic assembly in the parish church (attended by the current mayors of two other once ‘free’ communes: Dithmarschen and Gochsheim) and an international conference on the relationship between territorial size/resources and the extent of ‘freedom’ in pre-modern republics (with an associated public panel debate in the school hall on 22 March 2014); but there are also guided walks to historic sites, communal pilgrimages, informal discussion evenings, a ‘future workshop’, concerts and even a specially minted republican currency (the Gersauer Gulden) for use in all shops and restaurants. A dedicated website provides further information and regular updates. Alongside, I hope to offer some contextualization through articles in regional magazines (the Y-Mag of Schwyz) as well as specialized journals (a comparative examination of the political cultures of Gersau and the parish confederation of Dithmarschen on the North Sea coast is due to appear in the Zeitschrift für historische Forschung 2/2014). It promises to be an exciting year for the people of Gersau and their guests.

New community parish history published

09/04/2013 in British Isles, Parish sources, Projects

A Chronicle of Avon Dassett [Cover]


Avon Dassett Local History Group are delighted to announce the publication of A Chronicle of Avon Dassett, a community history project funded by Stratford District Council. The fully illustrated book covers the history of the village from Domesday to the twentieth century. Space limitations means that the book only provides a taster of the rich history of Avon Dassett but the publication is supported by fuller transcriptions of sources on the village website: A free copy of the book will be distributed to every household in Avon Dassett. It is also available for purchase at £4.50 from Jill Burgess ( or Sarah Richardson (

There will be a book launch at St John the Baptist Church, Avon Dassett from 12.30-2pm on 29th September. All are welcome. Please contact Jill or Sarah for more information.

Research guides for parish history

04/25/2013 in agriculture and the economy, archeology and architecture, art and imagery, British Isles, households and the domestic environment, landscapes and pilgrimage, literature and the liturgy, Parish sources, Projects, ritual, devotion and religious change, the clergy

Research guides are now available on the following topics to help those interested in Leicestershire parish history:

Exploring your parish church (in two parts – Reading the building and Documentary sources)

Your local school

Maps before the Ordnance Survey

Farming and enclosure, 1480-1790

Farms and farming, from 1790

Although these concentrate on Leicestershire documents, other counties will have similar records, and therefore these may be of much wider interest and use.

Women and the Politics of the Parish

03/19/2013 in Blogs, British Isles, gender and the family, Media, officeholding and local government, Projects, Secular law and regulation, towns and urban environment

This is a guest post by Dr Sarah Richardson, Associate Professor of History at the University of Warwick. Her book, The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain, discusses the rich female political culture in Victorian Britain, including women’s participation in parish politics.

Women and the Politics of the Parish

The parish electorate in England and Wales was generally broad and inclusive. There was the potential for elections for a range of parish officers including constables, highway surveyors and overseers of the poor. Parishioners could also vote for parish servants such as beadles and sextons. Although there were attempts to reform and codify this system in the early nineteenth century, in reality, in many parishes, democracy was in the ascendant. What is less appreciated is the fact that women ratepayers were able to participate in these very local elections. There are many reasons for this oversight. First, two landmark pieces of legislation in the 1830s, the Reform Act and the Municipal Corporations Act, restricted the right to vote to ‘male persons’. Second, the story of female enfranchisement has been dominated by the women’s suffrage campaigns at the end of the century. And, third, there is little direct evidence of women voting, therefore, historians have assumed they were effectively barred from the polling booth.

The discovery, in a box of solicitors’ papers, of a poll book for the election of overseer of the poor for St Chad’s parish in Lichfield, provided the missing link between the theoretical right of women to vote, and their practical application of that privilege. The poll book listed over 300 voters and among them were the names of 30 women. Ironically, they were almost equally split between the Tory and Liberal candidates. The women came from all walks of life, from wealthy businesswomen to lowly paupers. The fact that they were able to participate and make choices in this parish election has important implications for our understanding of female citizenship in this period.

To learn more about the poll book and its implications, see the following:

BBC Radio 4, Document: Victorian Women Voters (available on iplayer)

The Victorian female franchise (Victorian Commons blog)

Women voted 75 years before they were legally entitled to in 1918 (Daily Telegraph blog)

Where are all the women in politics? (History and Policy policy paper)

Invisible Saints: The British Medieval Wood Sculpture Research Project

12/10/2012 in art and imagery, British Isles, preservation and memory, Projects, ritual, devotion and religious change

Invisible Saints

The British Medieval Wood Sculpture Research Project is pleased to announce the launch of Invisible Saints, a web-based project to identify the lost medieval devotional wood sculpture of the British Isles, hosted exclusively at:

The aim of Invisible Saints is to locate, digitally record and document the wooden sculptures that, for over 400 years, were the most familiar and accessible form of devotional imagery and the immediate material interface between laymen and -women of the British Isles and their faith. Rather than suffering near total annihilation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many more of these works than are acknowledged to exist today slipped quietly into other contexts. They survive, largely unrecognised, in institutional and private collections and circulating within the works of art market. This mobility, which defines the post-medieval lifecycles of British devotional wood sculptures and links directly to the experiences of local religion in Britain (especially in parish contexts), is the central focus of the Invisible Saints project.

Site features will include:

  • continuously expanding, searchable database of British devotional wood sculptures, many of them never-before-published, with extensive images/references and full catalogue entries
  • repository of transcribed primary documents pertaining to medieval devotional wood sculpture in the British Isles
  • index of institutions and other sites at which known works are on view to the public
  • showcase for scholarly articles

Patronal image of St Peter in papal regalia, oak, early 15th century, from the collegiate church of St Peter, Wolverhampton.