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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.

Ermatingen – Europe’s Biconfessionality Champion

05/31/2015 in drink and sociability, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories, theology and church doctrine

Few parish churches can be more ‘remarkable’ than St Albin at Ermatingen in the Thurgau region of north-eastern Switzerland. Originally ruled by the abbot of Reichenau in southernmost Germany, the area became subject to the Swiss cantons in 1460. The latter acted as overlords with high jurisdiction, but the lower rights remained in the abbey’s hands (before they passed to the Diocese of Konstanz in 1540). Substantially rebuilt in the 1480-90s (main picture), the church boasts a fourteenth-century St Catherine chapel and a commanding view over the Untersee lake.

Ansicht v Hauptstr (Bausubstanz 1490)

In 1524, the newly appointed parson Alexius Bertschin introduced evangelical ideas into the community, whose majority soon converted to the new faith. This met with the severe disapproval of the Swiss governor at Frauenfeld, causing the parson to flee to nearby Konstanz (where the Reformation was also – briefly – successful, until Charles V forced its re-Catholicization). Yet after Bern had turned Zwinglian, Bertschin could return as an evangelical preacher in 1529 and two years later the Second Peace of Kappel (following Europe’s first religious civil wars) allowed parishes in the Swiss condominiums – including Thurgau – to practise two religions at the same time! Confessional minorities were granted protection, prompting some Catholic families to settle at Ermatingen. When the parish’s morrow mass benefice became vacant in 1536, the Abbot of Reichenau ensured that it would go to a follower of the old religion, making the new incumbent Hans Hopp effectively the first parson of the Catholic congregation. From that point until – startingly – today, St Albinius has been a Simultankirche, a church in which two confessional groups worship side-by-side. The situation fostered plenty of conflicts (the Catholics demarcated ‘their’ choir with a rail, the Protestants responded by hanging a curtain in front of it), but also co-operation on practical issues like fabric maintenance and eventually mutual acceptance. The most notable testimony to this co-existence is the early eighteenth-century font, which contains a Catholic (nearside on the left picture) and a Protestant basin!

Taufstein early 18 m kath (vorne) + evang (hinten) TeilAnzeigen Kath + Evang Kirchgde

Today, the church notice board is still divided into two confessional sections (right), the list of parish incumbents is arranged in parallel columns and the timing of services remains staggered: in odd months, evangelical worship starts at 9 am, with the Catholics meeting at 10.30; in even months, the order is reversed. When I visited on a sunny May Sunday, the sexton kindly removed the cover from the font and explained its peculiar design almost in passing, if clearly with some pride. During the mass, seven young women were confirmed by a Catholic canon, followed by a drinks reception outside the church and family meals at the nearby Eagle, an early modern inn first documented in 1590 and serving excellent Müller Thurgau white wine from local vineyards. Some places just seem to have it all.

Information courtesy of the church guide, community website and a little field work; pics: BK; for the wider context see R. Head, ‘Fragmented dominion, fragmented Churches: The institutionalization of the Landfrieden in the Thurgau 1531-1610’, in: Archive for Reformation History 96 (2005), 117-144.

Viking runestone at Växjö

04/02/2015 in archeology and architecture, Parish sources, ritual, devotion and religious change, Scandinavia, Uncategorized

Växjö Runestone c1000 Tyke Gunnar Pic Berig

Outside the chancel of the Domkyrkan, the medieval cathedral which also served as the town’s parish church, visitors to Växjö in Sweden encounter a runestone dating from c. 1000. One of several surviving in the area, it was discovered in the nineteenth century under plaster in the church wall.

Religious historians are used to memorial brasses and tomb inscriptions inviting prayers for the dead on the eve of the Reformation, but this concern for the salvation of souls predates the elaboration of the doctrine of purgatory by several centuries.

The inscription starts at the head of the serpent and runs clockwise along the circle, with the commendation to God in the vertical rectangle on the right. Translated into English, it reads: “Tyke, the Viking, raised the stone in memory of Gunnar, Grím’s son. May God help his soul!”. Picture: Berig 2007 under Wikimedia Commons.

Clerics and Witchcraft, Part Two

02/11/2015 in British Isles, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, the clergy

In my first blog entry, we looked at some examples of clerics who warned of the evils of witchcraft and magic, and also met Richard Napier, a cleric who preferred to heal victims of witchcraft and other patients through performing natural magic in the name of God.  However (and perhaps more interestingly), not even members of the Church were safe from magic and witchcraft accusations!  Gilbert Smythe, the minister of Swithland in Leicestershire brought a complaint against Christopher Moncke in 1620 for public slander and for accusing him of being a sorcerer and forsaking God. Moncke also accused Smythe of breaking of his wife’s arm and the reason for his son cutting his own throat, and that Smythe and his three sons were felons.  Smythe further claimed that by slandering him by petition to the King, the mayor of Leicester, the circuit judges and the people of Mountsorel, Leicester and London, ‘hee hath adventured my lyfe goods and reputation thereby and the undoinge of my wife and famylie which lyve by my breath’.  Moncke brought a counter-complaint, noting that he had attempted many times to solve a crime against him, and ‘has been put off by various great men’, as the judges apparently did not look at his case with any degree of seriousness:

The premises considered the faithful Justices of the County of Leicester dare not deale with Gilbert Smyth his approved pilfery, foreknowne periury, suspected sorcery and murther least money and freinds should lull the Judges asleepe as in the County of Darby they have beene and laughed to scorne by the favorites thereof.

Meanwhile, Thomas Johnson, the curate of Cranwell, Lincolnshire was indicted in 1603 at Spalding Court of Sewers, for acting as a wise man, and for administering ‘physic’ to sick people without a licence.  He was also accused of using witchcraft, charms and conjuration, calling up spirits, and deceiving the poor so that he could find stolen goods and foretell the future.  In doing this, he was not fulfilling his religious duties in instructing the people and youth of Cranwell in the North Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, on the articles of faith as laid down in the Elizabethan Religious Settlement.

Some clergymen and physicians were known to practice as cunning-folk, mostly to increase their incomes.  In 1606 the Royal College of Physicians intervened to stop the Reverend John Bell from writing words on a piece of paper to treat fevers, and in 1637, the vicar of Fleckney, Leicestershire, was accused of making charms to treat toothache.   Non-conformist clergy were also accused, as in the case of Nicholas Gretton of Tamworth, cunning man, astrologer and leader of a Lichfield Independent congregation in 1654, who ‘was there discovered to be a fortune teller, or an Inchanter, a Wizard that tells people lyes for mony’.

George Fox was born in the strongly puritan village of Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, (now known as Fenny Drayton), and, given to ‘wander[ing] around the Midlands’ in his early youth, he became the acknowledged founder of the Quaker movement after his ‘enlightenment’ in 1647, at the age of twenty-three.  Attempts by some ministers and justices to accuse Quakers of witchcraft led to George Fox himself being denounced as a witch or sorcerer, who rode around on a large black horse converting people to Quakerism by holding their hands or touching their foreheads.  The meeting places of the Quakers, in woods, commons and in houses ‘most solitary and remote from Neighbours, situated in Dales and by-places’, stimulated speculation and fear.   The strange noises that could be heard emanating from their meeting-places, and the trembling and shaking of the Quakers during their meetings were associated with Satan and demonic possession.

Other cases, adding to our narrative on the clergy, include that of the vicar of Cawnton, Nottinghamshire who was convicted of sorcery in 1472 at Southwell Minster, and was compelled to resign.  Additionally, the minister of Hope, Derbyshire, a Mr. Jones, gave a woman, distraught after hearing a warning in the Communion service against profane livers, an ‘amulet, viz. some verses of John i written in a paper to hang about her neck, as also certain herbs to drive the devil out of her’.  The role of the clergy, particularly in rural communities after the Reformation, often combined both ministry and medicine, with sometimes little difference compared to the methods of the local cunning folk and healers.

Consequently, the same accusations of magic and witchcraft applied to the ministers as well as the lay communities.  Even charges of petty sorcery served on the clergy, as we can see above, were brought before the ecclesiastical courts.  The need for assistance when faced with illness or loss provoked a search for whoever was deemed able to provide such solace – whether this was a witch, a cunning man or a man of God, and whatever methods they used to provide some comfort, was often not important.



Leach, Arthur Francis, Visitations and Memorials of Southwell Minster (London, 1891), p. 15.

Lincolnshire Archives, Sessions Papers, Spalding Sewers/460/1/6.

Lincolnshire Archives, Diocesan Court Papers 58/2/70.

Reay, Barry, The Quakers and the English Revolution (Hounslow, 1985), pp. 7, 70-71.

Stocks, Helen (ed.) & Stevenson, H., Records of the Borough of Leicester, 1603-1688 (Cambridge, 1923), pp. 193-94.

Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1971), pp. 311, 328-29.

Wood, A. C. (ed.), ‘The Nottinghamshire Presentment Bills of 1587’, Thoroton Society Record Series, XI, A Miscellany (1943), p. 22.



Clerics and Witchcraft, Part One

02/08/2015 in Blogs, British Isles, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, the clergy

My area of academic research concentrates on magic and witchcraft in the early modern English Midlands. Both personally and academically, and as a born-and-bred Coventrian, I have always been interested in local history, witchcraft, magic, folk customs, paganism, religion and the unorthodox within Warwickshire and the Midlands, hence the geographical area within which I have focussed my attention. I also like to visit the Midlands parish churches my ancestors worshipped at, as part of my family history research, and visiting churches and cathedrals generally as I have a fascination with ecclesiastical architecture and enjoy taking photographs documenting my visits, concentrating particularly on doors and porches.

Church of St. John, Copston Magna, Warwickshire (Pic: Paula McBride)

Church of St. John, Copston Magna, Warwickshire (Pic: Paula McBride)

The main objective for my research is to redress the lack of evidence for magic and witchcraft in the Midlands within existing secondary sources, in comparison with the extensive volumes of information available for the Home Counties, the South of England, and Scotland.  For the MA by Research in History, which I completed in September 2014, I concentrated on the Midland Assize Circuit areas of the Midlands – Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire. Due to word count limitations and the number of cases I was finding, my original plans to write a full history of witchcraft and magic for the Midlands regrettably had to be reduced, and so the study concentrated only on the areas of the Midland Assize Circuit, leaving around half of the Midlands still to be researched.  I now intend to broaden my investigation through further study including research on the Oxford Assize Circuit areas – Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, and some parts of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, depending on the county or assize boundaries of the time. My recent research has shown that, with only half of the Midlands researched so far, and if one is prepared to look hard enough for the evidence, there are a surprising number of cases for magic and witchcraft.  One of the exciting questions I hope to look at further is the involvement of the clergy in witchcraft and magic, as accuser, healer and even accused.

Our first vicar, Humphrey Michel, of Horninghold, Leicestershire, was ‘a staunch Tory, a closet Jacobite, a scourge of the local dissenters’, and often presented who he deemed to be ‘moral offenders’ at the local church courts.  Michel also believed wholeheartedly in the existence of witches, and discussed the problems of witchcraft in his diary.  In June 1709, he recorded the swimming of two witches, Mary Palmer, a cripple, who ‘though bound hand and feet, did not sink but swim [sic] before the said company’, and Joseph Harding, who ‘sunk immediately like a stone before them all’.  Other entries include a woman named Goody Ridgway who had ‘in all probability’ been bewitched to death, and Michel had also accusingly noted the strange behaviour of ‘a wench of the widow Barlow, a supposed witch’, who ‘went out of the church when I had named and read my text, Deut Chap 18, where is the word “witch”’.

Sir Richard Newdigate, a lawyer from a family of wealthy landowners in Arbury, Warwickshire, attended a sermon at Fillongley a few miles away, given by Josiah Packwood.  In the sermon, the minister denounced members of the congregation for seeking help from cunning men, as this action of seeking remedy itself constituted witchcraft.  Newdigate carefully recorded the preacher’s advice in his diary, on how to counter the arguments of  ‘those that seek to witches for remedies’, including advising those tempted that help should be sought only from God, and that ‘the Devil is full of subtlety and simulation.  His end is to enlarge his kingdom by curing diseases’.

The English Reformation should have removed the clergy from the world of popular magic, and to some extent this did happen, as the number of sacraments was reduced, sacramentals rejected and exorcism suppressed, relics were destroyed, and prayers had to be said in the vernacular.   However, at parish level, many clergymen, such as Richard Napier, continued to be involved with the physical and mental illnesses and magical distresses of their laity.  Napier, a well-respected Protestant rector of Great Linford, Buckinghamshire, employed a series of curates to deal with the majority of his clerical obligations, and dedicated himself to private study and public practice of natural magic and astrological physic until his death in 1634.  Napier saw himself as fulfilling his Christian duties, charging little if anything for his services for those who considered him both clergyman and physician, by not only healing the souls of his clients who were drawn from all social classes, but also their bodies and minds.  He dealt with hundreds of cases of witchcraft and thousands of patients during his career, all noted carefully in casebooks.  Napier believed in witchcraft, but seldom ever verified any suspicions of bewitchment.  He preferred instead to interpret his clients’ symptoms as the result of natural physical illnesses and diseases or spiritual disorder, as did most doctors, Protestant churchmen and educated laymen.

(To be continued – Clerics as sorcerers and other magical practitioners)


Davies, Owen, Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History (London, 2003), pp. 170-72.

Sharpe, James, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550-1750 (London, 1997), pp. 286-87.

Warwickshire County Record Office., CR0136/7: Richard Newdigate’s Diary.

Feastday economies

07/21/2014 in Parish Research Today, Parish sources, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories


While working on records of the former Bishopric of Constance (now kept in the archives of the German Archdiocese of Freiburg), I found a petition by the parish republic of Gersau (address page pictured). Sent to the vicar general in 1779, the mayor and council voiced concerns about the large number of Catholic feasts and mounting difficulties to keep them observed. With the backing of the regional dean, no fewer than 26 saints’ days were identified for downgrading (among which the Visitation of Our Lady). The bishop played ball, approving the request, but urging his ‘Catholic flock’ to diligently attend mass on all remaining feasts and to ‘abstain from all vanities, damaging idleness, suspicious gatherings, dancing, gaming, excessive drinking, swearing … as well as any other insults to the Almighty’. Gersau was in good company, following the lead of the neighbouring Canton of Lucerne, which had secured a similar privilege, and rather ahead of Enlightened monarchs like Joseph II, who started to curb religious duties for economic reasons at about the same time.

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.

St. John’s, Berkswell: a remarkable parish church

04/09/2013 in archeology and architecture, art and imagery, British Isles, Events, Media, ritual, devotion and religious change

Last Friday brought the opportunity to visit Berkswell, the location of the 2013 parish symposium. You can see images of St. John’s (ably captured by Don White) in our remarkable parish churches section.

St. John the Baptist Parish Church, Berkswell © Don White

St. John the Baptist Parish Church, Berkswell © Don White

For a report of proceedings and impressions of the atmosphere visit the symposium page here.

Do you know of a parish church that is particularly remarkable? If so, please leave a comment, as we would love to feature it.

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.