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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.

Catholic Parishes in Early Modern Palestine

04/18/2014 in Blogs, Other, Parish Research Today

In her post published in December, Michal Bauwens reminded us about the variety of early modern parishes. Following this suggestion, I would like to draw attention to the Latin parishes in the Middle East and especially to those created by the Franciscans in early modern Palestine. The foundation and the development of these parishes was strictly linked to the missionary activity pursued by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy land and to the diffusion of Catholicism in the area.

The spread of the Reformation in Europe with the loss of territories in the north, forced the Catholic Church to find allies in the east, with an increasing effort to reunify the eastern churches with Rome. In the 1620s, missionaries from different religious orders arrived in the Syro- Palestinian region. In Palestine however, the missionary activity was mainly pursued by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. Since the 13th century the Custody had been charged with guarding and maintaining the holy sites and with hosting pilgrims. Even though the first conversion to be recorded by the monks dates back to 1555, it is only in the 1620s that the evangelization among the Eastern Christians became one of the most important activities of the Franciscans. In the same decades the monks’ efforts in this direction were further encouraged by the foundation of De Propaganda Fide, the Roman congregation in charge of missionary activity worldwide. Despite Propaganda complaints, the Franciscans’ missionary activity resulted in the passage to the Latin rite for many followers of the Eastern Churches and lead to the formation of local parishes under the control of the monks (among which: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Ayn Karim, Jaffa).

Franciscan parishes in early modern Palestine had many characteristic features which distinguished them not only from the parishes located in Europe, but also from those located in other missionary territories. As in all the lands where there was not an established church hierarchy, in the Syro-Palestinian region Propaganda Fide was vested with full power and authority over missionary. When compared with other parishes established in missionary territory, Franciscan parishes in the Holy Land presented some particular features which resulted from the privileges that Propaganda granted to the Custody. When an apostolic vicariate was established in Aleppo (19th century), it had a limited jurisdiction over the parishes under the control of the Franciscans. The parish priests, for example, were named by the Custody of the Holy Land and the vicariate could not remove them. Furthermore the vicar did not have the right to conduct canonical visitations in these parishes.

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.

Parish dikereeves: a conundrum

12/13/2013 in British Isles, landscapes and pilgrimage, officeholding and local government, Parish Research Today

Flooding was a persistent threat to coastal, wetland and riverine parishes in early modern England and Wales. My current PhD research is into how communities responded to this threat at a variety of different levels and in a variety of different ways. I look at how flooding and flood risk was managed politically, socially and culturally – through local and national governance, through communal and familial structures, and how those affected understood and conceptualised flooding. I take two case studies, the Upper and Lower Severnside ‘levels’ of southern Gloucestershire and the Parts of Holland in Lincolnshire, as areas subject to significant flooding, and subsequently significant flood risk management, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The research I am currently undertaking focusses on the various levels of government and administration that dealt with flooding. The parish history element of this current research is both interesting and puzzling. In some coastal regions, particularly in Lincolnshire, but also in Somerset and elsewhere, dikereeves were elected to oversee the maintenance and upkeep of sea walls and drainage ditches. Dikereeves were often a manorial appointment, as at Sutton Holland in Lincolnshire in the 1550s and 1560s, where the manor court elected dikereeves from amongst both freeholders and copyholders. During the 1570s records suggest that the Lincolnshire dikereeve moved from a manorial to a parochial office, with all the Lincolnshire parochial dikereeves accounts I have found beginning post-1570.

So far I have two explanations for this move – one general and one specific, but neither resting on a ‘smoking gun’, and both more than open to challenge. The first is the rise of the parish as a unit of local administration amidst the ‘quickening’ of the ‘pace of local government’ in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century. This would explain the move towards the parish, but not necessarily the move away from the manor. The second more specific reason could be the particularly stormy years around 1570. These included widespread flooding of the East coast in 1570 and 1571. Perhaps given new environmental challenges, parishes required greater flood defence oversight and established parochial dikereeves? Again, such an explanation rests on the parish, rather than the manor, being the most effective unit of local organisation.

Any comments or suggestions would be most welcome.

Parish Pests: ‘vermin’ and other animals in early modern parishes

07/05/2013 in agriculture and the economy, archeology and architecture, British Isles, officeholding and local government, Uncategorized

In today’s Guardian, Simon Hoggart outlines the great trouble caused by bats in modern parish churches. Due to the recent classification of bats as a protected species, churchwardens are no longer able to disturb their homes and habitats. It can cost up to £29,000 in legal fees for churches to be allowed to relocate bats, and a project has been set up to help our two species communities cohabit peaceably in churches.

Ridding parish churches of ‘vermin’ has a long history. The term ‘vermin’ has had various contested meanings, many of which were based on the slyness and subtlety of vermin. The main threat that these unwanted creatures posed was to seeds and crops. In 1533, parliament passed ‘An Acte made and ordeyned to dystroe Choughes, Crowes and Ro[o]ks’, which ordered every parish to provide a net for catching birds, on pain of a fine. The act specified that two pence was to be paid by farmers and landowners ‘for every xij [twelve] olde Crowes Rookes or Choughes’ caught on their land. A further act of 1566 (‘An Acte for preservacion of Grayne’) expanded the list of vermin to a further thirty-two types of bird and mammal, including kingfishers, bustards, stoats and wild cats, each with a price on their head. In Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation’s wildlifeRoger Lovegrove argues that this act sanctioned the systematic and widespread persecution of wildlife, that continued right up until the nineteenth century.

Early modern parishes had a mixed relationship with their animal neighbours. Records abound of churchwardens paying out for animals caught or moved on under the 1533 and 1566 acts. In 1555 at Mildenhall, Suffolk, ‘John Pollyngton and Buntyng’ were paid for ‘taking of the dows [doves] and the oules [owls] in the church’.[1] Church roofers could supplement their income by removing unwanted birds from church lofts. Whilst repairing the roof of Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire, in 1663-4 a group of ‘slaters’ removed four owls at a cost of 1s 2d, and later the intransigent ‘old owle’ for a substantial 1s.[2] In a typical churchwardens’ account entry in the Bedfordshire parish of Northill in 1572, John More was paid twelve pence for bringing in a fox head.[3] In Shillington, Bedfordshire, during the ‘general crisis’ of the dearth years of 1594-7, the parish invested in crow nets to be used by parishioners, perhaps to protect a slender crop. In 1594 wardens laid out 7s 10d on a net, which was subsequently repaired for 10d in 1597.[4] During the Interregnum, the parish of Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire paid out for many fox heads, including the 2s for four fox ‘whelps’ (cubs) in 1657.[5] In Cratfield, Suffolk, in 1651-2 the pursuit of vermin became weaponised as the churchwardens paid out 4s 10d ‘for lokeing to the wheat, and powder and shott to kill varmen’.[6]

‘Vermin’ and other animals did not always enter parishes and churches entirely of their own volition. In his 1509 Shippe of Fooles, Alexander Barclay laments the veritable menagerie attendant at some pre-Reformation church services:

Into the church there comes another sotte,
Without devotion jetting up and downe,
Or to be seene, and to shew his garded cote;
Another on his fiste a sparhawke or fawcone
Or else a cokow, so wasting his shoon.
Before the aultar he to and fro doth wander,
With even so great devotion as a gander.

One time the hawkes bells jangleth hye,
Another time they flatter with their wings,
And now the houndes barking strikes the skye,
Nowe sounde their feete, and now the chaynes ringes,
They clap with their handes ; by such manner of things
They make of the church for their hawkes a mewe.
And canell for their dogges, which they shall after rewe.[7]

Dogs were a particular problem for some parishes. They were to be whipped out of the choir in sixteenth-century Chichester, and payments for dog whipping are not uncommon in churchwardens’ accounts.[8] Dogs’ admittance to church became a minor polemical controversy in the seventeenth century. Archbishop Laud’s introduction of the rail around the communion table was loathed by stricter Protestants and seen as ‘popish’ due to the formal separation of clergy and congregation. The rector of Beckington, Somerset, claimed rails would ‘give admittance unto dogs, while Christians be kept out’.[9] Laud himself saw the rail functioning differently. After a dog stole a consecrated loaf from the altar at Tatlow, Cambridgeshire one Christmas Day, Laud argued that such a scandal would have actually been prevented by the presence of a rail.[10]

Some domestic animals behaved much better than these anecdotes would have us believe. Whilst I have no evidence to suggest that anyone went as far as blessing a dog, special dog pews were erected in Aveley, in Essex, and at Northorpe, in Lincolnshire, where the small ‘Hall Dog Pew’ accommodated canine companions during divine service.[11] Perhaps there is yet hope for bats and humans to cohabit in peace and piety.

[1] Judith Middleton-Stewart (ed.), Records of the Churchwardens of Mildenhall Collections (1446-1454) and Accounts (1503-1553) (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2011), p. 135.

[2] Esther M.E. Ramsay and Alison J. Maddock (eds), The Churchwardens’ Accounts of Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire 1627-1667 (The Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 2005), pp. 148-9.

[3] J.E. Farmiloe and Rosita Nixseaman (eds), Elizabethan Churchwardens’ Accounts (Streatley: The Bedfordshire historical Record Society, 1952), p. 14.

[4] Ibid. p. 91, p. 99.

[5] Ramsay and Maddock (eds), The Churchwardens’ Accounts of Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire 1627-1667, p. 116, passim.

[6] L.A. Botelho (ed.), Churchwardens’ Accounts of Cratfield 1640-1660 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1999), p. 87.

[7] quoted in George S. Tyack, Lore and legend of the English Church (London: W. Andrews & Co., 1899), pp. 109-10.

[8] W.D. Peckham (ed.), The acts of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral Church of Chichester, 1545-1642 (Lewes : Sussex Record Society, 1959); i.e. C.J. Litzenberger (ed), Tewkesbury Churchwardens’ Accounts, 1563-1624 (Stroud: TBGAS, 1994), p. 46, p. 63.

[9] Charles Carlton, Archbishop William Laud (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 97.

[10] Carlton, Archbishop William Laud, p. 97.

[11] Tyack, Lore and legend of the English Church, p. 109; T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, Church-lore gleanings (London: A.D. Innes and Co, 1892), pp. 191-92.