Charity in Perspective: The Social Life of
Devotion in Portugal and its Empire (1450-1700)
dos Guimarães Sá
Universidade do Minho
article tries to outline the major differences between practices of
charity within Europe, either comparing Catholics to Protestants, or
different Catholic areas. The point of departure is constituted by the
study of the Misericórdias, lay confraternities under
royal protection who would develop as one of the main (if not the greatest)
dispensers of charity either in Portugal or its Empire. Its evolution
since the formation of the first misericórdia in Lisbon to the
end of the seventeenth century is analysed, relating these confraternities
to political, social and religious changes that occurred in the period
under analysis. Issues related to their functioning, membership, rules,
and economic activities, as well as the types of needy they cared for,
are also dealt with, mainly through the comparison of different colonial
and metropolitan misericórdias.
Catholic and Protestant Europe; Poverty; Devotion; State Building
In the past, charity was a form of devotion, being one of the ways in
which Christians could honor God. As one of the theological virtues, together
with faith and hope, it enjoyed a high position in the hierarchy of religious
behavior. The concern with charity was common to Catholics and Protestants,
but with one major difference. Whilst the former could obtain salvation
through good works and might be relatively sure that forgiveness of sins
could be obtained through charity, the latter could not rely on such a
possibility, since God alone could save believers, without the agency
of the individual or intermediaries.
Recently, historiography on the subject of charity and poor relief has
rediscovered the centrality of religious beliefs in the framing of charitable
action. This new tendency is supposedly a reaction against the "socio-economic"
approach of famous works by Natalie Zemon Davies (1968) and Brian Pullan
(1971). Both authors maintained that differences between Catholics and
Protestants did not alter the fact that in both religious frameworks the
poor that were to be helped through charity were subject to selective
devices that involved choosing between a large number of candidates for
relief. Social pressure created by the outbreak of famine, plague or the
overpopulation of cities crowded with immigrants led to a sometimes uncontrollable
increase in the numbers of poor people in need of help. As such, these
historians emphasized the fact that both Catholics and Protestants felt
the need for a reform in poor relief.
On the other hand, since the beginning of the 1990s, the "religious
approach" authors have stressed the relationship between religious
ideology and charitable practices. Carter Lindberg studied the changes
in attitudes towards work and poverty brought about by the ideas of Martin
Luther and his followers (1993). Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham
edited a collective volume on poor relief in Protestant Europe, while
stressing the need to study the subject from the religious standpoint1.
Critchlow and Parker (1999) explored the importance of the pervading notions
of community in the shaping of charitable action.
Ideas about who belonged to a community no doubt exerted a decisive influence
upon who was helped and who was denied relief. Charity was one of the
performative devices that created the boundaries of community (Cavallo,
1995). The different Protestant churches and sects certainly took care
of their own members, and the same can be said for Catholics. Catholic
empires, which, at least until the eighteenth century, were more concerned
with proselytization than the Protestant ones, integrated converts inside
the boundaries of community. Although charity was universal within the
Catholic Church, help could be refused to those who had not received the
baptismal water, or to those who were not willing to confess and receive
As we shall see, religious culture does not explain much about the organizational
devices that are set in motion when we analyze the institutional practices
of charity by a given political unit, or even at a single-city level.
If the religious or "community" approach helps to explain most
attitudes towards the poor and their relief, it does not fully take into
account the organizational specificities of each local society. Nor does
it acknowledge the centrality of the study of religious forms and beliefs
in the works of either Natalie Davis or Brian Pullan, whose attention
to doctrine is more profound than their critics suggest. The key feature
of those extremely variable "systems" of poor relief is, of
course, locality, but, as we shall see in the Portuguese case, it also
involves the integration of such areas into broader organizations that
we commonly designate the "Early Modern State". Institutional
diversity was restrained by the existence of "umbrella" institutions
and common procedures that were implemented by the incipient central institutions.
As we shall see, the Portuguese case illustrates this point beyond any
doubt, as the modern Portuguese state developed through the pressure caused
by the need to draw profits from maritime commerce and by the development
of a colonial administration that could relate to the metropolitan institutions.
We cannot ignore the various Protestant churches and sects and their different
ways of dealing with poverty, but it is also risky to think about Catholic
charity as being the same within the Italian states or in the kingdoms
that formed Spain or Portugal, to name only a few examples. In spite of
the fact that Portugal was Catholic, its forms of charity differed significantly
from those found in other Catholic areas. Catholic culture or the Catholic
sense of community cannot account for all the differences in institutional
charity between the various areas. What is the explanation for these organizational
differences? This article will try to explore the idea that, in the Portuguese
case, the evolution of the kingdom along an imperial path, which enabled
the country to evolve through homogenous sets of institutions, is responsible
for relatively unified practices in terms of charity. Portugal as a sovereign
state owes largely to the fact that the reign expanded overseas. In the
first place, the crown was able to rely on funding from overseas trade;
secondly, the "center" had to evolve in order to structure institutions
that would work not only at home but also overseas. I will thus use an
approach that does not ignore the centrality of religious doctrine and
Catholic notions of community, but that is also aware of the political,
economic and social configurations that modeled charity in Portugal and
Early Modern Catholic charity
Certainly, Catholic charity enjoys common features throughout the countries
that remained faithful to Roman authority, or, to use John O'Malleys
recent suggestion, "Early Modern Catholic Europe" (2000). At
a schematic level, Catholic charity can be contrasted with all the practices
that the Protestants tended to abolish. Let us name only a few.
In spite of ubiquitous attempts to control begging and vagrancy, the Catholic
world tended toward a relative tolerance for beggars, unthinkable in Protestant
areas. Luther's ideas, for instance, were directed toward the total elimination
of beggars, and not to control of begging (Lindberg, 1993: 106). Begging
in public was strictly forbidden in Zwingli's Zurich (Wandel, 1990). The
attempts to suppress beggars in Protestant areas, except for cases such
as Lyon or Ypres where reforms were led by Catholics (Davis, 1968), were
not systematic in the world of the Counter-Reformation world, where there
were merely occasional outbursts calling for the repression of mendicants.
Whereas Protestant devotion is characterized by logocentrism (Todd, 2002),
Catholic charity is part of an iconic religion. The images conveyed through
ritual not only kept center stage, but were also emphasized during the
baroque era. Catholic charity made itself visible through ritual, ensuring
the participation of the larger community in the act of giving (Sá,
2001). As one of the possible displays of devotion available to a Catholic
individual, the practice of charity was sacralized through a broad spectrum
of different rituals. Among them, one could mention the public almsgiving
by important civic and religious personalities; the Washing of the Feet
on Maundy Thursday or the participation of large groups of poor people
in burial processions, and the celebration of thousands of masses for
the dead souls in Purgatory. Not that the Protestant world completely
erased rituals from religious life, but its emphasis on direct contact
with the Scriptures caused ritual to be seen as less important than particular
forms of interiorized devotion (Muir, 1997). Natalie Davis (1980) emphasized
the Protestant "human communication network", as opposed to
the Catholic ceremonial moments in space and time. On the other hand,
Early Modern Catholicism retained its belief in the intercession of the
Virgin and the Saints. The Mother of Christ as the mother of Mercy and
some of the saints famous for their acts of charity (St. Martin of Tours,
the bishop St. Nicholas, etc.) continued to be venerated and depicted
in iconography2. Some of them had been the inspirers of specific practices
of charity since the Middle Ages and continued to be so throughout the
Early Modern Period. The confraternity of San Martino in Florence
helped poveri vergognosi, San Giovanni Decollato prepared the condemned
for public execution, the Virgin of the Annunziata (Annunciation)
was the patron of poor girls who were given dowries, etc.
In the Protestant world, both the denial of transubstantiation and the
refusal of Purgatory suppressed the centrality of the mass. Among Catholics,
masses for the dead continued to be the main vehicle for the funding of
institutions, which received large sums of money as well as landed property
through death bequests. The maintenance of a larger group of clergymen
is central to the Catholic areas, and new religious orders devoted specifically
to charitable services were created in the Catholic world after the division
of Europe according to religious creed. By eliminating Purgatory, the
masses for the dead, and religious orders, especially the mendicant ones,
the Protestants suppressed significant pieces of the chain that normally
started with a bequest made to an institution, prescribing both masses
and charity to the poor. Generally, these funds could be invested in the
money market. The association between charity and money loans was not
unusual in the Middle Ages, nor was the controversy it caused. Whenever
the reproduction of money by itself, without the intervention of nature,
was at stake, it was the task of the Church to confirm or deny its legitimacy.
Some new practices met with public suspicion, such as the Monte delle
doti, a public dowry fund created in 1425 in Florence, whereby investors
secured honor for their daughters while aiding municipal finance (Taylor,
In Italy, the Monti di Pietà constituted a form of helping
the poor in distress by lending them money at an advantageous interest
rate, in contrast to the sinful usury practiced by the Jews (Menning,
1993). Although moneylending could easily merge with usury, certain forms
of profitable finance came to be sanctioned by the Church. Annuity rents
were one of these, being low interest loans secured by property that were
not considered usurious by the Church in the fifteenth century and were
one of the sustainers of parochial charity in the Low Countries (Galvin,
2002: 139-140). Early Modern Catholicism acted according to the principle
that interest on loans was not illicit so long as the money gained was
used for the well-being of persons who needed help. The bequeathed money
generally circulated in the money market and profits were used in celebrating
masses for the souls in Purgatory, as well as for supporting charitable
practices. Protestant charity did not contribute to the economic survival
of the members of religious orders or secular priests, thus breaking an
economic chain that was responsible for a large concentration of wealth
in the hands of the Church.
Early Modern Catholic Europe tended to reinforce the role of religious
orders in the practices of charity. Some of them were especially dedicated
to service inside hospitals, such as the Hospitaller brothers of St. John
of God, but Franciscans and Dominicans were also invested in the care
of sick patients. A new religious order specifically devoted to charity
was created in 1586, the Camillians, who were very active in Italian hospitals,
such as, for example, the hospital of the Annunziata in Naples
(Gentilcore, 1999). In Imperial Spain, Mexico and Peru also experienced
the creation of two new Hospitaller religious orders, the Betlamitas and
the Saint Hippolytus Order of Charity, both of them based upon the Augustinian
rule. The Jesuits, even if they did not have the practice of charity as
their main goal, followed a program of strict observance to the practice
of the fourteen works of mercy in their years of formation (O'Malley,
1993: 165-199). In Portuguese India, for instance, Saint Francis Xavier
and his fellow missionaries were especially careful to help the local
charitable institutions by tending to the sick, both spiritually and physically,
and performing other works of mercy. As Brian Pullan remarked, hospitals
became battlefields for conversion and the salvation of souls (1999: 30-31).
Catholic Europe reinforced the presence of confraternities in urban and
rural communities, many of them being dedicated to charity. Most charitable
confraternities recruited at the level of the whole community, and charity
was organized on a supra-parochial basis (Pullan, 1996) in spite of the
centrality of parishes in the organization of community life implemented
after the Council of Trent (Black, 2001: 167). The Protestant world tended
to reaffirm the importance of the parish in matters of poor relief. In
England, the Poor Laws transformed the parish into the taxing unit for
the funding of charity to its residents; in many cities across Calvinist
Europe, the deacons in the consistory were responsible for the care of
the poor of the community (Benedict, 2002: 455). In Lutheran communities,
the common chest brought together alms that were to be distributed to
the needy (Lindberg, 1996). Catholic areas tended to create urban systems
of poor relief, where old and new institutions co-existed, whilst the
parish tended to restrict itself to the organization of religious life.
In the Catholic world, charity continued to be a form of penance - together
with prayer, fasting and self-flagellation - and it never separated itself
from other religious forms of devotion that were not concerned with giving
to the poor. Before resources got to the charitable institutions, a large
proportion of them were spent on the celebration of masses, and charity
was only one of the ways in which to obtain forgiveness for one's sins
and negotiate the afterlife.
In very general terms, these could be said to be the main differences
between charity as practiced by Protestants and Catholics. Nevertheless,
it must be stressed that both of them shared a religious approach to the
question of social and economic inequality.
Most historians of charity tend to avoid the issues behind the very existence
of charity itself by not questioning its fictional character. Despite
being inspired by sincere devotion, charity did not distribute wealth
on any rational basis, because the donor was free to give what he wanted,
however much he wanted, when he wanted and to whom he wanted. Charity
was a system whereby a fiction of the distribution of wealth was enacted.
It was only possible through the creation of a hegemonic domination that
erased social conflict except in times of extreme dearth. Outbreaks of
popular revolt were sporadic and could be violent, but they did not seriously
question the social, political or economic order per se (Thompson,
Both in the Protestant and the Catholic world, charity could be used to
legitimize upward social mobility, illegal profits or questionable ethics.
Corruption did not apply to royal office or administration: officers tended
to be underpaid, and making profits from their offices was seen as inevitable
and legitimate. But social and religious ethics viewed personal gain with
suspicion (Cardim, 2000). Even if all kinds of fraud were possible, a
moral economy placed very strict limits on the legitimacy of profit. It
was a sin to cheat the dead or to deprive the poor of their alms by diverting
the funds assigned to them in wills. These rules were relatively easy
to apply; others, concerning usury or other forms of illicit profit, were
not. It is because people sinned (and not only in what concerns "economic"
behaviour), that they needed to operate a fictive image of benevolence
and compensate for their faults.
In spite of all the differences between Catholic and Protestant attitudes
towards poor relief, they used charity in common for the normalization
of social behavior. It is generally admitted that charity did not limit
itself to easing the suffering of the needy, but that it was also a powerful
means of ensuring social order. By repressing vagrancy, forcing the poor
to work inside workhouses, and promoting good sexual behavior, charity
was used, especially after the Council of Trent, to discipline and punish,
to use Michel Foucaults expression (1995). Charity became part of
an aggressive Catholicism, whose main purpose was to save souls from Hell
(Pullan, 1982). Nevertheless, it could hardly be affirmed that Protestant
charity was not similarly repressive in its concern for good moral behavior.
State building, local power and charitable practices:
the formation of the Portuguese Misericórdias
If we are to look at the specificities of each Catholic area or cultural
unit, the answer to explaining their peculiarities must lie in political
evolution and in the role played by the formation of the Early Modern
State in the creation and development of homogenous sets of institutions.
If we study charity in Spain or Italy, we are forced to focus on specific
political units that developed their own sets of institutions. Naples
was different from Venice, and Catalonia differed from Castile, for instance.
Nevertheless, if we analyze the Portuguese case, there was no regional
diversity and the forms of charitable organization were homogenous in
all its territories. We also have to take into account the fact that Portugal
was an empire that exported its institutions to several overseas areas,
from Brazil and Africa to the Far East.
The way these different colonies related to metropolitan Portugal can
vary. In Asia, there was a viceroy who represented the king's authority
over a territory that extended from fortresses in East Africa to Macao
in the Far East - the Estado da Índia. In contrast, Portuguese
America was administered by a governor whose powers were never as extensive
as those of the viceroys. Nevertheless, the basic local colonial institutions
were the same as the ones that existed in metropolitan Portugal: the câmaras
and the misericórdias (Boxer, 1965; Bethencourt, 1998).
Whilst the former organized economic and political life at the local level,
enabling colonists to exercise local power, the latter were confraternities
which tended to admit the same local elites as the ones that belonged
to the câmaras. Their sphere of action was nevertheless concerned
with charity. Like the municipalities, they tended to be formed in the
concelhos, i.e. the same administrative space as the câmaras,
which corresponded to a group of parishes. By the mid-seventeenth century,
there were hundreds of misericórdias in Portugal itself
and over fifty in the colonial territories.
There is no doubt that the Misericórdias were the most important
confraternities in Portugal and its Empire, far outweighing all the other
existing brotherhoods in almost any locality. The first confraternity
was founded in Lisbon in 1498 during the reign of Dom Manuel I (1495-1521),
in times of prosperity. The spice trade was flourishing and the Crown
was one of the main merchant bodies. Vitorino Magalhães Godinho
(1978) demonstrated the increase in royal revenue that occurred during
the reign of Dom Manuel I due to the development of transoceanic maritime
trade. The crown enjoyed political stability and economic prosperity,
enabling the king to introduce significant changes in the legal, institutional
and ritual order. Major and minor reorganizations took place in court,
in religious and political rituals, and in the organization of administrative
and legal structures (Curto, 1998). In this context, the king took advantage
of the possibility of benefiting the new confraternity, both financially
and juridically. As a result, the new confraternity expanded at a fast
pace, both in metropolitan Portugal and its colonies. This expansion allowed
for a maximum amount of local autonomy with a minimum amount of interference
from the central institutions. The Lisbon Misericórdia was
never entitled to any authority over local misericórdias,
apart from giving its advice when needed. Misericórdias
collaborated with one another, and always regarded Lisbon as the "mother"
house, but never with any sense of dependency. Although its statutes tended
to be adopted, frequently with local adaptations, the Lisbon Misericórdia
did not rule over the others. Moreover, the misericórdias
were never archconfraternities, in the sense of ecclesiastic confraternities
linked to a main branch, located in Rome or in other Italian cities, having
jurisdiction over regional confraternities and recognizing the pope or
the local bishop as their supreme authority3. Right from their
beginning and until the end of the Council of Trent, the evolution of
these confraternities followed a logic under which the king was to be
the ultimate authority to which they answered. At the last session of
the Council of Trent, this prerogative was sanctioned when they obtained
the status of lay confraternities under royal protection. This meant a
great deal in terms of state building: the kings of Portugal got to be
the main patrons of charitable action, and the misericórdias
were never to become ecclesiastic confraternities under the authority
of the Catholic Church. In spite of the influence that ecclesiastic dignitaries
or Church institutions might exert over the local misericórdias,
these confraternities always remained within the juridical sphere of the
At the end of the Council of Trent, and especially in the twenty years
after 1563, the misericórdias transformed themselves into
the main administrators of local hospitals through the annexation of municipal
hospitals. The merging of several medieval hospitals into larger institutions
had been taking place since the end of the fifteenth century. Dom Manuel
I had tried to hand several hospitals to the newly-founded misericórdias,
but only after Trent were hospitals systematically incorporated into them.
At the last session of the Council of Trent, it was agreed that the misericórdias
were not to be supervised by episcopal authorities, except in relation
to altars and liturgical equipment. This meant a great degree of autonomy
for every institution run by the misericórdias, including
hospitals, together with the freedom to manage their own financial resources.
Even if bishops and other ecclesiastics could be members, and were often
highly influential in the internal life of the misericórdias,
the Church as an institution was not to rule over them, as they were answerable
only to the king (Sá, 1997b).
Nevertheless, it should be noted that the ideology that pervaded the action
of the misericórdias was entirely religious and, moreover,
was already fully formed before Trent. If we read the devotional books
printed during the reign of Dom Manuel, we can find the basic principles
of the practice of charity by the misericórdias. Charity
was seen as a "working prayer" in contrast to "oral"
or "vocal" prayer, i.e. as the "social life" of devotion.
From the beginning, the misericórdias were associated with
the Marian cult and would never cease to be dedicated to the Virgin, who
was understood to act as a mediator between sinners and her Holy Son.
Her benevolent protection was extended to all those who practiced the
fourteen works of mercy, and she was to be their patron throughout the
history of the misericórdias. The version of Mary that encapsulated
the confraternity's action was the pregnant woman who visited her cousin
Isabel, who was about to bear a child in old age. This act epitomized
the spirit of the confraternity, as it stood for devotion and compassion
towards the needy. The day that commemorated this episode (2 July) became
the main feast of the confraternity, and it also assumed a symbolic value,
since it was mimicked by its members when they visited the needy in houses,
hospitals and prisons.
The cult of the Virgin Mary was also associated with another episode in
her life, the death of her Holy Son. The misericórdias were
never to lose their penitent character, which was especially visible in
processions during Lent (Maundy Thursday), where self-flagellation would
be practiced by all those who joined the cortège. Confraternal
banners would testify to both Mary as the defender of sinners and Mary
as the suffering mother: one side depicted her unfolding her cloak over
humanity and the other represented her holding her dead son after the
Descent from the Cross.
Charity could apparently be one of the means for resolving conflicting
desires between body and soul, through the compensation for sin. Doctrine
described penance as having three forms: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving,
and the latter was seen, long before Protestant charity questioned its
legitimacy, as a working prayer ("oração de obra").
It is also a fact that most of the devotional texts that circulated either
in print or in manuscript had been written a long time before this, precisely
during the years of the spread of lay piety and devotio moderna.
Christine de Pisan's writings, the works of Saint John Chrysostom, Ludolf
of Saxony's Vita Christi, the Sacramental by Sanchez de
Vercial or the Flos Sanctorum, were available in printed form,
and some of them in vernacular language, in the first quarter of the sixteenth
century5. Books such as the Ritual de Coimbra, the Manual
dos Pecados by Garcia de Resende, or the Catecismo Pequeno by
Diogo Ortiz, among other works written by Portuguese courtiers and ecclesiastics,
were also published6. All these works exhorted the believer
to the virtue of charity and to the practice of the fourteen works of
mercy. Without exception, they viewed wealth as a sin that only contempt
for material possessions could make forgivable in the eyes of God. Material
goods, the ones that served the equally sinful body, were to be transformed
into spiritual goods through the generous giving of alms to the poor and
through the practice of the fourteen works of mercy. This charitable ideology
can be observed in the first compromisso of the Misericórdia
of Lisbon, and in some of the rhetoric of the laws issued by Dom Manuel
I. Many of these texts insisted on the vanity of possession and the spiritual
benefits of being poor and helping the poor. There was thus nothing "modern"
about the practices of charity that the crown was trying to introduce.
The visions of poverty and charity that served as meta-narratives to the
practice of the fourteen works of mercy were traditional and medieval
in substance. Only the fact that the crown and the local elites thought
it fit to create confraternities that obeyed a homogenous pattern in an
area that crossed various continents constituted a "modern"
The misericórdias would evolve clearly along Post-Tridentine
lines and adapt themselves to the circumstances of royal government, but
it can be said that the charitable practices of the misericórdias
were Catholic before Catholicism. The devotional climate of spirituality
and self-abnegation dating from these early years would have been lost
by the time the Council of Trent started. But there can be no doubt that
the Portuguese population had fully assimilated the doctrine of salvation
through good works, because it had in fact been practicing it at least
since the end of the fifteenth century. Charity projected the individual
into the afterlife and at the same time sought to attenuate extreme social
and economic inequality by projecting the fiction of generosity into the
social fabric. By transforming the rich into the lesser children of God,
poverty became acceptable. It is also tempting to start studying the emergence
of the tendency to project the individual and not the collective into
the afterlife. In the last years of the fifteenth century, it was still
common to found chantries to honor ones lineage or to establish
the celebration of masses for ones family as well as for the donor
(Rosa, 2000). But, by the end of the sixteenth century, the dying individual
was more and more concerned with his own salvation than with that of his
relatives. During the seventeenth century, the individual concern with
ones own salvation that had been exclusive to the elites during
the times of devotio moderna had spread to the larger strata of
the population. All those who could afford it bequeathed property and
money on behalf of the eternal wellbeing of their own souls. Charity thus
operated at a level that mediated between the guilt of the individual
and the needs of the community. The latter was understood as an organic
collectivity that needed sanctification, but, at the individual level,
it was up to each person to negotiate his or her afterlife.
The key to the success of the misericórdias lies in their
mutual advantages for the king and for the local elites. In fact, the
need to promote the creation of misericórdias from the center
can be circumscribed to the first twenty years. During the reign of Dom
Manuel, most misericórdias were created by direct or indirect
intervention of the king. Nevertheless, even in this initial period, local
seigniorial domains, both ecclesiastic and lay, created misericórdias.
At the time of the king's death, in December 1521, spontaneous local initiative
was sufficient to guarantee the spread of these confraternities.
In the empire, in some cases, misericórdias preceded the
creation of municipalities. They had become the "Portuguese"
language for the practice of charity and the power that this inevitably
brings with it. Across the empire, whether in Africa, Asia or Brazil,
the formation of misericórdias was as inevitable as the
existence of local municipal councils, as historian Charles Boxer was
the first to point out in the 1960s (Boxer, 1965).
The misericórdias: how they worked
Like all confraternities, the misericórdias ruled themselves
by statutes, which took the name of compromissos. In Portuguese,
this word means commitment or undertaking, as every new member had to
swear upon the gospels that he would abide by the rules included in this
text. There were three main regulations approved initially for the Lisbon
Misericórdia. The first one, in printed form since 1516,
was sent to local misericórdias from the royal chancery.
This text was generally not adapted to local circumstances, but this was
not the case with the other Lisbon regulations of 1577 (printed 1600)
and 1618 (first edition in 1619). These were to inspire local compromissos,
often revised versions of the former. The 1577 statutes did not last long,
and the cities that adopted them had to elaborate new compromissos
with the reform of 1618. This was the case with the cities of Porto, Goa
and Guimarães. The compromisso of the Manila Misericórdia
is an exception to this rule. This confraternity, whose creation was inspired
by Portuguese men living in Manila during the Iberian Union (1580-1640),
elaborated its rules by adapting an older version of the compromisso
of the Goa Misericórdia (1595), and the Lisbon edition of
1600 (Mesquida, 2003). The Lisbon compromisso of 1618 was to have
a longer life and a larger number of adaptations than the earlier versions.
At least 19 misericórdias later drew up their own regulations
based on its text (Sá, 2001: 42).
Unlike the misericórdias, most Portuguese confraternities
were not universal in their concerns about charity, and provided a unique
range of charitable actions to those that they helped. Apart from some
medieval confraternities that administered hospitals and managed to survive
until modern times, most confraternities were either devotional or belonged
to guilds. At the parochial level, confraternities such as the SS.
Sacramento, Almas or even Nome de Deus were created after the Council
of Trent and were aimed at the Christianization of the population (Zardin,
2000). They helped to intensify devotion among the population and the
participation of believers in the community, but did not have significant
resources to devote to poor relief. Guild confraternities restricted charity
to the support of members and their families. The misericórdias
can be singled out by the fact that they did not practice inward-looking
charity, i.e. they did not restrict help to their own members, in contrast
to devotional and occupational confraternities. Despite using selective
devices in order to choose beneficiaries, due to the high demand for their
resources, the misericórdias helped a broad spectrum of
social groups, from the middle strata or the shamefaced to the poorest
individuals. The misericórdias were some of the most wide-ranging
charitable institutions in Early Modern Catholic Europe, although the
members of such confraternities also tended to use resources for their
As has been well demonstrated for other European areas, charitable institutions
were crucial as self-help support systems for their members. In the case
of the misericórdias, we know that, by admitting only the
elites of noblemen or craftsmen, these confraternities helped to establish
social frontiers, confirmed the upward social mobility of some, and, above
all, helped many to reproduce their social status. Members and their families
were entitled to high-quality free burials, duly accompanied by the celebration
of masses on behalf of their souls. Other unstated and sometimes illegal
benefits were available to members. They could make (and many of them
did make) financial loans to brothers, give a marriage dowry to a less
fortunate family whose men had traditionally been members, and rent out
property under advantageous conditions. Except for marriage dowries (where
the preference of members daughters could be stated in the form
of written rules), all the practices which favored members directly or
indirectly always bordered on the edge of legitimacy, and were frequently
strictly forbidden by royal and local regulations. The truth is that,
with the accumulation of property, whether in the form of land or money,
the misericórdias became rich institutions whose control
could not be left to chance. On the other hand, the continuing social
and economic prominence of these confraternities depended on their prestige
in the community. Bequests would not be forthcoming if the community could
not rely on the institution to fulfill the obligations included in their
wills (mainly the celebration of a large number of masses) or if rumors
of mismanagement cast a shadow over the institutions reputation.
Loss of prestige could have a high price if it meant a loss of confidence
on the part of the population.
The misericórdias had a limited number of members, related
to the size of the population and local elites. Broadly speaking, towns
had 100 members, medium-sized cities 250-300, whilst in large cities such
as Lisbon and Goa membership could amount to as many as 600. Generally,
there was a divide between noble and non-noble members. Non-noble members
consisted of the middle strata of the population, in other words the local
master craftsmen or even landowning farmers. The main requirement was
that they did not work with their own hands, in order to have enough free
time to fulfill the confraternities duties and obligations. This
also revealed distinct attitudes towards manual labour, which was considered
to be a feature of the lower strata, precisely those who might fall into
poor relief and need charitable help. One of the exceptions to this binary
composition of the misericórdias was the one in Macao, where
the regulations recognized the absence of Portuguese craftsmen in the
city, thus implicitly promoting all the confraternitys members to
the condition of nobility.
Applying for membership in a misericórdia was an elaborate
procedure. Candidates were informed by the ruling boards that a period
of new admissions was coming up and they had to write petitions stating
their age, the name of their parents and grandparents, place of residence,
etc. The confraternity then undertook a private inquiry in order to confirm
the information included in these applications. If correct, admission
had to be sanctioned by the votes of all the members of the brotherhood.
Only white, literate and Old Christian adult males could stand for election,
although research has shown that the admission of brothers was often more
flexible than the rules prescribed in the compromissos, adapting
itself to the morphology of local elites. It was impossible, for instance,
in many colonial cities to restrict membership to whites, as miscegenation
was the rule, so that selection was restricted to Portuguese blood in
the patrilineal line. In other places, the local elite was rural, with
few nobles available to be admitted as first-class members; landowning
farmers could then be admitted under that status. All that was required
was that the people in the hegemonic groups of local society were not
left out of the brotherhood (Sá, 1997: 142); the presence of the
local nobility in these confraternities was the guarantee that self-perpetuating
oligarchies would rule over the misericórdia. Some local
families actually dominated the confraternity for several centuries (Sobral,
The ruling board of the misericórdias was composed of thirteen
members. They formed the mesa, which met at least twice a week
and whose chairman was the provedor. Amongst this group were the
secretary and treasurer: the former was responsible for keeping minutes,
whilst the latter ruled over financial matters. Other members of the mesa
could be entrusted on a monthly basis with other tasks such as visiting
prisoners or taking care of domestic relief, but the mesários
could also delegate such tasks to brothers from outside the mesa.
Of course, the tendency in many misericórdias was to have
a restricted group of active members, whilst most brothers took advantage
of membership without affording any reciprocal dedication to the confraternity.
On the other hand, for the few that took confraternity matters seriously,
this meant their enjoying significant control over the economic, social
and political resources of their own misericórdia. The elitist
nature of the confraternity was reinforced by the fact that it became
very important to control its ruling board. The mesa was chosen
by indirect elections, which soon fell prey to every sort of electoral
manipulation, causing conflicts that often required the intervention of
The misericórdias were also controlled by groups of elders,
who could be part of a board of twenty members, the definitório.
Such a board was composed of men, often with university degrees in theology
or law, who had gained experience in handling the delicate internal affairs
of the confraternity through previous membership or office in the misericórdia.
In practice, this board made all significant decisions of the confraternity.
It remained in operation from the last decades of the sixteenth century
until the 1630s and coincided with an overall tendency toward a bureaucratization
of the misericórdias. In the last years of the sixteenth
century, it was still common to summon all members to collective gatherings
that made important decisions. In 1618, the compromisso did away
with the election of the definitório, and the collectivity
of brothers became less and less visible and lost ground to institutional
In the same way, the beginnings of the confraternity had relied on the
fictional belonging to the confraternity of all those who contributed
alms. Such donors were the confrades as distinct from the brothers,
i.e. the full and active members of the brotherhood, who were actually
scrutinized before being elected and admitted to the confraternity.
This bureaucratization of the confraternity was also accompanied by the
hiring of a larger number of employees who performed all the lesser tasks
associated with charity. They served in infirmaries, controlled doors
as porters, served as factotums and carried funeral biers. Women
cleaned premises, cooked or cared for hospital patients. Of course, each
misericórdia had to rely on a significant number of priests
to celebrate the masses each confraternity had the obligation to perform
as a consequence of death bequests, which by the beginning of the eighteenth
century numbered thousands each year.
The increasing tendency toward bureaucratization of the misericórdias
from their initial years in the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century
is also confirmed by the increasing amount of paperwork. Although informal
acts of charity were still important, especially if the misericórdia
had a regular almsgiving day when alms were handed directly to the poor
at its headquarters, most poor people had to write petitions if they wanted
to apply for regular or "expensive" charity. The members of
the confraternity became increasingly status-conscious, often forgetting
the self-effacement that was inherent in late medieval piety, from which
the confraternity drew its principles in the first years of its existence.
In spite of some occasional pressures from the Crown, which could raise
money from the funds of the misericórdias or intervene in
elections in which conflict arose, it might be said that their internal
matters were left entirely to the discretion of their members. Until the
time of the Marquês do Pombal, there were no systematic orders from
the king putting an end to rigged elections or inspecting the accounts
of the misericórdias (Lopes, 2002).
The agenda of the misericórdias always had the fourteen
works of mercy as its creed, even if their specific enunciation had been
suppressed from the compromissos by the second half of the sixteenth
century. All these works were to be performed, although the importance
of single works varied according to time and place. Contemporaries valued
both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, because all of them without
exception allowed for the exercise of the virtue of charity. In the compromisso
of 1516, the spiritual works were listed first. In fact, praying for the
dead and making peace between enemies through forgiveness were among the
most important acts of charity, and their social importance cannot be
underestimated. Any charitable deed could fall under the scope of the
fourteen works of mercy, except for the obligation to enable single orphaned
girls to get married by giving them a dowry. This practice developed during
the fourteenth century, but was never formally included in the formulation
of the works of mercy (Pullan, 1996). In Portugal, from the beginning
of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, dowering
poor girls became one of the favorite pious legacies included in wills.
Some rich donors enabled the foundation of a conservatory for women by
bequeathing a single large fortune, as was the case in Bahia (Russell-Wood,
Almsgiving: old and new
Indiscriminate almsgiving did not vanish completely from Portuguese daily
life, and it was expected of a new provedor to give generously
the day he took office after the election. Some misericórdias
still kept the habit of handing out money, clothing and food from
their headquarters on a weekly basis. Nevertheless, the tendency was to
draw up lists of poor people who were to receive regular support, even
if publicly (Araújo, 2000). The members of the mesa, or
other brothers appointed to the task, were entrusted with the task of
checking whether the applicant was eligible for help. For the shamefaced
poor, the selective procedure through certification was the same, but
help tended to be given in secret. Brothers working in pairs visited such
paupers in their homes. Often being responsible for specific areas into
which the city had been divided, such visitors were required to be respectable
elders and were never to enter the houses of the poor alone, in order
to allay suspicions of lascivious behavior.
Many misericórdias did not convert all their rents into
money. Some tended to supply themselves with their own productscereals
or other foodsusing them to supply their own hospitals or distributing
them through domestic or outdoor relief. No misericórdia
was ever self-sufficient in terms of food supplies, but few had to buy
all the essential products to feed their poor. Although the compromissos
recommended the conversion of landed property into money by public
auction, some of the land and houses inherited were non-partible and could
not be sold (propriedade vinculada). Macao was once again an exception,
because there was no land to cultivate and thus no food production in
the small peninsula that formed its urban territory. Clothes were also
given to the poor, sometimes through the recycling of deceased patients'
outfits, as a result of pious donations, or were even newly made.
Although the Portuguese Crown very often legislated against the proliferation
of beggars and on several occasions entrusted the misericórdias
with the operations needed in order to license the "true"
ones, the realm and its Empire never witnessed any significant attempts
to confine these "idle" individuals. In fact, the Empire was
in constant need of men and the policy adopted was to channel as many
as possible to the colonies (Coates, 2002). The death penalty was relatively
rare (Paz Alonso and Hespanha) and criminals were easily converted into
exiles (degredados). Before the mid-eighteenth century, there was
no demand for begging to be entirely abolished, either in legislation
or in theological literature. It is also important to point out that none
of the Portuguese misericórdias ever had the task of incarcerating
the idle yet able poor and forcing them to work, as was the case with
Barcelona's Misericórdia, founded in 1584 (Carbonell i Esteller,
1997). The present state of research allows us to assert that there was
no confinement of beggars or vagrants in hospitals in Portugal, in contrast
to what happened in most European areas, Protestant and Catholic alike
(Gutton, 1991; Jutte, 1994: 169-177). Portuguese hospitals were never
involved in the repression of beggary or the introduction of forced labor
(Sá, 1997 and 2001). The creation of institutions specially designed
for beggars, such as the Ospedale dei Mendicanti of Florence (Lombardi,
1988), never took place. Tolerance for begging was well incorporated into
Portuguese culture. The word "esmola" (alms) was often used
in letters that individuals and institutions addressed to the king whenever
they were asking for a royal favor.
By 1618, when a mature version of the compromisso was reached,
the selection procedures for most petitions issued by the poor were virtually
uniform. The candidates stated their identity, place of origin, the name
of their parents and grandparents, and their situation of poverty. The
confraternity then checked such data, often asking their parish priest
to confirm their situation and asking their neighbors about their mores.
This was a secretive procedure, as the identity of the informers was not
to be known, and also because there should be no intention of destroying
the reputation of the petitioner. This system relied on the cooperation
of parish priests and sometimes required correspondence with other misericórdias.
We must also bear in mind that the poor were often transferred from local
prisons to the main courts (Relação) where they awaited
The care taken in the selection of recipients of relief varied in accordance
with the value of the service required. The high cost of dowries, prolonged
domestic relief or stays in conservatories for women restricted the number
of recipients, whilst sick patients in huge hospitals, foundlings and
prisoners reached a high number and were less expensive per capita.
Not only were the costs of dowries, domestic relief and institutionalization
in conservatories high, but these resources also enabled the recipients
to preserve some of the social esteem required by their status. A study
of charitable action in Portuguese colonial contexts also confirms that
preferential treatment was given to individuals who belonged to the colonial
elite, and that institutions that catered to the local converted poor
were segregated from those dedicated to the Portuguese-born "white"
poor. This happened, for example, in Portuguese India, but in Bahia the
main local hospital of São Cristóvão admitted black
and mulatto slaves, Amerindians and also some rare Protestant members
of ship crews (Russell-Wood, 1968). Nevertheless, this was a service designed
for persons of a low social status and, as such, it absorbed the Portuguese
emigrants to Brazil who had not been successful in their quest for social
and economic prosperity. Charitable actions that required high-standard
charity altered the criteria of selectivity by restricting admission to
individuals of white blood, as was the case with marriage dowries and
the local conservatory for women. Local plantation economies, where slaves
were essential assets, also account for the absence of discrimination
in the Bahia hospital, but this situation contrasts with the one to be
found in Goa. There, native converts were admitted to a separate hospital,
whilst whites had their own (Sá, 1997).
Richard Sennet, drawing on the anthropologist Mary Douglas and reflecting
on the feelings that gifts aroused in their recipients, remarked that
charity wounds, as gratitude often implies submission. He quotes Hannah
Arendt (1963: 74-75) "Compassion may itself be a substitute for justice",
since "pity always signifies inequality" (2003: 149). One might
argue, with some reason, that most paupers could not afford the luxury
of losing their self-esteem by begging publicly for help. Nevertheless,
the existence all over Europe, and indeed well into the nineteenth century,
of a special category of privileged poor testifies to the fact that public
recognition of poverty implied a loss of social status and shame to those
who were used to higher levels of respect from society. The vocabulary
for these poor was the same throughout Europe: poveri vergognosi
in Italian, pauvres honteux in French, pobres vergonzantes
in Castilian, shamefaced poor in English (Ricci, 1996). The
institutions that catered to them were the first to be secretive about
the help provided: they were visited with discretion at their homes and
forbidden to beg in the streets. Efforts were made to avoid social disqualification
that might occur as a consequence of visible poverty.
Caring for prisoners and ransoming captives
Italy had its first confraternity exclusively devoted to the care of incarcerated
men founded in Bologna in 1336 and similar ones were soon imitated in
other Italian cities (Terpstra, 1994). To my knowledge, there is no evidence
of confraternal charity in Portugal towards prisoners before the foundation
of the Lisbon Misericórdia, although the care of prisoners
was one of the first purposes of the confraternity right from its very
first years of existence. Assistance to prisoners had deep spiritual significance:
prisoners were compared to the souls awaiting release from Purgatory.
We have to bear in mind that prisons were places where prisoners spent
time before trial, as they awaited the execution of a sentence,
in Portuguese designated by "livramento", a word that literally
means "setting free". Helping the prisoners brought together
several works of mercy, because they had to be fed, dressed, treated in
illness, and buried if necessary. The misericórdias also
encouraged public harmony by engaging in out-of-court settlements between
the contenders and acting as mediators in private negotiations. They also
brought their cases to court, ensuring that prisoners were tried and sentenced
quickly (also in order to preserve the expenditure of the confraternity
over long-term stays in prison). Furthermore, they also saw that they
were quickly delivered to boats if they were sentenced to overseas exile.
In the event of the prisoner being sentenced to death, it was up to the
misericórdia to prepare his or her soul and lead the cortège
to the place of execution. It was also the responsibility of the misericórdia
to bury corpses. Another procession was staged on All Saints Day,
when the prisoners mortal remains would be solemnly collected and
brought to the church of the misericórdia, in order to be
buried the next day.
The misericórdias were not responsible for all those who
were incarcerated. Prisoners had to apply for help and would be assisted
only if it was confirmed that they had insufficient means to support themselves
in prison. Only poor prisoners were entitled to the help given by the
misericórdias, but evidence points to very significant numbers
in big cities where the high courts were located (Oliveira, 2000).
Ever since the Middle Ages, Portugal had been a crusading kingdom, and
war against the Muslim infidels had been a constant feature of its history.
Firstly in the Iberian Peninsula and then, from 1415 onwards, in North
Africa, military campaigns against the Moors, as well as coastal piracy,
gave rise to a thriving commerce in captives. Religious war prisoners
were no common prisoners, because their souls were infected with the danger
of being drawn into the enemy's faith. Even religious images had to be
ransomed. In metropolitan Portugal, the misericórdias only
helped to collect money on behalf of the Crown whenever a general ransom
was organized, and the Trinitarians had had to deal with the logistics
of buying prisoners since the time of Dom Sebastião. In Asia, in
the Estado da India, the Goa Misericórdia was officially
in charge of providing for their release. Nevertheless, it can be said
that religious war prisoners were always a secondary concern in the activities
of the misericórdias. In contrast, the misericórdias
were never to lose their obligation to enter prisons and provide for the
corporal and spiritual welfare of prisoners, as they were also in charge
of ensuring that prisoners attended mass on a regular basis. In the misericórdias,
caring for the bodies of the poor was never dissociated from tending to
Women in Portuguese charity
In Portugal, the participation of high-ranking women in high-profile charity
work waned after the end of the sixteenth century, a time which coincided
with the Post-Tridentine Reformation. In the heart of the Middle Ages,
female members of royal dynasties had become famous through their charitable
deeds. Queen Isabel de Aragão, the wife of Dom Dinis (1261-1325)
devoted her life to charity and was canonized in 1626, after Leo X had
authorized the celebration of her feast locally in 1516. Dona Leonor (1458-1525),
Dom João II's widow and sister to Dom Manuel I, founded the Lisbon
Misericórdia during her period of regency in her brother's
absence and can be held responsible for having influenced the king's initiatives
in charitable matters (Sousa, 2002). After Dona Maria (1521-1577), the
daughter of Dom Manuel I and his third wife Leonor, died, leaving her
enormous spinster fortune to charities, womens foundations became
less and less numerous and donors were increasingly male, although some
conservatories owed their existence to the initiative of local aristocratic
Female charitable action was reduced to private almsgiving, though this
of course is less well documented in serial sources. In Portugal, there
were no female charitable religious orders such as the Dames de Charité
during Early Modern times, and the presence of volunteer aristocratic
women was not observed at welfare institutions such as hospital infirmaries.
After an initial period during which they accepted women as well as men,
the misericórdias forbade female membership, especially
when the distinction between confrades and brothers disappeared.
In some localities, however, women were still able to be members of the
brotherhood and, in some rare cases, were able to serve as provedoras.
Nevertheless, in important colonial, as well as metropolitan, cities,
active participation in charitable institutions was exclusive to men.
At best, women could succeed their husbands as members, in order to retain
the rights to dignified burial ceremonies, to which they were entitled
by the compromissos as the wives of brothers.
Whilst women could not actively participate in institutional charity,
they were, on the other hand, the main recipients of poor relief. Everywhere
sources document an obsessive concern with women, who formed the majority
of those assisted. Poor wives and widows, unmarried mothers or maiden
girls - women are omnipresent in the sources of the various misericórdias
that have been studied in detail. They could be helped in their homes,
forming the majority of the shamefaced poor, be given alms publicly if
they had the status of poor women or apply for marriage dowries if they
were successful in the tough contest between applicants.
There is no reason to think that the evolution of the dowering of poor
girls in Portugal did not follow a similar pattern to the one in Rome.
There, enabling poor girls to get married through the giving of a dowry
was initially an act of individual charity; only in the last decades of
the fifteenth century did it become one of the accepted confraternal practices
of charity, further expanding in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
(Esposito, 1994). In Portugal, poor marriageable girls were already one
of the concerns of testators in the fourteenth century (Pereira, 1972),
but we have not been able to trace the beginning of this practice among
Portuguese confraternities to that period.
As in other Catholic areas, women could be institutionalized in conservatories.
The preoccupation with confining girls in order to preserve or regenerate
their virtue can be considered as one of the consequences of the Council
of Trent, which, according to some authors, is responsible for a greater
emphasis on female purity and the stigmatization of bastardy (Kertzer,
1993: 17-19). All over Catholic Europe, two types of conservatories were
founded, as institutions for honorable women were distinguished from those
designed for former prostitutes or other "repentant" women (Chojnacka,
1998: 71). Whilst conservatories for "pure" women were specially
designed to preserve female virtue until marriage or the convent, institutions
for "stained" women concentrated on regenerating them through
work. With a few exceptions, the misericórdias tended to
manage institutions that safeguarded the sexual mores of maidens until
they were given a dowry, often given by the misericórdia
itself. The interconnectivity of assistance to women was a fact: they
could be withdrawn from their homes to the conservatory and there receive
a marriage dowry. Nevertheless, cases in which the misericórdias
managed reformatories for "impure" women were exceptional. In
Portugal and its empire, the bishops were the main promoters of reformatories
for sinful women, founding them in several cities well into the eighteenth
century and generally naming them after Saint Mary Magdalene, the repentant
prostitute. Such institutions also tended to admit women of a lower social
status than those admitted to the conservatories of the first type.
The compromissos of the misericórdias committed these
confraternities to the help of meninos desamparados, literally
children deprived of support. They made it clear that this notion did
not apply to foundlings, as the law was clear in designating the local
municipalities as the entities responsible for their upbringing. By "unsupported
children" the compromissos meant the children of families
of the deserving poor, often deprived of parental care, and, most especially,
in their first years of life, of breast milk. The care of orphaned boys,
who could be educated and transformed into priests or missionaries, was
often the task of colleges under the authority of bishops (Guedes, 2000).
Orphaned girls, as they fell into the category of marriageable women whose
virtue was to be protected, were often taken care of by the local misericórdias,
as we have seen.
As the largest and most deprived section of the population, children were
a massive group who often required prolonged help. In Portugal, most significantly,
the number of foundlings grew almost without interruption from the end
of the sixteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century. The law committed
the local municipal councils to their upbringing, enabling them to amass
financial resources for them through extra taxation, but the municipalities
often entrusted foundling homes to the care of the local misericórdias.
This was to be a permanent source of trouble for the latter, because the
payments owed by the municipalities were often insufficient and delayed.
Furthermore, the logistics of feeding babies abandoned by the hundreds
or even thousands in each foundling wheel proved to be very
demanding (Sá, 1994). By the eighteenth century, misericórdias
in cities such as Lisbon, Porto, Évora, Coimbra, Bahia and Macao,
among others, had become overburdened with foundlings and had a separate
budget for meeting their costs, which was funded by the municipalities.
Either because there were delays in payments or the money became insufficient
due to the increasing number of foundlings, the relationship between municipal
councils and misericórdias often went through periods of
crisis. Sometimes unwillingly and with many disputes, the misericórdias
of such cities had indeed taken over a responsibility that was not theirs
by Portuguese law.
The fact that child abandonment took place on such a massive scale was
the consequence of the ease with which one could get rid of an unwanted
child. There were foundling wheels available throughout the territory,
granting total anonymity to abandoners. Once more, the contrast with Protestant
countries is striking: no political units other than the Catholic ones
maintained anonymous systems of child abandonment for so long (Sá,
Misericórdias and credit
The Portuguese misericórdias developed their own credit
systems early in the sixteenth century. Their members, especially the
noble ones, enjoyed privileged access to the funds of the confraternity,
at low interest rates, sometimes taking money out of the coffers without
proper registration or regular payment of interest. In the empire, some
misericórdias played a fundamental role in the economy,
such as financing the sugar planters in Brazil or the maritime merchants
of Macao. There is no evidence, however, that the misericórdias
ever specialized in lending money to the poor as did the Italian monti
frumentari, monti di pietà or similar institutions in Catalonia.
On the contrary, this capability seems to have been used by the upper
strata of Portuguese societies, both metropolitan and colonial. It must
be said that the interest rates charged can be considered comparatively
low, as they varied between 5% and 6.25%.
The State also came to rely on the misericórdias to withdraw
money through the system of padrões de juro, a device used by the
Crown in times of greater financial discomfort. The king withdrew large
sums from the misericórdias in exchange for a regular payment
of interest. This situation existed even during the affluent times of
Dom Manuel I, but became especially common during the reign of his successor,
Dom João III, and afterwards when the decline of royal finances
The misericórdias can perfectly well be included in a history of
pre-banking institutions in Portugal, a country where the first bank was
created in the 1820s. Nevertheless, credit was used to lend money to the
Crown, sometimes on an almost compulsive basis, and to the elites that
could manipulate the decision-making processes of the confraternity. Its
use by individuals from the middle strata of society or by the working
groups as a form of cheap credit with charitable intentionssuch
as the Italian montiseems not to have occurred, even if in
some misericórdias loans could be secured against the pledge
The study of the credit activities of the misericórdias
has yet to be inserted in local contexts, as Portuguese historiography
is still discovering the ubiquity of credit among individuals and institutions,
especially religious ones such as Third Orders, convents and lay and ecclesiastical
confraternities. We still do not know the position of the misericórdias
in the local money markets, although we can easily assume that they were
one of the main creditors, as well as the guardians of money placed on
deposit by private individuals. By the eighteenth century, private investment
had transformed the misericórdias into one of the main subscribers
of annuity rents, whose interest had to be paid to lenders.
The organization of institutional charity in Portugal was relatively homogenous
in its metropolitan territory and in its colonies, and relied on supra-parochial
confraternities, the misericórdias, which recruited their
members from the same elite as the local municipal administration. The
advantage of these confraternities consisted not only in the wide range
of services they performed and the resources they managed, but also in
the privileged relationship they enjoyed with the king. After Trent, they
were formally considered as lay confraternities under royal protection.
After 1560, they became more and more concerned with the administration
of local hospitals, thereby incorporating the most significant local charitable
The beginnings of the misericórdias confirm a devotional
climate that was typical of the late Middle Ages, based on the practice
of the fourteen works of mercy. In the early years of the sixteenth century,
spiritual works of mercy were as important as corporal ones, because they
were all involved in the promotion of social peace and the elimination
of conflicts through the virtue of charity, understood as the ability
to forgive through brotherly love. The late sixteenth century and the
seventeenth century witnessed the bureaucratization of these confraternities,
which became drowned in paper work and in detailed classifications of
the poor and their needs, leading to their transformation into institutional
and political entities that became one of the pillars of the local political
order. The confraternity refined the selection procedures of both its
members and the poor that it assisted. As a result, it lost contact with
the collectivity of the brotherhood through the creation of a board of
counselors that made decisions that had previously been the privilege
of the whole brotherhood.
The cult of the Virgin Mary as the mother of mercy led to a feminization
of charity, although only men performed effective charitable work. Nevertheless,
the various rituals enacted by the misericórdias afforded
visibility to the practices of charity they performed, whilst also allowing
the local population to join in the celebrations.
In the empire, misericórdias became omnipresent, being founded
mostly by local initiative, and brought a Catholic sense of identity to
those they assisted. With rare exceptions, being baptized and willing
to confess and take communion was a prime requirement for anyone who needed
to be institutionalized in a hospital. It would be false to say that converted
gentiles were assisted on an equal footing with the colonial elites, since,
in the colonies as well as in metropolitan charity, social discrimination
on the basis of status was the norm. Expensive charity, such as marriage
dowries, prolonged institutionalization in a female conservatory or domestic
relief, was always the privilege of those who might lose their status
if they were not helped. On the other hand, the help provided to those
at the bottom of the social scale was inexpensive at the individual level.
Prisoners, foundlings and poor patients entering general hospitals had
no social image to lose, but total expenditure was high because of their
large numbers. Women, for instance, were reluctant to enter hospitals,
which always had fewer infirmaries for them than for men.
Although the misericórdias played a leading role in local
politics through their elite membership, their control of charitable institutions
and sometimes a share of the money market, they were always allies of
the king, to whom they answered directly. Their autonomy from episcopal
authority, together with their religious ideology in conformity with Catholic
doctrine, made the misericórdias an institution that occupied
an intermediate position between lay and ecclesiastical authorities, between
central and local institutions, between the Early Modern State and local
prerogatives. The key to their success was no doubt ambiguity, the capacity
to serve multiple purposes in the name of devotion. Used as a moneylending
resource by the elites and being a key to the maintenance of social status,
as well as providing a benevolent image of power, the misericórdias
no doubt provided stability to the social, political and economic equilibrium
of the Portuguese areas.
Certainly, the devotional, political and social climate of Portuguese
society underwent many changes between the beginning of the sixteenth
century and the end of the seventeenth century. Social stratification
increased, both in membership and in the selection of recipients of relief.
Relationships between the center and the periphery became increasingly
codified, and the choice of local interlocutors with the king became increasingly
restricted to the local elites. The need for order sacrificed collective
participation in favor of bodies of representatives. Access to charity
was increasingly mediated by bureaucratic and certification procedures.
However, in spite of these changes, charity still formed an important
part of the social life of devotion.
Cf., in particular, the essay by Ole Peter Grell, 'The Protestant imperative
of Christian care and neighborly love', in Ole Peter Grell and Andrew
Cunningham, Health Care and Poor Relief in Protestant Europe 1500-1700,
London, 1997, pp. 43-65.
2 On the importance of the cult of the Virgin Mary and the
saints in Spanish confraternities cf. Maureen Flynn, Sacred Charity.
Confraternities and Social Welfare in Spain, 1400-1700, London,
3 On archconfraternities, see Black, 1989: 72-74. Although
there were archconfraternities where the main branch was located outside
Rome, the term always referred to ecclesiastical brotherhoods under
episcopal authority, which was never the case of the Misericórdias.
4 For a different view on this subject, see Abreu, 2003.
This author suggests that negotiations at Trent were optimized by the
fact that the regency of the kingdom was held by a high dignitary of
the church, Cardeal Dom Henrique. Nevertheless, it is not likely that
Rome expected Portugal to be ruled forever by ecclesiastics. It has
to be remembered that the last session of the council actually confirmed
that misericórdias were lay confraternities under royal
protection. Abreu also mentions the increasing proximity of the misericórdias
and the Catholic Church after Trent, based on the granting of indulgences.
However, the latter were not specific to the misericórdias,
as they were also given abundantly to many other local confraternities.
Furthermore, the "Catholicization" of the kingdom after 1563
is a general issue, shared with other Catholic areas, and cannot be
singled out as being specific to the misericórdias.
5 Pisan, Christine de, O Espelho de Cristina, Lisbon,
Herman de Campos, 1518 (facsimile edition, edited by Maria Manuela Cruzeiro,
Lisbon, Biblioteca Nacional, 1987); [Beja, Frei António de],
Traducção da Epistola de S. João Chrysostomo,
Lisbon, Germão Galharde, 1522; Saxónia, Ludolfo de,
Vita Christi, Lisbon, Nicolau de Saxónia and Valentim
Fernandes, 1495 (modern edition: Magne, S.J., Augusto, O Livro de
Vita Christi em Lingoagem Português. Edição Fac-similar
e crítica do Incunábulo de 1495 cotejado com os apógrafos,
vol. II, Rio de Janeiro, Ministério da Educação
e Cultura, 1950); Flos Sanctorum, Lisbon, Hernan de Campos, 1513;
Sanchez de Vercial, Clemente, Sacramental, Lisbon, João Pedro
de Cremona, 1502.
6 Ortiz, D. Diogo, Catecismo pequeño da doctrina
e instruiçam que os xpãos ham de creer e obrar pera conseguir
a benaventurança eterna, Lisbon, Valentim Fernandes and João
Pedro de Cremona, 1504 (modern edition: Silva, Elsa Maria Branco da,
O Catecismo Pequeno de D. Diogo Ortiz Bispo de Viseu, Lisbon,
Colibri, 2001); Almeida, D. Jorge de, Manuale secundu[m] consuetudinem
alme Colymbrieñ [sic]. Ecclesie, Lisbon, Nicolao Gazzini,
1518; Bragança, Joaquim de Oliveira (ed.), Breve Memorial
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2004, ISSN 1645-6432
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