Panel 18 - Maffi - Rural History 2015
Luciano Maffi, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore Milano
Intermediate bodies and social support networks in Italy in the modern age:
the system of giving in Voghera in the 18th century.
To understand the dynamics that in the ancient régime gave shape to the system of giving, it is
necessary to consider the subjects that, under various titles and for various reasons, carried out this
In northern Italy it is possible to distinguish the protagonists who are the sponsors of giving in two
major categories: on the one hand the secular actors and on the other the religious ones. In the first
category it is possible to include the State with its social policies, the local communities, trade
associations, families or single individuals. Among the category of "religious actors", it is possible
to find the dioceses, parishes, religious orders, confraternities and religious social organisations.
This classification, though schematic, taking into account that under the ancient régime clearly
separating the religious bodies from the secular ones is an improper historiographical operation,
nevertheless it allows to understand that to analyse the society of the ancient régime it is necessary
to use a different methodological approach than that required for investigating post-revolutionary
society. The social reality of the ancient régime is based on the coexistence of multiple bodies or
orders which, equipped with their own specific identities, in cooperation and confrontation with the
other institutional entities, contributed to creating that specific institutional reality within the
boundaries of which each exercised their own work. The bodies structuring the society, in fact,
exercised their functions within the local community by leveraging on their own law which
coexisted beside that of the other bodies.
One of the key actions through which the bodies structured their own identities within the
community of membership was to develop, manage and monitor social support networks addressed
to both members of the body itself and those external to it.
Analysing the complex system of the "social support networks" means therefore penetrating the
heart of social, economic, political and religious problems of the communities of the ancien régime,
in which the confines that separate the active and passive actors of giving is not always easily
definable along today's socio-economic categories.
This contribution proposes to reconstruct the social support networks in Voghera in the 18th
century, both through a dispute between intermediate bodies of the society and through the analysis
of the relationship of parishes in preparation for the pastoral visits. The reports about the pastoral
visits, in fact, make note of the main bequests left to the parish and to the confraternities both for
masses and for charitable works. They therefore concern the individual bequests that will become
part of the informal "social support networks" also in rural areas: dowries for poor girls, bread,
money and clothing to distribute to the poor. Also within the "social support networks" of the
ancien régime the institutions of the hospitals have played a role of extreme importance, both as
places of hospitality and assistance for pilgrims or the poor and as places of shelter and care for the
sick. Finally, emblematic is the activity of the "monti frumentari", structures that, administered by
confraternities and the other intermediate bodies, were an important activity of social support and
integration to agricultural work.
2. The socio-economic situation of Voghera
In order to reconstruct the situation in Voghera in the 18th century we have used the parish reports
which, in accordance with the provisions of the Council of Trent, every parish priest was obliged to
draw up for the bishop’s pastoral visit.
In order to restrict the analysis, we decided to limit this research to the reports drawn up for two
parish pastoral visits, the first in 1741 by Giulio Resta, bishop of Tortona from 1701 to 1743, and
the second in 1743 by the Dominican Giuseppe Lodovico Andujar, bishop of Tortona 1743-1782.
We decided to make a comparative analysis of these two sources, as the documentation prepared by
the Voghera parish priest for the visit of the Dominican bishop, who in contrast to his predecessor
visited the entire diocese in person, is much more detailed than that prepared for Resta’s visit. In
accordance with the zealous, rigorous spirit that had marked his inquisitorial career, Andujar
prepared a questionnaire much more detailed than Resta’s, going so far as to ask the parish priests
for a list of books owned and of those held in the parish library.
From a political-institutional standpoint, Voghera was a marquisate and fief of Prince Della
Cisterna. Provincial capital of Oltrepò, it came under the rule of the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1743
following the Treaty of Worms.
The report prepared by parish priest Cesare Zavattini for Bishop Andujar’s pastoral visit showed
that the parish of San Lorenzo, the sole parish of Voghera, counted 5148 inhabitants of which 3608
communicants. The number of clergy amounted to 85, including 19 clerics. In the parish of
Voghera therefore the ratio was one priest for every 60 people. If one considers that, at diocesan
level, this ratio fell to one priest for every 82 people, one understands the strong impact the clergy
had on Voghera, if only in numerical terms.
Alongside a very numerous secular clergy, the parish report highlights a good number of regular
clergy, 261 to be exact, distributed between male and female orders.
There was also a considerable number of religious companies and confraternities.
From a demographic and socio-economic perspective, in the decades considered, Voghera showed
signs of transformation, related both to the dynamics of the general picture of the historical period
and to its annexation to the Kingdom of Sardinia and elevation to the rank of provincial capital.
Voghera is an excellent vantage point for analysing the complexity with which the social support
networks took shape in during the ancien régime. Not surprisingly, aside from some charitable
activities sponsored directly to the civil institutions, such as the community, and by religious
institutions like the parish, most charitable works were the preserve of intermediate bodies, notably
the confraternities and trade corporations.
In these activities, an important role was played by hospitals, which I will discuss shortly. Besides
the hospitals, the report lists twelve parish grain stores, including five administered by
confraternities. The other seven were the Monte della Spina, administered by the canons, the Monte
della Cristoforia managed by the shoemakers’ corporation at the parish church, the Monte della
Beata Vergine at the parish, the Monte di Sant’Antonio managed by the Company of that name in
the church of San Francesco, the Monte di Santa Maria della Montà, at a country oratory
administered by the incumbent of the benefice and, finally, the Monte della Beata Vergine, located
in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, administered by the company of the Immaculate
Among the support activities we also find records of the distribution of money or bread to the poor.
Typical is the case of the College of Notaries, required to administer a legacy regarding the giving
of money to families of "shamefaced paupers". The possibility, recognised in the 18th century, of
notaries who were strangers entering this College meant extending the distribution to poor
foreigners as well as to local people. Likewise, the parish also became protagonist of this action, by
distributing to the poor - especially to the "shamefaced" poor, i.e. to those who, for reasons of social
status, did not want to publicly avow their condition of poverty - alms collected during the sermons
of Advent and Lent. Lastly, distribution of bread is recorded at the Church of Sant’Enrico.
3. The hospitals
Among the welfare activities of the ancien régime, hospitals occupied a role of great importance. As
pointed out by numerous studies that have investigated the function of hospitals in the modern age,
a great change took place between the 15th and 16th centuries in urban areas, both regarding the
actors who promoted this type of structure and the function of these structures that, from place of
hospitality and assistance to pilgrims and the poor, began to be transformed into places of shelter
and care for the sick. In the cities, too, this process was accompanied by the creation of a few large
hospitals, such as the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan and San Matteo di Pavia, managed by the
community or by central government, which replaced the many small hospitals administered by
religious institutions. In small towns and rural areas, on the contrary, the hospitals continued to
have a mainly welfare rather than health function. Among such activities, the report prepared by
archpriest Zavattini included the hospital run by the Confraternity of the Blessed Virgin of the
Assumption of the Carmine, reserved for welcoming the sick poor of the community and foreigners
and the Hospital Degli Esposti di San Rocco that, dependent on the parish church of San Lorenzo,
was administered by the archpriest and two canons of the collegiate church. The income of this
hospital was 493 liras coming from bequests and annual agricultural revenues.
Finally, the report refers to the Hospital of Sant’Enrico attached to the church of San Rocco, an
institution devoted to receiving pilgrims. Around its administration, pertaining to the confreres of
the SS. Nome di Gesù, a dispute arose that will be examined here. At the time of Bishop Andujar’s
visit, this hospital was no longer active, no longer carrying out the reception of pilgrims for which it
had been established, being used as a warehouse for salt. Of particular interest is the distribution of
bread to the poor on the feast of Sant’Enrico in fulfilment of a legacy. This took place in the
Convent of Mercy, to which the confraternity was connected.
In the diocese of Tortona in the mid-18th century, the hospitals maintained a non-specialist
vocation, being active in helping the sick, distributing bread and alms, caring for abandoned
children, providing dowries for poor girls and giving hospitality to pilgrims.
4. Grain stores
A key role in structuring the social support networks in the parish of Voghera in the 18th century
was taken by the grain stores, structures which, administered by confraternities and other
intermediate bodies, gave important social support and integrated the agricultural work.
Let us start with the case involving the grain store run by the Confraternity of SS Nome di Gesù for
which we have ample information from the parish reports, concerning both its mode of operation
and its endowment of grain. From here we can extend the analysis to all Voghera. This survey
allows us to understand the considerable socio-economic and political importance of the network of
grain stores in the parish of Voghera.
On this, we have information regarding three pastoral visits to Voghera by the bishops of Tortona,
Carlo Settala, Carlo Francesco Ceva and Giuseppe Lodovico Andujar in 1673, 1684 and 1754
In the visit by bishop Ceva in 1684, we read that […]
La confraternita ha un monte di pietà di sacchi venticinque formento, quale si distribuisce,
inprestandolo a poveri, quali nel restituirlo donano qualche poco di formento d’avantaggio per
carità, come sarebbe dare il staro colmo, e il tutto si converte a beneficio del detto monte. Si
distribuisce detto formento da due Deputati del Priore della confraternita, quali tengono conto
esatto del formento distribuito, e ne danno notizia al Priore, e Deputati, quando ne sono
From data in the parish reports on the visits of Resta and Andujar, which occurred during the same
period, we can deduce the quantity of wheat held by eight of the twelve grain stores in Voghera
Tab. 1: Quantità di frumento conservata da otto monti frumentari di Voghera
Disciplinati del Carmine
Compagnia S. Sebastiano
Oratorio S. Giovanni Battista
Compagnia S. Antonio
Oratorio S. Maria della Montà
SS. Nome di Gesù
Fonte: ASDT, Visite pastorali, visita Mons. Andujar, F. 45, f. 2. ASDT., Visite pastorali, visita Mons. Resta F. 41, f. 2,
cc. 184-190. Nostra elaborazione.
A quick calculation of the amount of seed grain needed for a hectare of land, at that time considered
to be around 195 kg, shows that the total amount of seed in the eight grain stores out of twelve in
Voghera would allow for sowing 89 hectares of land, a certainly not inconsiderable fact, taking into
Summarium (ASDT, Visita pastorale Andujar, F. 47, f. 4).
account the land ownership situation in the area under study. This flat land has the high fertility
typical of lower Lombardy’s alluvial plains. Its ownership structure, farm management system and
organisational factors of production were varied. In this area, even at very close range, there were
very complex and different dynamics that can be identified only through the study of individual
communities, with their different sizes of farms, higher or lower number of leases and different
impact of aristocratic and ecclesiastical property. This situation is a further element that highlights
the socio-economic complexity in which welfare activities took shape.
It should also be considered that this figure did not have to cover the entire agricultural production
of Voghera, but was only one component of the "social support networks", an integration of the
production itself, to be used by all who needed it.
5. The “social support networks” and conflicts of jurisdiction between bodies: the dispute
regarding the hospital of San Rocco
The founding of the confraternity of San Rocco, also known as SS Nome di Gesù, dates back to
1576-1577 when, following the outbreak of a serious plague epidemic, some inhabitants of the town
of Voghera joined together to ask for the intercession of the saint. Not having an oratory of their
own, the confreres asked the Dominican Fathers, present in Voghera since the 14th century, for
perpetual use of the sacristy and church of San Rocco, pledging to complete the construction, begun
The agreement between the confraternity and the Dominican order left to the latter jurisdiction over
the church of San Rocco. It included the running of the hospital, which, like the church, was
enlarged by the companions of San Rocco through purchase of some buildings adjacent to the
church, required to accommodate the pilgrims.
On arriving in Voghera in 1754, Bishop Andujar found obstacles in visiting the hospital of
Sant’Enrico, both from the Dominican fathers and by the confreres of St. Rocco. In defiance of the
bishop’s rights, in fact, the magistrate of Voghera took control of the confraternity’s books, thereby
preventing Andujar from inspecting them. The bishop then appealed to the Senate of Turin and,
while recognising the legitimacy of the magistrate’s action, denounced to the civil authority what he
considered a premeditated scheme, implemented at the time of the visit and designed to underline
the subordination of ecclesiastical to secular power2.
ADT, c. 203 Visita pastorale mons. Andujar. Lettera del 22-06-1754 scritta dal vescovo al conte Caissotti di Santa
Vittoria magistrato e presidente del Senato di Torino.
As well as the magistrate’s action, the Dominican fathers forbade the bishop of Tortona from
visiting the oratory of St. Rocco and its hospital.
Bishop Andujar, however, cited chapter VIII of session XXII of the Council of Trent, which
allowed for authorisation of visits by apostolic delegates even to confraternities and hospitals
having the privilege of exemption, and in 1754 he won the right to visit the church of San Rocco.
Inspection of the hospital revealed that the institution was no longer carrying out its activities of
social support, but was acting as a salt warehouse. The bishop therefore ordered the return of the
hospital within a year to a structure for receiving and accommodating pilgrims, the penalty for noncompliance being interdict.
In 1755, the bishop’s orders having been ignored, the penalty was automatically applied, which
helped to further exacerbate the tones of the long-standing issue.
Facing interdict, the confreres resorted to the magistrate of Voghera and the Senate of Turin, but
without achieving the desired results. The confraternity of San Rocco therefore appealed to the
Milan Curia which, despite Andujar having visited the diocese as an apostolic delegate, accepted
the confreres’ appeal and acquitted them with "reincidentia" from the bishop of Tortona’s ruling,
but required that they commit to returning the hospital to its original function over a four-month
period. In the face of this ruling by the Milan Curia, the Curia of Tortona appealed to the Tribunal
of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome which, on 12th March 1757, admitted the appeal of the Bishop
of Tortona, recognising the validity of the censures hurled by Andujar and rejecting the measures
taken by the curia of Milan.
At the end of the four months decreed by the Milan curia to the confreres of San Rocco for restoring
the hospital administered by them, Andujar took note of non-compliance with this ruling. On 10th
June 1757 Antonio Fiore, an official in charge of the curia of Tortona’s police, posted the interdict
on the door of the church of San Rocco.
In response, the confreres, in order to highlight the rectitude of their actions and above all to affirm
their identity as an association, which they believed threatened by the bishop’s ruling, rang the
church bells from eleven at night until seven in the morning. Such conduct was prohibited by the
interdict, though the confreres had acted thus after the first interdict hurled in 1755 by the bishop of
Tortona against the oratory of San Rocco.
From the words of the prior of the Dominicans, Domenico Francesco Piccioni, we learn that the
confreres, after ringing the bells all night, on the morning of the 11th and the following day had two
masses said by an anonymous Franciscan Zoccolant friar, an act judged by Piccioni as illegal.
Of particular interest in understanding the complexity of the case are the documents produced by
the civil, not just the ecclesiastical, side. On 13th July 1757, Count Caissotti sent a letter to Bishop
Andujar in which he gave a positive opinion regarding the annulment of the meeting of the
confraternity of St. Rocco on 31st May of that year, when they met to elect representatives of their
association. The bishop had in fact sanctioned the annulment because they had not invited the
archpriest, who was entitled to participate in electing the representatives of confraternities.
The Senate of Turin, of which Count Caissotti was the first president, annulled the meeting of 31st
May and charged the royal magistrate of Voghera with calling another meeting with the presence of
The Bishopric of Tortona took the dispute with the confraternity of San Rocco in Voghera to the
Sacred Congregation of the Council. On 26th January 1760 the Council issued a judgment in which,
together with the validation of the visit by the Bishop of Tortona, it declared the interdict hurled in
1757 to be illegal. This ruling absolved the confreres from censures issued by Andujar. The
judgment of the Congregation of the Council also reiterated that administration of the church, the
hospital and the mount of piety was the task of the Dominicans, but at the same time, indicated that
the confreres of St. Rocco should run the hospital, which they were required to restore to its original
functions of place of hospitality for the poor and pilgrims.
We have attempted to reconstruct here the dispute, as an incident through which, over the centuries,
the identity of the parish of Voghera took shape. This dispute is a vantage point for reflecting on
some socio-economic and religious issues, to which Italian historiography has not paid particular
Firstly, analysis of the evidence considered shows that, even in the late eighteenth century, the
objective pursued by enlightened rulers such as Maria Teresa in Habsburg Lombardy and Carlo
Emanuele III of Savoy in Piedmont of making the parish the centre of religious life of the
community and the parish priest a kind of public servant taking on the role of moral and civil
guidance of the faithful, was still far from being fully achieved.
In the context of Voghera, we see that alongside the parish of San Lorenzo - especially important
considering it was the only one in the town - many bodies continued to exist and to exercise a
religious and socio-economic function of great importance. These entities, in various ways,
challenged the parish organisation for monopoly of control over the religious sphere and activities
related to it. Chief among these were the confraternities, trade corporations, religious orders, civil
authority, divided among the communities for the local dimension, and state power at a supraterritorial level.
Secondly, the dispute generated around the running of the hospital of San Rocco in Voghera allows
us to refine a method of analysis rather different from that used by historians investigating
jurisdictional disputes between the various social bodies during the ancien régime.
The dispute analysed here, whose origin derives from jurisdictional issues, actually belies a deeper
significance regarding the management of facilities that, in rural areas of the ancien régime, made
up that complex system we have here called the "social support networks".
The charitable action that social bodies undertook to carry out, through the most varied forms and
systems, in fact assumes an important role that can be seen in two dimensions contemporaneously –
the socio-economic and the "political identity". The very origin of this dispute is strictly related to
the socio-economic aspect, as evidenced by the fact that the bishop during his pastoral visit claimed
the right to inspect not only the functioning of the structures managed by the confraternities and the
religious orders, but also their management of the assets. For their part, the members of the
confraternity and the Dominican friars claimed full independence precisely regarding the
administration of the welfare facilities that fell under their jurisdiction.
Moreover, charitable activity should not be thought of as a mere act of charity but as an action with
an important economic value, deriving from assets of property and capital income. This economic
value, which translates into "social support networks", is also an important means of affirming the
identity through which the various social bodies affirmed their right to exist "politically" within the
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