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Piety and Poor Relief: Confraternities in Medieval Cremona, c. 1334-1499

Piety and Poor Relief: Confraternities in Medieval Cremona, c. 1334-1499

By Barbara Anna Sella

PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 1996

The Assumption of the Virgin, Italy, 14th century, from British Library, Additional 32058

Abstract: This dissertation focuses on confraternal piety and poor relief in the northern Italian city of Cremona between the mid-fourteenth century and the end of the fifteenth century. It draws upon previously unedited archival documents (Latin and Italian statutes, contracts, letters, and account books) housed in Cremona’s Archivio di Stato. The records of the Consortium of the Donna (f. 1334) and the Consortium of St. Omobono (f. 1357) were examined to show the origin, character, and activities of these two confraternities.

One result of this research concerns the reasons for and the methods by which the cult of the Virgin’s conception spread throughout northern Italy in the mid-fourteenth century. The cult spread both because Franciscan friars sponsored lay confraternities in honor of the Virgin’s conception, and because the feast so closely resembled other well-established Marian feasts. More importantly, although these new confraternities were founded a generation after Duns Scotus had presented his defense for the Virgin’s “immaculate” conception, confraternal statutes suggest that the Franciscans were not openly publicizing the immaculist position of their Order.

A second conclusion is that the Consortium of St. Omobono was founded not just to promote charity and combat heresy, but also to restore some of the civic pride of a city that in 1334 had been conquered and incorporated into the Duchy of Milan. The establishment of a confraternity in honor of Cremona’s patron saint gave the Cremonese a renewed sense of their own unique identity. Furthermore, it gave the confraternity’s administrators a sense of purpose and autonomy in relation to the Milanese authorities.


A third result pertains to the transformation and rationalization of confraternal charity in northern Italy. Here the work of the Cremonese confraternities is compared with that of charities in neighboring Milan (particularly the Scuola delle Cluattro Marie). Innovations included the adoption of city-wide distributions, double entry accounts, and identifying tokens. These innovations permitted the confraternities to assist the poor on a larger scale than previously recognized.

Click here to read this dissertation from Library and Archives Canada



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