Friday, 2 February 2018

JEH 69/1: Begging to differ

In the riches of the January number of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, some readers may miss Martin Elbel’s wonderful article, because it has ‘Bohemian’ in the title and they will think, that’s not my patch. But even if, like Shakespeare, you think Bohemia has a sea coast, you should read this one.

One of my regular gripes about a lot of academic history is that we skate over awkward practical issues: the straightforward physical realities of life in the past. We are so used, for example, to dealing with money as an accounting fiction which can be transferred electronically that we find it difficult to recall the sheer complexity of handling financial transactions when it all had to be done using actual coin. Elbel tackles one of these issues head on.

It’s well-known that Franciscans and other friars were ‘mendicant’ orders, that is, they were supposed to sustain themselves by begging for alms. But it is not nearly so well known what that actually meant in practice. Using a particularly fine set of records relating to the convent of Olomouc in Bohemia, as it was restored after the Thirty Years’ War, Elbel spells it out. Mendicancy was not a matter of a friar wandering round the marketplace seeing what he could get: it was highly organised. The region was divided into begging districts, and there was an annual cycle of tours, friars covering hundreds of miles on foot to beg in pre-arranged areas. Butter in June and July; poultry in August and September; oil in January; hay in June; and wine from south Moravia in October. They would go in pairs, accompanied by a lay volunteer who helped carry the stuff – and friars regularly tried to wriggle out of the obligation. In 1773, the convent’s total takings included 150 geese, over a ton of butter and a whopping 18,000 eggs. Which sounds like a lot, but for a community of fifty people that is not quite one egg each per day. When all this was converted into monetary value for the community’s records, they come out as genuinely poor. When Joseph II dissolved the convent in 1785, the annual stipend he gave the ex-friars was a significant increase on their former ‘income’. Henry VIII would have been turning in his grave.

Of course, there is much more to this article than counting eggs: the real point is to think about how the huge web of relationships implied by all that regularised begging worked, the sacral services which the friars offered in return (they were mocked for having mastered the ‘art of transmuting little images, square bits of paper, amulets and other similar trifles, into wine and meat’), and the connections it gave them to the structures of secular power, who helped them to deal with monetary gifts while preserving the formal rule that they weren’t allowed to handle cash. It’s a fascinating article with some important conceptual consequences. But like an ill-shod friar lugging home a basket of eggs, it always keeps its feet on the ground.

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