Vergers, Churchwardens, Burghers. Self-administration of the Parish in Utraquism

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Vergers, Churchwardens, Burghers.

Self-administration of the Parish in Utraquism
The question this book attains to answer is, whether there were or had developed any specific ways of joint lay responsibility in administration of parishes and whether such peculiarities might in some way have reflected the Utraquist ecclesiology. It also reflects the present debate mainly within the frame of the Catholic Church on rights of laymen in decision-making and ruling the parishes. This work covers the whole period from conclusion of the so-called Compactates at the Council of Basle to the beginning of the re-catholization after the Battle of White Mountain. However, the condition of preservation of sources have inevitably directed the focus of research towards the period c. 1600 and the main attention was thus at the royal towns in Bohemia, including several ambitious nobility ruled towns. The presented work tries to take advantage in every possible way from contemporary research in history of the parishes in late Middle Ages and Early Modern times in Czech, German, and English historiography.

The earliest traces of the distinction between clergy and laymen can be found already in New Testament times. Even at the time of its sprouting, the Church was not an egalitarian community, very early also; differentiation on the basis of specific task assignments can be seen. Already in Paul's epistles to Corinth as well as in other New Testament writings, places can be found where funding of apostolic activity comes into question and in the same times rise of church authorities can be distinctly seen. Before the Constantinian shift, however, the life of the Church concentrated in small communities, but after it was mainly the hierarchy, which was gradually built up.

Parishes originated only in Middle Ages in the transalpine regions, where the territories of particular dioceses were large. They were interconnected with the standing structure of feudal ownership. The system of owned churches, which is later reduced to patronage right, and the system obligatory pastoral and sacramental care arise. The property of the church is first bound together with the benefice, i.e. a fund the yield of which is at the disposal of the priest be it for his personal consumption, be it for other purposes. Quite early, however, a special funding for the church fabric starts to be set apart, which is designated solely to cover the expenses incurred by building ad maintenance of the church and sacral costs. The church fabric is administered by special officials, churchwardens, responsible to the patron or the donors. Thus church fabrics, understood primarily as a possession of God or a saint, happened to become the oldest corporate bodies.

Towns, which originated in the central part of the Continent as autonomous and privileged bodies, were from their very beginnings confronted with the situation that churches within their territory belonged to another subject of law. There was an increasing strain to change this situation: Both particular burghers as individuals and the whole town communities endeavoured to change it by establishing new church foundations under their control and later by purchasing the patronage rights to the old ones. This causes also increased representation of lay burghers in church administration. In Augsburg, all burghers of a parish would be congregated in a so-called Zeche, and cases are documented from there of miscellaneous ways by which the ecclesiastics were coerced to resign at domination over church incomes, e.g. collection refusal. We can watch how the vows of church fabric officials, originally taken by the parson, are later made to the lay parish superiors. Principal changes in the relation between the burghers and the parish had thus come to pass in German cities already before the onset of Reformation, which, to the contrary, did not bring about any substantial change here.

Situation in Bohemia was different insofar that establishing and development of parishes, as well as towns, was slower here, and Bohemian reformation also took place a century earlier than the German reformation. Before the Hussite period, the church fabric was usually not separated from the benefice, and patronage rights owned by burghers or town communities were extremely rare. The ecclesiology of the Hussite movement did not overestimate the role of local church communities, its main focuses lay within the framework of universal reformation of the church at whole, following in this the exemplary thought of John Wycliffe. But while Wycliffe called for reformation by the secular power, Bohemian reformers (as for example Jakoubek ze Stříbra) stress more the role of plain non-regular clergymen. Crucial fact for the emancipation of the lay population, was however adoption of the cup for laymen, and this measure it was, too, that totally changed the relation between laymen and clerics. In Bohemian towns were the patronage rights after 1419 simply usurped and they remained in the hands of the communities also after the end of the war. These acts were the preconditions for functioning of a model which is subject of the present work.

The period of revolutionary radicalism (1415–1421) had virtually eliminated all differences between a layman and a cleric. The existing model of parochial division, territorially defined and based on the obligatory pastoral care and tithes was subdued to criticism. The ecclesiological viewpoints can be documented through later sources: confessions from the reformation period and Church statutes of the Brethren Unity adopted at a synod at Žeravice in 1616. The model of church, how understood by Bohemian Brethren is one of a church built from below, from the level of particular congregations, where spontaneity rules. In the 16th and 17th Century, however, the congregations of the Brethren suffered the supremacy of the church leadership, whose task was appointing of ministers. In property issues, an analogy of patronage right developed there. Perhaps the most “democratic” church establishment in the time of reformation can be found among the Calvinists. But even here it was not due to theological reasons, but due to analogy to the secular order. It can also be seen that there are smaller tendencies towards exertion of power in those denominations which form a minority in their countries.

First of the issues to be considered in the question of lay administration is how the parishioners could influence an appointment of a parson. The election of a parish priest was not a common event in Bohemia before, during or even after the Hussite revolution. During this period, we can use individual cases to document various means by which the ecclesiastical community could influence the appointment of a parish priest. There are small villages among these cases, but the most convenient environments were towns as corporate institutions. The places which acquired the right of election by late medieval foundations usually lost their divergence before the Hussites. Before the Hussite reformation, there was space for the self-realization of individuals through individual foundations and within confraternities. In the times of the Hussite wars, priest positions were taken in a non-canonical way and the free royal towns could operate as a patronal authority. In the course of the further development of Utraquism, no further formal changes took place. The Utraquist consistory fully respected local traditions, which could be different even between individual churches in one town. However, it is possible to trace at least verbal proof of the expression of the will of parishioners in written sources. In the second half of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century, conflicts between burghers and the priest regarding the confessional orientation and its liturgical expressions grew stronger. Within the Utraquist church, Lutheran, Calvinist and conservatively-Utraquist thoughts met. Not accepting a priest then became a demonstration of divergence of opinion.

But our main interest lies with laymen in parish administration. Ongoing differentiation among the tasks of vergers and churchwarden is followed, whereas in some parishes even other specialised functions may be found. The function of a churchwarden was usually honorary, non-remunerated one, while the work of bellman could earn a humble living. That is why the social status of those investing even such functions is observed. Important events as regular reckoning, appointing of new churchwardens or vergers required the whole community to be assembled. The sources show how such convocations were called together, what took place there and how missing at them were sanctioned.

On the basis of source material from the 16th and the beginning of the 17th Century, the functions of municipality and church fabric and their mutual relationships are portrayed in a whole series of Bohemian Utraquist towns, principally those under direct royal administration. Town communes under consideration can be divided into three groups. In the first group there was no legal title for church fabric, but the term itself was used; there were no churchwardens, all issues of church fabric were the immediate responsibility of the town council. In the second group of communes, the church fabric was formally separated from the town council, but the churchwardens were subject to it; they were appointed by it and accountable to it. In the third group, represented mainly by the Prague towns, but also by some smaller towns, a true self-administration can be seen: Vergers and churchwardens are elected by the parishioners. Even after 1593, when in the Prague Old town churchwardens were appointed by the city council, assemblies of parishioners retained part of the authority in these issues.

To enlarge the scope of comparison for the studied subject and not to limit it purely to Utraquist parishes, the decision-making procedures in the congregations of Bohemian Brethren were taken into account too, as well as those of the post-re-catholisation exiles in Saxony. The congregations of the Brethren appear to be more influenced by the nobility and the priests while controlling the property is less sophisticated. But the Saxonian exiles betrayed in many respects a strong line of connection towards Utraquism, much more distinct than toward the Brethern Unity. There was also a strong influence of the Lutheran orthodox movement from Saxony. Thus, the question of church self administration appears to be much more dependent on political circumstances, than on the church constitution of the particular denominations.

An example of a conflict situation is the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague: In the second half of the 16th Century it became a matter of controversy between the Town Council of the Old Town of Prague and Prague University. This controversy have been mapped in the historiography principally according to the pattern of denomination and confession development, while our main concern is, what such a controversy might have meant for local dwellers whose parish church it was, and we have tried to study, how it was just them who by personal engagement provided for necessary repairs in the time when the University, the rightful owner of the patronage did not practically heed the Chapel at all.

Another of our tests concentrates upon the above said regulation of the year 1593 by which the town Council of the Old town of Prague abolished election of churchwardens by a general assembly of all so entitled burghers of the parish. We have identified the roots of such a step first in a common disorder in administration of church fabric, which had prevailed in the years before this act, then in an atmosphere of mounting denominational conflict, which had provoked the City to better control of its parishes, and, at last, also in an overall rise of bureaucratism in town administration, connected undoubtedly with precipitous unfolding of the Rudolphine capital. As a consequence of this regulation, reconstitution of church administration in many churches took place. For example beginning of new books can often be documented.

Another of the discursions in the book focuses on the person of Jan Kotva (†1608). This man was since 1590s the senior of the coachmen's guild in the Old Town of Prague as well as a churchwarden at the St.Valentine's church. In both these corporations he upheld their reorganisation and had put down prescriptions for their further functioning. These writings of his allow to find out what his ideas of administration of public belongings were. Jan Kotva was provably an unschooled man, just in the capacity of reading and writing and the views and concepts of proper administration of a church or a guild he arrived at were of his own.

The last part of the book is devoted to the economy of church fabric. In this part of the book various kinds of preserved accounts are presented. Since the structure of incomes and expenses of church fabrics has already been matter of a comparatively comprehensive historiographic concern, this part focuses on special cases.

Weekly church accounts from the utraquist period are introduced as a specifíc type of source which can demonstrate various interpretation procedures and help us obtain knowledge about various aspects of religious life. The records of church accounting broken down into individual weeks represent a very precious material which can provide us with much more information than records from churches where expenses were only reported annually.

The chapter deals with surviving account collections from Kutná Hora (St. Barbara Church), Kaňk, Rakovník and Soběslav. The formal aspect of the accounts is analysed and the accounts are introduced as a source of information about social and liturgical life. The changes in the Sunday fund-raising yields can document what importance was placed on the respective liturgic period. The variations in the consumption of sacramental wine inspired the author to think of the frequency of lay Holy Communion and to offer a new view of the discussed questions of the performance of Old-Utraquist liturgic habits in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Next specific probe is concerning funerals. The practical realization of funerals in urban society was connected with the church fabric. Bookkeeping represents the main source of understanding of the economic aspect of a funeral. In the 1590's decrees controlling prices connected with funerals particularly during plague epidemics start to appear.

The funeral expenses went to a number of individual tasks: carpenters for making the coffin, stole for the vicar, fee for ringing the bells (the costs consisted of payments to the bell-ringers and charges for amortization of the bells), funeral processions, candles, pupils' singing, graveyard ground, digging the graves, etc. In terms of church fabric, the social dimension is important when differentiating prices of funerals. Besides the pupils' support, it is the only church fabric proceeding where we meet with direct social acting.

The poorest people's charges went down under the real cost of the funeral and in some cases not even a symbolic fee was required. Among the more affluent classes, however, prices differentiated according to the staging of the funeral ceremonies. Together with specifications regulating funeral prices, we find price enumerations of funerals carried out at the break of the 16th and 17th centuries (records from Nymburk and Rokycany have been studied). Individual records partly reveal the social status of the buried people. These data may serve as a source of demographical situation considering the fact that the municipal parishes covered the whole town territories. Abrupt fluctuations in the number of funerals need a correction in respect to the varying length of fiscal years; nevertheless, it is possible to demonstrate sudden fluctuations of mortality on them.

As a parallel to our finding that the elements of self-administration were not – at least not at a large scale – an outcome Utraquist movement, but much more to the effect of the development of secular administration, we must observe that neither the re-catholisation after 1620 had meant a fundamental blow for the administration of church fabrics. During the 17th Century however the supervision of church fabrics by the archbishopric appeared and the influence of parishioners lessened. The old church fabric property also lost a lot of its value, and new arising foundations had a different type of administration. The final end of the particularities which had singled out the church fabric from other types of property came nevertheless only in the 19th Century, together with the massive centralism of the Roman Catholic church, while its formal abolition took place not earlier than in the 20th Century.

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