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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

Strictly non clerical or even anti clerical


The

non-ecclesiastical religious feeling, however, appears much more clearly when the history of the charitable foundations is examined. The invariable custom during the earlier Middle Ages was that charitable bequests were left to the management of the Church and the clergy. At the close of the fifteenth century the custom began to alter. The change from clerical to lay management was at first probably due mainly to the degeneracy of the clergy, and to the belief that the funds set apart for the poor were not properly administered. The evidences of this are to be found in numerous instances of the civic authorities attempting, and successfully, to take the management of charitable foundations out of the hands of ecclesiastical authorities, and to vest them in lay management. But this cannot have been the case always. We should rather say that it began to dawn upon men that although charity was part of the law of Christ, this did not necessarily mean that all charities must be placed under the control of the clergy or other ecclesiastical administrators. Hence we find during the later years of the fifteenth century continual instances of bequests for the poor placed in the hands of the town council or of boards of laymen. That this was done without any animus against the Church is proved by the fact that the same testator is found giving benefactions to foundations which are under clerical and to others under lay management. Out of the funds thus accumulated the town councils began
a system of caring for the poor of the city, which consisted in giving tokens which could be exchanged for so much bread or woollen cloth, or shoes, or wood for firing, at the shops of dealers who were engaged for the purpose. How far this new and previously unheard of lay management, in what had hitherto been the peculiar possession of the clergy, had spread before the close of the fifteenth century, it is impossible to say. No archaeologist has yet made an exhaustive study of the evidence lying buried in archives of the mediaeval towns of Germany; but enough has been collected by Kriegk(95) and others to show that it had become very extensive. The laity saw that they were quite able to perform this peculiarly Christian work apart from any clerical direction.

Another interesting series of facts serves also to show the growth of a non-ecclesiastical religious sentiment. The later decades of the fifteenth century saw the rise of innumerable associations, some of them definitely religious, and all of them with a religious side, which are unlike what we meet with earlier. They did not aim to be, like the praying circles of the Mystics or of the _Gottesfreunde, ecclesiolae in ecclesia_, strictly non-clerical or even anti-clerical. They had no difficulty in placing themselves under the protection of the Church, in selecting the ordinary ecclesiastical buildings for their special services, and in employing priests to conduct their devotions; but they were distinctively lay associations, and lived a religious life in their own way, without any regard to the conceptions of the higher Christian life which the Church was accustomed to present to its devout disciples. Some were associations for prayer; others for the promotion of the "cult" of a special saint, like the confraternities dedicated to the Virgin Mother or the associations which spread the "cult" of the Blessed Anna; but by far the largest number were combinations of artisans, and resembled the workmen's "gilds" of the Roman Empire.

Perhaps one of the best known of these associations formed for the purpose of encouraging prayer was the "Brotherhood of the Eleven Thousand Virgins," commonly known under the quaint name of _St. Ursula's Little Ship_. The association was conceived by a


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