The Americas 59.3 (2003) 410-412
[Access article in PDF]
Capellanías de Misas, endowments to pay for masses for the souls in purgatory, were as common and as important in seventeenth and eighteenth century New Spain [End Page 410] as home mortgages are today in the United States. Few rural or urban properties were not subject to them, and few individuals who considered themselves gente decente did not consider establishing them as part of their family social and economic strategies. In a sense, they defined colonial Hispanic culture in much the same way that home ownership and a bank mortgage define modern American culture.
Drawing heavily from her previous studies on credit mechanisms and landholding in the colonial period, and adding new archival material drawn primarily from the Mexican national archive, as well as the records of the Juzgado de Capellanías of the Archbishopric of Mexico, Gisela von Wobeser has produced a primer on the mechanism which deals with all aspects of it and the issues involved. The major contribution here lies in her succinct description of the legal structures of the donations, their administration, and the spiritual, familial, and economic motives which moved donors to encumber their funds in this particular way.
The book is arranged in five chapters which consider, in order, the history and legal structure of the living and testamentary bequests and their acceptance and administration by the Church; the question of how donations were given, and how money was invested; biographical profiles of the donors, the administrators, and the chaplains who fulfilled the spiritual obligations tied to the donations; the religious motives behind them; and, finally, the economic side of the institution, particularly how income from investments was handled. Various appendices, comprising about one-half of the book's length, include tables listing the capellanías founded in the province of New Spain, and accounts of income received by the juzgado de capellanías of the archdiocese of Mexico in 1822, and of masses said in fulfillment of the obligations of various capellanías in 1821.
Along the way, the author clarifies a number of misunderstandings about the nature and function of capellanías. First, she emphasizes that capellanías were not an outgrowth of medieval practice, but rather, became popular in New Spain as a result of the Council of Trent, which popularized the pious work of praying for the souls in purgatory and emphasized the efficacy of prayer and masses for the souls of the deceased. Her capsule treatment of this subject in Chapter 1, and her lengthier description of popular attitudes toward salvation in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, in chapter 4 are among the best parts of this book. Although she is not providing the fruits of new research, she effectively describes how Trent focused the popular religious mind. The enormous number of masses supported by these endowments, not only provided for priests who gave other spiritual services, as well, but also concretely reinforced the link between the living church and the "deceased faithful" so characteristic of pre-modern Christian culture.
A second major misunderstanding which professor Wobeser dispells is the idea that the property supporting capellanías was totally controlled by Church administrators. She identifies two types of foundations: "eclesiástica,"and "laica." The first type of foundation involved the formal transfer of property in the form of either cash, real property, or an annuity (gravamen) attached to real property to church [End Page 411] bureaucrats who, in return, accepted the obligation of providing the number and type of masses specified by the donor in perpetuity. These funds were administered directly by the juzgados de capellanías of the various dioceses, which placed the cash at their disposal as censos consignativos in the seventeenth century, and increasingly as depósitos irregulares, in the eighteenth century.