When the first misericórdia was created in 1498, Lisbon was trying to erase the wounds of the violent expulsion of the Jewish communities from the kingdom, and the confraternity was born under the concern of reuniting baptized persons who wanted to exercise charity. The misericórdias were soon to be founded all over the kingdom and its empire, acting as prebanking institutions and rivaling with local institutions like the municipality or the bishopric. Their importance was based mainly upon moral authority, as they tended to cater for most situations of poverty. Even if other local institutions practised charity, they were not generally able to attain the same scale of human or economic resources, as the misericórdias relied on the voluntary work of their members and attracted substantial postmortem donations. They responded directly to the king and were largely out of the control of competitors. By contrast, royal authority was too weak to impose an effective control; the first serious attempts to do so date from the marquis of Pombal’s consulate (1750–77). In spite of misunderstandings and conflicts with the Crown, it is undeniable misericórdias gave an important contribution to the formation of local communities, participating in the dynamics between center and periphery. In spite of the variety of their geographic and demographic contexts, they could always be recognizable by central powers as abiding to the same principles. However, the elites who governed them were free to transform misericórdias into institutions capable of motivating their participation. Between obedience to the king and local management of resources, there was ample space for social action.


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pp. 121-135
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