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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 230-246

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A Thousand and More Women:
the Register of Women for the Confraternity of Misericordia Maggiore in Bergamo, 1265-1339

Maria Teresa Brolis*


In the last forty years, interest in the social composition of confraternities, their welfare activities, and their place in politics and religious life has produced numerous books and articles dealing with confraternities throughout northern and central Italy. 1 One important body of sources is found in matriculation lists, which, even if difficult to analyze, are essential for a better understanding of the development of confraternities as well as for the study of population. These lists throw light on the still not well-studied role of women in confraternities, the subject of the present article.

Gilles Gérard Meersseman and Cinzio Violante debated the importance of women in confraternities in 1960. 2 More recent research has [End Page 231] shown that women were enrolled in confraternities in Umbria and in Bergamo. 3 But the register of women members of the confraternity of Misericordia Maggiore in Bergamo provides an opportunity to study a substantial number of women participants in confraternity life over a period from 1265 to 1339, when sources of this kind are rare.

The Misericordia Maggiore was founded in Bergamo in 1265 under the auspices of the bishop, by the Dominican Pinamonte da Brembate, who composed its rule. 4 From its beginning, it admitted women on the same basis as men. Men and women participated equally in all the activities of the confraternity both spiritual and temporal. 5 But, at some point in the fourteenth century, there seems to have been a change in policy forbidding visitation by women of those imprisoned. 6 Men were required to undergo a one-year period of probation, but this was not the case for women. 7 While there is ample evidence that women played a significant role in both religious and welfare activities—witness such a figure as St. Elizabeth—this source provides an unparalleled opportunity for study of their social position as well as their influence.

The Misericordia was by no means alone among confraternities in Bergamo at this time, but it was the largest. Its size—there were more than seventeen hundred women members—was a reflection of its role in civic affairs. It was born out of the strife between the popolo and the [End Page 232] milites. 8 These factions, led by important families, the Rivola and Bonghi (popolo) and the Suardi and Colleoni (milites), dominated the political and religious life of the city in the second half of the century. Each furnished a bishop in the late thirteenth century. 9 The pars populi dominated municipal government and, after 1289, was supported by the Società delle armi di S. Maria Maggiore. 10 The Suardi were allied to the Visconti Lords of Milan, who succeeded in subjecting Bergamo to their rule in 1315.

Female Membership in the Period 1265-1339

In the register of women in the Misericordia, members are listed by neighborhoods. There are twenty-one urban and two rural lists. Within each list, names are inscribed chronologically by different copyists in three separate periods: hands A and B and related writers for the period 1265-1274; hand C for 1274-1296; hand D and related writers, 1297-1339. The evidence in the accompanying table shows that the confraternity grew rapidly in its first thirty years. (See Appendix 1.) There are about one thousand entries for this period. The notary, Bergamino de Marchisis, who was the principal scribe during the second period, 1272-1296, wrote almost five hundred names, but the number of entries fell sharply in the fourteenth century. Among the reasons for this decline was a political crisis that broke out in 1296 and undermined the "civic religious" identity that had led to the founding of the Misericordia. 11 The confraternity changed, gradually moving away from its role as a neighborhood welfare group to more centralized institutional organization. 12 Moreover, after 1339 there...


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