Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence

By Banker, James R. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence


Banker, James R., The Catholic Historical Review


Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence. By John Henderson. (New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press. 1994. Pp. xviii, 533. $85.00.)

John Henderson's book is a long-awaited contribution to the history of confraternities and charity in Renaissance Florence. Many scholars have already consulted profitably his 1983 thesis at the University of London entitled"Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence: Lay Religious Confraternities from the Middle of the Thirteenth Century to the Late Fifteenth Century to the Late Fifteenth Century." Readers will not be disappointed with the range of knowledge and the number of issues addressed and all treated from numerous original sources from the Archivio di Stato and other archives of Florence. The author has pieced together complex data from thousands of documents relevant to confraternities and lay charity. Art, musical, and literary historians will henceforth consult this book with great profit on a wide range of topics. Also, highly useful is the appendix of the "Confraternities Meeting in Florence, 1240-1499," in which the author lists 163 Florentine confraternities (pp. 443-474).

The author writes," [T] he organization of the book into two main parts (piety and charity) reflects the dual nature of charity' (p. 9). Part I surveys lay piety in Florence from 1250 to 1500 by first establishing confraternities as one of many forms of corporate organization in the High Middle Ages. Chapters 2 through 6 trace the evolution of confraternities primarily through two forms, that of the laudesi and disciplinati, ending with a finely nuanced study of the confraternity of Orsanmichele. Part II introduces the reader to the complex world of Florentine charity and hospitals. Documents from Orsanmichele provide evidence for an extensive discussion of the systematic poor relief by this confraternity and other Florentine institutions. Noting the decline of large charitable confraternal institutions and the growing role of state supervision by the late fifteenth century, the author concludes with a discussion of the relationship of these corporate groups with other institutions and particularly with the state.

In the introduction the author discusses a number of books on European and Italian confraternities, which he organizes into the now conventional two schools, the religious-local and social-historical. He states his intention of making historiographic progress by combining the two schools, but does the book succeed in making a historiographic breakthrough beyond the two schools and convey a fundamentally novel view of either Renaissance confraternities or charity? …

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