Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Who Benefited from Tithe Revenues in Late-Renaissance Bresse?

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Who Benefited from Tithe Revenues in Late-Renaissance Bresse?

Article excerpt

This examination of the practical functioning of tithe collection and of who specifically benefited from tithe payments shows that structures of ecclesiastical and secular domination continued to be highly fragmented during the late Renaissance. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of episcopal visitation records and other sources from the Francophone province of Bresse reveals, among other things, that the fiscal and political impact of tithe payments was quite complex, that local priests were often not the major beneficiaries, and that tithe grants could serve as a mechanism permitting sovereigns to tax church revenues belonging to actors subject to other sovereigns.

Keywords: absolutism; church revenue; clerical compensation; tithes; visitation records

Tithes figured significantly in the local economic, political, and religious landscapes of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Curiously, however, few studies have examined precisely how the general mechanics of tithe collection operated nor have they analyzed the ways in which the institution of the tithe reflected the structure of domination (both ecclesiastical and secular) in late Renaissance Europe. This article considers evidence from early-seventeenth-century visitation records in the province of Bresse (subject to the house of Savoy until 1601 and thereafter to the French crown) to elucidate how the tithe functioned in one particular area and to identify the range of political relationships implicit in tithe extraction. This investigation of who benefited from Bresse tithes, and how, raises new questions about the effective organization and application of political power in Europe as a whole. It underscores the degree to which local domination could be exercised by a variety of clerical and nonclerical actors, resulting in a power structure whose fragmentation continues to be underestimated in many histories of early-modern political culture.

Processes of tithe extraction (and resistance) shed some light on the specific nature of this political structure, highlighting its multipolarity and the variety of resources that it offered to actors of all stripes for the defense of their interests. A brief look at tithe payment practices in a few parts of Europe is followed by an examination of the economic and political context in Bresse during the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, and then by a quantitative analysis of local tithe structures in c. 1613-14.

1. Tithe Payments in Some Other Parts of Late-Renaissance Europe

The organization of tithe payment and collection varied widely throughout premodern Europe and took place on multiple levels (from producer to collector, as well as transfers occurring from collectors either to owners and/or to representatives of other actors who had been granted the right to receive some or all of these tithe revenues). In Castile, the crown was supposed to receive a third of the tithe, but collection was problematic because of variations in annual harvests, evasion, and the difficulties of transporting payments in kind. There, the royal third was farmed out to the highest bidder, who paid his bid in advance to the treasury and then assumed the responsibility of collecting.1 In the Nuremberg region some tithe revenues belonged to clerical institutions and others to laypeople. Three kinds of tithe payments existed there: the "great" tithe (on rye, wheat, barley, and oats), the small tithe (on millet, peas, hay, and flax), and the living tithe (on livestock).2 Throughout Europe, the tithe was in reality subdivided into smaller tithes assessed on specific products.

In early-modern Württemberg the tithe frequently belonged to the prince and was auctioned off to villagers who were able to estimate the likely size of the harvest. Sometimes groups of villagers interested in bidding would make arrangements beforehand with the local official (the Schultheiss) who organized the auctions "so that various interest groups each got their turn at offering the low bid. …

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