Church in Town: Urban Religious Life in Late Medieval Pressburg in the Mirror of Last Wills

Thesis author: 
Judit Majorossy
Academic Area(s): 
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 1996 - Mar, 2006
Thesis supervisor: 
Katalin Szende
Thesis abstract: 

In historical scholarship there is a need for comparative as well as synthetic works. Originally, my research project was also intended as a comparative investigation carried out on testamentary material from five urban communities in the medieval kingdom of Hungary. However, when confronted with the problems of old historiography already with the first town where the research began, namely Pressburg (Posonium, Pozsony, today Bratislava), and also confronted by the very different number of surviving wills in the five towns a very different methodology would have been required, I therefore decided to concentrate only on one town but carry out a detailed analysis. My decision was further supported by my conviction that individual case studies needed to be carried out first for the ecclesiastical history of late medieval urban communities in Hungary whether synthetic or comparative work was involved. This research situation is partially due to the fact that after the second World War until basically 1990, church history was not at all in the focus of historical research in the region. Nowadays one cannot base a synthetic study entirely on those old works without revisiting their sources and counting on the appearance of new ones and also without applying new approaches and methods.

The Main Research Question
The main issue behind the case study on the religious life of the burghers of medieval Pressburg, is connected to various historiographic approaches concerning the religiosity of late medieval people. In the view of certain scholars, pious considerations and devotion dominated and overwhelmed all segments of everyday life towards the end of the fifteenth century. At the same time, others have stressed the corruptness of the age. The Church was stated to have become cynical, materialistic, manipulative and calculating. Thus, people sought purity and the whole atmosphere of late fifteenth and early sixteenth century cried out for religious reforms and paved the way for the Reformation. Was it as simple as that? My intention was to investigate what religiosity actually looked like in the chosen urban community of Pressburg. From this point of view, those of my readings proved inspiring which suggested in one form or another that religiosity is not necessarily equivalent to overwhelming piety or all-out devotion, and that medieval piety was many things at the same time: "excitable, lazy, repressive, accepting, gendered, hierarchical, socially levelling, deeply devout and deeply sceptical". Thus, one can accept the general concept that late medieval people were actively religious but then one has to try to investigate how this religiosity manifested itself in the everyday life of a given community.

Sources and Methodological Questions
Despite the formulaic and legal character as well as the limited nature of last wills which formed the main corpus of sources for the dissertation, they are still suitable for getting closer to the manifestations of community religiosity. Among western scholars this type of source material was exploited and several methods were applied to provide answers for the issues of religious life in different urban communities chosen as subjects for analysis. However, such investigations could not be supported in the Carpathian Basin because there were an insufficient number of surviving wills in certain towns. However, the medieval royal town of Pressburg is an exception and this why it was finally chosen for such a study. For a period of approximately one hundred years (mainly after 1400 and until 1529), nine hundred wills were preserved. Eight hundred forty-four were available in a completely uniform town protocol (Protocollum Testamentorum) with the remainder appearing as individual charters.
The question of methodology necessarily emerged in the face of such a large source material. Should these wills be approached quantitatively? This method has the disadvantage that certain nuances in behaviour will be lost or, at least, neutralised. Or, should these wills be treated qualitatively? In this case, taken to be the last and determining act of a person's life, one needs to make clear all possible motives held by each testator and understand all the influencing factors behind their individual bequests. Thus, such sources need to be interpreted within the framework of case studies. The final decision was to combine the two methods. The choice was essentially determined by two factors. First, due to the unreliable assumptions of the earlier historiography on the town (basically Tivadar Ortvay's main monograph written on the history of Pressburg) where a selective number of individual cases were elevated above the micro level to the macro level and were generalised without contrasting the micro level to the material as a whole. Thus, the decision was made to chose quantitative methodology. Determining norms with such a method allows one to still go back to the micro level and judge how individual cases differed from the general trend. An exclusively qualitative approach would not have allowed to detect temporal changes and preferences on a general level to be detected. The systematic survey itself was undertaken using a complex database.
Second, I also decided to revisit those sources which had already been used but not completely exploited (sometimes even on the level of an individual charter) in order to clear up certain issues and questions which had been the subject of earlier misinterpretations. A more thorough treatment of the various sources was necessitated by the fact that in the light of certain statements within the older literature, I was not able to interpret some of the bequests in the wills and thus, in order to clarify contexts, I finally had to go back all to the same sources. These were the issues, for example, in relation to the hospitals, several confraternities, and some of the altars.
On a third level, to place my results gained through 'counting piety' into a broader context, I tried to integrate other sources besides the wills (church inventories, confraternity regulations, accounts and membership lists, hospital accounts, mass foundation charters, indulgence letters) as much as the surviving material of the town allowed it. At certain points, especially concerning the ecclesiastical institutions, I also tried to incorporate results from archaeology, art history and urban topography. I attempted a new method where the support of the testators was contrasted on a time scale with phases in the life of given institutions (mainly parishes and monasteries) known from other sources and from archaeology and art history in order to reveal what could the wills together with the other related sources add to the picture already known by scholars or how one can gain indirect information about buildings no longer in existence.

About the Structure of the Dissertation
All the pious deeds of a dying person were very much interrelated since all the stipulations were to be fulfilled for the salvation and commemoration of the testator's soul. However, by investigating the palette of choices separately, more can be disclosed about certain aspects of religiosity and thus, conventions as well as certain elements of individuality are also revealed. The range of choices provided the structure for my study of Pressburg wills.
In the first chapter the context of Pressburg (its urbanisation, demography and economic position) was presented together with the ecclesiastical institutions serving the religious needs of its inhabitants. The source material was described along with the created database itself. The two main chapters were organised according to the different acts and considerations found in the wills and then those of the institutions themselves.
In the second chapter the acts and actors were placed at the centre of the study through discussing the different types of pious deeds and focusing on who and in which ways were involved by the testators in the preservation of their memories. The motives and circumstances surrounding the preparation of wills were exhibited, parallelly investigating what these last arrangements revealed about the religious rituals associated with dying itself. After the acts around the death-bed, several aspects of the funerary process and burial as well as the performance of different types of masses together with bequests for their performers (priests) and places of performance (altars) were thoroughly examined. Finally, different forms of charity and post-mortem pilgrimages end the discussion.
Various institutions lie at the centre of the third main chapter. Through a combination of the systematic analysis of wills and reconstruction of the history of the parishes, monasteries and confraternities, the chapter aimed at defining their place and their relation to each other on the ecclesiastical map of Pressburg from the point of view of commemorational activity. Alongside measuring the extent and character of the donations given to the parish churches of Pressburg, the rank and size of the parishes was also defined, together with their estimated territories. Then, a similar analysis of the patronage provided for the monastic communities and the chapels of the town was carried out. Finally, the confraternities were presented separately and the intensity and character of their support compared.

Strategies for the Salvation of the Soul in Late Medieval Pressburg
The religious ethos of medieval people revolved around a serious concern about the fate of one's soul after death. However, beyond general strategies for reaching the desired 'eternal heavenly peace', several factors and considerations at work in a given community could affect the tools chosen by its members to reach this happy spiritual end. For this reason, the practices found in one town do not necessarily apply in all respects to another. The systematic analysis of the last wills of the citizens of Pressburg highlighted their preferred deeds to insure the salvation of their souls as well as the ups and downs, temporal changes and social affordabilities of the various pious acts.
Wills, due to their character, are only limited mirrors of the religiosity of a whole urban community. This is partly because their surviving number represents a confined circle (those who could afford to leave behind written legacies). On the other hand, one of the reasons to record a will was to diverge from the usual system of inheritance. And frequently, besides family reasons, it was exactly the intended pious bequests which necessitated production of a written document. The question is whether and to what extent did these pious considerations represent individual intentions as reflections of social status and family circumstances and to what extent were they the reflections of community standards and expectations. Naturally, it is hard to provide adequate answers for such issues where personal motivations were so much involved. Yet, with the combinations of the quantitative and qualitative analysis I attempted and I hope that I convincingly managed, to reveal representative patterns, helping to reconstruct some of the religious norms operating within the fifteenth century secular community of Pressburg.
Though the percentage of testators in Pressburg was relatively high and the majority contained some kind of religious considerations, relatively few of them included a meticulous description of their pious acts. Most of the texts, even if detailed, seem to reveal certain elements of the normal practice. From the analysed corpus of the wills it seems that, beyond ensuring the future of the family members, the other main target of the majority of the testators was to meet the religious norms and community expectations. In many cases it was far more important for the testators to act according to these norms in their wills than to set their individual forms for personal representation and commemoration.
In order to shortly summarise the way in which various acts and choices incorporated within the legacies related to each other, the following should be emphasised: it became a norm in the wills, especially after the 1480s, to explicitly bequeath for the burial ceremony or, at least, request the survivors to arrange an appropriate funeral. From the comparison of the funerary investments with the overall financial status of the testators it was possible to conclude that they put special emphasis on ensuring a decent funeral for themselves, even beyond their financial capacities. The funerary liturgy in the church with all its accessories (vigil, candles, office for the dead) was normally included within the concept of appropriate arrangements, and thus, was rarely mentioned separately. At the same time, the minimum standard was to order at least one trental at the place of burial or additionally also in a monastic community. Especially around the turn of the fifteenth century, the Franciscan nunnery also became involved. The nuns were requested to recite the psalms after the testator's departure from this life. An anniversary commemoration (Jartag) was an additional option chosen by some, whereas, due to its high cost, a foundation for eternal masses to be held was aimed at by members of the elite. The costs of such an arrangement were so high that some testators focused their legacies exclusively on an eternal foundation and its supplements. The support of the priests was usually considered part of such mass foundations, especially if a relative of the deceased became the beneficiary priest. More often such assignment was intended as a final 'payment' to the confessor whose intercession was thus strengthened. Some of the testators chose to financially aid a future priest and consequently expanded the time limits for heavenly mediation. Similarly to mass foundations, bequeathing funds for a specified altar was limited to a small group within the testators. Usually it was connected to ones’ own foundations, to burial arrangements, to a relative holding the prebend, or to the testator's role as the secular altar patron (ius patronus). The investments for the various devices of the liturgy (liturgical books, vessels, clothes) were more often really forms of support for one's own parish or one's own confraternity.
Care for the poor was the object of bequests in one quarter of the wills. However, the donations for the poor were not necessarily, indeed quite rarely, connected to their presence at the funeral. The norm was to pay a sum sufficient for at least one prandium or a bath. At the same time, the special forms of care for the poor (dowry for poor maidens, money for poor students or priests) appeared to be less in the focus of the bequests, and again usually had personal connections in the background. Unlike the stricto sensu charitable donations, the proportion of post-mortem pilgrimages was high both in relation to the other alternatives and to some extent also in relation to other urban communities. This phenomenon may be an indicator of a rather mobile society. Finally, as to the support for ecclesiastical institutions, pride of place was taken by the parishes, whose subvention took many different forms. At the same time, the bequests to the monasteries were rather functional. The role of the confraternities became significant especially after the 1480s. The dominance of parish-related confraternities can also be observed. Most probably as a consequence of plague epidemics in the town, however, the brotherhoods established in the Franciscan Friary (especially that of Saint Sebastian) became the most popular.
These norms seem to be relatively standard throughout the investigated period, even in the decades before the 1520s when the first waves of the Reformation reached the town. In other words, the proportion of the preferences apparently does not undergo significant alterations. The smaller ups and downs concerning certain choices such as the support for altars, chapels, confraternities or post-mortem pilgrimages – as demonstrated in the relevant chapters – may have had practical reasons as well. At the same time, a certain temporal stratification can be observed concerning the ecclesiastical institutions. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the dominance of the parishes (especially that of Saint Martin's) was significant. The mendicant communities lined up around the middle of the century and with the later establishment of several new religious confraternities by the end of the century the institutional palette was further enriched and adjusted to the extended needs of urban piety.
Judging from the distribution of certain types of legacies, the general attitude towards the ecclesiastical institutions – be it an altar prebend, a chapel, a monastery or a church – reflects to a great extent the practical thinking of the testators on how to supply the basic necessities for these institutions. Investing vast amounts of wealth just for the sake of pure representation, the norm among the nobility or even certain other European urban communities, was alien to the concerns of the Pressburg people. Apparently, from the point of view of the testators it was important to contribute to the basic operation of their ecclesiastical institutions and thus enable them to satisfy their religious demands.
This norm-following attitude and pragmatism among the testators as shown in their pious donations can also be observed in the intended sums for such purposes. On the one hand, the dominance of the same amounts invested in one means or another for the salvation of the soul together with moderate expenditure was a characteristic feature of the majority of the wills. Many times, those institutions in need at a given moment, were pushed into the foreground.
Another observation was the recurrence in the wills of the average prices found within the various types of donations. This cannot be exclusively attributed to the formulaic character of the wills or to the 'suggestions' of the notary or the witnesses who were present. In my opinion this phenomenon was rather related to norms and practices that had been internalised by the living and the dying members of the community. Namely, there existed an accepted average customary sum for the different acts and actions needed for the commemoration and this was aimed at as a minimum by each self-conscious testator. The fact that each 'service' had its 'set' price can be taken as a reflection of the materialistic or calculating character of the pre-Reformation Church. But examining the issue from the side of the burghers as testators the picture according to my reading is more subtle. The uniformity of donations could also be the result of a social convention between the benefactors and the executive institutions. The existence of such norms made it possible for the members of the urban community to calculate the costs of their eternal life. For a dominantly trading bourgeoisie such an attitude would not have been alien.
It is also apparent from the analysis that considerations of visibility prevailed over or operated together with such practical motivations. It was not so much the desire to make visible their own donations (through signs of personal identification), but much more the visibility of the institutions to receive the bequests or the intended pious acts. Therefore, places or people hidden from the point of view of the urban community as a whole did not attract bequests apart from a few individual cases.
The wealthier members of the community in most cases raised the level of investments (more of everything). They ordered multiples of the average standard prices. They extended their 'visibility' in the community in both time and space in order to express their social status. Nevertheless, even these testators were for the most part relatively moderate. It might well be concluded that Pressburg testators generally invested in their eternal life to the extent required from their social status.
The above-mentioned pragmatism and 'calculated piety' does not call into question the religiosity and piety of these people or the fact that faith and religious practices were woven into their everyday life and acts. These two phenomena may be indicators of the way the burghers of Pressburg adapted general practice onto 'their self-image' and how they embedded the practice into their everyday thinking and the preparations they made for their own death.
These community strategies actually manifested themselves in membership in smaller communities. The roles and functions of the various ecclesiastical institutions (small communities) have been shaped by their members. The believers' considerations, contributions and attention modified the way the institutions adapted themselves to the demands that arose with regard to the liturgies around death. As a consequence, during the fifteenth century certain institutions lost their significance while new ones were founded, earlier churches and chapels were pushed into the background and instead new altars, and especially new confraternities were established. Temporal trends show that, if we simplify the question, what one can see is that parishes (and hospitals) are dominant in the earlier wills. Later, testators started including the monastic communities in their wills along with new altar foundations and by the end of the fifteenth century a series of new brotherhoods were founded to satisfactorily widen the set of usable institutions.
The moderation exercised by the testators in their testamentary donations might also have been connected to the indigenous nature of membership and its consequences. Since the self-conscious parishioners or brothers/sisters already granted support to their own parish and confraternity community during their lifetimes, partially granting donations to them in advance and in exchange they would be commemorated and remembered in their afterlife as well. Therefore, the testamentary contribution to this act essentially served to assure their own and their surviving family position in their community.
The third level, discussed in the conclusion was the family level. Certainly, on this personal level there were several individual factors at work – most of the time unidentifiable due to the nature and lack of sources – which actually determined the testator's choices and decisions. Though these individual choices should be the subject of micro-historical case studies, which for the fifteenth century is not always possible, some possible general conclusions can still be drawn. First, among the predominately pious testators and members of the elite whose wills contained all-inclusive, meticulous, and generous donations, one finds almost exclusively individuals without close relatives living in the town: either widows and widowers without offspring or tradesmen without local family in Pressburg. Among those with direct heirs, pious considerations were usually indicative in nature. In practice, it was purely the choice that was defined along with the financial backing. For family members it was not only an obligation but instinctive to preserve the memory of the deceased in all possible forms. Thus, it was not necessary to fully shift the commemorational function to an ecclesiastical institution.
At the same time, the choice of a particular form of piety was often encouraged and determined by family history. As can be partly concluded from the analysis, similar considerations within families could usually be found in the wills of husband and wife, or sometime when the wills were written close in time then in the wills of son/daughters and parents. Where there was a longer time between the wills of members of the same family, the preferences were more likely to change through time. Thus, in Pressburg it seems that one cannot really speak of long-run family strategies in the sense of long-lasting, inter-generational patterns.
Approaching the personal strategies from the viewpoint of gender, there was also a slight shift concerning certain considerations and preferences. Naturally, several pious acts were equally chosen and exercised by both sexes, that is to say, based on the gender distribution of the testators (various forms of masses, bequests for liturgical equipment, or post-mortem pilgrimages and others). However, other deeds showed higher proportions in the direction of either women or men. Concerning, for example, the gender content of the different forms of care for the poor, it was apparent that the female testators preferred to make donations to the poor outside the institution, and within that context, their share in supporting young maidens with dowries or providing assistance for the household poor was much higher than that of men. Both forms were more connected to the household of which women were anyway in charge. In this way they were able to express their sympathy. For the male testators, on the other hand, it was more profitable to donate to the institution, the hospital(s) or the confraternity of the poor and among the other manifestations of poverty, poor students. At the same time, the greater male preference for 'institution' was also manifested in other ways. Men more frequently than women bequeathed donations to other institutions beside their own parishes. In particular, their contribution to the building funds (zum paw donations) was higher than that from women. Consequently, the practical approach to piety was, to some extent, more characteristic for men.

Late Medieval Religiosity at the Dawn of Transition
The analysis hopefully has shown that the ecclesiastical system of the Pressburg community was sufficiently differentiated to meet the religious needs of its burghers. The Church in the town adapted itself to the demands of its members. Simultaneously, due to the mutual character of this interaction, the burghers actively took part in the formation of certain practices, in the establishment of new institutions and invested in creating the conditions for the accomplishment of the religious and liturgical needs surrounding their dying and death. In fact, it seems that at least in case of Pressburg, the burghers found ways to form their own ecclesiastical network, thus levelling off the 'demands and supplies'.
Late medieval piety in Pressburg was not necessarily overwhelming, exorbitant or ostentatious, but was much more practical and 'earth-bound'. Religion and its everyday practices determined and were intertwined with the daily life of the burghers. Certain elements of devotion were further amplified by calamities, especially the plague epidemics around the turn of the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, this devotion manifested itself in concrete acts, and often took the form of efficient and utilitarian thinking. This became visible, for example, through the support for reconstruction work after fires, bequests to needy beneficiaries or insufficiently furnished prebends, or donations affecting the daily operation of the hospitals or similar other such deeds. The example of Pressburg fully supports some of the observations about religiosity at the dawn of the Reformation in Hungary. Devotion and the relationship between the faithful and the Church was, no doubt, active and living through actions. Apparently, people did not completely turn away from the institutions of the Church but managed to find those forms within these institutions or those institutions within the ecclesiastical network which served their religious needs.
The most interesting period in Pressburg is the 1520s with its dichotomies and with the simultaneous presence of the 'old' and 'new' faiths. The 'heretic views of Luther' soon found their way into the upper strata of society. In 1526, the mayor commissioned the town scribe to copy the articles of Luther at public expense and announced them publicly several times in the town. In the same year, Lutheran books were also publicly burnt. Some friars in 1528, known to be active in disseminating reformed teachings in the town, were then executed. In the testamentary arrangements, however, one cannot yet detect any trace of this transitional ambivalence. Some of the most elaborate mass foundations were laid down around the same years. Were these donations aimed at demonstrating against the nascent innovations, or were they still part of the same normal practice from the previous period? To answer this question, one would have to expand the temporal limits of the investigation into the following decades.
In the last year of the 1520s, on the other hand, the ecclesiastical network of the town out of political necessity and imposed defensive strategies was significantly transformed by the destruction of the two suburban parishes (Saint Michael's and Saint Lawrence's), the Saint Nicholas church, and even the two hospitals. Under other circumstances, the destruction and consequently the desacralisation of sacred places would have caused ardent opposition within the religious community. Though it must have represented a fault-line of sorts and generated several problems, the burghers apparently accepted its necessity without any major shocks. Did this attitude represent the victory of practical thinking over pious feelings or was it facilitated by the same dichotomy of piety and worldliness which characterised the religious life of late medieval Pressburg and explains why the 'new faith' found its way so easily among its burghers? Nevertheless, as part the history of the Reformation in Pressburg these questions extend beyond the limits of this dissertation.
Let me finish in the hope that my study of urban wills helps to create a refined picture of various aspects of religious life in Pressburg in the pre-Reformation period. To judge whether the normal practice and the community and personal strategies for salvation as expressed in wills in Pressburg were typical or atypical compared to other towns in the late medieval Kingdom of Hungary, it will be necessary to conduct similar analyses elsewhere and compare results. Since these wills are universal sources and they have been widely researched by Western scholars from the particular point of religiosity, they represent perfect vehicles for comparing different regions in medieval Europe, revealing particular similarities or dissimilarities and placing medieval Pressburg firmly within the wider European religious landscape.