Monday, July 28, 2008

Were donations always worth while?

Late medieval monasteries got a lot of donations, and often they were quite specific. I often wonder how welcome some of these gifts really were.  

For example, people might choose to make a substantial gift of property or rents to a nunnery, and dedicate those funds to the support of a particular priest, who is to offer masses at a certain altar in the community at specified times of the year.  Do the nuns actually welcome this?  What exactly do they get out of it, hmm?  They have more opportunities to attend mass, although they probably had plenty of such opportunities.  They get another priest visiting the cloister.  They probably get a bit of extra food or money on the anniversary of the donor's death.  Wouldn't many communities prefer funds given to buy clothing or food, or funds given with no particular purpose, that they could use as they chose?  This kind of gift strikes me as being more about the donor's wishes than the recipients'.  If the donor is sufficiently wealthy or powerful, though, I'm sure the community accepts the gift cheerfully to preserve good relations.

In one of my documents, a widow gives all her property to a community of nuns, in exchange for food and clothing during her lifetime. Mutual benefits: the widow, perhaps aging or ill, now has secured basic care for herself, while the nuns hope to enjoy the income of the property in the future. The donation happens in 1308; the parcel pops up several times in later documents. First (1309) the nuns have to enter litigation to secure their claim to the property. In 1310 they find a tenant for it, who takes it for a 3-year contract.  Normally the nuns would prefer to have a "solid" tenant, someone who does homage and is bound to the land perpetually, but they apparently haven't found anyone willing to make such an arrangement.  In 1312, the tenant gives it back. In 1314 the nuns find a new tenant for the property, again someone not willing to do homage for the land. This one is willing to pay a large fee for the privilege of not doing homage, though, so that's something. So this is a gift that entailed potentially costly litigation, and may have sat vacant and uncultivated from 1308 to 1310 and from 1312 to 1314; all in all, it seems a rather troublesome gift. Perhaps its real value is that, when she gave it, the donor also forgave a debt which the abbess owed her.

Maintaining good relations with one's creditors: Priceless.

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