The Culture of Charity in the Political Elite of 15th and 16th Centuries in Sopron: Unity in Diversity?

Kultúra milosrdenstva mestských elít v Šoprone 15. - 16. storočia: jednota v rozmanitosti?

As an ultimate purpose this study characterizes in the context of the Western Hungarian free royal town of Sopron (in German Ödenburg) the charitable testamentary acts of the members of the local, dominantly German, yet to some extent Hungarian, urban political elite (mayors and town judges) and of their spouses between 1400 and 1600. It was intended to disregard and even deconstruct the stereotypical ideas of the modern, ethnically defined and nation-based historiographies while − inspired among others by the methods of collective biography − analyzing the benevolent donations not only of the local leaders (thirty-one testaments) but even of their wives and widows (twenty-six last wills). Although Sopron was led in these two hundred years by a semi-open, socially diversified local political elite (eighty-three burghers), this special feature only partially went along with ethnical and multicultural patterns revealed through religious donations in the last wills. The devotional piety unfolded in the analyzed testaments prior to the 1530-1550s showed for the most part a rich and multi-faceted tableau of both religious acts (e.g. altar foundations, pious donations etc.) and works of mercy (e.g. supporting the hospital). After the mid-sixteenth century, at latest, the charitable donations of the afore-mentioned testators revealed a new, exclusively family-oriented and pragmatic attitude supporting, if any, the local institutions taking care of the poor and the sick. Especially between 1400 and the 1530-1550s there was a wide variety of individual donating preferences documented in the last wills. Nevertheless, the local ecclesiastical and social institutions, i.e. the local common religious patterns served as cultural frameworks for pious testamentary acts. Accordingly, aside from occasional individual or even ethnical preferences the donating charitable acts regularly reflected the features of local religious culture. Even then, as an exceptional phenomenon probably due to family and/or gender roles and expectations, one could detect by the female testators a surprisingly multi-faceted and rich charitable practice in the two-three decades prior to the 1530-1550s. Hopefully the above-described preliminary research results would inspire further studies on the cultural aspects of urban last wills. On the one hand, via utilizing other sources on the elites and/or testamentary evidence on further urban groups. On the other, through characterizing the local cultural features of Sopron in the context of comparative urban history. In this respect potential follow-up investigations could definitely benefit from the deconstruction of biased national and/or regional canons of historiography. Finally, departing from the traditional, rigid chronological divisions (e.g. medieval and early modern) and extending the research agenda towards e.g. individual and gender aspects − either in form of case studies or representative investigations − could revitalize old historical themes through new questions and methods.