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A global economic organization in the early modern period: The Custody of the Holy Land through its account books (1600-1800)

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HOLYLAB (A global economic organization in the early modern period: The Custody of the Holy Land through its account books (1600-1800))

Reporting period: 2021-11-01 to 2023-04-30

The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, established in the 13th century, is a global organization that thanks to a complex system of alms gathering has ensured the maintenance of the Holy Sepulchre and the friars’ presence in the Holy Land throughout the centuries. However, the Custody remains understudied and its rich archive unexploited. HOLYLAB aims to study the Custody’s economic organization through its account books between 1600 and 1800.
Inspired by recent work on Franciscan economic thought and accounting in Medieval convents and deploying concepts from organizational studies, HOLYLAB combines an analysis of economic practices on a local, regional and global level with a study of the organizational structures and mechanisms that enabled the Custody to function and attain its goals. More broadly, HOLYLAB also contributes to current research on issues such as the global circulation of people, money and objects and the organization of early modern institutions.

The objectives of HOLYLAB are:
- to reconstruct the Custody’s economy, contextualizing it in the framework of Franciscans’ economic thought and practices and in wider historical events, such as the Counter Reformation and the globalizing processes that characterized the period;
- to shed light on the organizational structures and mechanisms that enabled the Custody to attain its goals and the organizational changes it underwent during the project time frame;
- to make freely available the data extracted from the lists of incomes and expenses of the commissariats and the Custody through an open-access online database.

To achieve such objectives, HOLYLAB will rely on a rich and unstudied corpus of account documents issued by the Custody’s headquarters (the St. Saviour convent in Jerusalem) and its commissariats located in other Franciscan provinces. Methodologically the project bridges micro- and macro-levels of analysis by emphasising the meso-level of the organization.
HOLYLAB members have started to reconstruct the economic organization of the Custody of the Holy Land and its functioning between 1600 and 1800 from different perspectives. Research in the archives of the Congregation De Propaganda Fide, local Franciscan provinces (Florence, Rome and Treviso), the Obra Pia de los Santos Lugares (Madrid) and the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem has allowed team members to reconstruct the origin of the commissariats of the Custody, their normative framework and the complex relationship between the Custody and the congregation in charge of the global diffusion of Catholicism, De Propaganda Fide. Important results have also been achieved toward the reconstruction of the overall functioning of the Custody’s economic organization. For instance, team members have shed light on the link between the global circulation of alms and credit through the Spanish Empire and the development of an organizational network along with its role in the circulation of the Custody’s personnel and resources, in internal communication and conflict resolutions.
Team members have also worked on building the database containing all the data regarding the alms (including food, books, devotional and daily objects) sent to Jerusalem from Franciscan provinces. The work on the database has gone in two directions: collection, wrangling and entry of the data from account books; and creation of the database and its conceptual structure. The database is one of the most important objectives of the project, as, once online, it will allow researchers worldwide to access for free a large amount of data on the circulation of objects and money across the Mediterranean.
The results achieved so far have been disseminated through conference papers and publications forthcoming, accepted or to be shortly submitted. The food aspects of the project were the subject of a presentation at a seminar of the Food GRP Group (Warwick University), which HOLYLAB has joined. HOLYLAB has also started collaborating with the Statistics Chair in the Department of Political Sciences of Roma Tre and with a research group at the Istituto Storico Italo Germanico, FBK, Trent, working on mobility across the Mediterranean and toward Jerusalem. Since the beginning HOLYLAB partnered with the Archive of the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem and is developing now a collaboration with the Custody’s Cultural office.
So far, HOLYLAB has made good progress on several topics.
The gathering and use of alms by friars has been examined against the backdrop of the order's poverty-centred rule. Looking at the statutes and regulations aimed at the Custody after the first commissariats of the Holy Land were established in the 15th century provided much-needed information on the status and functioning of commissariats in the early modern period.
A newly discovered aspect of the circulation of alms in the form of money toward Jerusalem is the connection between this and the circulation of credit issued by the Spanish crown through its territories. This connection furthers our understanding of the Custody's global outreach, financial practices and relationship with contemporary powers.
Exploring the Custody's network unveiled how mobility through its network was simultaneously facilitated and controlled thanks to what can be called an ‘organizational migration infrastructure’. This new methodological approach deepens our understanding of early modern mobility, specially of the role of networks and organizations in it and its entanglement with immobility.
Tailoring the database's conceptual structure to data that mix quantitative and qualitative information in a far greater measure than similar financial history databases is proving the free online database will be very relevant to specialists of several disciplines, as in the collaboration with the Statistics Chair in the Department of Political Sciences of Roma Tre on a data set selection under preparation.
Research is on-going on the account books of Franciscan commissariats from the viewpoint of their materiality and the evolving processes and practices behind them. Working on the account books sent by each commissariat and those produced by the Custody will shed light on overlooked topics such as the organization of the friars' presence in Palestine and its everyday economic administration. Providing a case study for accounting practices in a missionary context will also contribute altogether to the study of Catholic missions in the early modern world.
Newly started research by project members is expected to give insight into the economic integration of the Custody in Jerusalem and the challenges to the legitimacy of the friars' presence there. For the latter, early modern Franciscan narratives will be explored to assess how the Custody responded to accusations of corruption and maladministration. Regarding the former, Jerusalem Court Records will paint a bigger picture of the friars' economic relations with the local social context. This research strand will also rely on concurrent HOLYLAB work on the economy of the Custody in the light of its missionary activity, adding to the broader study of the economy of early modern mendicant missions and their accounting practices.
The relationship between the Custody and the Franciscan order from the funding of commissariats to that of De Propaganda Fide in 1622 will be the focus of another research strand considering Franciscan history and its economic thought.
Entrance to the Custody of the Holy Land