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Misericórdia's initial Bylaws (16th-18th centuries)

Although the Misericórdia of Vila Real was endowed, by the time of its foundation in the first quarter of the 16th century, with its own bylaws, the truth is that, like other similar institutions, we are unaware of any original document or even a transcription. This is not surprising, since there are very few sixteenth-century documents about the Misericórdia of Vila Real, since many of them were stolen or destroyed, as several provedores already lamented in the 18th century.

However, we have several sources of the 17th century which mention the first bylaws, even specifying, with regard to the election and admission of brothers, the titles of the document applicable to such acts. As has happened with other Misericórdias of the Kingdom, Vila Real’s bylaws was reformed during the Philippine period (1580-1640), through the adoption of the new bylaws of the Misericórdia of Lisbon of 1618. Other documents, however, from the 18th and 19th centuries, mention the bylaws of the Misericórdias of Caminha and Viana do Castelo as inspiring documents for the bylaws of Vila Real.

Let us analyse the composition, structure and functioning of the Misericórdia of Vila Real between the 16th and 18th centuries.

The Brotherhood consisted of the entire set of brothers. The original number of brothers of the Misericórdia of Vila Real was 150, as mentioned in a document of 1588, which were recruited among people with “healthy lives, keepers of the commandments, at the service of God and the brotherhood”. Early on, however, problems arose regarding the number and the social and moral quality of the fraternity brothers.

A royal provision of September 20, 1716 states that "the Brotherhood was founded with 80 noble brothers and 80 trade brothers, a number suited to the greatness of the land". However, by royal provisions issued in the 17th century, their number increased significantly. From 1717 onwards, the number of brothers stabilized at 160, an amount that was kept until the 19th century.

The brothers of the Misericórdia, since the 17th century, usually included the two most important magistrates of the district, in order to highlight and embellish the institution. By royal determination, both magistrates were automatically enrolled in the Misericórdia as soon as they assumed their posts.

The noble brothers included not only the actual nobles by birth, which integrated the local nobility, but also members of the middle bourgeoisie that were ennobled due to their profession, such as priests, lawyers, landlords, etc.

As for trade brothers, also known as “official brothers”, "mechanical brothers" or "second condition brothers", they included representatives of different professions, such as those who had already attained a somewhat important social and economic status, owning a business or a workshop and who could read and write. In the list of the brothers of the Misericórdia of Vila Real, we find in this group the most various professions, like tailors, carpenters, clerks, blacksmiths, millers, masons, tinsmiths, shoemakers, etc.

Under the hierarchical Portuguese society of the Old Regime, divided into orders or classes, the Misericórdias promoted a certain overcoming of the rigid social divisions, demonstrating in its government and functioning a close cooperation between the nobility, the clergy and the people, through the "noble brothers" and the "mechanical brothers" – although the most important posts of the Misericórdia (provedor, clerk and treasurer) were occupied by noble brothers.

This distinction between noble brothers and trade brothers, typical of the Old Regime, will only disappear, concerning the Misericórdia of Vila Real, with the new bylaws of 1865.

The members of the fraternity were obliged to go to the Church of the Misericórdia to escort deceased brothers or their relatives, on the Maundy Thursday and the Good Friday, and on Board election days.

Regarding the composition, election and duties of the Board of the Misericórdia of Vila Real, the constitution and form of electing of the Board of the Misericórdia of Lisbon in the bylaws of 1500, consisting of 12 brothers annually elected, came to define the procedures that regulated the obligations of all the other Misericórdias of the Kingdom in this matter, which remained in force until 1834.

In the 18th century, the electoral process of the executive body of the Misericórdia of Vila Real – provedor, clerk, treasurer, and the other members of the Board – is perfectly defined. The election took place in July 1st or 2nd, in the day or eve of the Visitation of Our Lady to St. Elizabeth, inside its church. Here, the provedor gave oath to the previous clerk and treasurer and to a chaplain, who, in turn, registered the votes of the brothers who elected the Board members of the following year, that is, the noble brothers who were in Vila Real.

In the first ballot it was nominated the provedor, the clerk, the treasurer, and the other members of the Board, the “steward of prisoners” and the “visitor of donations”. Later, they drew up to five lists of voters, which were placed in a bag and randomly taken by the provedor and recorded sequentially by the registrar, being elected for the Board those who obtained the most votes.

The brothers of the Board were required to be present in the masses of the dead and on holy days when solemn masses were celebrated. They gathered regularly on Sundays, after dinner, in the consistory, to deliberate on the affairs of the Institution, and they could be called to meet during the week, whenever the provedor wished so. Monthly, in a Sunday or in a holy day, two noble brothers and two trade brothers, elected every year, had the task of “begging for the poor". The trade brothers were in charge of making public collections on Sundays and the noble brothers on Wednesdays. Another of the duties of the brothers of the Board, to be conducted early in their mandates, was to visit the hospital, which in the case of Vila Real, did not exist until the end of the 18th century, as we will see further ahead.

It should be noted that the 18th century witnessed a gradual "democratization" of the group of noble brothers in the Misericórdia of Vila Real, since the local elite began losing interest in the governance of the Institution, refusing the place of provedor or clerk – a phenomenon that also occurred in other Misericórdias of the Kingdom, as in Bragança, in 1754, forcing the King to intervene by appointing the provedor and the members of the Board.

The provedor, in addition to its status as a noble person and having a "respected authority and reputation", was elected among the brothers who had more than 30 years of age – the bylaws of Lisbon determined more than 40 years. Provedores could only be elected among the brothers admitted at the Misericórdia more than a year ago. At the first meeting of the Board, the provedor appointed and distributed the positions that the brothers should carry out, depending on the services established: an official to collect donations of bread through the county; the “steward of prisoners”, a position assumed by a noble brother; the “visitor of donations”, a position also reserved for a noble brother; and the substitutes for the officers of the Board, in the absence of any of them. The provedor was also responsible for the administration of the Institution.

We do not have the necessary information to profile the provedor of the Misericórdia of Vila Real, which, of course, evolved over time. However, a careful reading of their names reveals that many of them belonged to noble families of Vila Real. In the early 19th century, several provedores were relatives or kin to the Counts of Amarante, especially the first one, Francisco da Silveira Pinto da Fonseca, whose role was decisive in the founding of the Divine Providence Hospital.

The Board also had an advisory body, the Junta, consisting of 10 members, five trade brothers and five noble brothers, known as counsellors, elected annually among the members of the Brotherhood. Since they served as advisors, it was recommended that they were elderly, experienced and talented men. Counsellors were required an oath of loyalty, confidentiality and dedication to their functions.

This body, which was convened by the provedor, besides ensuring the fulfilment of the resolutions of the previous Board, deliberated on issues that went beyond the jurisdiction of the Board: the acceptance of property or bequests arranged during the mandates of previous Boards; the readmission of expelled brothers; the investigation of cases of infringement relating to expenditures or mortgage for incomes to be earned in the future; loans of ornaments and silverware belonging to the Institution; perpetual graves and inscriptions; acceptance of chapels and respective obligations; sale or exchange of real estate belonging to the Misericórdia; supervision of agreements, arrangements or transactions of inherited property.

With regard to processions, the bylaws established the way they had to be made, including the Stations of the Cross Procession, which took place "in the second or third Sunday of Lent", the Maundy Thursday Procession and the Good Friday Procession.

As for the burial of the dead, "one of the major works of mercy", they should be carried out ​​with "decency and Christianity, and with due respect for the deceased".

With slight adjustments to the economic and social reality of the borough, the Misericórdia of Vila Real maintained this organization and guiding principles until the end of the 18th century, when new chapters were added to its bylaws, taking into account the economic difficulties affecting the Institution, the legislation passed by the Government regarding Misericórdias and the foundation of its Hospital in 1796, that the following year was granted a regiment which also became part of the bylaws.

The Misericórdia of Vila Real, from 1806 onwards, was obliged by royal determination to be governed by the bylaws of the Misericórdia of Lisbon. However, since the end of the 18th century, other chapters were added to its own bylaws, particularly those related to the administration of the Hospital from 1796 onwards, in such way that after 1834, the admitted brothers had to swear that they would keep the old and the new bylaws, demonstrating some confusion that eventually affected the administration of the Misericórdia. Some brothers tried to solve this issue, suggesting the drafting of new bylaws, which will only occur in 1865.