Vignettes of Capitular Life in Barcelona: The Portions

In 1978, the canon-archivist and -librarian of the chapter of the Cathedral of Barcelona, Dr. Àngel Fàbrega i Grau, was received into the Royal Catalan Academy of Fine Arts of St. George (Reial Acadèmia Catalana de Belles Artes de Sant Jordi) and, for his inaugural address, he regaled his audience with a description of canonical life in Barcelona towards the end of the reign of His Most Catholic Majesty King Philip II. His fascinating account was soon thereafter published under the title La vida quotidiana a la Catedral de Barcelona en declinar el Renaixement, any 1580 (“Daily Life in the Cathedral of Barcelona at the Close of the Renaissance, Year 1580”).

Surmising that our readers, too, might enjoy and be edified by some vignettes of cathedral life in Barcelona, we hereby begin a new series of posts based on Canon Fàbrega i Grau’s book.


Canon Nadal Garcés wearing the winter habit of the canons of Barcelona, in the retable of the Visitation in the Cathedral (anonymous, 1466-1475).

According to the canonical norms established and regulated by the Corpus Iuris Canonici, each canon was to receive an endowment which was divided into three parts. Two of these, called the massa or grossa, were destined—and still are to-day—to the decorous upkeep of the beneficiary, who normally did not lose the right to receive this massa or grossa even if he were absent from choir or chapter meetings. The remaining third part constituted what are called “distributions”, and was considered a supplement to the capitular endowment. Since it was meant to encourage the beneficiary’s presence in capitular acts, it was normally lost if he were absent therefrom, even if this absence were justified by the fulfilment of other responsibilities. […]

In Barcelona, as in many other places, the daily distributions were of old done in two ways: by the handing out of “portions”, mainly of bread, wine, and meat; or in coin, either the legal and common tender or in a private currency whose value was only recognized within the Chapter or Cathedral. In Barcelona, these were officially called ploms (“pieces of lead”) or senyals, and are nowadays also called pellofes.

The Chapter of Barcelona followed the rules for distributions established in a book officially entitled Caputbreve de hiis quae Praepositi ecclesiae Barcinonensis et Domus Caritatis debent dare suis mensibus, et de hiis quae debent canonici ab eisdem recipere. In the 18th century, this book was popularly known as El llibre del ventre (“The Book of the Belly”), because it only refers to edible distributions. The oldest manuscript thereof preserved in the capitular archives was written in parchment in the first third of the 15th century, although the first of its two parts is manifestly a copy of an original which must have dated from at least the 13th century.

[…] The Llibre del ventre was as it were a customary of the portions that the provosts (praepositi) and the House of Charity had to distribute daily among the canons, beneficiaries, chaplains, clerks, and laymen so long as they resided in the city of Barcelona, for they were not given their portion if they went abroad. A ministral and a bottler were in charge of the actual distribution of these portions.

Until the end of the 13th century, almost all the distributions were given in food. They were handed out in the canonical refectory, but the bottler took the portions to the houses of those canons who lived outside the cloister in houses owned by the Chapter within the city walls. Each “portioner” (canon, beneficiary, master of grammar, monk, porter, baker, ministral, etc.) normally received every day a large loaf of bread (of some 800 grams) and a small one (of some 600 grams), or two small loaves, or only one: there was an extremely complex programme for the distribution of bread, the staple food of the time, that depended on the day and the person’s office.

Neules are a traditional Catalan biscuit made of egg whites, butter, sugar, and flour.

The provost on duty, through the bottler, also handed out the wine, which could be vinum bonum, vinum non limphatum, or vinum limphatum (mixed with water), giving to each the quantity that was due to him: either unus quarterius, the basic measure, or two or three glasses of the four contained in the quaterius of wine. This quantity also depended on the person’s category and the liturgical solemnity of the day.

On Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, each canon and beneficiary received a special drink called nectar, which was made with rosé wine, honey, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, round and long pepper, nutmeg, foli [the identity of this spice is unknown], & other aromatic herbs. Each priest got his measure, together with a dozen neules provided by the House of Charity. These neules seem to have been round and of the usual size, somewhat thick, and of different colours.

– pp. 37-38.

5 thoughts on “Vignettes of Capitular Life in Barcelona: The Portions

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words! It’s always gratifying to know our posts are to our readers’ interest. Our next post will be up in the coming days, & will be about the special treats distributed not only to canons, but even to laymen on the greatest feasts.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Could the “foli” be the spice that the English call mace? In Dutch it’s called “foelie” and it’s the thin, red skin that covers the nutmeg.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a very interesting suggestion. It seems that the Dutch “foelie” ultimately derives from the Latin “folium”, so at the very least it is likely that this spice is indeed made up of the covering of a seed. “Mace” is “macís” in modern Catalan, but of course a different word might have been used in the past. Unfortunately “foli” is not attested in the Diccionari de Textos Catalans Antics, and since the Llibre del ventre has not been edited or scanned, I am unable to confirm whether Canon Fàbrega transcribed the word correctly

      Liked by 1 person

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