views updated May 23 2018


CONFRATERNITIES. Literally "brotherhoods," these were corporate groups found in various religious traditions that organized the devotional and charitable life of lay believers around the model of ritual kinship. They ranged in size from a few dozen to a few hundred members and were active in practically every urban center and in many rural districts. Venice had 120 confraternities in c. 1500 and 387 by c. 1700; almost 20 percent of the population of mid-seventeenth century Antwerp belonged to a brotherhood, a proportion found in most European cities. By the late eighteenth century 70 percent of rural parishes in Trier had a confraternity, as did almost all rural villages in Spain, where a 1771 government census reported 25,038 brotherhoods. Membership conferred spiritual, social, and charitable benefits, and individuals might belong to one or more groups according to need or preference. In the Catholic world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they became critical agents of a process of "christianization" that involved catechetical education, moral discipline, intense devotional exercises, and dramatic public processions. By the eighteenth century, a new generation of Catholic reformers criticized their wealth, materialist piety, and often self-serving charity, and successfully advocated reforms by which state governments across Europe suppressed confraternities and directed their resources to charitable purposes.


Voluntary kin groups were active in the early church and in the Carolingian period, but confraternities first expanded rapidly with the mendicant urban missions of the thirteenth century, when they emphasized peacemaking, mutual support, and egalitarian brotherhood. Into the early modern period, their individual and collective religious exercises adapted mendicant models to lay life, and included praise singing, penitential flagellation, processions, funerary and requiem services, and charity exercised to members and the urban poor. Their administration followed guild models, and most guarded their autonomy from the clergy. In larger cities, confraternities organized members according to devotional preference, trade, nationality, neighborhood, or charitable activity, and took on extensive social responsibilities as a result. Theirs was a distinctly local piety, and confraternities were often the custodians of local shrines, the organizers of civic religious rituals, and the administrators of local hospitals, orphanages, and hostels. They were the lay face of the church, and most of what passed for social welfare was organized and run by the brotherhoods.


From the late fifteenth century, lay and clerical Catholic reformers advocated renewal of the church based on the works of physical and spiritual charity and on expanded devotional exercises centered on prayer and the sacraments. They saw the confraternities as vehicles for organizing and spreading this activity among the laity and built many aspects of their reform programs around the brotherhoods: confraternity members worked in prisons, established hospitals, offered dowries and loans to the poor, and opened shelters for orphans, prostitutes, and widows. At the same time, some clerical reformers believed that confraternities' traditional emphasis on lay autonomy left them vulnerable to heresies and undermined the authority of priests and bishops. They advocated closer clerical supervision of the groups. There had been no canon law governing confraternities in the middle ages, but in Session XXII (1562), the Council of Trent empowered bishops to review statutes, supervise worship, and audit accounts in regular visitations (canons VIII and IX). Many confraternities resisted, but in 1604 Clement VIII issued the bull Quaecumque, which required episcopal approval for all new foundations.

The regulatory process ordered by Trent and Quaecumque took hold slowly, particularly in rural areas, but the potential of confraternities to realize Catholic reform objectives led secular and regular clergy to establish brotherhoods that had a standard form, specific function, and uniform statutes. At the parish and diocesan level, two early-sixteenth-century innovations that multiplied after Trent were the Holy Sacrament confraternities dedicated to eucharistic devotion and the Christian Doctrine confraternities dedicated to catechetical instruction. Reforming bishops such as Carlo Borromeo (15381584) of Milan and Gabrielle Paleotti (15281597) of Bologna believed eucharistic devotion to be the touchstone of the Catholic faith and aimed to have a Holy Sacrament confraternity in every parish. Both wrote standard statutes that confirmed their status as parish auxiliaries under the priest's authority. Members brought the Eucharist to sick parishioners in their homes, held Corpus Domini processions that took the Host around the city, and organized the Forty Hour devotions, which drew believers into chapels to pray before it for that period of time. Members of Christian Doctrine confraternities taught reading, writing, and religion to boys and girls in Sunday afternoon sessions, working with specially adapted textbooks. Another innovation, which promoted standardized rules and clerical control and directed lay attention to Rome, was the emergence of archconfraternities from the 1530s. Based initially in Rome, these received extraordinary papal privileges and indulgences that they shared with brotherhoods in other localities. Confraternities aggregating to the archconfraternity pledged to adopt its statutes and practices and sent members on pilgrimages to Rome, where the archconfraternity hosted them.


New and existing religious orders made confraternities a central element in their mission outreach. Many of the new orders began as confraternities, chiefly the Jesuits, Theatines, Ursulines, Visitandines, Barnabites, Piarists, and Oratorians, and all employed confraternities to gather and socialize their recruits and to underwrite their charitable and mission outreach. Organization as a confraternity allowed the French Daughters of Charity to live communally but avoid enclosure, and so continue working openly in schools and hospitals. The Dominican James Sprenger founded a Confraternity of the Holy Rosary in Cologne in 1475; Dominicans subsequently established branches across Europe to promote the new devotion, particularly among the illiterate, and claimed a million members by the eve of the Reformation. The Theatines and Oratory of Divine Love established brotherhoods of nobles to work with the sick and the poor in hospitals.

Of all religious orders, the Jesuits relied most heavily on confraternities, called Marian sodalities, to promote and underwrite their missions and charitable institutions. These first emerged in the Roman College in 1563, and as Jesuit colleges multiplied, they moved out beyond students and alumni to enroll elites across Catholic Europe. Their devotions were conventional, but by establishing separate groups for professionals and nobles, students, and artisans, the Jesuits ensured that they would foster more intense socialization and greater cohesion than traditional confraternities. They grew rapidly in numbers, activity, and influence through the seventeenth century, sometimes as public and sometimes as secret bodies. Among the latter was the French Company of the Holy Sacrament, established in 1629. It grew to sixty-two provincial congregations before suppression in 1667 and enrolled royal courtiers, judges, bishops, bureaucrats, and merchants who were dedicated to the promotion of the monarchy, Catholic missions, personal devotions, and charity. Much of the administrative elite of expanding states had been trained in Jesuit colleges, and lifelong membership in the Marian sodalities preserved and extended their personal networks and created a governing class committed to this work of "christianization."

This merging of church and state in the form of networked elite confraternities that served political and religious purposes was an early modern characteristic that extended beyond the Jesuits. During the French Wars of Religion, Catholic royalists promoted confraternities of the Holy Ghost and the Holy Name of Jesus to challenge both Protestantism and those who advocated religious toleration on political grounds.

Portugal's dowager Queen Leonor founded the Lisbon Misericórdia as a charitable agency in 1498, and under royal patronage Misericórdia confraternities soon spread across the nation and to the Azores and the Madeiras before tracking Portugal's expansion to Macau, Brazil, and North Africa. The Lisbon Misericórdia statutes, first printed in 1516, were usually adopted by these local groups, whose upper-class members exercised the works of corporal and spiritual mercy toward the poor. A succession of royal privileges through the sixteenth century set the Misericórdia confraternities ahead of all local counterparts in charitable activity and beyond the control of episcopal authorities in all but cultic worship. A virtual monopoly on alms gathering gradually brought most charitable hospitals under their control and, combined with tax concessions, generated a patrimony, which patrician administrators employed in lavish public devotions or lent on generous terms to their peers. The Portuguese Misericórdias enjoyed local autonomy and exercised considerable political, social, and even judicial authority until the later eighteenth century, when political opposition to their privileges, combined with the rise of devotional alternatives (particularly the Third Orders), undercut their powers, resources, and influence.


The Misericórdia confraternities helped administer Portugal's empire, and much of Catholic expansion overseas employed confraternities as agents of missions, charity, and political and social control. The Jesuits founded indigenous confraternities in Japan, and in the space of three decades, the brotherhoods had won 215,000 converts. In an area with few missionaries, they provided the main contact with Christianity and were the key to its rapid spread. Japanese confraternities organized festivals, charity, and mutual assistance, and became the core of an underground church once persecution began in 1587. A parallel situation developed some decades later in China. The Jesuit mission there had initially concentrated on court and intellectual circles, but when persecution in 16161620 led these members to drop away, the Jesuits concentrated on planting confraternities among merchants and peasants. Numbers rose from 60,000 in the 1640s to 300,000 by 1700.

Confraternities were even more important to Catholic colonizers in the Americas, where the Spanish and Portuguese used them to build the fabric of the Catholic Church and also to control indigenous groups and slaves. Groups like the Portuguese Misericórdias took the lead in building the bulwark of churches and hospitals, processions and rituals that sheltered European cultural identity for colonial settlers. They were also the main means of spreading Catholic doctrine and ritual among indigenous groups in the Americas from the time that the first one was established in Mexico City in 1526 or 1527, and they multiplied rapidly. Mexico City had possibly three hundred indigenous confraternities by 1585, and the most dramatic expansion across Central and South America occurred in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Most Latin American confraternities grew out of the missions of the religious orders. The Jesuits in Brazil initially aimed to gather believers of diverse racial backgrounds into single local confraternities in order to demonstrate the unity of Church universal against Dutch and French Protestants who were trying to establish settlements in Brazil. Yet the logic of the Jesuits' own hierarchical model, the racism of colonial society, and the possibilities of resistance soon altered the situation, so that in Brazil and across Latin America there were distinct groups for aboriginals, for African slaves, for Spanish or Portuguese settlers, and for the expanding mestizo population. Dominicans joined the Jesuits in actively promoting racially distinct groups, and black confraternities in particular.

The parallel brotherhoods for different racial groups became vehicles for maintaining, albeit in syncretized form, West African and pre-Columbian religious and political practices. While intended to promote christianization, in some cases these groups became protected shelters of indigenous cultural identity in a context that suppressed all other non-Catholic or non-Hispanic cultural institutions. African and mestizo fraternities in Brazil exercised limited legal powers within their communities and sometimes countered Portuguese overlords by challenging cruel slave owners in court and by lending members money to buy their freedom. Aztec, Mayan, and Incan confraternities drew members through charity and sociability and frequently preserved indigenous forms of kin-based social organization. Beyond this, Catholic devotions often appealed because they resonated well with pre-Columbian religious practices, particularly the rituals of respect and care for the dead, and the practice of penitential flagellation.


Examples of confraternities crossing confessional boundaries occur in Europe as well, where most combined political, charitable, and cultic functions, and developed into semiautonomous governing structures for expatriate, subordinate, or marginalized communities. In Venice, the San Niccolò confraternity gathered the Greek Orthodox community from 1498. It taxed Greek merchants to underwrite burials, dowries, and poor relief for members; it constructed the Church of San Giorgio dei Greci (15391573); and it sent aid to Orthodox hospitals, convents, and monasteries throughout the Venetian empire. Orthodox believers in the Ukraine used confraternities (called bratstva ) to preserve Slavic cultural, religious, and political identity against the Polish state and, from 1596, against the Eastern Rite Catholic Church. The brotherhoods initially organized charity, worship, and discipline, but soon extended their reach to political protest, education, and judicial discipline of members. They remained active into the twentieth century. Jewish confraternities began emerging in Italy as racial tensions increased in the early sixteenth century, and then expanded more rapidly with the establishment of ghettos in Venice (1516) and Rome (1555). Jewish fraternalism was shaped in part through a dynamic with Catholic forms and initially focused on helping the old, sick, and needy, and on burying the dead. Fraternities of teachers and students prefigured the yeshiva, and in cities where declining populations forced the closing of synagogues, the confraternities multiplied in number, members, and cultic activities. Moving into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jewish confraternities demonstrated some of the same social patterns observed in contemporary Catholic confraternities, particularly an increasing pietism, more gender distinctions, and the development of mutual aid from charity towards insurance.


The later seventeenth century was the high point of confraternal activity and influence, and by the mid-eighteenth century these organizations were being challenged by reform movements rooted in Jansenism and Enlightenment values. Their organization mirrored the stratified social hierarchy of the ancien régime, ranging from a small number of exclusive groups that enjoyed significant wealth and special privileges to a broader range of occupational, parochial, and charitable groups that aimed to adapt popular piety to the rhythm of Catholic orthodoxy. Both sides expressed their faith in dramatic rituals such as public flagellation, in lavish processions, and in periodic feasts. Tintoretto, Rubens, and El Greco were among the famous artists commissioned to adorn the quarters of elite confraternities, while a host of minor talents designed ornate chapels and oratories or painted the elaborate banners, altarpieces, and images that brought the "devotional consumption" of baroque piety to local streets and village chapels.

By the 1750s, a growing chorus of critics within and outside the Catholic church found confraternal piety to be wasteful, corrupt, tasteless, and superstitious, and called for worship characterized by moderation, simplicity, inner devotion, and charity. Political authorities resented the confraternities' autonomies and untaxed patrimonies. New ritual kin groups such as the Masons offered fraternity without flagellation and grew at confraternities' expense, particularly in France. The political elites who once had favored and patronized the confraternities now deliberately dismantled them. In Austria, Joseph II suppressed the confraternities in 1782. In Grand Ducal Tuscany, a 1783 census paved the way for suppression of all but a handful of charitable groups in 1785. In both instances, expropriated properties and possessions were to be redistributed to the poor. In Spain, mounting criticism from the 1750s led to a royal census of confraternal wealth in 17681771, followed by suppression of all but charitable and religious groups in 1784, the disentailment of confraternal property in 1798, and a final expropriation of remaining resources in 1841. Though confraternities eventually revived as devotional groups in the nineteenth century, they never regained the social and political influence that they had enjoyed in the ancien régime.

See also Catholicism ; Jesuits ; Missions and Missionaries ; Reformation, Catholic ; Religious Orders .


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Black, Christopher. Italian Confraternities in the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Chatellier, Louis. The Europe of the Devout: The Catholic Reformation and the Formation of a New Society. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Confraternitas vol. 1 (1990). Journal of the Society for Confraternity Studies (Toronto).

Donnelly, John Patrick, and Michael W. Maher, eds. Confraternities and Catholic Reform in Italy, France, & Spain. Kirksville, Mo., 1999.

Eisenbichler, Konrad. The Boys of the Archangel Raphael: A Youth Confraternity in Florence, 14111785. Toronto, 1998.

Flynn, Maureen. Sacred Charity: Confraternities and Social Welfare in Spain 14001700. Ithaca, N.Y., 1989.

Horowitz, Elliot. "Jewish Confraternal Piety in the Veneto in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries." In Gli Ebrei e Venezia, edited by G. Cozzi. Milan, 1987.

Terpstra, Nicholas, ed. The Politics of Ritual Kinship: Confraternities and Social Order in Early Modern Italy. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Webster, Susan Verdi. Art and Ritual in Golden Age Spain: Sevillian Confraternities and the Processional Sculpture of Holy Week. Princeton, 1998.

Nicholas Terpstra


views updated May 17 2018


During the Renaissance, the most important religious groups for laypeople* in the Roman Catholic Church were spiritual brotherhoods called confraternities. Members of these groups worshiped together, both privately and publicly, and performed acts of charity and service to the public. Between 10 and 20 percent of adults in European cities belonged to confraternities. This figure was even larger in rural areas and in northern parts of Europe.

Roles of Confraternities. The earliest confraternities arose during the 1200s as extensions of religious orders. Members of these groups engaged in public acts of worship and penance*, as well as performing works of charity. They drew their members mainly from the ranks of artisans*, merchants, and professionals.

The smallest confraternities modeled themselves after the disciples of Jesus in the Bible. These groups had only a few dozen members and devoted themselves to private prayer and moral guidance. Larger groups, with several hundred members, engaged in more public activities. They wrote songs for religious services, led public processions, and performed acts of charity. Members of confraternities joined together based on their neighborhood, profession, or nationality.

Confraternities adopted many of the practices of religious orders such as the Franciscans. These included daily prayer, confession, and regular meetings for religious services. Many groups had their own priests who delivered sermons and performed sacred rituals. In some areas, these activities challenged local churches. In many parts of northern Europe, however, confraternities and churches worked together.

Confraternities performed a great deal of charitable work. They aided orphans and prisoners, helped to house and educate the poor, and cared for the sick and dying. Many towns and cities relied heavily on confraternities to provide these types of public services. The groups also developed extensive aid schemes for their own members. The dues they collected went into a fund to provide early forms of health insurance and pensions for families struck by sickness or death.

Another function of confraternities was patronage* of the arts and culture. They sponsored the creation of many early hymns and mystery plays* that laid the foundations for later, more complex forms of music and drama. At first, members called for works that they could perform themselves in private or in public. Later, the groups began hiring professional actors and musicians to perform for them. Confraternities also sponsored works of art and architecture.

Confraternities and Reform. The Protestant Reformation* dealt a serious blow to confraternities in northern Europe and England. The groups' goal of helping Catholics achieve salvation though good works and religious rituals was at odds with the Protestant belief in salvation through faith alone. In many German cities, the government suppressed confraternities and took their assets. In England, however, many confraternities survived in a changed form. Some became parish councils, while others became the new local government in towns that had once been controlled by Catholic monasteries.

The Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church's response to the Protestant challenge, also struck at the strength and independence of confraternities. The church sought to give bishops greater control over the actions of these groups. It also developed new confraternities to promote specific rituals. In addition, the church extended special privileges to certain confraternities in Rome, which came to be known as arch-confraternities. These groups offered other confraternities the chance to share in their privileges by agreeing to follow their rules. In this way, the church gained greater control over many confraternities.

In many places, Catholic rulers took over confraternities. In other areas, wealthy citizens joined the groups and effectively gained control of many of their functions. Sponsoring religious activities and public works gave these individuals prestige and power in the community. It also provided them with an edge in dealing with religious and political leaders. By 1600 political and religious figures had stripped confraternities of much of their independence, making the groups tools to achieve their own goals.

(See alsoCatholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation; Christianity; Drama; Music; Patronage; Poverty and Charity; Protestant Reformation. )

* laypeople

those who are not members of the clergy

* penance

act performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson

* patronage

support or financial sponsorship

* mystery play

early form of drama based on biblical stories

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches


views updated May 18 2018


The confraternity was an organization of the Christian faithful who did not belong to the church, but who banded together in order to live by Christian precepts and doctrine. The confraternities met for worship, for the instruction of the public and the young, for performing works of charity and visiting the sick, for organizing public processions, for the patronage of writers and artists, and for the celebration of weddings, funerals, and other important events. In some towns, a majority of men and many women belonged to a confraternity. By some estimates as many as one out of every five city-dwellers during the Renaissance belonged to such a group. Confraternities were most popular in Catholic Europe; Protestantism rejected the practice of confraternities and their adherence to traditional Catholic doctrines. Confraternities originated modern charities and the system of public welfare in Europe, on the basis of religious belief and worship, and also played a role in the reforms of the church hierarchy.

The confraternities originated in the Middle Ages, when the religious orders allowed lay people to join them as auxiliary members. Most confraternities were made up of urbanites who belonged to a growing middle class of merchants and artisans. In city politics, they became a force to be reckoned with, often opposed to ruling dynasties and the interests of the nobility. Some confraternities were small and secretive, and modeled themselves on the apostles of the New Testament. Others were larger and more public, welcoming anyone who qualified to enter their ranks. They were a familiar presence in cities containing churches, meeting houses, and dining halls for the use of their members. A few, such as the Brotherhood of the Rosary, crossed national boundaries. This confraternity, founded in Cologne, Germany, by Jacob Sprenger, reached a membership of 1 million, with members in Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, and the Low Countries.

Confraternities established hospitals and homes for orphans, the destitute, and the victims of epidemics. They collected alms for the poor, and in times of plague or natural disaster they organized relief for stricken families who had lost their breadwinners. A confraternity of Tuscany founded an ambulance service to transport the sick and wounded, an institution that has survived into the twenty-first century. Some confraternities had a more religious purpose, organized to build or maintain a local parish church, a function more common in northern Europe.

In Italy confraternities were organized in certain quarters of the cities and among certain communities. The structure and administration paralleled that of the merchant guilds by holding elections for their leaders and appointing secretaries and other functionaries. Members had to pass a review of their history and character, and had to be approved by a majority vote of the established members. Strict codes of behavior were set down for members, who were expected to contribute regular dues as well as labor and time; dues in some confraternities helped fund an early form of insurance, for the payment of medical, funeral, and other costs that members would have to bear in old age.

The confraternities held regular religious services, Masses, confession, and communion. Some penitential confraternities made their goal the expulsion of community sin by selling indulgences on behalf of the church, through acts such as flagellation in public, fasting and solemn religious processions. Confraternities staged mystery plays and musical works such as hymns and Masses that were commissioned from local composers.

The Protestant Reformation put an end to the traditional Catholic confraternities in many parts of northern Europe. In the doctrine of Martin Lutherwho initiated the Reformationsalvation was secured by an individual's faith alone, which clashed with the Catholic emphasis on works and public piety. Many confraternities evolved into secular organizations, or limited their activities to church functions, a fate that was followed in later centuries by Catholic confraternities of southern Europe.

See Also: Catholicism; Reformation, Protestant

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