Originating in the Iberian Middle Ages when they were usually formed by the memberships of individual guilds, lay brotherhoods (confrarias and irmandades) were organized throughout colonial Brazil on the basis of noncraft-oriented social groupings within the local community. Brotherhoods were dedicated to more than fifty patron saints, whose life histories represented an ideal shared by the various social groupings associated with a particular one. These lay sodalities contributed to social cohesion by providing social services, alms, dowries, and burials, according to members' needs, as well as by by promoting religious observances. The diversity of brotherhoods reflected the relative complexity of colonial society. Thus, the elite almost invariably belonged to the Order of Saint Francis of Assisi; slaves and free blacks normally were members of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary; while intermediate social and racial groupings formed the dozens of other lay associations.
Historians have tended to emphasize the mutual assistance that characterized the brotherhoods, their role in upholding practices of the Catholic faith, as well as their contribution to the construction and maintenance of churches. Recent studies, however, have pointed to the associative spirit of brotherhoods as presenting a potential challenge to overbearing colonial authority.
Lay brotherhoods are highlighted in Stuart B. Schwartz, "Plantation and Peripheries, c. 1580–c. 1750," in Colonial Brazil, edited by Leslie Bethell (1987), esp. pp. 133-139. An important study of the racial demarcations of orders is found in A. J. R. Russell-Wood, "Black and Mulatto Brotherhoods in Colonial Brazil: A Study in Collective Behavior," in Hispanic American Historical Review 54, no. 4 (1974). A recent major analysis of the role of brotherhoods is contained in Caio César Boschi, Os leigos e o poder (1986).
Amaral, R. Joviano. Os pretos do Rosário de São Paulo: Subsidios histories. 2nd ed. São Paulo: J. Scortecci Editora, 1992.
Braga, Júlio Santana. Sociedade Protetora dos Desvalidos: Uma irmandade de cor. Salvador: Ianamá, 1987.
Kiddy, Elizabeth W. Blacks of the Rosary: Memory and History in Minas Gerais, Brazil. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.
MacCord, Marcelo. O rosário de D. Antônio: Irmandades negras, alianças e conflitos na história social do Recife, 1848–1872. Recife: Editora Universitária da UFPE, 2005.
Mulvey, Patricia Ann. "The Black Lay Brotherhoods of Colonial Brazil, a History." Ph.d. diss., City University of New York, 1976.
Douglas Cole Libby