In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Confraternities

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources
  • Scholarly Periodicals
  • Interpretive and Area Surveys
  • Essay Collections

Renaissance and Reformation Confraternities
Nicholas Terpstra
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0130


Confraternities were the lay face of the Renaissance and early modern Catholic Church. Present in every city, village, and parish, these voluntary groups had millions of male and female members throughout the Catholic Church who gathered to achieve collectively a range of spiritual and social goals. For many laypeople these were the vehicles through which they engaged with the Catholic Church and acted out their faith, supplementing and sometimes replacing the local parish. As a result, the impact on the laity of devotional movements, doctrinal change, or ecclesiastical disputes cannot be understood apart from confraternities. Members could receive the key sacraments of confession, communion, and last rites and fulfill most ritual and charitable observances through their confraternity. The range of groups was such in most urban communities that members could choose between active or moderate devotional observances; tight or light discipline; varying degrees of cultural, educational, or charitable activity; and different levels of mutual assistance in sickness or death. Members joined groups for a diverse range of reasons: to access spiritual resources, to achieve social and political advantages, to secure mutual assistance, and to enjoy group sociability. As corporate bodies, confraternities gathered significant resources over time and took on a wide range of public activities within their communities. They were heavily involved in civic ritual life; were critical vehicles for the charitable distribution of food, medicine, alms, and dowries; and were organizers of major institutions for the needy and the sick. Much of their cultural patronage—of music, drama, painting, art, and architecture—had both a corporate and a public function. This made them key players in what might be termed local religion in rural areas and civic religion in towns and cities—that is, a religion fashioned out of collaboration between laity and clergy and directing spiritual resources to secular needs. While the potential for tension both with regular and secular clergy could be high, most local studies reveal significant lay initiative and frequent collaboration with clergy until at least the 16th century. At that point, ecclesiastical authorities aimed to expand control over confraternal activities and potential as a way of curbing what were seen as abuses, and of harnessing lay resources and energy for the expanded project of Catholic reform.

Primary Sources

Apart from statute collections such as Sánchez Herrero and Pérez González 2002 and Perani and Rivlin 2000 and matriculation lists such as Rollo-Koster 2009, the most commonly available primary sources produced by or for confraternities are dramatical and musical texts. Those in Meredith and Tailby 1983, Newbigin 1996, and Wilson and Barbieri 1995 or published through the REED project (Records of Early English Drama series) focus on public rather than corporate worship. These all underscore the public nature of confraternal civic religion, a point given particular focus in the collection of texts in Terpstra 2008 for use in public executions.

  • Meredith, Peter, and John E. Tailby, eds. The Staging of Religious Drama in Europe in the Later Middle Ages: Texts and Documents in English Translation. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute, 1983.

    Staging religious plays was a key activity of confraternities. And while not all the texts here are confraternal, this collection of translations from English, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish texts (complete with stage directions) demonstrates the interweaving of didactic and dramatic purposes.

  • Newbigin, Nerida. Feste d’Oltrarno: Plays in Churches in Fifteenth Century Florence. 2 vols. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1996.

    Texts of Annunciation, Ascension, and Pentecost plays performed by working-class Florentine confraternities, together with communal and confraternal records that relate dramatic production to confraternal life and that show both the extensive mechanical apparatus employed and the lighting effects used to depict the divine presence.

  • Perani, Mauro, and Bracha Rivlin. Vita religiosa ebraica a Bologna nel Cinquecento: Gli statuti della Confraternita dei solerti. Florence: Giuntina, 2000.

    Bologna’s Jewish community numbered approximately eight hundred, including important printers and bankers, and supported eleven synagogues when these statutes were written in 1546–1547. The confraternity included women, promoted mutual assistance and education, and was active through the years of Bologna’s ghetto (1556–1569). Italian text and English translation.

  • Records of Early English Drama series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978–.

    The multivolume REED project of recovering pre-Shakespearean theatrical practices is organized by locality and makes available not only dramatic texts but also financial and administrative accounts of the guild, as well as ecclesiastical and governmental bodies that promoted dramatic productions—thereby setting the plays into a fuller cultural context.

  • Rollo-Koster, Joëlle. The People of Curial Avignon: A Critical Edition of the Liber Divisionis and the Matriculae of Notre Dame la Majour. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2009.

    This diplomatic edition of the 1371 Liber Divisionis and transcribed matriculation lists for one of Avignon’s largest confraternities (Notre Dame la Majour: 1364–1381) opens a rare window onto the city’s lay religious culture and changing demographics. Names, origins, and occupations are highlighted and cross-referenced for further biographical detail.

  • Sánchez Herrero, José, and Silvia María Pérez González, eds. CXIX Reglas de Hermandades y Cofradías Andaluzas: Siglos XIV, XV, y XVI. Huelva, Spain: Universidad de Huelva, 2002.

    The complete texts of the statutes for 119 Renaissance and early modern Andalusian confraternities, chiefly in Seville, though including other key cities such as Granada, Córdoba, and Jerez, as well as two towns in Castille. Published in CD-ROM format with introductions and topical, onomastic, and toponymic indexes.

  • Terpstra, Nicholas, ed. The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2008.

    The text of a manual used to train the confraternal comforters who assisted prisoners before death. Includes a selection of songs (laude) used in the comforting process, poems written by prisoners, contemporary broadsheets for the execution of a Jew and of a pair of lovers, and an account of the last hours of two Florentine patricians executed for conspiracy in 1513.

  • Wilson, Blake, and Nello Barbieri. The Florence Laudario: An Edition of Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Banco Rari 18. Recent Researches in the Music of the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1995.

    Music was fundamental to the corporate worship life of many early confraternities, and this edition of an early-14th-century laudario for the small, conservative, and non-elite Florentine company of Santo Spirito, with 108 original texts (with translations and music), demonstrates the wide range of liturgical activities they undertook.

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