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

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources
  • Early Modern Religion, Society, and Culture
  • Historiographic Overviews
  • Confraternities as Global or Colonial Institutions
  • Early Modern Religion in Spain
  • Confraternities in Spain
  • African Confraternities in Medieval and Early Modern Spain
  • Confraternities in South America
  • Brotherhoods in Brazil and Cuba

Atlantic History Confraternities
Nicole von Germeten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0222


Confraternities were European Catholic institutions that were brought to the Americas in the 16th century and embraced and modified by a wide range of colonial subjects. They can be defined as popular lay, religious, voluntary organizations that often provided social welfare and burials for their members. Confraternities were located in churches, convents, monasteries, friaries, or independent chapels. Renaissance and early modern towns and cities throughout the Catholic world hosted sometimes dozens of confraternities; indeed, a cathedral could have twenty brotherhoods based within its numerous altars and chapels. Confraternal activities, especially fund-raising and processions, revolved around the public display of pious devotion to a saint, the Virgin Mary (in one of her multitude of forms), or a penitential expression of an event in Jesus’ life. They could have universal membership (especially for the Most Holy Sacrament confraternities) or protect racial, neighborhood, social, or occupational divisions. While confraternities could be founded in an informal, gradual fashion, the members had to create a set of statutes for official clerical approval. Different religious orders promoted different confraternities to support their goals, most notably in Spanish and Portuguese America, the Dominicans and Rosary brotherhoods. Rural confraternities in smaller agricultural settlements tended to represent the entire community, its economic resources, and surrounding sacred geography. All confraternities, both urban and rural, put forward the honorable piety of its members, and thus of the larger Catholic community. Since the 1960s, historians have researched and analyzed confraternities from the perspective of their social, religious, political, cultural, and imperial functions. Scholarship on Italian confraternities is the most developed and serves as an excellent model for confraternal studies in the Americas, which tend to have more of a racial or ethnographic focus. In the late medieval and early modern eras, Spain and Italy should be viewed as influencing each other immensely (see Dandelet 2001, cited under Early Modern Religion, Society, and Culture), and therefore the historiographies of both Italian and Iberian confraternities are included here. In both the Spanish and Portuguese empires, there was an astounding adaptation of brotherhoods to imperial ends and the on-the-ground needs of colonial subjects. As historians of Italian confraternities know, these institutions adapted remarkably well to the particular social needs of their members within a city or a smaller settlement, so that in Brazil and Spanish America, confraternities worked especially well as expressions of the complex identities created in the Atlantic world and relations between nonwhite colonial subjects and European rulers. Due to the paucity of sources, no single scholarly study has deeply explored female participation in American confraternities, but because women’s leadership functions were so circumscribed throughout Europe, its prominence in African, Afro-Latino, and indigenous organizations, even to the extent of women having economic, political, and ritual functions, highlights this institution’s adaptability and strength.

Primary Sources

For the Iberian Atlantic world, students and scholars of early modern confraternities can turn to a wide range of archival sources. Before delving into this research, the historian must understand both the complexities of religious and secular hierarchies of any given region, as well as how they have changed over time from the early modern period to the present. At the most localized level, confraternity records originate in a parish church. Parishes may store entire confraternity books, which are bound collections of hundreds of pages of foundation documents, membership lists, and accounts. While many parishes have historical records, they have not necessarily been catalogued or preserved for the purposes of research. Fortunately, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has microfilmed an enormous number of parish records, making them very accessible to historians. Data on confraternities also appears at regional archives, such as those connected to a diocese or archdiocese, such as that in Morelia, Mexico (Archivo Histórico del Obispado de Michoacan). However, ecclesiastical jurisdictions have changed dramatically in several hundred years, and entire archives can move or simply disappear. Inventories or records of resources and donations have also been stored at the national level, such as in the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City, due to secularization projects put into place by governments both before and after independence from Spain. Further disputes over jurisdiction or property may have escalated on occasion to a higher level of imperial authority, leaving archival traces in metropolitan centers such as Madrid or Seville. Lastly, Crown decrees relating to confraternities have been found at archives of European imperial powers, including the Archive of the Indies in Seville and the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid (see Archivos Españoles en Red). Confraternity experts have also edited and translated a number of confraternity foundation documents, as well as records of disputes, such as those relating to a black brotherhood in colonial Brazil (Taylor, et al. 2002).

  • Archivo General de la Nación. Mexico City.

    Scholars can find many different kinds of confraternity records in the various sections of this enormous archive, which covers a geographic region far larger than the modern country of Mexico.

  • Archivo Histórico del Obispado de Michoacan. Morelia, Mexico.

    One example of an excellent regional ecclesiastical archive that contains thousands of documents recording a wide range of church institutions.

  • Archivos Españoles en Red.

    This webpage brings together an invaluable range of Iberian and Atlantic archives, containing documents from the medieval period to the present day. It is the gateway for the Archivo Histórico Nacional, located in Madrid, as well as the Archivo General de Indias, in Seville.

  • FamilySearch. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Thousands of documents microfilmed from parish records across the world. While the focus is baptism and marriage records, historians will also find some parish level confraternity records in this immense collection.

  • Taylor, William B., Kenneth Mills, and Sandra Lauderdale Graham. “A Black Irmandade in Bahia, Brazil.” In Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History. By William B. Taylor, Kenneth Mills, and Sandra Lauderdale Graham, 280–297. Oxford: Scholarly Resources, 2002.

    An example of an official set of rules for an Afro-Brazilian brotherhood, alluding to conflicts regarding members’ race.

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