Nicholas Terpstra

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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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.

Article.  11116 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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