A great age of Confraternities?

A great age of Confraternities?


Joseph Bergin

date de sortie





Three score and ten years ago, the eminent French historian, Gabriel Le Bras – who was also a canonist and sociologist of religious practice – described the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries as the two great ages of confraternities. Since Le Bras and his disciples were mostly medievalists, their attention focussed on the first of those ‘great ages’, which they gradually expanded, partly in order to understand how confraternities responded to the conditions that followed the Black Death. They viewed confraternities, especially those based on the professions within towns, as the social, associative, political and even religious ‘cement’ which structured the populations, giving a sense of identity and coherence to a wide range of occupational groups. The frequently close ties between confraternities and the religious orders, particularly the mendicant Dominicans and Franciscans, enabled religious history to connect to urban history in novel ways, thus broadening historical understanding of religious ritual and sentiment in the pre-Reformation age.


But the second of Le Bras’s ‘great ages’ has attracted much less attention, perhaps because it prompted no grand hypothesis that would explain their recovery and expansion after another acute crisis, the Protestant reformations. In a famous study, Maurice Agulhon diagnosed their decline in a region of France – Provence – which was saturated by them, showing how the eighteenth-century social elites which had previously dominated the confraternities, now withdrew from them, only to replicate much of their confraternal behaviour and rituals in the new freemasons’ lodges that they patronised.1 What happened in the intervening generations that correspond to the Catholic Reformation? What place or role did it assign to confraternities?


In fact, confraternities changed both quantitatively and qualitatively during the second great age. New forms of confraternity, especially those that were explicity devotional, were promoted by the post-tridentine church, but older types of social and associative rather than primarily religious confraternities also survived in great numbers. Confraternities tended to think that they had a long history reaching centuries back, but this cannot hide long periods of inactivity or re-foundation over time, which often entailed a significant re-focussing of their socio-religious practices and objectives. Such diversity of format has frequently made it difficult for historians to see the wood from the trees where confraternities are concerned. It proved a major problem when a collective project to inventory confraternities diocese-by-diocese was launched in the 1980s: it was never completed because of the definitional and archival obstacles in its way2. This flexibility and capacity to mutate is one major reason why confraternities could survive, outliving crises that seemed, especially during the sixteenth century, capable of burying them forever3.


An ‘average’ confraternity can be defined as ‘an association of christians under a patron (God, the Virgin Mary, an individual saint) of supernatural status’, but this minimalist characterisation seems full of omissions; it makes no reference to terms that seem essential, such as ‘lay’, ‘urban’, ‘voluntary’, ‘devotional’ and ‘good works’. This is a first hint of the elusiveness and range of the confraternal impulse throughout its history.4 The universal objective of the early confraternities was, simply, ‘mutual love and assistance’: fraternity was an end in itself, and did not require elaborate religious activities or personal devotions. A society’s understanding of the communion of the living and the dead was most clearly revealed at the high-point of the confraternities’ year, usually the feast-day of Corpus Christi, which combined masses said for their members (living and dead), a banquet of fraternity, almsgiving, and the election of new officers for the next year. Such confraternities ‘were’ the parish, and not a distinctive offshoot of it.


The contrast made between the ‘voluntary’ character of a confraternity with the ‘obligatory’ character of membership of a parish is in practice often inoperable. The membership of the well-known ‘professional’ confraternities, confréries de métier, was not confined to the masters and artisans of the individual trades or professions, but extended to their families, because such membership was obligatory and written into the statutes of the trade in question. Similarly, the whole population of a parish enrolled, as households rather than as individuals, in the non-occupational Norman ‘charities’.5 Clearly, this type of confraternity was in no sense a rival of the parish with which it was, in fact, co-terminous, nor was it ‘voluntary’ in any obvious sense of the term. Confraternities are easily assumed to be purely ‘lay’ associations and, for that reason, enduringly caught up in tense, at times hostile, relationships with the clergy, local and hierarchical. But clerical confraternities were themselves common well into the seventeenth century, from Picardy to Brittany, and in towns like Beauvais, they were at the forefront of efforts to improve the clergy, precociously absorbing and defending Bérullian ideas of the priesthood during the seventeenth century. The most secretive of all seventeenth-century confraternities, the Aa, was an exclusively clerical one.6


Confraternities were just as much a rural as an urban phenomenon. In Normandy-Picardy, Franche-Comté, and the Lyonnais-Dauphiné, they existed often in rural parishes that were simply too big to be regarded as a single community. In such cases, it was the local confraternity (usually that of the Holy Ghost), which embraced the entire population of the villages where they were located. Here, the confraternity was the parish to all intents and purposes, closely integrated with the fabrique and frequently administered by officers who were simultaneously churchwardens.7 Their essential function was mutual assistance among members, especially burials and masses for the dead. Finally, perhaps the most surprising feature of the pre-seventeenth-century confraternities was the limited nature of their ‘devotional’ activities by comparison with the aspirations of the Catholic Reformation. Despite the changes to confraternities that characterised the post-tridentine church, many of them long remained relatively untouched by its devotional agenda, making no attempt to turn their members into spiritual athletes. Individual confraternities could have several patron saints because the patrons in question were not ‘exclusive’, let alone objects of intense devotion; the patron saints’ role was one of intercession rather than of devotion. The annual fraternal banquet – ‘no confraternity without a banquet’ – with its distribution of alms either to all of the members or simply to the poor, was perhaps the most evident and, to them, essential sign of their inextricably mixed socio-religious raison d’être, one that the Catholic Reformation, with its dislike of such promiscuous mixing of registers, would try hard to bury8.

The Catholic Reformation’s encounter with confraternities, in France at least, nearly did not occur at all. Sixteenth-century reformers of almost every persuasion, from Erasmus and Luther onwards, were fiercely critical of confraternities – their excesses, waste of resources and bad example9. Church and political authorities shared such negative sentiments, so when Francis I abolished occupational confraternities and the southern penitents in 1538, there were few complaints, except from the confraternities themselves. Calvinist Protestantism was even more hostile to them during the following decades. In 1562, on the eve of the religious wars, the French crown actually requested the Council of Trent to abolish them. For its part, Trent paid little attention to the question of confraternities, possibly because it was not under severe pressure to do so, and it confined itself to stipulating, not altogether surprisingly, that confraternities be brought under greater episcopal control.


In fact, it was the wars of religion which rescued them from a likely slow death. Their unexpected revival began in many places during the early 1560s, and by the later 1580s and 1590s confraternities were at the heart of Catholic resistance to King Henri IV; such vitality was most evident in the great processions of the 1580s, and in turn that was due in many areas to their autonomy and, frequently, to their lay leadership. This was especially true of the southern Penitents with their defiant exaltation of Christ’s passion, which made them as much confraternities ‘de combat’ as ‘de dévotion’10. Despite continuing fears about their activities and independence, talk of suppressing confraternities outright had virtually ceased by 1600, giving way to a long-term process of gradual and highly uneven transformation, much of it ‘under the radar’. Newer forms of devotional confraternity made it possible to describe them henceforth as ‘the true school of individual piety’, something which would have been unthinkable a half-century earlier.


In their visitations and legislation, the seventeenth-century French church authorities placed a strong emphasis on bringing confraternities under control, usually within a parish framework, especially when authorising or revising their statutes, whether new or old. The objective was to enhance the primacy of the parish and its devotions, which were meant to take priority over those of its confraternities. This may not have been new, but the desire to achieve it was; confraternities increasingly became a familiar item in the questionnaires for pastoral visitations of parishes. The chapel of the ideal confraternity would not merely be inside the parish church, but it would be found ‘in the nave of the church’, which underlined its oneness with the parish; confraternities with their own separate chapel buildings were more difficult to deal with. Needless to say, achieving such objectives was slow, especially in regions where Penitents existed, as it could only progress at the same speed as the church authorities’ overall efforts to reform and regain control of the dioceses and parishes, with variations according to the size of dioceses and town-country differences11.

Long before that, the energies of the Catholic Reformation had been producing new forms of confraternity and the accompanying devotional or spiritual exercises. The Penitents themselves gradually turned away from their previous ‘excesses’ (if we can believe their revised statutes) and towards inner discipline capable of taking the place of the earlier militancy. The new Penitents of the seventeenth century also placed a growing emphasis on personal piety as well as participation in the confraternity’s collective exercises.12. But the most famous newcomers were the Marian sodalities founded by the Jesuits. These confraternities were organised according to the age and professional activities of the members, beginning with senior students in their schools and extending to alumni of various categories (messieurs, artisans etc). Despite the Marian label, the sodalities were essentially Eucharistic in focus and promoted a corresponding spirituality, which privileged the sacraments of penance and the eucharist itself. Such spiritual endeavour involved considerable self-discipline developed through regular confession and self-examination under the guidance of an experienced Jesuit director. For a long time, devotions of this kind remained the preserve of a religious elite drawn from the urban notables. Yet despite charging entry-fees, the Jesuits had little difficulty in attracting hundreds of members to their sodalities in towns across France, especially as their sodalities were not confined within parish boundaries. However, they were not open to women, and it was left to the Ursuline nuns, a new order with close ties to the Jesuits, to adapt the sodalities to female needs13.

Where Jesuit-inspired Eucharistic confraternities were relatively exclusive, others which were also new to the Catholic Reformation were more inclusive, and proved attractive to female parish dévotes. Some were ‘Marian’ rather than Eucharistic in focus. The confraternities of the Rosary were among the most successful of all Catholic Reformation revivals, since they could fit easily into the shoes of older ‘Notre Dame’ confraternities. Entry was free, and the devotions themselves were tailored to the capacities of small-town and village parishioners. They were often founded at the end of a preaching mission for the purpose of perpetuating the devotional élan generated by the mission. The greatest period of growth and expansion seems to be the generation or two after 1620, across central France at least. By the early 1700s, women formed the majority of their membership – a pattern that would continue for the next two centuries14. Attempts at diffusing Eucharistic confraternities into small town or rural France seem – almost inevitably – to have been less successful, but from approximately 1650 onwards the expansion of the ‘Forty Hours’ devotion boosted the older Holy Sacrament confraternities, so that membership could be combined with adherence to the Rosary confraternities in many instances15.

However, emphasising new trends should not make historians forget the persistence of the old, and that maxim holds true in the case with confraternities. Early modern communities were still regularly faced with the spectre of plague, natural catastrophes and high mortality rates, against which they sought supernatural protection. Consequently, the older confraternities survived, while mutating to some degree, as confraternities of intercession. Thus, innumerable confraternities continued to bear names such as ‘the Good Death’ or ‘Our Lady of the Dying’, their members performing the traditional acts of charity towards the dying and the dead. But here, too, innovation was not necessarily excluded: a newer, elite version of these societies, sometimes called that of Saint Joseph, encouraged its members to prepare for their own death through a life of prayer and spiritual effort16.


The confraternal world of early modern France was extensively populated, not least because the forms of association, action and devotion available to contemporaries, especially in larger towns, became increasingly diverse over time; they were not static but, as the frequent changes of name suggests, mutated far more than is commonly imagined. As early as 1621, Paris was reported as having 337 confraternities; in 1710, Marseille had 128, of which seventy-four were old-style confraternities of intercession despite the changes that had occurred in the previous century17. Many of the new devotions began life within the communities of religious orders, which gradually reconfigured them for use by laypeople beyond the cloister; it was often preachers or missionaries from the orders concerned who brought them into local communities, at a time when the secular parish clergy would have not yet been capable of such innovation. Jean de Viguerie calculated that by the early 1700s France’s confraternities had some 1.5 million members – approximately eight percent of the population18. However problematic such a projection may be, it suggests that the second ‘great age of confraternities’ identified by Gabriel Le Bras was indeed a historical reality which requires further research.



1. Gabriel Le Bras, “Les Confréries chrétiennes : problèmes et méthodes”, in Le Bras, Études de sociologie religieuse, 2 vols (Paris 1956), ii, 423-62; Maurice Agulhon, Pénitents et franc-maçons de l’ancienne France (Paris, 1968).

2. Michel Vovelle, “Géographie des confréries des pénitents à l’époque moderne”, in Les Confréries de penitents (Dauphiné-Provence) (Valence, 1988), p. 17-33.

3. Marie-Hélène Froeschlé-Chopard, Dieu pour tous et Dieu pour soi. Histoire des confréries à l’époque moderne (Paris, 2006) for a wide-ranging survey.

4. R. N. Swanson, Religion and devotion in Europe, c 1215- c 1515 (Cambridge1995), 116ff. Also helpful is Christopher Black, Italian confraternities in the sixteenth century (Cambridge, 1989), ch. 2, ‘confraternities: what, where, for whom?’

5. Catherine Vincent, Des Charités bien ordonnées. Les Confréries normandes de la fin du xiiie siecle au début du xvie siècle (Paris, 1988); Philippe Goujard, Un Catholicisme bien tempéré (Paris, 1996), ch. 5.

6. Anne Bonzon, “Faire corps face aux pouvoirs”, Revue du Nord, 81 (1999), 689-703; Jean-Claude Meyer, “La Réforme spirituelle du clergé. L’Aa de Toulouse”, Bulletin de Littérature Ecclésiastique, 101 (2000), 149-80.

7. Keith Luria, Territories of grace (Los Angeles, 1991), 32-3; Antoine Follain, “Charités et communautés rurales en Normandie”, in Claude Langlois and Philippe Goujard, eds, Les confréries du Moyen Âge à nos jours (Rouen, 1995), 83-91.

8. See Marc Venard, “Qu’est-ce qu’une confrérie de dévotion?”, in Venard, Le Catholicisme à l’épreuve dans la France du xvie siècle (Paris, 2000), 237-48.

9. Marc Venard, “La Crise des confréries au xvie siècle”, in op. cit., 249-68.

10. Robert R. Harding, “The Mobilization of confraternities against the Reformation in France”, Sixteenth-Century Journal, 11 (1980), 85-107.

11. Marie-Hélène and Michel Froeschlé-Chopard, Atlas de la réforme pastorale en France, de 1550 à 1790 (Paris 1986), 66-7, 196-7.

12. Michel Cassan, “Confréries et ordres religieux dans les combats confessionnels des xvie-xviie siècles”, in Les Mouvances laïques des ordres religieux (Saint-Étienne, 1996), 301-23.

13. Louis Châtellier, L’Europe des dévots (Paris, 1987) is the standard work on the Jesuits.

14. Froeschlé-Chopard, op. cit., ch. 3-6.

15. Bernard Dompnier, “Un Aspect de la dévotion eucharistique dans la France du xviie siècle : les prières des Quarante-Heures”, Revue d’Histoire de l’Église de France, 67 (1981), 5-31.

16. Froeschlé-Chopard, op. cit., ch. 6 (ii-iv); Stefano Simiz, Confréries urbaines et dévotion en Champagne (1450-1830) (Lille, 2002), 235-7.

17. Froeschlé-Chopard, op. cit., 149-55, 174-8.

18. Jean de Viguerie, Le Catholicisme des français dans l’ancienne France (Paris, 1988), 162.


01/10/2012 - 30/06/2013