The parish fraternities of County Meath in the late middle ages

The parish fraternities of County Meath in the late middle ages

By Colm Lennon

Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol.19 (2008)

Introduction: In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, dozens of religious fraternities of lay men and women were founded in the area of eastern Ireland, known as the Pale. In Meath alone, there were at least twenty of these associations established in towns and villages throughout the county proportionately the highest number in any part of the Englishry of late medieval Ireland. The vogue among lay men and women for banding themselves together in religious associations was widespread throughout late medieval Europe. Fuelled essentially by a desire to have their souls remembered in perpetuity in order to escape the pains of Purgatory, the primary function of the fraternity was celebration of mass by specially-appointed chaplain.

The grim mortality of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century had borne in upon Christians everywhere ever more acutely their tenuous hold upon life, and in the decades that followed, the survivors engaged in benefaction of religious institutions on a large scale. Wealthier donors could afford to set up private chantries in their parish churches, perhaps bequeathing funds for extensions to the buildings containing designated altars, at which priests would chant or say mass on the anniversaries of family members.

For the less affluent, these benefits could be gained by joining a parish fraternity and jointly investing through their parishes to ensure a centre of special worship, whether a side-altar or purpose-built chapel, and the employment of at least one chaplain to celebrate the sacred liturgies. Some chantries evolved into communal fraternities, and many fraternities became wealthy institutions through generations of testamentary bequests to the altar and chaplains.

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