Confraternities, Memoria, and Law in Late Medieval Italy

Oria, Italy - Mummified members of a confraternity of death. (

Oria, Italy – Mummified members of a confraternity of death. (

Thomas Frank

Confraternitas: Vol 17, No 1 (2006)


To view medieval brotherhoods or confraternities as associations of laymen or clerics with predominantly religious functions almost automatically leads to the conclusion that fraternity and memoria have much in common. This, at least, can be assumed if we focus on the religious or socio-religious dimension of the notion, marked in the following article by the Latin term memoria. Such an understanding of memoria, emphasizing its religious dimension, could be further elaborated. It is indeed possible to interpret all the efforts of Christians (or of adherents of other religions) to assure the salvation of their souls as care of memoria in a wider sense. In this case, not only prayer and liturgy, but also charitable works, as offered for example by brotherhoods, hospitals, or individual benefactors, could be included because all these pious activities point to the effect that the believer and god ‘commemorate’ each other.

This article, however, concentrates on a narrower idea of memoria, defi ned as performative commemoration that is realised liturgically and collectively. The focus lies especially on commemoration of the dead and prayers for the living. What this meant for confraternities in late medieval Italy is discussed in the first part of this article (I). Next, legal documents and juridical texts will be used to illustrate the role of memoria for the perception of confraternities in medieval society (II). The article concludes with some refl ections concerning the concept of ‘confraternity’ in modern historical research (III).

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