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Medieval Confraternities: Prayers, Feasts, and Fees

By Lucie Laumonier

Religious confraternities emerged in Southern France over the course of the twelfth century, a period of time characterized by intense development of lay religious practices. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, confraternities experienced a “rebirth” (“une renaissance,” says French historian Noël Coulet). We can examine what were medieval confraternities by focusing on those that existed in the towns and cities of Southern France.

Dedicated to a patron saint and attached to an altar in a particular church, confraternities aimed at celebrating the saint’s memory and organizing communal moments of piety, through the attendance of church services, participation in processions, and the commemoration of the dead. They provided opportunities for conviviality, as well as mutual support and charitable activities. Small communities usually counted only a handful of confraternities, but they were quite numerous in cities.

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How do we know about confraternities

Most confraternities that existed in the South of France are known from the brief mentions of their names in wills when testators bequeathed a small amount of money to their confraternity (for example, “I bequest 5 sous to the confraternity of St. Peter of the church St. Peter”). Information is minimal, and unfortunately, this is usually what historians get from documents. In a few (rare) cases, historians have access to archives produced by the confraternities themselves.

Statutes framing the confraternity’s administration and the members’ activities are poorly preserved. In Avignon, where close to 100 confraternities existed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, fewer than ten statutes have survived the passage of time. In Montpellier, where some 75 confraternities are attested between c.1150 and c.1500, only two texts of statutes were preserved.

Members of the confraternity of St. Nicolas of Valenciennes going to their chapel. Valenciennes, BM, ms. 536, fol. 5. Book of the confraternity of Saint-Nicolas de Valenciennes. Late 15-century. ©Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes, CNRS

Archival centres across Languedoc and Provence also yield a handful of administrative records – usually from the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – produced by, and for, local confraternities. In Avignon, for instance, archives of the confraternity of Notre-Dame de la Majour include, besides its statutes, two fourteenth-century lists of members.

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Other examples exist, such as the record of the confraternity dedicated to St. Michel in the village of Escazeaux, in Western Languedoc. Lists of confraternities’ members have enabled historians to assess the confraternity’s recruitment across the social spectrum. Other administrative records include books of accounts. In Toulouse, there are preserved accounting documents produced by the Holy-Bodies confraternity of the basilica St. Sernin in the fifteenth century. In Castelsarrasin, a small town north of Toulouse, the fourteenth-century book of account of the confraternity of St. Alpinien yields twenty years of information on the confraternity’s finances. Such sources are quite rare.

Finally, historians have to dive into notarial records to find a wide range of documents produced by confraternities. But notarial records are preserved in extremely high numbers in the South of France—so finding contracts pertaining to a confraternity is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The Plague and the Explosion of Confraternities

Before the 1300s, few confraternities appear in documents. In Avignon, historian Pierre Pansier only found two, but a number of confraternities mentioned in the early fourteenth century may have been established before this time. In Montpellier, ten different confraternities operated between c.1150 and c.1300.

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Confraternities’ numbers started to increase right before the first plague. The epidemic acted as an accelerant. Their numbers exploded everywhere from the early 1400s onward, a growth sustained well into the sixteenth century. The great “boom” of confraternities can, therefore, be situated in the fifteenth century, with a pivot around the Black Death.

List of members of the confraternity of St. Michel of Escazeaux (c.1393– 1401). Archives départementales de Tarn-et-Garonne (Montauban, France), MS 3 E 2034, pp. 2–3. La Bibliothèque Virtuelle des Manuscrits Médiévaux. ©Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes.

In Montpellier, for instance, the number of new confraternities doubled after the Black Death, and then doubled again in the first half of the fifteenth century. Likewise, in Avignon, 30 different confraternities were established between c.1300 and c.1400, compared to 60 new establishments between c.1400 and c.1500. Some confraternities seem to have been ephemeral, disappearing from documents only a couple of years after they were first mentioned. Most lasted between 25 and 100 years. In Avignon, two-thirds of the confraternities were mentioned with regularity throughout the fifteenth century.

Some confraternities were well established in their community and attested over centuries. In Montpellier, the confraternity of the Holy-True-Cross of the church of the Holy Cross was first mentioned c.1290 and only disbanded at the time of the French Revolution. This particular confraternity survived no less than 500 years!

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Being part of a confraternity

Historians such as Jacques Chiffoleau have argued that confraternities were sorts of “substitute families” for their members, offering the tight-knit bonds and sense of community sought by their members. More recent research, however, contends that we should downplay the importance of the social bonds that confraternities fostered.

They certainly created a climate of conviviality and sociability, but confraternities mostly consolidated pre-existing relations among their members. In some cities, such as in Aix-en-Provence, most professional organizations were structured in confraternities. Although open to people who did not work the trade, these confraternities were established around the core of a pre-existing community.

Most confraternities were open to men and women alike, although some exceptions exist where women were barred from a confraternity all together. The above-mentioned pluri-secular confraternity of the Holy-True-Cross of Montpellier required that married women obtained their husbands’ license to enroll.

The feast of the confraternity of St. Nicolas of Valenciennes. Valenciennes, BM, ms. 536, fol. 9v. Book of the confraternity of Saint-Nicolas de Valenciennes. Late 15th century. ©Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes, CNRS.

To access a confraternity, one had to be of good reputation. Then, one had to pay the entrance fees, ranging from a few deniers to several sous, without any fixed rule. Some confraternities recruited their members among the social elite, asking for substantial entrance fees. Others were more inclusive. On top of entrance fees, confraternities usually collected monthly fees from their members.

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Most underprivileged people were unable to access a confraternity. But these were a minority, with a large number of confraternities recruiting across the social spectrum. Moreover, as charitable and religious organizations, confraternities often specified in their statutes that administrators could waive entrance fees for candidates who lived in poverty.

The money collected was invested in candles, food for the annual feast, alms given to the poor, and salaries paid to members of the clergy who officiated for the confraternity. Confraternities also purchased books of prayers and adorned their chapels with refined retables and statues.

Once part of a confraternity, brothers and sisters had to attend mass (usually once or twice a month), participate in processions, show up at members’ funerals, pray for the souls of the dead, and attend the annual confraternity feast. The degree of involvement asked of a confraternity’s members was therefore relatively low.

The high point of the calendar year was the patron saint’s feast. Brothers and sisters walked in a procession with their candles, attended mass together, and then congregated for the annual banquet.

Funerals and Charity

The confraternities’ main purpose is connected to the salvation of the souls of their members and the commemoration of their deaths. Not only did brothers and sisters attend the dead’s funerals, but they had to pray for them.

Members of the Holy-True-Cross confraternity of Montpellier had to repeat 30 Pater Nosters and 30 Ave Marias when accompanying a member’s corpse to its burial site. The following day, at mass, they would repeat each prayer ten times. People who did not come to the funeral, or who skipped mass, would say each prayer one hundred times. The confraternity’s chaplain was also required to pray and sing for the souls of the dead, whose names were carefully written down in the confraternity’s records. To benefit from such valued spiritual support, members of confraternities usually (but not systematically) had to bequeath an additional sum of money to the confraternity before they passed.

Between 1300 and 1450 in Toulouse, 44% of testators left money to a confraternity. In Avignon, a third of fifteenth-century testators bequeathed to a confraternity, against one-quarter of fifteenth-century testators from Montpellier and 10% of same-century testators from Aix-en-Provence.

“Office funèbre” – Office of the Dead for a member of the confraternity. Valenciennes, BM, ms. 536, fol. 23. Book of the confraternity of Saint-Nicolas de Valenciennes. Late fifteenth century. ©Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes, CNRS.

Confraternities were endowed with a strong charitable role. They usually provided financial aid to members in need by giving them a few coins weekly. Chaplains and administrators visited the sick and the dying, offering support, prayers, and counsel.

Some confraternities also organized external almsgivings or financed a bed in a local hospital. The confraternity of Notre-Dame de la Majour, in Avignon, fostered close ties to local charitable institutions. The charitable vocation of confraternities was performed with much solemnity at the annual banquet. Usually, members were asked to bring a poor person and give them food, replicating Christ’s deeds. As we can see, from offering social conviviality, to ministering to the sick, to caring for one’s soul after death, confraternities fulfilled an important social and spiritual role for their members in Late Medieval Southern French communities.

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

Click here to read more from Lucie Laumonier

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

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