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21.01.10 Eisenbichler (ed.), A Companion to Medieval and Early Modern Confraternities

The Medieval Review

21.01.10 Eisenbichler (ed.), A Companion to Medieval and Early Modern Confraternities


As Konrad Eisenbichler points out his introduction to this volume, "Since the 1980s, there has been a steady growth in interest in late medieval and early modern confraternities" (7). The very proliferation of scholarly work, whether in monographs or journal articles (including the journal Confraternitas that Dr. Eisenbichler himself edits out of Toronto), has made it difficult for researchers to keep up with new developments. While it cannot cover all the work done on confraternities, this volume does offer a welcome key to the recent work in the field.

Dr. Eisenbichler begins this volume with an introduction giving a brief sketch of confraternity studies from early works to the current volume. He places each of the articles in the context of the field, citing a few of the other most important works. The notes on each essay in the book provide further resources, and the principal sources for each study are listed in a bibliography at the end of each chapter.

The temporal and geographical spread of the confraternal institution and its adaptability to a wide variety of situations and functions make an exhaustive review impossible. This volume, however, does a good job of representing confraternities from the thirteenth century--with references to earlier centuries as well--up to the eighteenth, and covering the European world from Ukraine in the east to Ireland in the west, and beyond to the Iberian colonies in the New World. The many facets of confraternity life represented include devotional processions; sacred music and art, poetry, and oratory; and works of charity, and, while most of the examples come from the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholicism and Orthodoxy are not omitted, and there is one article on Jewish brotherhoods (hevrot) as well.

Italy has preserved the greatest wealth of confraternal records, and probably the richest and most influential confraternities to begin with. Therefore, it is no surprise that the largest number of chapters (nine out of twenty-one) focus entirely or in large part on Italy. The authors of these chapters include names well known to students of confraternities such as Christopher Black, Nicholas Terpstra, and Danilo Zardin. The wealth of documentary and iconographical evidence from the peninsula allows the authors to pursue special topics relating to Italian confraternities.

Professor Zardin's study (translated by Dr. Eisenbichler) discusses Eucharistic piety in the sixteenth century, using both images and texts. Devotion to the Mass and to the Eucharistic elements was central to the spirituality of the Catholic Reformation, and this chapter elucidates its many forms. Christopher Black, whose book-length survey of Italian confraternities can be considered an introduction to the field, presents the varied relationships of confraternities in Italy and Iberia to the Inquisitions established there, both as opponents and supporters.

Articles by Nicholas Terpstra, another pioneer in confraternity studies, by Anna Esposito, and by William R. Levin, explore some of the charitable purposes of Italian confraternities. Professor Terpstra discusses confraternities whose function was to visit prisoners about to be executed. They played a role in both devotion and civic life, and provide a rare example of lay pastoral care. Professor Levin examines the art produced for the Florentine Misericordia, a confraternity devoted to caring for homeless children, as a demonstration of their activities and their attitudes toward their work. Professor Esposito examines the confraternities of various "nations"--including other parts of Italy--in the cosmopolitan city of Rome and their functions in both assisting and integrating these "foreigners" into Roman society.

In the turbulent life of thirteenth-century Italian cities, confraternities sought to bring civic peace and virtue. In these efforts, mendicant orders played an important role, but there were also laymen whose preaching demonstrated confraternal ideals. Marina Grazzini discusses one early figure in lay preaching, the jurist Albertano da Brescia, and his works.

Laudesi confraternities--those devoted to singing religious music--were important in late medieval and early modern Italian cities. Their records provide, as Jonathan Glixon describes in his article, a source for both the history of spirituality and the history of music. He also provides references for similar groups in the Low Countries. Nerida Newbigin also examines laudesi confraternities in Rome and Florence, specifically focusing on the dramatic works or sacre rappresentazioni these groups presented. Confraternal performances also included a visual aspect, which is examined by Alyssa Abraham in the case of two confraternities in Modena. She considers all the aspects of artistic expression, including both art inside the confraternities' oratories and banners used in public processions, that expressed the devotional and civic roles of the confraternities.

Two studies focus on the Low Countries, specifically on the Burgundian-Habsburg Netherlands. Paul Trio's study, with illustrations from the Germanic-speaking territories from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, considers varieties of confraternities from those associated with abbeys and religious houses to craft guilds and archers' guilds. Professor Trio also discusses the general characteristics of confraternities and the "Babylonian confusion" (41) of terms referring to them. Another specialized type of confraternity typical of the Low Countries were the chambers of rhetoric, confraternities devoted to the performance of vernacular devotional poetry and drama. Anne-Laure Van Bruaene discusses the changing role of the chambers in the Low Countries, from centers of devotion in the fifteenth century, through their role in the religious debates of the sixteenth, to their focus as literary and charitable societies in the seventeenth, which continued even in the now Protestant Dutch Republic.

Like the Netherlandish chambers of rhetoric and the Italian laudesi confraternities, the French puys specialized in the performance of sacred poetry, generally in honor of the Virgin Mary. Dylan Reid surveys these associations, from their beginnings in the fifteenth century, noting that many survived until the French Revolution. Like the chambers, they featured competitions for the best verse, and incorporated dramatic and musical activity like the laudesi.

The Italian Swiss canton of Ticino, which became part of the Swiss Confederation in the fifteenth century, saw confraternities like those of northern Italy founded in that century. Davide Adamoli discusses the Eucharistic confraternities of this region, with reference to some on the other side of the Alps, during the sixteenth century, including the influence of the Council of Trent and the role of reforming bishops.

Colm Lennon discusses the confraternities of the Irish Pale--the territory dominated by English culture--during the later Middle Ages. These tended to be societies maintaining chantries established in parishes to memorialize the members of the confraternity, generally local gentry or townsfolk. Further afield in the European culture zone was the Viceroyalty of New Spain in present-day Mexico and Central America. Here confraternities (cofradías) spread not only among the Spanish settlers, but also among the native peoples and imported Africans, both slave and free. Murdo J. MacLeod surveys these varied confraternities, noting their cultural and social, as well as religious, roles among the varied population of the province.

For those of us whose linguistic abilities are limited to the tongues of Western Europe, Beata Wojciekowska's study of confraternities in Central Europe (Poland and Bohemia) is an immense benefit, surveying as it does a rich scholarly literature in Polish and Czech dealing with the late medieval and early modern confraternities of the region. Likewise, Dominika Burdzy's discussion of confraternities in the eastern regions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth focuses on the formation of the Greek Catholic Church after the Union of Brest split Eastern Orthodoxy. Confraternities, especially those linked to monasteries, helped maintain and renew the spiritual lives of those who did not accept the Union.

In addition to Konrad Eisenbichler's excellent survey in his introduction, there are several studies that deal with general characteristics of confraternities. Apart from any common activity, the confraternity was intended to set up a relationship among the members centered on the ideal of Christian brotherhood. Gervase Rosser discusses the what the term "confraternal" was intended to mean ethically, drawing from many examples throughout Europe. Another general study by David D'Andrea deals with the ideal of charity that motivated the founding of confraternal hospitals, again throughout Europe, combining the pursuit of social good with the quest for individual salvation.

Federica Francesconi's study of Jewish confraternities reminds us that confraternal associations were not limited to Christendom. Jewish confraternities (hevrot) with many of the same purposes--devotion, charity, mutual assistance, and professional unity--also existed during the medieval and early modern periods. Professor Francesconi gives examples from Spain, Italy, and Bohemia illustrating both the theological and social place of confraternities in the Jewish community as well as the influence of neighboring Christian organizations.

Overall, this is an excellent volume. There are very few flaws in the editing or proofreading, and the book itself is well put together. Its only possible fault is the absence of studies relating to Britain or Germany, which, given the wide sweep of topics treated, can be easily excused. Any student of confraternities will profit from reading this book.​