The Relevance of Confraternities in the Early modern period

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by David Rossi …

Confraternities played a pivotal role in the early modern period by disseminating Tridentine decrees to the common people.  They were medieval vessels made use of by the Catholic Church to encourage religious devotion and acts of charity throughout.  The Compagnia della Carita`, the Confraternita` del Santissimo Sacramento and the Confraternita` del Santissimo Rosario as well as the   Compagnia della Buona Morte sotto titolo del Patrocinio del Patriarca S Giuseppe eretta nella Chiesa de S Teresa de Gesu` della Citta` Cospiqua Principiata nel Anno 1780 are fine examples of the extensive network of the pious entities in Malta and elsewhere.

Confraternities were set up locally through the initiatives of ecclesiastical officials and other professional individuals under the tutelage of a Saint within the compounds of the parish.  The lay organisations were administered by an elected council which held the Consulta Privata on a regular basis.  The approved confratelli and consorelle contributed an annual fee for membership purposes which entitled the recruits to partial and perpetual indulgences for eternal salvation.  Esteemed members of the Sovereign Order, public notaries and ordinary individuals gathered together in embellished oratories to give praise to the Divine whilst conducting good works for the benefit of the vulnerable.   The local organisations were affiliated to an Archconfraternity in Rome and conformed to an approved statute in adherence to the 1604 Papal Bull of the Supreme Pontiff Clement VIII under the title of Quaecumque. 

The religious institutions commissioned various acts of charity for the common good.  These comprised burial of the poor and  the distribution of bread to the deprived.  Monastic and matrimonial dowries were also made available to the selected candidates while others were released from captivity along the Barbary coast after careful consideration was given to the suppliche by the procurators of the confraternities.    These initiatives were sustained through the establishment of Foundations by the pious in accordance to well-defined Wills and Testaments.  There were instances were benefactors appointed the parish institutions as universal heirs of the estate for the fulfilment of the specified conditions as traced in the vast array of documents held for posterity. 

The existing archives of the religious formation reflect the ongoing activity as well as the relevant internal organisation as stipulated by the elected officials.   The Registers of Council meetings noted matters raised during the frequent encounters by leading members of the lay organisation while the Libro dei Testamenti retains copies of Wills empowering the confraternity to act in conformity to the articles of the foundations.  In addition, the Introito ed Esito sequence lists financial entries meticulously.  These make reference to the revenue from immovable property and register membership dues.  The names of those forming part of the organisation feature in Membership registers.   Meanwhile, burial records and the detailed Cabreo for land descriptions are also found on the shelves of the institution.

The archive holds a collection of registers pertaining to the Foundations resulting from legacies.  For instance, Legato Maria Fioccari covered monastic dowries and the De Napoli estate related to the release of Christian Slaves from North Africa.   Other accumulations cover the provision of bread to the poor on particular feast days as well as the distribution of marital dowries to the vulnerable zitella.  The legacies were administered separately by nominated Procurators who kept an up – to – date record of their activity as witnessed by the holdings at hand. 

Confraternities evolved locally in the medieval period and spread throughout during the reign of the Sovereign and Military Order of St John Hospitaller of Jerusalem.  In the early modern period confraternities were established in parish churches and under the surveillance of religious orders.  The organisations were endorsed by Mgr. Pietro Dusina during the apostolic visit of 1574 and importance was given to the ones dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament and the Rosary.  In Cospicua the Compagnia della Buona Morte was set up in 1780 in the Church of St Theresa for residents of the three cities under the protection of St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin of Carmel.  The organisation was affiliated with the Arciconfraternita` del Carmine of`Roia for spiritual benefit in the form of stipulated indulgences.  In compliance with the Papal Bull of1604 Quaecumque by Clement VIII the confraternity adhered to approved statutes and held an annual general meeting to elect officials for the running of the institution.  Practicing Catholics of both genders were affiliated to the Buona Morte for intercessory prayer and burial arrangements.  In accordance with the instructions found in the book under the title of Ars Moriendi:  Modus Juvandi Morientes (Malta, 1757) by D. Antoni Gaffori those registered were entitled to tre ore d` agonia in the chapel of the confraternity with the relic of St Joseph and a Messa Cantata di Requiem on death.   Meanwhile, an annual payment of three tari ensured a burial entitlement near to the altar of St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin.  

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