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The Dimension of Piety: Associative Life and Devotional Change in the Penitent Confraternities of Marseille (1499-1792).

By Andrew E. Barnes (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1994. x plus 285pp. $12.95).

Andrew Barnes' book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on that most distinctive of early modern European social organizations, the confraternity. The confraternity's origins stretch back to the high middle ages, when lay men and women first formed voluntary pious associations dedicated to a saint or shrine. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries most cities of western Europe boasted dozens of confraternities, ranging in size from a handful to hundreds of members; even towns and villages had multiple confraternities. For the most part lay men managed confraternal business, and the degree of clerical involvement varied. Some confraternities were established or sponsored by religious orders that continued to supervise or direct them. Others hired priests to serve as chaplains but otherwise escaped clerical control. Confraternal piety was by definition collective: members worshipped together regularly, prayed for the salvation of souls of deceased confreres, and after death themselves received a Christian burial and fellow members' prayers. Some years ago Brian Pullan, Jacques Chiffoleau, and others called attention to the expansion of what Barnes calls "the social dimension of piety" in early modern confraternities - forms of charity and mutual aid like benefits for disabled confreres and deceased confreres' families; support for dowry banks, orphanages, hospitals, and houses of refuge for exprostitutes and battered women.(1) But even beyond charity, confraternities had important social functions in early modern cities and towns. In many ways the emotional and material support they provided made them surrogate families for city dwellers. Confraternities also provided probably the only institutionalized form of male sociability transcending kin, occupation, and neighborhood, thus supplying networks and organizational skills useful for a city's social, economic, and political elite.(2)

To appreciate it fully, Barnes' study of Marseille's confraternities should be read in conjunction with other studies (including Barnes' own earlier articles) detailing the religious and social activities of confraternities.(3) This book is not a standard historical account, although the appendix includes capsule histories of the largest of Marseille's penitent confraternities. Rather, Barnes poses his questions about early modern confraternities in sociological terms. What interests Barnes is the social dynamics within confraternities: membership patterns, office holding, degrees of participation, dispute resolution, and especially the activities of smaller cliques within associations whose membership could reach into the hundreds. Here Barnes uses sociological models to fill gaps in the historical record. Taking cues from studies of twentieth-century American voluntary associations, Barnes uses fragmentary membership rolls, financial records, and confraternal statutes to construct a plausible account of how Marseille's penitent confraternities both managed themselves and organized their devotional activities through elaborate negotiations among cliques. Barnes also calls attention to qualities of brotherhood (fraternite), the elusive mixture of loyalty, intimacy, and security that must have been the experience of confreres bound together by common values, goals, and activities. The unfortunate silences of the historical record have left us ill informed about such important matters, but Barnes' resourceful interdisciplinary method allows him to speculate in ways that ring true from what we know about early modern sensibilities and corporate life.

Although his book focuses on sociability and social dynamics, Barnes also insists that the religious activities of confraternities not be reduced to social or political interests. Confraternities were at once religious and social institutions, and devotional and social lives of confreres were closely intertwined. Members participated weekly or daily in liturgical activities, processions, and collective prayer. Among the more colorful rites for Marseille penitents were flagellation and the annual foot washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday. Barnes explains: "During an ordinary week a conscientious member of the penitents Bourras spent an average of three to five hours involved in devotional activities at the chapel. During Holy Week and other high points of the liturgical year this amount of time would be several times greater. A member's involvement, however, was not subsumed in devotional acts. Other hours would be spent at the chapel, perhaps at his home, or more probably at his office or shop, discussing the latest decisions of the rector, handicapping the next election, or presenting his ideas about possible devotional events.... For members of the confraternity, the realization of organizational agendas was an integral part of the devotional experience. It was the Holy Spirit, after all, that decided which clique would achieve its plans for the coming year" (p. 174). Further: "It was the potential for fusing their social and devotional worlds that drew men to chapels" (p. 174). There could be no clearer statement that confraternity members inhabited a world in which both salvation and political success depended on networking, patronage, and collective effort.

Barnes' analysis of the devotional life of confraternities conforms to what we know from his earlier work and that of other historians of French and Italian associations, but his argument about confraternal piety has distinctive elements. Early modern Catholic religiosity tended to be manifested publicly, collectively, and in acts rather than words, and participation in ritual was especially important to confraternal piety. One of Barnes' arguments concerns the way he sees Marseille's confraternities affected by broad religious developments of the period. The precise nature of these broad developments has been much debated in recent years. According to Barnes, the enormous disruption of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations and the wars of religion had a transforming effect on Catholic piety; late medieval piety was pluralistic and collective, but "baroque Catholic piety" was more individualistic, disciplined, and institutionally framed. Although some of Marseille's penitent confraternities flourished into the first decades of the eighteenth century, the sharp decline in membership and influence evident in most confraternities after the mid-seventeenth century can be attributed to this shift in religious understanding and activities within Catholicism. This is an intriguing hypothesis, but more suggested than demonstrated here, since the largest part of Barnes' book concerns a few important confraternities at mid-eighteenth century, and not the evolution of all penitent confraternities from the wars of religion to the early stages of the Revolution.

Barnes offers other similarly suggestive and plausible interpretations that he does not develop fully. Unlike a number of other historians of confraternities he calls attention to both social status and gender: members of Marseille's penitent confraternities were exclusively male, and almost exclusively from the city's wealthy noble and bourgeois families. Barnes points out that participation in confraternities helped create political and occupational networks among the city's male elite, though he does not map such connections the way Ronald Weissman did for Florentine confraternities. Barnes also remarks that confraternities shaped male religiosity in early modern Marseille, an insight that I would have like to have seen extended into a full exploration of the nature of male religiosity within confraternities. Although historians are now working on male and female confraternal piety, the topic of gender and confraternities still awaits more exploration.(4) My quibbles should be understood as just that, however, and do not detract from the important contribution Barnes makes here and in his earlier studies to the history of early modern confraternities.

Virginia Reinburg Boston College


1. Brian Pullan, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice (Cambridge, MA, 1971); Jacques Chiffoleau, La comptabilite de l'au-dela: Les hommes, la mort et la religion dans la region d'Avignon a la fin du moyen age (Rome, 1980). More recent studies in this vein are Christopher Black, Italian Confraternities in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, 1989) and Nicholas Terpstra, Lay Confraternities and Civic Religion in Renaissance Bologna (Cambridge, 1995).

2. Ronald F. E. Weissman's pioneering study of Florentine confraternities highlighted these features of urban confraternal life: Ritual Brotherhood in Renaissance Florence (New York, 1982). On similar functions of rural confraternities see Philip T. Hoffman, Church and Community in the Diocese of Lyon, 1500-1789 (New Haven, 1984).

3. Since the book under review here does not include all material from Barnes' articles, it is worth citing a few of the more important ones: "From Ritual to Meditative Piety: Devotional Change in French Penitential Confraternities from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries," Journal of Ritual Studies 1 (1987); "The Wars of Religion and the Origins of Reformed Confraternities of Penitents: A Theoretical Approach," Archives de sciences sociales des religions 32 (1987); Cliques and Participation: Organizational Dynamics in the Penitents Bourras," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19 (1988); "Religious Anxiety and Devotional Change in Sixteenth-Century French Penitential Confraternities," Sixteenth Century Journal 19 (1988).

4. References to preliminary studies can be found in issues of the relatively new journal Confraternity Studies.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Reinburg, Virginia
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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