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  • Lay Brothers:The Other Men in the Mendicant Orders of New Spain
  • Asunción Lavrin (bio)


In 1556 Franciscan missionaries from the city of Mexico arrived in the then remote area of Zacatecas to begin what was expected to be a crucial but difficult evangelization of the area. They had been preceded by several other brothers who had not settled there despite having spent several years in catechizing the indigenous. The intention of these four missionaries was to stay and found a convent. Along with Fr. Pedro de Espinareda and Fr. Diego de la Cadena came one lay brother, Fr. Jacinto de San Francisco, and one donado simply called Lucas.1 Fr. Joseph Arlegui, chronicler of the order, assumed the presence of those friars would lay the foundation for the difficult task of evangelizing such distant lands and such unwilling peoples.

Pressing for historical accuracy, Fr. Joseph also acknowledged the work of the two humbler men who accompanied the friars.2 The presence of a lego and a donado in that early conversion enterprise calls our attention to the participation of these two categories of men in the history of the mendicant orders in the evangelization of New Spain. While the lion’s share of historical [End Page 411] memory belongs to the ordained mendicants, lay brothers have remained in relative neglect. Standing discreetly at the sidelines, these men performed the essential work of maintaining the rhythm of daily and ritual life in the convents, and saw to the welfare of the ordained friars. They also established a link with the “common folk” in terms that the ordained friars could not.

In general, lay brothers did not have a strong profile in the memory of the orders, even though some were later elevated to sainthood or to the category of beato.3 They lacked a voice within the convent, and their activities were of a nature that did not require official recording. Only a few chosen lay brothers attracted the attention of chroniclers, for reasons that will be explained in this work. So, why should we try to rescue the memory of men whose lives remain obscured by the more outstanding figures dedicated to the tasks of active conversion, preaching, or writing theological tracts? This question provides us with an exercise in learning about patterns of masculine behavior within the church, a topic that is notably underrepresented in historical attention.4 The prominent task that men of the cloth exercised in the shaping of the religious and cultural life of New Spain calls for a review of all members who had a role [End Page 412] in that work, including those who most often remained at the bottom of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

We must also question received views of the lay brothers’ apparent homogeneity. The chroniclers, the true shapers of historical memory, followed a spiritual agenda in delineating the lives of these men, but they also furnished enough materials for us to appreciate the nuances of their lives. What were the qualifying abilities and virtues that took lay brothers out of obscurity? What did these men do to earn that distinction? To answer these questions we will draw a profile of the men who shared some of the values ascribed to lay brothers’ religious masculinity and at the same time personified values viewed as specific to their rank and appointed roles. By doing this we can grasp and understand the vision of the historians who recorded their lives, as well as the behavior of the historical actors themselves.

The community of men living within the walls of a mendicant convent was not a homogeneous social body. The friary was a mixture of personalities, social and economic backgrounds, education, and intellectual abilities. The ideal, and primary goal, of conventual living was to make this variety of men adopt a life with very well-defined religious objectives and follow a close observance of their duties, regardless of social background or level of education. Mendicant orders had two distinct social and religious categories in their convents: the preeminent one was the priests (sacerdotes or frailes clérigos), men who after several years of study and preparation were entitled to perform the Mass...


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pp. 411-438
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