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About this book

What impact did the Church have on society? How did social change affect religious practice? Within the context of these wide-ranging questions, this study offers a fresh interpretation of the relationship between Church, society and religion in England across five centuries of change.

Andrew Brown examines how the teachings of an increasingly 'universal' Church decisively affected the religious life of the laity in medieval England. However, by exploring a broad range of religious phenomena, both orthodox and heretical (including corporate religion and the devotional practices surrounding cults and saints) Brown shows how far lay people continued to shape the Church at a local level.

In the hands of the laity, religious practices proved malleable. Their expression was affected by social context, status and gender, and even influenced by those in authority. Yet, as Brown argues, religion did not function simply as an expression of social power - hierarchy, patriarchy and authority could be both served and undermined by religion. In an age in which social mobility and upheaval, particularly in the wake of the Black Death, had profound effects on religious attitudes and practices, Brown demonstrates that our understanding of late medieval religion should be firmly placed within this context of social change.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
So short a book is bound to raise a suspicion: that its themes will not be as all-encompassing as the expansive title suggests. The suspicious will not be disappointed. Discussion of the ‘Church’ as an institution is well served elsewhere1 (although this is the sense in which the term is generally used here). I have chosen instead to concentrate on the ‘community of the faithful’ (which was in any case one contemporary definition of the ‘Church’), and on how the religious practices and attitudes, principally of lay people, changed over the period. The ‘community of the faithful’ in medieval terms was of course ‘society’ itself (or at least ‘Christian society’); so to the crime of raising false expectations, the book’s title risks adding the sin of tautology. But more modern definitions tend to allow the distinction, and what is attempted here is an overview of the relationship (to some extent two-way) between religious practices and their social setting: how they were affected by status and gender (and by perceptions of them), and by the vast socio-economic changes which took place over the whole period.
Andrew Brown

Chapter 1. Anglo-Saxon Church and Society c. 1000

Abstract
About the year 1001, a peasant ploughing a field at Slepe, in a manor belonging to the abbey of Ramsey, stumbled upon the bones of four bodies hidden in the soil. One set of bones was extravagantly identified in a dream as those of St Ivo, a Persian bishop, no less, who had spent his last days in England as a hermit. A great crowd witnessed the translation of these relics from Slepe to the abbey. So that the relics would be accessible for public veneration, the sarcophagus containing them was allowed to protrude through the abbey walls into the world outside. A spring gushed from the sepulchre and became the source of many cures. Some people were sceptical: a foreign monk suspected the cult to be nothing more than the product of silly, superstitious rustics, who were habitually deceived out of heathen error into making cults of springs and bones. But his objections were stilled by the spring’s miraculous powers.1
Andrew Brown

Chapter 2. The Universal Church and the Laity c. 1050–1500

Abstract
A fifteenth-century confessor, possibly from the north Midlands, wrote down the following advice for an unknown married man.1 It might have seemed depressing. Like everyone else, he was a sinner: unlike the ‘innocent dog’, he continually provoked the Lord; as a lowly ‘dog’, not a man, he might presume to enter a church. But there was hope. He could ask for mercy: his tears, even if those of his heart alone, might wash the feet of Jesus on the cross. He was to hear mass reverently, and while the clerks were singing, look at the books of the church — especially the Gospel and the Legend of Saints. On weekdays, when returning home, he was to say the Psalter of the Virgin Mary, and at dinner silence was to be broken only by readings in the vernacular to edify his wife and children. Further meditation could continue with confessors until vespers; after supper — a light one, to avoid gobbling — he was to go up to his ‘cell’ to pray. When finally in bed, he was advised to search his heart for the evil and good he had done that day.
Andrew Brown

Chapter 3. Saints, Cults and the Holy

Abstract
In 1386, disturbing news reached the ears of the bishop of Lincoln. In the fields of Rippingdale, near the high road, people had made for themselves a statue known as Jurdan Cross. The statue had worked miracles. Bells were being rung, processions held and sermons preached. To the bishop, the statue was fake, the miracles false and the processions used only for profits which were being appropriated by laymen for their own use. But in 1392 the pope came to a different verdict, apparently impressed by the cult’s popularity and antiquity to which the bishop had made no reference: the cross, it was now said, had stood for almost a hundred years and the miracles had attracted pilgrims from all over England. A chapel was to be permitted at the site.1
Andrew Brown

Chapter 4. Corporate Religion: Structures and Practices

Abstract
The church of Wimborne Minster (Dorset) had an illustrious past.1 It was founded as a nunnery and double monastery in the early eighth century on royal estates; its founder Cuthberga, daughter of the king of the West Saxons, was soon revered as a saint. By the tenth century it was no longer a nunnery, but it was certainly a ‘minster’, probably supplying priests for the outlying areas of a wide ‘parish’. By the twelfth century it had been refounded as a royal collegiate chapel. Yet its ‘minster’ origins cast a long shadow over the structure of the parish it continued to serve. It remained a ‘wide and populous parish’ which troubled one of its fourteenth-century deans; and in 1545, 1700 people were claimed to be communicants at Easter. Outlying settlements continued to recognize its jurisdiction: villagers from Hampreston, although with their own chapel, were still required to make a two-mile, flood-threatened journey to Wimborne Minster to bury their dead. The royal origins of the church also continued to loom large throughout the Middle Ages: the cult of Henry VI (d.1471) was promoted there; the mother of Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort (d.1509), made elaborate provision for her soul at the church. But long before then, the church had become much more than a refuge for royalty. Its churchwardens’ accounts, which survive from 1403, reveal how much the parish had become the focus of considerable collective activity on the part of the laity. They show parishioners accumulating rents, managing offerings and collections to pay for feast days, church ornaments, and from 1448 rebuilding work on the church tower. The royal cults had even become their own. They collected small offerings made to ‘Saint’ Henry and much larger ones to St Cuthberga.
Andrew Brown

Chapter 5. Corporate Religion: Death and the Afterlife

Abstract
In his ‘Pilgrimage of Human Life’ (written in the 1330s), the French Cistercian Deguileville described a vision of life as a kind of pilgrimage on the road to the heavenly Jerusalem. During life on earth, it was a battle against sin in which the combatant was helped by proper instruction in the Church’s doctrines, and by the performance of the sacraments which offered the hope of grace. Death came as a terrifying moment, but not so much for the body as for the soul. Satan scents victory. But judged on St Michael’s scales of justice, a remorseful conscience rehearsing past sins, the soul is spared descent into Hell. Contrition and confession has been made, even if full satisfaction has yet to be carried out. The soul passes through Purgatory, its cleansing flames mitigated only by the continuing prayers, alms and masses performed by the living. For some it will be a long and painful wait: one soul remains chained to a coffer of money which his executors have neglected to discharge for him; another, who has indulged too freely in life’s frivolities, is encased in a block of ice for what will seem to last for 100 years. At least they are spared the horrors of Hell. All await the Second Coming and Last Judgment, when souls are reunited with bodies and dispatched to their final destinations, heavenly or otherwise.1
Andrew Brown

Chapter 6. Reforming the ‘Inner’ Life: Orthodoxy and Heresy

Abstract
At the heart of reforming movements within the Church in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries had been a concern to deepen an understanding of the Christian faith within the ‘community of the faithful’ (see Chapter 2). The broader effort to encourage outward conformity to the requirements of corporate worship was an integral part of pastoral attention directed towards the cultivation of the inner life of the soul. Indeed, the one could complement the other. The implied distinction between ‘outer’ and ‘inner’, ‘corporate’ and ‘personal’ forms of devotion, can be misleading: attendance at mass or participation in a liturgical procession, for instance, would ideally create devotional experiences nourishing for the soul. But churchmen by the twelfth century had placed increasing stress on the need to examine conscience; while the search for fuller ‘religious’ life, in imitation of Christ and the apostles, made the performance of occasional devotional acts seem only the starting point for living a true Christian life. A fuller devotional life may once have been restricted to the cloistered, but from the thirteenth century in particular, there was an increasing number of ways in which lay people might also develop a more ‘religious’ or apostolic life, in imitation of the life of Christ. The growing number and variety of books acting as guides to develop inner devotion had meant that the contemplative life might be accessible to lay people. The life of ‘Mary’ (contemplation) was potentially open to the laity; the life of ‘Martha’ (action) was potentially valuable for its spiritual possibilities: the ‘mixed life’, advocated in a wide variety of devotional texts from the late fourteenth century onwards, allowed the laity to combine contemplation with an active life in the world.
Andrew Brown

Conclusion

Abstract
Between 1000 and 1500 the pastoral efforts of the Church made a considerable impact on English society. Even by the late Anglo-Saxon period, they had already affected decisively the religious practices of lay people, and in subsequent centuries this impact was to harden. It makes sense to speak of medieval society or culture in this period, at a general level, as ‘Christianized’, if by the term we accept a broad definition which would not always have pleased the theologically refined, and if we accept that pre-Christian beliefs had generally been absorbed and accommodated within a broad Christian framework, by the end of the period even more than at the beginning. A firm distinction between pagan or folkloric beliefs and Christian beliefs cannot be sustained; and the same may be said (though with certain qualifications) of the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ religion, not least because elements deemed to be the distinctive features of the one (such as a ‘cultic’ approach to religion) or of the other (a ‘literate’ mentality, for instance) can usually be found in both.
Andrew Brown
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