Posted by: stpowen | January 22, 2016

The People’s Reformation (2)

People’s Reformation (2):  Religion in Medieval England, Part One

Hosea 4:6. ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.’

Before continuing our story, it will be helpful to consider the state of Christianity in England before the Reformation.  We can draw help in our quest to find the voices of ordinary people from three sources.  The first is an excellent book, The Stripping of the Altars by the Roman Catholic historian, Eamon Duffy (1).  This is a work of tremendous scholarship and in it Duffy is certainly able to prove that religion in England was very much alive and indeed dominated the lives of ordinary people.  What he is unable to conceal is that medieval worship was not according to knowledge and that those same people were kept in Stygian darkness and relentlessly fleeced by the Church of Rome.  The second resource is two of the first books to be written in English.  These are Piers Plowman by William Langland and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, both written towards the end of the 14th Century.  These two books have much to say about the Church of that time and the lives of ordinary folk.  A third source is The Book of Margery Kempe, believed by many to be the first English autobiography.  Margery Kempe was a well-to-do townswoman who lived around 1370-1440 in Bishop’s Lynn in East Anglia.  She was an extremely religious woman, and her experiences of church life are very interesting, though certainly not typical.

In the last post (2) we left Britain in the time of King John (died 1215), firmly in the grip of the Papacy.  It should be remembered that at this time the English scarcely possessed their own language; the court and society spoke French and all official documents were in either that language or Latin, which was also the language of the Church.  English was the tongue of the common folk.  This would not change for around `150 years.  Englishmen were cut off from their culture and from their religion because they could not understand it.   G. M. Trevelyan described vividly the situation of the English peasant in church:

‘…..He stood or knelt on the floor of the church each Sunday, [he] could not follow the Latin words but …..watched what he revered and heard the familiar yet still mysterious sounds.  Around him blazed on the walls frescoes of scenes from the Scriptures and the lives of saints; and over the rood-loft was the Last Judgement depicted in lively colours, paradise opening to receive the just, and on the other side flaming hell with devil executioners tormenting naked souls.  Fear of hell was a most potent force, pitilessly exploited by all preachers and confessors, both to enrich the Church and to call sinners to repentance’ (3).  It should be added that the preaching was most unlikely to have come from the Parish Priest, but rather from itinerant friars or pardoners, the latters’ wallets being ‘Bret full of pardons, come from Rome all hot’ (Chaucer).

We may mention briefly the two ‘Reformation Candles’ before moving on.  Robert Grosseteste (or Greathead) was made Bishop of Lincoln in 1235.  At around that time, Pope Innocent IV was ordering the English Bishops to find benefices for three hundred Italians.  Specifically, Grosseteste was ordered to make Innocent’s infant nephew a Canon at Lincoln.  This he refused to do, declaring, “To follow a pope who rebels against the will of Christ, is to separate from Christ and His body” (4).  Grosseteste also made a stand for the Scriptures but after his death in 1253, his protests died with him.

During the hundred years that followed, England became a powerful nation and instead of French kings ruling in England, an English king was crowned in Paris.  Starting with Edward I, England began to assert its independence over the Papacy.  The great days of the Popes which had begun with Hildebrand were coming to an end, as the power of the nation state began to arise.  French nationalism began to assert itself against Rome and in 1309, Pope Clement V, who was little more than a puppet of king Philip the Fair of France, moved the papal court to Avignon, where it remained for the next 70 years.  Since France and England were almost constantly at war at this time, Edward III of England was not at all disposed to allow the Pope much jurisdiction, and during his reign, and shortly after, the Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire asserted the rights of the English Crown against the Papacy.  During this time, Thomas Bradwardine, who had been chaplain to Edward III at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, became Archbishop of Canterbury.  He preached and wrote against the Pelagianism that had become rampant within the Church following the teachings of William of Occam and others, and upheld the Doctrines of Grace.  But like Grosseteste, Bradwardine died without too much disturbing the hold that the Church of Rome still held over the people of England, if not over her king.

The people of England had no approved (5) access to the Scriptures in English.  Neither Lay people nor clergy were encouraged to read the Bible at all, but those who were determined to do so were restricted to the Vulgate Latin translation of Jerome, dating back to the 5th Century.  This is by no means the worst translation in the world- it was the first to use the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, rather than the Greek Septuagint and is an improvement on some of the old Latin versions that preceded it.  However, it contained a number of errors, two of which are especially notable.  Firstly, it translated the Greek word metanoieo which means ‘repent’ as poenitentam ago, ‘do penance.’  Secondly, it rendered Luke 1:28, which should read, “Rejoice, highly favoured one” as “Rejoice, you who are full of grace,” and so the myth grew up around Mary that she was the repository of grace and had it to bestow on those who prayed to her.  From there it became the belief that certain great Christians or ‘saints’ also had an excess of virtue to bestow upon ‘ordinary’ believers.

Religious life in England centred around the Mass (6).  It seems that in the early Church, all Christians had taken part in communion regularly.  From the 6th Century, however, it became the custom for lay people to receive it only once or twice a year.  The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) specified that all Christians should receive at least once a year, at Easter.  In England, this was referred to as ‘taking one’s rights.’  But partaking at the mass was not the standard practice of the laity; usually the congregation merely watched the priest celebrate.  Since the end of the 11th Century it had been the custom for the priest, having intoned the words “Hoc est meum corpus’ to raise the wafer (7) above his head so that all the people could see and worship what the Church taught was the very body of Christ.  Most parish churches would celebrate “high” or “sung mass” each week, in which singing would be involved and the congregation joined in with the clergy, though only the clergy usually partook of the elements.  People would push and shove each other to get a seat at the front where they could get a seat toward the front and see the ‘host’ or wafer being raised.  Low mass was celebrated every day.  Here the only the parish priest took part, speaking the liturgy in a low voice and partaking of the elements himself.  Yet still many parishioners would come to the church to see the host in the priest’s hand, rising up out of their seats to get a better look.  In the larger churches, several masses might be celebrated one after another and a bell would be rung so that the laity might hurry from one to another.  The martyrologist John Foxe recounted how the early Lollard priest William Thorpe was preaching at a church in Shrewsbury, when the ‘sacring bell’ was rung and many of his congregation ran past him to see the host being raised in another part of the church.

Protestant Archbishop Cranmer had seen this enthusiasm among the people early in his career.  He asked rhetorically:  “What made the people to run from their seats to the altar, and from altar to altar……..peeping, tooting and gazing at that thing which the priest held in his hands, if they thought not to honour the thing which they saw?  What moved the priests to lift up the sacrament so high up over their heads?  Or the people to say to the priest, “Hold up! Hold up!”; or one man to say to another, “Stoop down before;” or to say, “This day I have seen my Maker;” and, “I cannot be quiet except I see my Maker once a day”? What was the cause of all these…….but that they worshipped that visible thing which they saw with their eyes and took it for very God?’ (cf. Deut.4:15).

The reason for the reluctance to partake of the bread and wine seems to have been dread of consuming the very body and blood of Christ unworthily.  Safer by far to observe the ritual from a safe distance. There were those who insisted taking the elements regularly.  Margery Kempe did so weekly and records that this was regarded by her neighbours as ostentation.  Duffy also mention a Lady Margaret Beaufort who received monthly and ‘even so was regarded as something of a prodigy’ (8).  As related, for the large majority, observance was once a year, at Easter, preceded by confession to a priest the week before.

The mass lay at the very heart of medieval Roman Catholicism.  The prestige and power of the priesthood rested on the belief that they, and they alone, had the power to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  To deny this was the ultimate heresy.  It was the reason for which all the English martyrs from the earliest Lollards to the victims of the Marian persecution were burned.  When Margery Kempe’s ostentatious piety put her under suspicion of heresy, she was investigated by the Abbot of Leicester and required to state her orthodoxy, which she did as follows:

‘Sirs, I believe in the sacrament of the altar in this wise, that whatever man has taken the order of priesthood, be he never so vicious a man in his behaviour, yet if he say duly the words over the bread that our Lord Jesus Christ said when he made his Maunday Mass [ie, at the Last Supper], I believe that it is his very flesh and his blood and not material bread, not may it ever be unsaid once it is said’  [9].

So no matter how evil the life and manner of an individual priest might be; no matter how great a rogue the Bishop who ordained him, once ordained, he held the power to summon up the bodily presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to deny this was the greatest heresy.  Indeed, the greatest enthusiasm was expected of all at the celebration of the mass.  Duffy writes, ‘Holding up of the hands and the more or less audible recitation of elevation prayers at the sacring was a gesture expected of everyone; refusal or omission was a frequent cause of the detection of the Lollards.  And the refusal of such gestures might be held to exclude one from the human community, since they excluded one from the church…..’ [10]

To encourage belief in this doctrine of ‘Transubstantiation,’ special catechisms and didactic poems were composed for the congregation to learn.  For example:

‘It seems white and is red,
It is alive and seems dead,
It is flesh and seems bread;
It is one and seems two,
It is God’s body and no more.’

Also, many miraculous stories circulated about the mass.  These usually involved doubting folk being chastened when they saw the wafer bleeding copiously as it was broken by the priest.  Sometimes it was Pope Gregory the Great who convinced the doubter as his hands dripped with the blood of Christ; sometimes it was ‘St. Ode that was bishop of Canterbury.’  On other occasions it was doubting monks or priests who were granted this vision when their faith was weak.  All such doubts were held to be the work of the devil [11].

Another central feature of medieval religious life in England was the various festivals.  Prominent among them, and associated with the mass, was the feast of Corpus Christi celebrated in June each year.  Instituted by Pope Urban IV in 1264 and observed in England from 1308, it commemorated a communion wafer which allegedly shed blood in a church in Bolsena, near Rome.  A priest would carry a wafer through the streets in a golden monstrance, a special device for holding up the host for the adoration of the people.  On the streets through which the procession would pass, the residents would festoon their houses with bed-hangings and other decorations as the populace stood in the streets to catch a glimpse of the body of Christ.   Also popular in the late medieval period was the cult of St. Anne, reputed to be the mother of the virgin Mary, with feats and processions in her name from around 1383.  The reader will scour the Bible in vain for any reference to this lady, but although Mary must surely have had a mother, there is no reputable evidence that she was called Anne and certainly no reason to pray to her or any other saint.

Other saints there were however, in plentiful supply.  Duffy records that the parish church in Faversham, Kent, ‘had at least four images of the Virgin, including Our lady of the Assumption in the chancel, Our Lady of Pity in the south aisle, Our Lady in Jeseyn (childbirth), and our Lady and St. Anne, as well as images of St. Agnes, All Saints, Anthony, Barbara, Christopher, Clement, Crispin and Crispianus, Edmund, Erasmus, George, Giles, Gregory, James the Great, John (two images), John the Baptist, Katherine, Leonard, Loy, Luke, Mary Magdalene, Margaret, Michael, Nicholas, Peter and Paul, Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Becket, Ronan, and Master John Schorne [who?].  All these images had lights before them, and several were housed in their own chapels, or on their own altars.  All attracted bequests for the maintenance of the lamps before them, and in the cases of the more popular saints………daily masses at their altars’ (12).

At the eve of the Reformation, Desiderimus Erasmus could not resist poking a little fun at the external nature of idol worship:   ‘One saluteth (St.) Christopher every day, but not unless he behold his image……..Another worshippeth one Rochas, but why?  Because he believeth that he will keep away the pestilence from his body.  Another mumbleth his prayers to Barbara or George, lest he should fall into his enemies’ hands.  This man fasteth to Apollonia, lest his teeth should ache.  That man visiteth the image of holy Job, because he would be without scabs……….

‘Honourest thou the bones of Paul hid in a shrine, and honourest thou not the mind of Paul hid in his writings?  Magnifiest thou a piece of his carcase shining through a glass, and regardest thou not the whole mind of Paul shining through his letters?’ (13).


  1. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10828-6.
  3. G.M. Trevelyan: England in the Age of Wycliffe.
  4. Quoted by J. Merle d’Aubigne: The Reformation in England (Banner of Truth. ISBN 0-85151-846-3).
  5. For John Wycliffe, the Lollards and the Bible in English, see Chapter Four.
  6. The word ‘Mass’ comes from the closing words of the liturgy of the mass: ‘Ite, missa est.’ “Go, it [the congregation] is dismissed.”
  7. It became the custom to use a wafer instead of bread so that it would not crumble and pieces of ‘Christ’s body’ fall to the floor and be trampled upon.
  8. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p.93.
  9. Book of Margery Kempe p.115 (Modernized language).
  10. Duffy, The stripping of the Altars, p. 103.
  11. Ibid. p.102-3.
  12. Ibid. p. 155-6.
  13. From Erasmus, Enchiridion.



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