Posted by: stpowen | March 9, 2016

The People’s Reformation (3). Medieval Christianity, Part 2

Judges 21:25. 'In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what 
was right in his own eyes.'

We continue our account of Medieval religion in England.

The earliest Christians believed in the primacy of preaching (Matt. 24:14; 2 Tim. 4:1-4 etc.), but at the time of the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire, levels of education and literacy declined sharply and this affected the clergy as much as anyone else.  It became the fashion for most priests to limit their activities to liturgical and sacramental functions.  They celebrated the mass, heard confessions, baptized infants, heard confession and buried the dead.  ‘Western Catholics thus became accustomed to a form of worship in which many things were done but hardly anything was explained’ (1).  The mass was in Latin, and just so long as the priest could pronounce the words correctly, even he might not understand what they meant.  Regular Lord’s Day preaching was rare; if there was anything at all it was likely to be a homily, a sermon written by someone else and read out by the priest.  These also were quite likely to be in Latin so the congregation would be none the wiser.  Robert Grosseteste (2), 13th Century Bishop of Lincoln, was an exception to this custom, insisting that it was the clergy’s duty to preach the Scriptures and the people’s duty to listen.  He preached in English, not Latin, declaring, ‘The work of a priest is not giving people the mass, but preaching the living truth.’

As the 15th Century progressed, people became more and more eager to hear preaching.  Margery Kemp became so frustrated at its lack that she herself attempted to preach, to the bemusement of her neighbours and the ire of the priests.  But where preaching was to be heard, she records, ‘How fast the people came running to hear the sermon,’ when a well-known preacher visited her home town of King’s Lynn, although she rather haughtily doubted the motives of her neighbours in so doing (3).

So where preaching was to be heard at all, it was more likely to be from itinerant friars or ‘pardoners’ than from the Parish priests.  Such preaching tended to concentrate upon the horrors of hell and of purgatory.  The Roman Church taught that even Christians needed to have their sins purged, and this was done by a sojourn of indefinite duration in purgatory.  ‘Though every Christian might hope for heaven, only the saints could hope to go there directly.  All who died in a state of venial sin, all who had forgotten or concealed such sins in confession, all who had not yet fulfilled every part of the penance imposed in confession for sins repented, confessed or absolved, all who had had insufficient penance imposed on them by over-indulgent confessors, all who fell short of that fullness of charity which lay at the root of salvation…..all these were bound to spend some times in the pains of purgatory’ (4).  Part of the problem with Purgatory was that since it appears nowhere at all in the Bible, no one could say how long it might continue before one was released to heaven, nor how severe the pains might be.  Duffy reports some lurid accounts of the agonies allegedly experienced there, ‘souls…..suspended by meat-hooks driven through jaws, tongue and sexual organs, frozen into ice, boiling in vats of liquid metal or fire……  There was general agreement that, al least as far as its activities and staff were concerned, Purgatory was an out-patient department of hell rather than the antechamber of heaven….. In Purgatory, declared [Bishop] Fisher, “Is so great acerbite of pynes that no difference is between the paynes of hell and them, but only eternyte.’ (5).

Unsurprisingly, the result of this teaching was that men and women were desperate to avoid Purgatory, and in their desperation they became the victims of another unbiblical doctrine.  The Roman church taught that prayers for the dead were not only efficacious but important in lessening the time spent by the departed in purgatory.  Every week the Parish priest would bid the people pray, ‘For all the souls that abide the mercy of God in the pains of Purgatory.’  For those with the necessary finance, the local church or monastery would arrange special prayers for the newly departed.  How could a dutiful son or daughter refuse to pay for masses to be said for recently deceased parents?  And wealthy folk, instead of leaving their money to their children, would leave it to the church for masses to be conducted on their behalf.  Duffy relates the case of one John Clopton, who in 1494 wrote in his will, “As far as I can remember, I am clear of all wrongs done to any person.”  Nonetheless, he felt it expedient to leave 50 Marks to secure 2,000 masses within the first month following his death.  “I know well,” he said, “that prayers are a singular remedy for the deliverance of souls in purgatory, and especially he offering of the blessed sacrament of our Lord’s body” (6).  The churches and monasteries grew mightily rich on the back of such donations, playing on the fears of a superstitious populace.

Towards the end of the 14th Century, two books were published in English which cast a helpful light on religion of the time and on the attitude of the people towards the clergy.  The first of these was Piers the Plowman by William Langland (1332-c.1400).  Langland was in ‘minor orders’ in the Church (7).  He was clearly concerned at the state of England in his day, both politically and spiritually.  The book takes the form of an account of a dream that he had, and is filled with angry and sarcastic allusions to church and government officials.  Here is an example from his prologue:

A gaggle of hermits with crooked staves set out for [the shrine of the Virgin Mary at] Walsingham, with their whores behind them.  Great strapping layabouts, foes of a fair day’s work, dressed up in copes to look different from the rest, and, hey presto! They’ve become hermits- gentlemen of leisure!

I found there all four orders of friars, preaching to the people for the benefit of their bellies.  They interpreted the Gospel as it fitted their book, reading into it whatever meaning they fancied in their greed for smart clothes.  Many of these masters can afford to dress as they please because their costs and their earnings fit like hand in glove.  Now, since charity’s turned trader and heads the queue for hearing noblemen’s confessions, many untoward things have happened in the last few years.  Unless the friars and the church can improve their relations, a terrible calamity will soon hang over our heads.

There was a pardoner (8) preaching there for all the world is if he were a priest.  He produced an indulgence, covered with episcopal authorizations, and said that he himself had the power to absolve all and sundry who had failed to observe their fasting-penances, or had broken solemn vows.  The ignorant put their full trust in him….and came up on their knees to kiss his bull.  ……..This, good people, is how you lay out your cash- to gluttonous skivers.  You hand it to layabouts who toss it to their tarts.  Now if the bishop was a man of God (and if he had a decent pair of ears), his seal would not be at the service of men who con ordinary people. But the bishop doesn’t intend this- that charlatans should go about as preachers.  No, it’s the parish priest who splits the silver with the pardoner- money that would reach the poor of the parish, if it wasn’t for the pair of them.

Rectors and vicars were there, complaining to their bishops that the parishes had been destitute since the time of the plague.  They asked for special permission to reside in London and sing mass there for a more profitable tune- the sweet sound of silver!’ (9).

Pardoners seem to have been especially distained by the people of this time.  The second great writer of the late 14th Century was Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1344-1400).  In the prologue of his famous Canterbury Tales, he gives several less than flattering pen portraits of several clerical folk and none is so severely dealt with as the Pardoner.  This man had a bar-towel in his bag which he claimed was the veil of the virgin Mary, a piece of the sail of St. Peter’s fishing boat,

‘and in a glas he hadde pigges bones;

But with these relikes, whan that he fond

A povre person dwellynge on lond,

Upon a day he gat hym more moneye

Than that the person gat in monthes tweye;

And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,

He made the person and the peple his apes.’

Along with the Pardoner came his friend the Summoner. A summoner was someone hired by the church to call people before the ecclesiastical court for their spiritual crimes, like adultery or heresy, the punishment for which could be as servere as excommunication. Chaucer’s summoner was just as corrupt as the Pardoner:

‘He wolde suffer for a quart of wyn

A good fellawe to have his concubine

A twelf month, and excuse him atte fulle.’

It is interesting that another famous medieval book, Dante’s Inferno describes hell as having ten descending circles of punishment. The tenth circle was reserved for traitors like Judas Iscariot, and the ninth for abusers of ecclesiastical privilege.

Chaucer’s other characters include a Prioress whose virtue was somewhat suspect and a monk who much preferred hunting and feasting to the manual labour (‘swynk’) prescribed by St. Augustine (Austyn):

‘He yaf not of that text a pulled hen

That seith that hunters be nat hooly men,

Ne that a monk, whan he is recchelees;,

Is likned til a fissh that is waterlees-

That is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre.

But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oystre;

And I seyd his opinion was good.

What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood [crazy],

As Austyn bit? How shal the world be served?

Let Austyn have his swynk to hym reserved!’

But the biggest rogue in Chaucer’s gallery is probably the friar. This man is a philanderer, venal in his giving of absolution and penance, much preferring the company of publicans and bar staff to that of lepers or beggars:

‘Ful swetely herde he confessioun,

And plesaunt was his absolucioun;

He was an esy man to yeve penaunce,

Ther as he wiste to have a good pittaunce.

For unto a povre ordre for to yive

Is signe that a man is wel yshryve.’

……..He knew the tavernes wel in every toun

And everich hostiler and tappistere

Bet than a lazar or a beggestere;

For unto swich a worthy man as he

Accorded nat, as by his facultee,

To have with sike lazars aqueyntaunce.

It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce.’

 It is plain that church officers generally commanded little respect among the people, but it would not be fair to omit the one of Chaucer’s characters to whom he gives sincere approval- the ‘Povre Persoun of a toun.’ This parson preached the Gospel of Christ diligently, did not extract his tithe from the poor, was diligent to visit his flock in all weathers. Nor did he follow the examples of some of his contemporaries by abandoning his post:

‘He sette nat his benefice to hyre

And leet his sheep encombred in the myre

And ran to Londoun unto Seinte Poules

To seken hym a chaunterie for soules

…….But Cristes loore and his apostles twelve

He taughte, but first he folwed it hymselve.’

We should not suppose that every Monk, Friar, Pardoner, Summoner and Pardoner In medieval England was as big a rogue as the ones depicted by Langland and Chaucer, nor that every Priest came up to the standard of Chaucer’s Parson, but through their works we get an idea of the corruption that was endemic throughout the land.

 As the 15th Century wore on, literacy among the middle classes began to increase, along, it seems, with an increasing spiritual hunger.  This brought about a custom of compiling a sort of spiritual scrapbook or ‘commonplace book.’  These would be filled with a variety of prayers, spells, wise  sayings and secular diary items.  Duffy (10) mentions, amongst others, a rural artisan and businessman, Robert Reynes, who was also a church-reeve and lived around the 1480s.   In among family dates, business concerns and notes about church repairs come a list of saints’ days, a ‘life’ of St. Anne in verse, a devotional poem on the number of drops of Christ’s blood, an account of the shrine images at Walsingham, a ‘number of other poems of a pessimistic nature on the brevity of life and the need to prepare for death by receiving the sacraments’ and brief summaries of the Ten Commandments, the seven sins, the ‘works of mercy,’ the ‘virtues’ and the sacraments.

Along with these, Duffy also records a prayer charm to St. Apollonia against the toothache, an invocation to Christ, the apostles, prophets, angels and saints against fever and a charm involving Christ and St. Peter against malaria.  There was also astrological material, including a formula for conjuring angels into a child’s thumbnail!  It is clear that Reynes and his middle-class contemporaries were very religious and eager to learn more, but it is equally clear that their zeal was not according to knowledge.  The one thing Reynes lacked for guidance was a Bible.  The Constitutions of Arundel absolutely forbade the Bible in English.  To read it one needed to have recourse to Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, and even this was largely restricted to the higher clergy.

In around 1440, came the invention of the printing press in Germany by Johanes Gutenberg.   Printing came to England in 1476 when William Caxton set up his press in Westminster.  Without doubt this was the greatest step in world history in the furtherance of personal freedom.  Previously, books could be burned faster than they could be written; now they could be printed at prodigious speed, faster than they could be confiscated and burned.   Moreover, books now became much cheaper than before so that even people of modest means could afford to buy and read them.  The martyrologist John Foxe writing a hundred years later declared, “How many presses there be in the world, so many block houses there be against the high castle of St. Angelo [ie. The Papacy], so that that either the Pope must abolish knowledge and printing, or printing must at length root him out” (12).   Duffy pours cold waters on this statement, witnessing the vast array of religious books that flowed from the printing presses over the next fifty years.  “The advent of printing in the 1470s and the enormous surge in numbers of publications after 1505 did not flood the reading public with reforming tracts or refutations of the real presence.”  Nor did it, but the reasons for that were twofold.  Firstly, printing in England lagged behind its development on the Continent.  Until well into the 16th Century, there were only three printers in the country:  Caxton, Richard Pynson, and the wonderfully-named Wynkyn de Worde.  Secret, moveable presses lay some way into the future.  Secondly, the Constitutions of Arundel still threatened with the severest punishment, anyone producing the Scriptures in English, and indeed, any material subversive to the Church of Rome.  The Lollard Bibles (13) still needed to be written out by hand and distributed by stealth in fear and trembling.

Amongst the flood of religious books that came from the new printing presses were ‘pamphlets advocating the merits of the rosary, treatises on a good death…..visions and revelations about purgatory……the fourth book of the Imitation of Christ (on the sacrament) [and] a series of individual saints’ lives…..designed to promote pilgrimage to particular shrines’ (14).  One book in particular is worthy of mention.  The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesu by Nicholas Love was published in 1410 as a kind of ‘Harmony of the Gospels.’  The book was approved by Archbishop Arundel with the aim of superseding Wyclif’s Lollard Bible.  The book became very popular, and was printed in turn by Caxton, Pynton and de Worde.  Duffy declares that the book ‘went a long way towards satisfying lay eagerness for knowledge of the Gospels’ (15).

If this were true, it would certainly detract from the thesis set forth in these articles that the Reformation was a people’s movement to reclaim the Bible.  But is it true?  Let us inspect the book to find out.  The Mirror consists of sixty-four chapters, each with a heading describing its contents.  But rather than a Gospel harmony, it would be better described as a devotional historical novel.  The circumcision of our Lord, which Luke’s Gospel describes in a single verse, Nicholas Love turns into several pages of rather maudlin irrelevance as the Virgin Mary attempts to comfort the weeping Christ child.   There is more of the same as the Lord Jesus leaves His mother and goes to be baptized by John the Baptist.  The New Testament again deals with this event in a single verse (Mark 1:9), but the Mirror expands it into a long discourse:

‘After that twenty-nine years were complete in which our Lord Jesu had lived in penance and abjection, as it is said, in the beginning of his thirtieth year, he spake to his mother and said: “Dear mother, it is now time that I go to glorify and make known my father, and also to show my self to the world, and to work the salvation of man’s soul, as my father hath ordained and sent me in to this world for this end.  Wherefore, good mother, be of good comfort, for I shall soon come again to thee.  And therewith that sovereign master of meekness, kneeling down to his mother, asked lowly he blessing.  And she also kneeling, and clipping him [fondly] in her arms, with weeping, said thus …………..’  And so forth at considerable length.  None of this, of course, is in the Bible.  At the cross, we find long speeches given to Mary, and indeed, throughout the book, Jesus plays second fiddle to His mother.

However, when we come to the doctrinal portions of the Gospels, nothing is there.  Chapter 16 is headed, ‘Of the excellent sermon of our Lord Jesu on the hill,’ which sounds promising, but when one looks, there is nothing concerning the Sermon on the Mount.  We are told that the Lord Jesus led His disciples up a hill, ‘and there gave them a long sermon full of fruit,’ but of that sermon there is nothing.  There are extracts from Augustine and pages of quotations from the Church fathers on the Lord’s Prayer, with one or two phrases from it given in English, but that is all.  There was an utter determination by the Church to deny the people access to the Scriptures.  Duffy admits that ‘the fear of Bible translations was a major weakness in the educational and devotional programme of late medieval English Catholicism, and a principal reason why serious interest in religious education in the vernacular could tip over into, or be confused with, Lollardy.’  He goes on to opine that sooner or later the Church authorities would have relaxed the ban on the Bible in English (16).  However, from the Constitutions of Arundel until Henry VIII’s ‘Great Bible’ lay 120 years during which the Church and State combined to deny the Scriptures to the people and to pursue to the death those who dared to provide or read them.  This (DV) will be the subject of the next chapter.



  1. N. Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 2 (Grace Publications, 2000).
  2. See Chapter 2.
  3. Book of Margery Kemp, Page 149.
  4. E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale Univ. Press) Page 341.
  5. Ibid. Pages 338-9, 344.
  6. Ibid. Page 347.
  7. There were four kinds of ‘minor orders’- ‘doorkeepers,’ who looked after the church fabric, ‘lectors,’ who read out the Scriptures in Latin in the services, ‘exorcists,’ who prayed for catechumens and those thought to be demon-possessed, and ‘acolytes’’ who assisted the priests in their work in the church.
  8. A pardoner was an non-ordained itinerant cleric who raised money for the church by the selling of official church pardons or ‘Indulgences’ which offered the purchaser redemption from their sins and reduced periods of purgatorial punishment.  Not surprisingly where salvation was available for purchase, the Christian doctrine of repentance and forgiveness inevitably grew corrupt.  Pardoners were known to exaggerate the efficacy of their indulgences and claimed the authority to promise deliverance not just from purgatory, but from hell itself.
  9. William Langland, Piers Plowman, rendered into modern English by A.V.C. Schmit (Oxford Univ. Press).
  10. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, Page 71ff.
  11. Ibid. Page 71f.
  12. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, Vol. 3.
  13. See Chapter 4.
  14. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars. Pages 78-79.
  15. Ibid. Page 79.
  16. Ibid. Page 80.




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