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The Late Medieval English Church

The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Beford the Break with Rome

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Late Medieval English Church
    Book Description:

    The later medieval English church is invariably viewed through the lens of the Reformation that transformed it. But in this bold and provocative book historian George Bernard examines it on its own terms, revealing a church with vibrant faith and great energy, but also with weaknesses which reforming bishops worked to overcome.

    Bernard emphasises royal control over the church. He examines the challenges facing bishops and clergy, and assesses the depth of lay knowledge and understanding of the teachings of the church, highlighting the practice of pilgrimage. He reconsiders anti-clerical sentiment and the extent and significance of heresy. He shows that the Reformation was not inevitable: the late medieval church was much too full of vitality. But Bernard also argues that alongside that vitality, and often closely linked to it, were vulnerabilities that made the break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries possible. The result is a thought-provoking study of a church and society in transformation.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18258-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
    (pp. None)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-16)

    On 4 December 1514, Richard Hunne, a prosperous London merchant, was found dead in his cell in Lollards’ Tower at St Paul’s Cathedral, where those such as Hunne, who were suspected of heresy, were detained while investigations were carried out. As was usual after any death in mysterious circumstances, an inquest was held.The Enquirie and Verdite of the Quest panneld of the death of Richard Hune wich was founde hanged in Lolars tower, a pamphlet printed around 1536, more than twenty years later, the reliability of which we shall consider later, offers a vivid account of what the coroner’s...

    (pp. 17-48)

    It is not to belittle the death of Richard Hunne to say that the most remarkable aspect of the Hunne affair is the decisiveness of royal intervention. Very quickly Henry VIII called together his council, held a special inquiry and then reached his own decision—which he then imposed. All that vividly illustrates how the late medieval English church was a monarchical church, that is to say that, in practice, kings exercised a great deal of control, a largely determining control, over the activities of the church. It was a relationship in which the crown held the upper hand. That...

  8. 3 BISHOPS
    (pp. 49-67)

    Whatever we make of Bishop Fitzjames’s exact role in the Hunne affair, his position vividly illustrates the complexities of the role of bishops. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the role of bishops was another area of vulnerability in the late medieval church. This is not to deny that there were many vigorous and effective bishops, especially Richard Sherburne (c.1454–1536), bishop of Chichester, William Atwater (c.1450–1521), bishop of Lincoln, John Fisher (d. 1535), bishop of Rochester, Nicholas West (d. 1533), bishop of Ely, and William Warham (c.1450–1532), archbishop of Canterbury, to name only those...

  9. 4 CLERGY
    (pp. 68-86)

    Whenever bishops and critics spoke of reforming the church, they usually intended to begin with the reform of the priests.¹ For the condition of the clergy was widely seen as an area of vulnerability in the late medieval church. This is not to deny that there was much that was positive, but rather to claim that there was also much that was difficult to defend against the application of the highest standards.

    The duties of clergy were first and foremost to administer the sacraments: to say mass, to baptise, to hear confession, to grant absolution, to marry, to anoint the...

    (pp. 87-116)

    The late medieval English church was very much a monarchical church. Bishops made the system work. Clergy administered the sacraments and undertook pastoral care in the parishes. But what of the people? How far were the people of England christian? What did they grasp of the teachings of Christ? One of the greatest areas of vulnerability of the church was ignorance and misunderstanding of christian theology. The richness and sophistication of that theology, not least as elaborated in the universities of high medieval Europe, could be grasped only by years of study and by the exercise of rare intellectual skills....

    (pp. 117-150)

    Laymen were much involved in the running of parish churches. They might hold the advowson—the right to choose the parish priest. They could employ chaplains. At a lower social level, they served as churchwardens, typically a two-year tour of duty involving the financing and administration of the parish church, an office which seems to have developed in the early to mid-fourteenth century. Surviving churchwardens’ accounts (nine from the fourteenth century, thirty-three from 1400–49, seventy-five from 1450–99 and 196 from 1500–49¹) show in remarkable detail the close supervision that churchwardens exerted over all aspects of parochial religion,...

    (pp. 151-163)

    Richard Hunne was assuredly critical of the church. He made principled attacks on its financial demands and legal procedures. He was eventually arrested and, as we have seen, he was found dead in his cell. His opposition to the church has long been seen as emblematic of lay anticlericalism; and his death has been read as showing that his hostility to the church was amply justified. Undoubtedly, the Hunne affair reveals several areas of tension, to say no more, between the laity and the church. But whether lay anti-clericalism deserves the prominence it has until recently been given, not least...

    (pp. 164-205)

    We must now turn to a feature of the English church to which the Hunne affair did not draw attention, namely the condition of the monasteries. In itself that prompts the question: had they become irrelevant to the religious life of the capital? However that may be, English monasteries in the years before the break with Rome and leading up to the dissolution illustrate again the combination of vitality and vulnerability that characterises the English church as a whole. It is important to emphasise vitality, since it tends to be underplayed—a reflection not least of the unfashionability, until very...

  14. 9 HERESY
    (pp. 206-235)

    Richard Hunne was convicted of heresy, as we have seen, though the evidence against him was, to say the least, ambiguous: the martyrologist John Foxe got himself tied in knots in trying to recruit Hunne to the pantheon of proto-protestant martyrs. And the Hunne affair acutely raises the wider significance of dissent. Was there a surge of organised heresy in the early sixteenth century? Did it weaken the late medieval church? Should it be seen as a stepping-stone on the way to a greater reformation? Or has the significance of dissent been exaggerated, at the time by orthodox bishops and...

    (pp. 236-237)

    At the end of this exploration, it may seem that it has been the vulnerability of the church as much as its vitality which has been emphasised throughout. That is no doubt a response, perhaps a salutary response, to what has become the dominant positive interpretation of the late medieval church. It also reflects the difficulty for historians of knowing just how much inspiring spiritual leadership and pastoral guidance churchmen at all levels gave. Disputes and delinquency leave a trail; the quietly effective does not. Parallels with attempts to assess the quality of modern university teaching spring to mind. And...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 238-288)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 289-304)