Some Ambiguities Of Late Medieval Religion In England
By David Postles
E-Seminars in History (1998)
Introduction: The vibrancy of late medieval lay devotion has been powerfully advanced by some recent writers of a revisionist school, although some more cautious voices have been less distinctly heard. A great efflorescence of lay religious culture is suggested, in which all social groups participated, a single, dominant, homologous religious culture, which persisted right into the 1530s. That thesis now seems itself to becoming an orthodoxy, but there was an underside to this religious involvement which may have been obscured. The intention of this paper is to examine that underside of religious belief and observance in the late middle ages, to suggest that there was not indeed a single homologous religious culture, but a variety of religious experiences in late medieval England and that participation was variable. A second point emphasised is that the experiences were, to some extent, ‘regional’, with a contrast between poorer and wealthier regions in the late middle ages, although this difference is not explored in detail. The regional distinctions resulted partly from varying material circumstances of regions in the late middle ages, some declining, others developing, which affected the condition of the fabric and ornaments, but also to some different religious traditions. The proponents of the revisionist interpretation do not engage with Lollardy and nor does this article. Instead, it uses the same sources as the revisionists, but some more emphatically, to reveal an undercurrent of ambiguity in religious observance and devotional experience.
It can be fairly suggested that the most prominent sources of the revisionists are testamentary records, the fabric of churches, and the homilies and instructions produced by ecclesiastics. Without doubt, the use of the latter is tendentious, presenting an ex parte perspective, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Testamentary material is ambiguous, because it is impossible to discern how far bequests near death are matters of contrition for affairs in life. Perhaps that complication is exemplified by executors who failed to perform the wishes of the dead and were consequently impleaded in church courts. Those making wills in the 1530s, furthermore, were socialized in their religious belief in the mid or late fifteenth century, but cannot be representative of all generations in the 1530s. It is possible that some youth had divergent attitudes.
The evidence of the fabric for lay devotion is equally ambivalent, for it is perhaps not difficult to select examples of parish churches which exhibit the paraphernalia of donations by the laity. The corroboration of this evidence by churchwardens’ accounts has recently been revealed to have problems, inherent in the nature of the survival of those accounts. What, however, about the small, unadorned churches which are excluded from this analysis? What may be required for a full representation of the significance of the fabric is to take the evidence of all churches on a comparative basis. That process is not performed here, but the evidence of visitations is incorporated as an initial stage. A second condition about the fabric is whether there was a shared culture about some aspects of its ornamentation or whether different meanings might have been exposed. Where the fabric was decorated by a personal benefaction, was the professed intention ‘for the increase of divine service’ merely a topos concealing social display and social honour? How did the other parishioners react to this personal adornment, with unreserved gratitude or resentment at the intrusion on their social space in the church? Langland had much earlier raised the prospect of resentment at the pride and simony involved in some gifts which were highly personalised.