Medieval Vicars Choral – Choristers and Property Dealers
By Peter Hampson
Ex Historia, Volume 4 (2012)
Introduction: The Medieval vicars choral were a small specialised body of clergy, who became essential to the operation of the English secular cathedrals. Over a period of time, stretching from approximately 1200 until the Reformation, they gradually became better established as the day to day clerical presence in the cathedrals. They were the recipients of gifts of land and money in return for their prayers and masses on behalf of their patrons. The vicars choral normally held their lands as a corporate body, not as individual holdings, and the income would go into a common fund, the balance of which was distributed to the ‘shareholders’. Analysing how they managed the estates which they gradually accumulated is one of the objectives of this paper. It should be noted that the vicars had other sources of income, such as ‘obits’ – masses for the dead, acting as a chantry priest, playing the organ, or other duties which attracted a fee. It is also necessary to examine just who the vicars choral were, how they came into being and the ways in which they interacted with both the other clerics, most of whom were their superiors, and with the laity, many of whom sought their intercession with God. It was their association with the laity which sometimes helped to give them a dubious reputation, as they sometimes struggled with their vows of chastity and obedience. There is in fact not too much primary source evidence regarding them. In general they were recorded either when they misbehaved or in whatever of their charters have survived. It is important to assess if undue emphasis on a few cases have unduly sullied their reputation, but there are many other examples of clerical misbehaviour, so the actions of the vicars choral have to be seen in context.