New evidence of noble and gentry piety in fifteenth-century England and Wales

New evidence of noble and gentry piety in fifteenth-century England and Wales

By Peter D. Clarke

Journal of Medieval History, Vol.34:1 (2008)

Abstract: There has been much recent examination of late medieval lay piety in order to understand the background to Henry VIII’s reformation, notably Colin Richmond’s studies of the ‘privatised’ religion of the English gentry. Such work has largely over-looked papal sources and the associated issue of relations between English and Welsh society and the papacy. This article seeks to remedy this neglect by presenting new evidence from the registers of the papal penitentiary. In the late middle ages the papal penitentiary was the highest office in the western Church concerned with matters of conscience and the principal source of papal absolutions, dispensations and licences. Petitions seeking such favours were copied in its registers, and this article especially concerns petitions from English and Welsh gentry seeking licences to have a portable altar or to appoint a personal confessor (littere confessionales). It also examines their requests for various other favours that illustrate their piety, notably regarding fasting, chastity and pilgrimage. The article contests Richmond’s notion of ‘privatised’ gentry religion and similar distinctions between elite and popular or personal and collective religion. It appends translations of three significant documents from the penitentiary registers and a statistical table concerning requests for littere confessionales.

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