Eternal light and earthly concerns

Belief and the shaping of medieval society

Paul Fouracre
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In early Christianity it was established that every church should have a light burning on the altar at all times. This unique study is about the material and social consequences of maintaining eternal lights. Never before has the subject been treated as important to the political economy, nor has it been explored over the whole medieval period. The cost of maintaining the lights meant that only the elite could afford to do so, and peasants were organised to provide funds for the lights. Later, as society became wealthier, a wider range of people became providers and organised themselves into guilds or confraternities in support of the church and with the particular aim of commemorating their members. Power over the lights, and over individual churches, shifted to these organisations, and, when belief in the efficacy of burning lights was challenged in the Reformation, it was such people who were capable of bringing the practice of burning eternal lights to a sudden and sometimes violent end. The study concludes that the practice of keeping a flame on the altar did indeed have important material and cultural consequences. Because it examines the relation between belief and materiality at every turn, the book also works as a guide to the way in which Western Europe developed, from the decline of the Roman Empire to the advent of the Protestant state.

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