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.
The Introduction establishes the scope of the subject. It examines previous work in the area and asks why the subject of providing for the lights has not had more attention. It argues that the topic is certainly worth sustained investigation and sets out a plan for the study as a whole
Here the origins of the use of light in worship are traced back to the Mosaic books of the Old Testament. How the injunction to keep a light burning at all times was adopted into Christianity despite opposition. The gifts the Emperor Constantine made to churches for lights are discussed against the background of declining oil production in the later Roman period. Early evidence from Italy, Spain, England and France is discussed and comparative analysis of the spread of the lights is made. There is emphasis on the economic background and discussion of the emergence of localized production of olive oil, alongside a switch to wax as an acceptable substitute fuel for the lights.
This chapter shows how resources dedicated to the lights were institutionalised in the different parts of Europe. This was against a background of an increasing shortage of olive oil. Miracles which related to the shortage are analysed. Frankish charters of immunity receive close attention for they show how rulers invested the lights. The situation in France, Italy and Spain is compared in order to investigate what the social consequences were of making people contribute to the costs of the lights.
It is shown here how the Carolingian rulers of Francia legislated to make every community contribute to the cost of the lights. It begins with Charlemagne’s conquest of northern Italy and his appropriation of oil supplies from the region. This shows how providing for the lights was associated with power, and the chapter traces this out in the evidence of laws and church councils. Since there was a determined effort to spread the costs of lighting throughout society, it becomes possible to see a response at community level. It is seen that categories of people became tributaries to the church with a hereditary obligation to provide for the lights.
This, the longest chapter in the work, examines in more detail how peasants on estates were organized to provide resources for church lights. There is a particular focus on church estate records (polyptychs) from the mid-ninth century onwards, the aim being to identify the social range of people who paid for the lights on a hereditary basis. The emergence of the guild is also examined. A sort of ‘middling group’ of people who contributed to the lights are identified and traced in France, Italy, Spain and England. Resistance to the forced cultivation of olives is discussed in relation to a famous case from Italy. The chapter closes with a survey of the social structure underpinning the supply of materials for the lights across Europe.
Here the social consequences of maintaining the lights are examined in greater detail. The discussion builds on the results of Chapter 4. At issue are two kinds of people: censuales, or cerocensuales in Germany and colliberti in France. Were they both hereditary tribute payers, formed as a group by the need to supply the Church? A lengthy discussion concludes that the censuales were a group called into being by the needs of the Church in this way, but that the colliberti were not. The discussion contributes to a long-running debate about the nature of servitude, manumission and obligation. The chapter ends by looking at the conditions under which the censuales lived and how their standing changed as towns grew and social distinctions were relaxed.
The last chapter traces the high-point of giving for the lights as guilds and confraternities mushroomed. A solid belief in Purgatory encouraged people to give in order to earn time off this pain. The use of wax for the lights grew until it was necessary to import wax into Western Europe. By the early sixteenth century, the cost of the lights was met predominantly by voluntary associations. The censuales and other tributary groups declined in a predominantly urban environment. Urban associations, however, gained control of much church funding, and they were instrumental in determining responses to reform teaching. When the belief in Purgatory came to an end, funding for the lights ended abruptly. This is the final twist in the relationship between belief and termaiality.
The Conclusion to this study returns to the initial question of the social and economic consequences of maintaining a light burning at all times in the church. It outlines the ways in which, as the costs were spread throughout society, the consequences grew. Society was not structured around the lighting, but providing for the lights did have an effect on social structure in certain circumstances, such as the rise of the censuales in Germany, or the organization of parishes around guilds. Comparison was made with other cultures, and it was observed, finally, that the lighting of candles to signify eternity was comforting, and common. The huge number of candles lit to mark the death of Diana, Princess of Wales make the point.