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Author: Mairi Cowan

This book examines lay religious culture in Scottish towns between the Black Death and the Protestant Reformation. Part I looks at what the living did to influence the dead and at how the dead were believed to influence the living in turn. It shows that the living and the dead shared a reciprocal relationship of obligation and assistance, and that the bonds between the two groups were especially strong when they involved blood or guild kinship. Part II considers the overlapping communities in Scottish towns where people could personalize religious expression in a meaningful social context. Part III focuses on the period between 1350 and 1560 as one of disruption and development. It assesses weaknesses in the Scottish ecclesiastical structure and instances of religious dissent, and then it considers the Scottish Church’s response to these challenges. Two main arguments run through the book. The first is that most laypeople in Scottish towns continued to participate in orthodox Catholic practices right through to the mid-sixteenth century. The second major argument is that Catholic religious practices in Scottish towns underwent a significant shift between 1350 and 1560. This shift, which is most easily perceived when Scotland is considered within the broader European transition from the medieval to the early modern period, brought with it a kind of pre-Reformation reformation in religious practice.

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Mairi Cowan
in Death, life, and religious change in Scottish towns, c.1350–1560
Mairi Cowan

This chapter examines townspeople’s participation in parishes, guilds, and the burghs themselves. Each of these groups employed religious symbols to express a sense of community and each deployed religious mechanisms to strengthen communal endeavours. Although their memberships were frequently overlapping and sometimes also contested, for the most part the various communities of religion in Scottish towns were seen as mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. The smooth and harmonious unity within and between groups that was espoused in theory was sometimes punctured in practice by conflicts arising from the messy realities of day-to-day life, but when this happened Scottish townspeople sought to heal the rift through reconciliation enacted in religiously significant space. Thus for most Scottish townspeople different religious communities and their various goals tended to be complementary in principle. Even if there were in practice certain areas of tension and occasional instances of outright hostility between different religious groups, devotion within the parish and the guild was, nonetheless, generally seen as intrinsic to the welfare of the town.

in Death, life, and religious change in Scottish towns, c.1350–1560
Mairi Cowan

This chapter investigates people’s preparations for their own deaths and their sense of responsibility toward those who had already died. Although they sometimes feared death, people did not despair, for they also believed that death was not the end of a person: while the body was part of this world and therefore material and apt to decay, the soul was eternal. With sections on the fear of death, the idea of a ‘good death’, and the importance of remembrance, this chapter shows that Scottish townspeople made arrangements for their own souls to pass as painlessly as possible into a blessed eternity, and that they attended to the souls of those already deceased, especially to the souls of their blood kin and their civic brethren.

in Death, life, and religious change in Scottish towns, c.1350–1560
Mairi Cowan

This chapter examines the reciprocal relationship between the living and the dead in Scottish towns by considering how the dead were thought to intervene in the world of the living both by making material claims and also by providing supernatural intercession. The dead, whether sainted or not, maintained a physical and a metaphysical presence in Scottish towns. Their bodies lay under and immediately around the main centres of religious activity, and their names – for a price – were remembered from year to year through commemorative masses, charters, and even inscriptions on church furnishings. Through both burial and remembrance the dead remained present in Scottish towns, enmeshed still within networks of kin, class, and occupation, as they had been during life. Of these networks, the most important for many people was that of their kin. The bond of kinship brought the responsibility of remembrance, since it was kin to whom the dead called, through their religious foundations, for help in the afterlife.

in Death, life, and religious change in Scottish towns, c.1350–1560
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Mairi Cowan

This chapter examines changes in the religious culture of Scottish towns between 1350 and 1560 that were not early Protestant or crypto-Protestant or even proto-Protestant, but rather Catholic. Sections on new devotional and educational approaches, the Council of Trent, public worship, and social discipline together portray a religious culture that was dynamic and responsive to international trends. In placing this religious culture of Scottish towns in the context of wider European currents, it becomes clear that urban Scots were participating in a deep social movement into early modernism. Since reforming momentum in Scotland began in an early modern Catholic environment and before the official Protestant Reformation, it may be necessary to reconsider an important question of causation in Scottish history: what the role of the Protestant Reformation was in bringing about social change. Specific social changes often thought to be the result of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland actually started before the Protestant Reformation, and therefore the Protestant Reformation cannot have been their trigger. Instead, it may be the case that the social changes described in this chapter and arising in a Catholic context actually helped ease the adoption of Protestantism in Scottish towns.

in Death, life, and religious change in Scottish towns, c.1350–1560
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Mairi Cowan

This chapter examines the period between 1350 and 1560 as one of disruption to the religious culture in Scottish towns. With sections on systemic weaknesses in the Scottish Church, religious indifference among the laity, and outright dissent by Lollards, Lutherans, and Calvinists, it assesses the challenges to traditional forms of religious practice arising both from within and without the Catholic fold. It argues that these challenges were serious but not necessarily ruinous, and it stresses that historians should weigh these circumstances within their contemporary context and not only with the hindsight of a post-Reformation stance.

in Death, life, and religious change in Scottish towns, c.1350–1560
Mairi Cowan

This chapter examines Scottish townspeople’s personal and private religious practices by considering religious exclusion, private devotion, personal donations to religious institutions, and the case study of Jonet Rynd’s foundation of the Magdalen Chapel and Hospital in Edinburgh. It argues that people often personalized their religious practices to suit individual circumstances, with many of the wealthier inhabitants of Scottish towns taking a growing interest in individualized, private religious experience, but that the trend of individualization evident in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries ought not to be used simplistically as evidence for a breakdown in corporate Christianity of the kind discussed in Chapter 3; rather, inhabitants of Scottish towns joined their individual welfare to that of the wider society so that personal efforts and communal forms of devotion converged in pursuit of salvation. The personal and the particular were important for many in the towns of Scotland, but individual religious responsibility was undertaken in the context of the wider religious society and individuals could establish their own personal religious priorities while remaining connected to others within corporate religious structures.

in Death, life, and religious change in Scottish towns, c.1350–1560
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Mairi Cowan

This introduction begins with the description of a bell that was installed at the parish church of St Giles, Edinburgh in about 1460. It uses various features of the St Giles bell as entry-points into the historical context of the book’s subject, including towns in Scotland (their populations, their political hierarchy, their economies, their physical layout); the structure of Scottish Church (similarities to and differences from the Church in other parts of Europe); and a brief historiography of religion in Europe generally and Scotland in particular. It then outlines the scope and structure of the book, which is taken from the Latin inscription on the bell’s surface: ‘defunctos plango: vivos voco: fulmina frango’, which translates into ‘I lament the dead, I summon the living, I subdue thunderbolts’.

in Death, life, and religious change in Scottish towns, c.1350–1560