Using original source material, This book seeks to explore the nature of religious belief and practice in pre-Reformation England. For most people in England the main access to the Bible, and indeed to instruction in the faith, would be through hearing priests from their pulpits. The book demonstrates with immediacy and potency the diverse expressions of faith and observance. It discusses the varieties of spirituality in later medieval England and the ways in which they received expression, through participation in church services, actions like pilgrimages, charitable foundations, devotional readings and instruction. Opposition to prevailing spirituality, expressed through 'Lollardy', is also considered. There is a great deal of written evidence for both the theory and the practice of late medieval English religion and spirituality. The mass was the central ceremony of the Church: the consecration of the bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ. Within Christianity, the principal focus of devotion was necessarily the divinity, in particular Christ, the second person of the Trinity. While there was considerable concern to accumulate spiritual benefits during life, the most important issue was to secure salvation after death. For those who sought advanced domestic spiritual satisfaction, an episcopal licence for the celebration of divine offices within a private chapel or oratory was necessary.
Instruction in the details of the faith was chiefly received from priests, either through a detailed syllabus of points, or through discussion of particular aspects via sermons. John Mirk's Festial was a lengthy collection of sermons which remained extremely popular throughout the period. It has been suggested that the Festial was conceived as part of the attempt to counter Lollard activity. The second sermon is from one of the major Lollard texts, the sermon cycle. The third sermon is the longest of the triad. These three sermons show the differences in treatment between preachers and sermon compilers, giving differing layers of penetration of the meaning of the text. Despite the links with Lollardy which are well attested for one, and have been suggested for another, there is little in the texts which can actually be considered heretical.
The mass was the central ceremony of the Church: the consecration of the bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ. The centrality of the mass was emphasised by its utility: masses could be said for a variety of purposes, ranging from securing good weather to assisting in the release of souls from Purgatory. Attendance, or paying for the celebration of a mass, might also secure an indulgence or other spiritual benefit. The Lay Folks' Mass Book was an early text constructed to give guidance to action during the ceremony, instructing in the choreography and the appropriate prayers to be said by the laity as a counterpoint to the clerical actions. Originally written in French, it was later translated into English, and survives in a number of versions which seem to reflect actual variations in practices during the mass.
This introduction provides a discussion of the varieties of spirituality in later medieval England and the ways in which they received expression, through participation in church services, actions like pilgrimages, charitable foundations, devotional reading and instruction. Opposition to prevailing spirituality, expressed through 'Lollardy', is also considered. Pre-Reformation Catholicism was a 'demand-led' religion. The problem of pre-Reformation 'anticlericalism' has been one of the foci of interest in searching for the roots of the Reformation itself. With the literary material taken on as well, there is a great deal of written evidence for both the theory and the practice of late medieval English religion and spirituality. For most people in England the main access to the Bible, and indeed to instruction in the faith, would be through hearing priests from their pulpits. 'Sermons' were a fundamental instructional medium. Preaching as a means of communication is one of the most problematic areas of the discussion of late medieval spirituality. Evidence of a search for an alternative Christianity in late medieval England becomes increasingly widespread from 1380, in association with the development of the doctrines of John Wyclif and the energetic opposition which they faced from the ecclesiastical establishment.
This chapter consists of the original languages, and modern translation of extract from the Bible. The aim of retaining the original languages is to demonstrate the problem of access in a society which was not necessarily Latinate, and the extent to which control of interpretation could be retained by those possessing the linguistic key. The chapter mainly focuses on the second chapter of the Epistle of St James. It then provides a neat summary of the basic demands of Christianity with its insistence on obedience to the Law, assertion of the link between faith and works and the necessity for works, and its demand for fulfilment of the charitable requirements of the faith.
Walter Hilton's Epistle appears a more intense piece, certainly more directly addressed to the reader, and also more advanced in its demands. Hilton's tract on The Mixed Life, probably written even before he entered Thurgarton, shares some of the devotional and spiritual characteristics of the Scale, but operates as an 'eminently practical manual'. Both The Abbey of the Holy Ghost and The Book of the Craft of Dying share other characteristics. The Book of the Craft of Dying ties in a whole range of authorities, ranging from the Bible, through Augustine and Gregory, to Jean Gerson, the chancellor of the University of Paris at the anniversary of fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Abbey of the Holy Ghost operates at a very general level of analogy, providing essentially moralistic advice which at times may seem platitudinous.
A striking feature of late medieval England is the Christ- and crucifix-centred nature of the spirituality, expressed in small-scale daily devotions, in visionary and devotional literature. Alongside Christ, the saints also attracted considerable devotion. Saints acted as intercessors, and provided miracles; their shrines were the focus of aspirations, and of pilgrimages. A key feature of the late Middle Ages in England was also the development of a multiplicity of shrines centred on images of the Virgin, and of a plethora of wayside crosses. Both were foci for offerings, and thus for pilgrimage and miracles. Pilgrimage might also be encouraged by the offering of indulgences and spiritual privileges for those visiting specified locations. The accounts for the shrine-keepers of Ely and Hereford permit an assessment of the scale of cash offerings, but not of the overall numerical flow of pilgrims.
The vitality of parish celebrations is only imperfectly conveyed by the financial records which they generated. The round at Scarborough does indicate something of the number of celebrations, especially those for the major rites of passage: the purification of mothers after childbirth, solemnisation of marriages, and funerals. Post-mortem commemoration is indicated by the celebration of obits. Among the other aspects worth noting are the levels of offerings at major feast days and the few payments for special masses for individual guilds. The accounts for Yarmouth and King's Lynn, although much more summary, give a better indication of the totality of the demands made by the local church as a benefice. Over the years the totals received in the churches fluctuated, as did the distribution between the various categories of receipts. One particularly striking feature of the King's Lynn accounts is the way in which receipts rocketed upwards in plague years.
The wide variety of religious commitments which were available generally required an individual to set him or herself aside from 'normality', either through commitment to a religious order, the life of a hermit or the extreme of total seclusion in an anchorage. The activities within the private oratories have led one commentator to refer to the household itself as a 'religious community'. For those who sought advanced domestic spiritual satisfaction, an episcopal licence for the celebration of divine offices within a private chapel or oratory was necessary. The inventories offer insights into the furnishing of the private sacred spaces, although what they actually reveal about the owners of the property is perhaps less easily discernible. To turn from the creation of officially sanctioned oratorical spaces to the acceptance of some degree of practical regulation is a major shift in direction, but nevertheless remains within the sphere of private religion.
While there was considerable concern to accumulate spiritual benefits during life, the most important issue was to secure salvation after death. The doctrine of Purgatory required almost everyone destined for Heaven to undergo a period of purging of their sins after death. Numerous short-term bequests to establish prayers are recorded in wills; more elaborate foundations were often arranged before death, or with the details being settled by the executors beyond the confines of the will. Testamentary attempts to erect such prayer institutions cannot always be assumed to have been implemented: executors and heirs were notoriously unreliable. The post-mortem prayers varied in form, from the trental and the more elaborate St Gregory's trental, to a fully-endowed perpetual chantry, which entailed a daily mass for the soul of the founder in perpetuity.