Thursday, September 16, 2021

Going to Church in Medieval England (the Book)

One of the unfortunate myths still perpetuated about the middle ages is that few people regularly went to church before the modern era. In contrast, Eamon Duffy, in his magisterial The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale U. Pr. 1992), has shown how late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of the Reformation" and how in the medieval liturgy "lay Christians found the paradigms and the stories which shaped their perception of the world and their place within it."

In that tradition, what a joy now to encounter medieval historian Nicholas Orme's new, delightfully written, easy to read, and beautifully illustrated, Going to Church in Medieval England (Yale U. Pr. 2021). Orme's book asks the basic questions: "Who went to church in medieval England, and what happened when they went?" (Personally,  I am much more interested in the latter question.)

Orme's answers are offered in enormous detail. We learn probably more than we ever expected to know about what medieval English Church life was like. As a lover of all liturgical arcana, I especially enjoyed the chapters on how and when the Divine Office, Mass, and the sacraments were celebrated. But Orme tells us about everything - like how time was kept and the impact of the invention of mechanical clocks and the curious claim that Robin Hood allegedly attended three Masses daily! The chapter-headings highlight the comprehensiveness of Orme's work: "Origins and the Parish," "The Staff of the church," "The Church Building," "The Congregation," "The Day and the Week," "the Seasons and the Year," "The Life Cycle," and, sadly, "The Reformation."

Yes, lurking in the background of this detailed description of a long-lost world is the sad story of how it ended in the tragically iconoclastic event we remember as the English Reformation. Much was lost in that disaster to advance the power needs of the modern state. "No portable or processional crosses remained, and the palm crosses built in churchyards were mostly demolished. Imagery was reduced to a single example: the royal coat of arms in a prominent place, signalling that the Church was now under the monarch’s governance." Unsurprisingly, among the feasts and saints that were cancelled, a primary victim was, of course, that great medieval defender of the Church's freedom from the state, Saint Thomas Becket.

Other changes reflected the influence of Protestant reformed theology from the continent. Indulgences disappeared, of course - and, more consequentially, Latin. As a result, the Lord's Prayer and the Creed (previously universally known but only in Latin) acquired standardized English versions.

That said, a surprising amount of medieval Church life survived. "Reformers remained attached to many aspects of the past: a Christian state and society, parish structures, church patronage, infant baptism, a set liturgy with traditional features, adult communion, and many calendar observances. Churches could only be adapted, not rebuilt, for Reformed worship. It was unwise to push congregations too far: there had to be some concession to popular usages, notably seating. People’s habits and preferences continued to determine the extent to which change would happen locally."

Perhaps one of the few particularly positive outcomes associated with the Reformation is that monumental liturgical masterpiece, the Book of Common Prayer (heavily indebted for many of its texts to the medieval Latin Sarum liturgy). It was "not until the Prayer Book of 1549 was a service of mass (now called holy communion) specifically designed and officially authorised for parish usage." The liturgical uses of York in the north and Sarum in the south structured and somewhat standardized the medieval liturgy, but were based on a cathedral, rather than parochial, model (which leaves us some room to speculate how exactly the pre-Reformation Mass, Office, and sacraments were celebrated in the smaller - but obviously more ordinary - parochial settings). 

Finally, having lived through more than my fair share of pointless debates about the sacrament of confirmation - when to celebrate it and (more basically) why we celebrate it - I found it moderately consoling to learn that the medieval English Church generally avoided distorting the sacrament into a coming of age rite and was otherwise more or less all over the place in terms of when to do it.

Just as the Reformation radically transformed liturgical sensibilities, so too have subsequent calamities. We will never again experience a Palm Sunday procession as the medievals did, but we can still reflect upon how the liturgy then (unlike today) was deeply integrated with people's actual lives and ponder what difference that made. That doesn't make the middle ages into some mythologized "age of faith," when all was wonderful, but it does help explain how medieval religion exerted such a strong and vigorous hold over people's imaginations and loyalty right up to the very moment of 16th-century disaster. Have we anything at all comparable today?

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