The Layman in the Pre-Reformation English Parish, by Dom Adrian Gasquet, OSB

History relates that some years ago a Scotch Presbyterian, with serious religious difficulties and doubts, came for advice to a then well-known Catholic priest. In the course of the interview he asked to be informed as to what his position would be should the result of his inquiries lead him to join the Church, “Among us,” he said, “I know exactly what the status and rights of the laity are, and I should like to know what is the exact position of a layman in the Church of Rome.” “Your question,” replied the priest, “is easily answered. The position of a layman in the Church of Rome is twofold: he kneels before the altar – that’s one position; and he sits before the pulpit – and that’s the other; and there is no other possible position.” This brief statement, which illustrates one view of the question under discussion, cannot, of course, be taken as furnishing an adequate or accurate definition of the status of the Catholic layman of the present day. To begin with: he is always being invited to assume another, and, as things go, a most important position in regard to the Church, namely, that of putting his hand into his pocket for the money necessary to meet the thousand and one imperative wants incidental to the present circumstances of Catholics in England.

I am not called upon, however, to discuss the main question, having been requested merely to illustrate, as far as it is possible in a brief paper, the functions of the laity in the mediaeval parish. I am dealing with facts as I read them in pre-Reformation documents, and am not concerned to expose or advocate this or that theory, or suggest this or that solution of difficulties experienced at the present day. Whilst fully believing that the past has its many useful and suggestive lessons for us to-day, I am not such a laudator temporis acti as to suppose that we ought to imitate, or that we could imitate successfully, all we find flourishing in mediaeval Catholic England.

At the outset, I may remark that what strikes the observer most forcibly in dealing with the records of parochial life in pre-Reformation times, is the way in which priest and people are linked together as one united whole in Church duties. In these days the strong sense of corporate responsibility in the working of a parish, and the well-being of a parochial district with which our Catholic forefathers were imbued, does not exist. I am not concerned with the why and the wherefore, but with the fact, and of this there can be no doubt. The priest in modern times has, for the most part, to worry through his many difficulties in his own way and without much assistance from his flock as a body. No doubt, in the main, he has to look to them for the money with which he carries out his schemes, but money is not everything, and the real responsibility for all lies upon the priest himself, and upon the priest alone. All church building and beautifying, the providing of vestments and sacred plate, the furnishing of altars, the erection of statues and pictures and painted glass, the establishment and maintenance of schools, and the payment of debts incurred in the many works and foundations necessary for the due working of the district, have all to be initiated, superintended, and maintained by the energy of the priest himself. There are, it is true, generally many volunteer labourers – all praise to them – who, for the love of God and His Church, do their best to second the efforts of their pastor. But then they are volunteers, and herein mainly lies the contrast between the old Catholic times and our own. Today, at best, a priest can enlist the sympathies and practical support of but a small fraction of his flock in their parish; the rest, and by far the greater number, take little or no part in the work – regard it, even if they do not speak of it, as his parish, his business, not theirs. It may be, and probably is, the case, that most of these do not neglect the plain Christian duty of supporting their pastors and their religion, and that many actively co-operate in charitable works in other places, and are even exemplary and regular members of flourishing sodalities or young men’s societies attached to other churches; but so far as their own parish is concerned, it profits little or nothing by their support, or work, or sympathy.

In pre-Reformation days such a state of things was unknown and altogether impossible. The parish was then an ever-present reality; the taking part in its affairs was regarded as a duty incumbent on all, and so far as we may judge by the somewhat scanty records which have come down to us, the duty was well fulfilled in practice. No doubt it is partly true that in these days there are no parishes strictly so-called. Yet the canonical definition of an ecclesiastical district has little to do with the matter: the need of co-operation is to-day clearly as great, if not greater than in olden times, and if the law as to the hearing of Mass, and the fulfilling of other obligations in the church of the district, be now relaxed, that ought not to be construed into freeing the parishioner from all ties of fellowship contracted by the mere fact of dwelling in a particular district, or all duties connected with it. At any rate, whilst, no doubt, the stricter enforcing of parochial rights in mediaeval times tended to impress upon men’s minds the other obligations of a parishioner, there does not, in fact, appear to have been much need to remind them of those common duties. Everything seems to have been ordinated as far as possible to interest and enlist the practical sympathies of all in the affairs of their parish. There was no question of mere voluntary effort on the part of individuals, but there is on all hands proof of the well-understood and well-fulfilled duty of all. Let me illustrate one or two characteristic features of pre-Reformation parochial life.

Our main sources of information are the various churchwardens’ accounts and the inventories of ecclesiastical parish plate and furniture which have survived “the great pillage.” From a general survey of the ground, the observer must at once be struck with the similarity of the evidence afforded by all these documents. They one and all so plainly tell the same tale, that it is fair to conclude that the picture of parochial life presented by these precious records that have survived the pillage of the sixteenth century and the neglect of subsequent generations, is practically true of every parish in Catholic England. What they prove to us, then, above all else is that the people at large took a personal and intelligent interest in building, beautifying, and supporting their parish churches, and that the churches were, in a way that seems strange to us now, their churches – their very life may be said to be centred in them, and they, the people, quite as much as their priests, were intimately concerned in their working and management. Whatever had to be done to or for God’s House, or in the parochial district of which it was the centre, was the common work of priest and people alike. It can, in absolute truth, be described as a “family concern,” settled and carried out by the parson and his flock – the father and his children. Moreover, in those more simple times traditions – family or parochial traditions – were sacred inheritances, and each piece of furniture and plate, every vestment and hanging of every parish church, had a history of its own, which was known to all through the publication on feast days and holidays of these benefactors to the common good.

We will come to specific instances presently; but just let us fully understand how completely our Catholic forefathers were regarded, and regarded themselves, as the proud possessors of their various parish churches. Bishop Hobhouse, in an interesting preface to one of the Somerset Record Society publications, describes the parish thus: “It was the community of the township organized for Church purposes and subject to Church discipline, with a constitution which recognized the rights of the whole body as an aggregate, and the right of every adult member, whether man or woman, to advice in self-government; but, at the same time, kept the self-governing community under a system of inspection and restraint by a central authority outside the parish boundaries.”

As Dr. Jessopp has well pointed out, the self-government of a Catholic pre- Reformation parish was most marked. The community had its own deliberative and administrative assembly – the parish, meeting. It elected or appointed its own officers – sometimes men, sometimes women – who had well-defined duties, and were paid for services out of funds provided by the parishioners. Such, for instance, were the parish clerk, the gravedigger, watchman, keeper, and carrier of the parish processional cross. These were in no sense either the nominees or paid servants of the rector. They had duties which were directed, no doubt, to him, but they were paid by the parishioners themselves, and were “removable, when removable at all,” by the rural dean or archdeacon at their petition.

“The president or chairman of the church council or parish meeting,” writes Dr. Jessopp, “was the rector of the parish, or his deputy; but he was by no means a ‘ lord over God’s heritage.’ There is no evidence – but quite the contrary – to show that he initiated to any great extent the subjects of debate, and the income raised for parish purposes, which not infrequently was considerable, was not under his control, nor did it pass through his hands.” The trustees of parish property were the churchwardens. They, generally two in number, were elected annually, and were always regarded in fact, as well as in theory, as the responsible representatives of the parish. Many instances could be given where these wardens, either from parochial funds or specific bequests they were called on to administer for the common benefit, found the stipends for additional curates to work the parish, paid the fees for obits and other anniversary services to the parish priests and other ministers, or for clerical or lay assistance in the celebrations of some more solemn festivals. In some cases I have found them arranging the hours for the various daily masses which, in their opinion, would best suit the convenience of the people.

The parish possessions were considerable, and comprised all kinds of property – lands, houses, flocks and herds, cows, and even hives of bees. These were what may be termed the capital of the parish, which was constantly being added to by the generosity of generations of pious benefactors. Then, over and besides the chancel, which was the freehold of the parson, the body of the church and other buildings, together with the churchyard and its enclosure, and generally, if not always, the common church house, were then under the special and absolute control of the people’s wardens. Then, if the law forced the parish to find fitting and suitable ornaments and vestments, it equally gave them the control of the ecclesiastical furniture, etc. of the church. Their chosen representatives were the guardians of the jewels and plate, of the ornaments and hangings, of the vestments and tapestries, which were regarded, as in very truth they were, the common property of every soul in the particular village or district in which the church was situated. It is no exaggeration to say that the parish church was in Catholic times the care and business of all. Its welfare was the concern of the people at large. and it took its natural place in their daily lives. Was there, say, building to be done, repairs to be effected, a new peal of bells to be procured, organs to be mended, new plate to be bought, and the like, it was the parish as a corporate body that decided the matter, arranged the details, and provided for the payment. At times, let us say when a new vestment was in question, the whole parish might be called to sit in council at the church house on this matter of common interest, and discuss the cost, the stuff, and the make.

The parish wardens had their duties also towards their poorer brethren in the district. I have come across more than one instance of their being the guardians of a common chest, out of which temporary loans could be obtained by needy parishioners to enable them to tide over pressing difficulties. These loans were secured by pledges and the additional surety of other parishioners. No interest, however, was charged for the use of the money, and in cases where the pledge had to be sold to recover the original sum, anything over and above was returned to the borrower. In other ways, too, the poorer parishioners were assisted by the corporate property of the parish. The stock managed by the wardens “were,” says one of the early English reformers, “in some towns (i.e., townships and villages) six, some eight, and some a dozen kine, given unto the stock, for the relief of the poor, and used in some such wise that the poor ‘cottingers,’ which could make any provision for fodder, had the milk for a very small hire; and then, the number of the stock reserved (that is, of course, the original number being maintained), all manner of vailes (or profits), besides both the hire of the milk and the prices of the young veals and old fat wares, was disposed to the relief of the poor.”

The functions and duties of the mediaeval parishioners were determined by law and custom. By law, according to the statute of Archbishop Peckham in 1280, which remained in force till the change of religion, the parish was bound to find, broadly speaking, all that pertained to the services – such as vestments, chalice, processional cross, the paschal candle, etc. – and to keep the fabric and ornaments of the church proper, exclusive of the chancel. In 1305 Archbishop Winchelsey somewhat enlarged the scope of the parish duties, and the great canonist, Lyndwood, explains that very frequently, especially in London churches, the parishioners, through their wardens, kept even the chancels in repair, and, in fact, found everything for the services, except the two mass candles which the priest provides.

To take some examples: first, of the way in which, according to the custom of our Catholic forefathers, the memory of benefactions to the parish was kept alive. The inventory of the parish church of Cranbrook, made in 1509, shows that the particulars of all gifts and donors were regularly noted down, in order that they might periodically be published and remembered. The presents vary greatly in value, and nothing is too small apparently to be noted. Thus we have a monstrance of silver-gilt, which the wardens value at;^2o, “of Sir Robert Egelyonby’s gift”; and the list goes on to say: “This Sir Robert was John Roberts, priest thirty years, and he never had other service or benefice, and the said John Roberts was father to Walter Roberts, Esquire.” Again, John Hindely “gave three copes of purple velvet, whereof one was of velvet upon velvet with images broidered,” and, adds the inventory for a perpetual memory, “He is grandfather of Gervase Hindeley, of Cushorn, and Thomas, of Cranbrook Street.” Or again, to take one more instance from the same, it is recorded that the “two long candlesticks before Our Lady’s altar, fronted with lions and a towel on the rood of Our Lady’s chancel,” had been given by “old Moder Hopper.” So, too, in the case of Saint Dunstan’s, Canterbury, we have a wonderful list of furniture with the names of the donors set out. The best chalice, for instance, was the gift of one “Harry Boll.” The two great lateen candlesticks were a present from John Philpot, and “a kercher for Our Lady and a chapplet and pordryd cap for her son” came from Margery Roper.

I have said that the memory of these gifts was kept alive by the “bede-roll,” or list of people for whom the parish was bound to pray, published periodically by the parson. Thus, to take one instance: At Leverton, in the county of Lincoln, the parson, Sir John Wright, presented the church with a suit of red purple vestments, “for the which,” says a note in the churchwardens’ accounts, “you shall all specially pray for the souls of William Wright and Elizabeth his wife” (the father and mother of the donor) and other relations, “as well them that be alive as them that he departed to the mercy of God, for whose lives and souls” these vestments are given “to the honour of God, His most blessed mother, Our Lady Saint Mary, and all His saints in Heaven, and the blessed matron Saint Helen, his patron, to be used at such principal feasts and times as it shall please the curates so long as they shall last.”

In this way the names of benefactors and the memory of their good deeds was ever kept alive in the minds of those who benefited by their gifts. The parish treasury was not looked on as so much stock, the accumulation of years, of haphazard donations without definite history or purpose; but every article, vestment, banner, hanging, chalice, etc. called up some affectionate memory both of the living and the dead. On high day and feast day, when all that was best and richest in the parochial treasury was brought forth to deck the walls and statues and altars, the display of parish ornaments recalled to the minds of the people assembled within its walls to worship God the memory of good deeds done by generations of neighbours for the decoration of their sanctuary. “The immense treasures in the churches,” writes Dr. Jessopp, “were the joy and boast of every man and woman and child in England, who, day by day, and week by week, assembled to worship in the old houses of God which they and their fathers had built, and whose every vestment and chalice, and candlestick and banner, organ and bells, and pictures and images, and altar and shrine they look upon as their own, and part of their birthright.”

It might reasonably be supposed that this was true only of the greater churches; but this is not so. What strikes one so much in these parish accounts of bygone days is the richness of even small, out-of-the-way village churches. Where we would naturally be inclined to look for poverty and meanness, there is evidence to the contrary. To take an example or two. Morebath is a small, uplandish, out-of-the-way parish of little importance on the borders of Exmoor; the population, for the most part, have spent their energies in daily labour to secure the bare necessities of life, and riches, at any rate, could never have been abundant. Morebath may consequently be taken as a fair sample of an obscure and poor village. For this hamlet we possess full accounts from the year 1530, and we find that at this time, and in this very poor, out-of-the-way place, there were no less than eight separate accounts kept of money intended for the support of different altars of devotions. For example, we have the “Stores” of the Chapels of Our Lady and Saint George, etc., and the gilds of the young men and maidens of the parish. All these were kept and managed by the lay-elected officials of the societies – confraternities, I suppose, we should call them – and to their credit are entered numerous gifts of money and specific gifts of value of kind, such as cows, and swarms of bees, etc. Most of them had their little capital funds invested in cattle and sheep, the rent of which proved a considerable part of their revenues. In a word, these accounts furnish abundant and unmistakable evidence of the active and intelligent interest in the duty of supporting and adorning their church on the part of these simple country folk at large. What is true of this is true of every other similar account to a greater or less degree, and all these accounts show unmistakably that the entire management of these parish funds was in the hands of the people.

Voluntary rates to clear off obligations contracted for the benefit of the community – such as the purchase of bells, the repair of the fabric, and even for the making of roads and bridges – were raised by the wardens. Collections for Peter’s pence, for the support of the parish clerk, and for every variety of church and local purpose are recorded, and the spirit of self-help manifested on every page of these accounts. To keep to Morebath. In 1528 a complete set of black vestments was purchased at a cost – considerable in those days – of £6, 5s, and to help in the common work, the vicar gave up certain tithes in wool he had been in the habit of receiving. These vestments, by the way, were only finished and paid for in 1547, just before the changes under Edward VI. rendered them useless. In 1538 the parish made a voluntary rate to purchase a new cope, and the general collections for this purpose produced some £3. 6s. 8d. In 1534 the silver chalice was stolen, and at once, we are told, “ye yong men and maydens of ye parysshe dru themselves together, and at ther gyfts and provysyon they bought in another chalice without any charge of the parish.” Sums of money, big and small, specific gifts in kind, the stuff or ornaments needed for vestments, were apparently always forthcoming when needed. Thus, at one time a new cope is suggested, and Anne Tymwell, of Hayne, gave the churchwardens her “gown and her ring”; Joan Tymwell, a cloak and a girdle and Richard Norman, “seven sheep and three shillings and four pence in money,” towards the cost.

These examples could be multiplied to any extent, but the above will be sufficient to show the popular working of a mediaeval parisR. The same story of local government, popular interest, and ready self-help, as well as an unmistakable spirit of affection for the parish church as theirs, is manifested by the people in every account we possess. Every adult of both sexes had a voice in the system, and the parson was little more in this regard than chairman of the village meetings, and, as I have more than once seen him described, “chief parishioner.” In the management of the fabric, the service, and all things necessary for the due performance of these, the people were not only called upon to pay, but it is clear the diocesan authorities evidently left to the parish a wise discretion. No doubt the higher ecclesiastical officials could interfere in theory; but in practice interference was rare. It would not be to my present purpose to describe the various methods employed to replenish the parochial exchequer. There was apparently seldom much difficulty in finding the necessary money, and it will be of interest to see how it was expended by some further examples.

The church accounts of Leverton (six miles from Boston) have been printed in the Archaologia, and those that are interested in this subject may conveniently turn to them as illustrating it. The church, until the past three hundred years of neglect has disfigured it, must have presented a very beautiful appearance, when decked for a festival, in the hangings and ornaments which generations of the inhabitants had lovingly gathered within its walls. When first the accounts were open in 1492, the parish was beginning to be interested – as, by the way, so many parishes were at this period – in bells. The people evidently made a great effort to get a new peal, and they contributed generously. The rector headed the list with ten and sixpence, which was afterwards paid for him by a friend; but what I would remark is that the whole arrangement for the purchase and hanging of the bell was in the hands of the people’s representatives, the churchwardens. They bought timber for the framework, and hired a carpenter to make it. They hired a cart to bring over the great bell from the neighbouring parish where it had been cast, and there are notes of the cost of the team of horses and other items of expense, not forgetting a penny for the toll of a bridge. We may judge, however, that the work was not altogether a success, as in 1498 the two wardens made a “move” to “the gathering of the township in the kirk,” at which they gathered £4. 13s. l0d. They forthwith set about the building of a new steeple, and ordered another peal of bells. The stone was given to them, but they had to see to the quarrying of it. Trees were bought in a neighbouring wood, and by direction of the wardens, were felled and cut into beams and boards, or fashioned roughly for scaffolding.

As the sixteenth century progressed, a great deal of building and repair was undertaken by the parish authorities. In 1503 the wardens ordered a new bell, and went over to Boston to see it “shott.” The same year they took in hand the making of a new font, and a deputation was sent over to Frieston, about three miles from Leverton, to inspect and pass the work. The lead for the lining of the font was procured in pigs, and cast into a mould on the spot by a plumber brought over for the purpose. In 15 1 7 extensive repairs were undertaken in the north aisle which necessitated much shoring up of the walls. Two years later, on the completion of the works, the church and churchyard were consecrated, the Bishop’s fees, amounting to £3, being paid out of the public purse. In 1526 the rood-loft was decorated, and the niches filled with images. In that year one of the parishioners, William Prankish, died and left a legacy to the churchwardens for the purpose of procuring alabaster statues to fill the vacant spaces. The wardens hired a man, called sometimes the “alabastre man,” and sometimes “Robert Brook, the carver,” and in earnest for the payment, at the conclusion, gave him a shilling. At the same time a collection was made for the support of the artist during his stay. Some of the parishioners gave money, but most of them apparently contributed “cheese.”

I wish I had time to quote more fully from these interesting and instructive accounts. The serious building operations continued up to the very eve of the religious changes. They by no means satisfied the energies of the parish officials. If books required binding, a travelling workman was engaged on the job, and the leather, thread, wax, and other materials for the mystery of bookbinding were purchased for his use. Sometimes extra was paid to his wife for the stitching of leaves and covers, and the workmen were apparently lodged by one or other of the people, and this was accounted as their contribution to the common work. Then there were vestments and surplices and other linen bought, mended, and washed, and the very marks set upon the linen cloths are put into the accounts. So entirely was the whole regarded as the work of the people, that, just as we have seen that the parish paid for the consecration of their parish church and graveyard, so do we find the wardens assigning a fee to their own vicar for blessing the altar linen and new vestments, and entering the names of benefactors on the parish bede-roll.

I have said that the wardens often appear as arranging more than the ordinary material details. Thus, at Henleyon- Thames they ordained that the Chaplain of Our Lady’s altar should say Mass every day at six o’clock, and the chantry priest of Saint Catherine’s at eight o’clock, as the hours most convenient for the majority of the people. At Saint Mary’s, Dover, the wardens paid the parson a stipend for regularly reading the bede-roll, and charged a fee for inserting any name upon it. They paid deacons, sub-deacons, clerks, and singing men and children on great days to add solemnity to the church festivals. Two priests were generally paid at Easter to help to shrive, and one year there were payments to three priests “to help to shrive and to minister at Maundy Thursday, Easter Even, and Easter Day.” The same year the parish paid for “a breakfast for such clerks as took pain to maintain God’s service on the holidays”; and on Palm Sunday they expended threepence on “bread and wine to the readers of thePassion.”

“How curious a state of things is revealed to us in these documents!” says a writer who had been engaged over these churchwardens’ accounts. “We have been taught to regard our mediaeval forefathers as a terribly priest-ridden people, yet nothing of all this, but quite the contrary, appears in all these parish papers.”

What is seen so clearly in the parish accounts as to the powers exercised by the wardens in the management of the church property receives additional confirmation – were that at all necessary – from the pre-Reformation wills. We have only to turn over the leaves of the collection of Yorkshire wills, published by the Surtees Society, to see how well understood was the intimate connection between the parishioners and the parish church; how people loved to leave some article of value to the place where they had worshipped, in order to perpetuate their memory; and how to the wardens was entrusted the care of these bequests. Even where the names of the popular representatives are not inserted in the wills themselves, they, as the legal trustees for the common church property, and not the parson of the parish, trouble themselves in the matter. Did time allow, I might quote some curious illustrations of the gifts and bequests thus made for the common good. I wonder what the authorities of some of our modern parish churches would think of a bequest of dresses and gowns to various images to make vestments, or even “20 marks to buy 20 bullocks to find a priest to pray for my soul and the soul of my wife”? Yet in these interesting wills there are numerous examples of such donations, which to my mind appear to indicate, more than any other way can, the affection of our Catholic forefathers for their religion, and the real practical hold the faith had over them. The local church was to them a living reality: it was theirs, and all it contained, in an absolute and sometimes almost a startling way. One instance comes to my mind. In the parish of Yatton, in Somerset, on the eve of the Reformation – about 1520, say – a difficulty arose as to the repair “of certain sluices to keep back the winter floods. To make a long story short, in the end the parish were ordered to make good the defect. It meant money, and the wardens’ accounts show that they had been spending generously on the church. It was consequently decided that to raise the necessary cash they should sell a piece of silver church plate, which had been purchased some years before by the common contributions of the faithful. “How monstrous!” I can hear some people say. Possibly: I am not going to try and defend what they did; but the instance furnishes me with a supreme example of the way in which the people of a mediaeval parish regarded the property of God’s house as their own.

– published in 1911 by the Catholic Truth Society