Going to church in medieval England

Continuing our recently introduced feature of book reviews, OHCT Trustee Nicola Coldstream reviews a fascinating new book by Nicholas Orme.

Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University, and has written on many aspects of churches especially in the west country. This book arose from his gradual realisation that he knew very little about the performance of the liturgy in parish churches and that historians of all kinds had tended to take it for granted. The great liturgical Uses of Sarum (Salisbury) and York, which by the later middle ages had become the models for the two provinces, drew on priests, deacons, acolytes and singers in numbers that could be mustered for a cathedral but were never available to even the largest urban parish churches, and about which a small rural parish could only dream. So Professor Orme set out to answer his question, drawing on all the documentary evidence he could find of what actually went on in church; and this book is the product of that research.

We are taken through the development of parochial organisation, the staff of the church, the building, and the congregation. Then attention turns to the liturgical year, the Church seasons and demands on the clergy; and to the interests of the laity, their connections to the church through birth, marriage, death and – very significantly – commemoration in the form of chantry altars and chapels, and the priests required to serve them. A chapter is devoted to the Reformation and the gradual dismantling of Roman Catholic tradition and its physical manifestations in altars, statues, paintings and so on. The removal of images did not just transform the church interior but denied access to spirituality through the saints to whom people had once prayed, and the Word, now in English that everyone could follow, became paramount. The revival of (mostly empty) shrines and pilgrimage in our Protestant times is an intriguing development, but this book makes clear how very different it all was in the middle ages.

Most of Orme’s evidence comes from the fourteenth century and after, but the earlier period is much less recorded, and the author had to work with what he had. The book is beautifully written, difficult to put down once you start, and full of humanity. Rather than a dry account of the ins and outs of the medieval liturgy as conducted by a village priest and his parish clerk – though they are naturally visible throughout – the text sparkles with the adventures of individual people and their experiences in church, from their participation in the Mass to their annual confession before Easter and complaints about noisy children. Orme enquires how often people actually went to church, another question that resonates with our times, and explores the balance of power between Church and people: the Church could assert control through the sacramental events of life and death, but the many seasonal festivals belonged to the laity. Thus religious and secular life were fused.

The Middle Ages may have been different; but this book ensures that they are not remote.

Going to Church in Medieval England (Yale University Press: Newhaven and London, 2021) £20 ISBN 978-0-300-25650-5

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