Suffering Indifference: Pre-Reformation Approaches to Sacred People and Sacred Space

By Sara M. Butler; posted 17 November 2016.

With the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses looming brightly in the distance, I am once again thinking of the Reformation, a subject upon which much has been written. In a paper I published with the Canadian Journal of History some time ago, I focused on parishioners’ approaches to sacred people and sacred space.[1] The paper was inspired by R.N. Swanson’s concept of “pro-clericalism” – that is, late medieval Englishmen and women were not necessarily anti-clerical, they were pro-clerical, meaning they didn’t dislike priests altogether, they just didn’t particularly fancy the men who filled the role of parish priest around them because they did not live up to the high moral expectations that late medieval parishioners had for their parish priests. In that paper, I explored both anti-clericalism and pro-clericalism, but expanded the approach also to include anti-ecclesiastical and pro-ecclesiastical approaches to sacred space. Today, I’d like to return to that subject. Niggling in the back of my mind is a statement made by J.J. Scarisbrick in 1984, in which he declared that “[i]ndifference was probably more dangerous than anticlericalism.”[2] If we are looking for late medieval portents of the forthcoming Reformation, acts of indifference displayed towards sacred people and sacred spaces may be the most telling of all. To explain: an assault against a priest who is performing mass is orchestrated deliberately to defy his sanctity, but the assailant must acknowledge that inviolability in order to flout it. Similarly, assaults in sacred spaces concede the purity of that space by intentionally desecrating it. Acts of indifference are far worse. A number of interesting cases drawn from the courts of equity demonstrate that defendants simply did not even notice the blasphemous nature of their actions.

Late medieval secular clergy (to simplify: priests and their ilk as opposed to monks and those hiding in their cloisters) were immersed in the world, whether they wanted to be or not. Like the laity, they owned or leased land, they paid taxes, they worried about where their next meal was coming from. During the period of the Hundred Years’ War, they even carried weapons in defence of their English homeland. Nevertheless, their priestly demeanour and engagement in ecclesiastical activities should have differentiated them more absolutely from the lay masses. Yet, it is clear that at times, when parishioners assaulted a priest, they did so not because he was a priest, but because he was just another member of the village. For example, when John Rawson, a London priest, was attacked and “reviled” in the “most shameful manner” in the home of Robert Wryght in Birchenlane by first Anne Fischer, then also her husband John, their conduct makes it clear that they saw him as just a layman. Before attempting to “brain” him with a staff, Anne spoke harshly to Rawson, saying “Thou errant knave, if I were a man as I am a woman, I should cut thy flesh that all the tailors in this town should not make it whole.” [3] “Errant knave” was a common slander that often landed men and women in court on charges of defamation; but it was not the appropriate slander for a priest. “False priest” certainly was a popular choice: a Norwich defamation case from the year 1512 recounted by Derek Neal has one priest boldly complain to another, “You are a false priest and a false flattering priest and a false tale teller.”[4] So, too, was “whoremonger priest” a good slander for a man of the cloth: Thomas Wybarde of Essex used this epithet on the parson of High Ongar, William Richardson in a dispute during mass on Palm Sunday, 1519, calling him “whoreson and whoremonger priest.”[5] Another common variant of this is “whoreson polshorne priest,”[6]; but “errant knave” was simply the wrong name to call a priest – if you were thinking of him as a priest. Anne Fischer’s remark alerts us to the fact that she attacked him as a man, forgetting entirely that he was also a priest. This indifference to Rawson’s clerical state hints at the overly ambitious mission of Lateran IV that inevitably doomed it to failure. The council’s insistence upon proper dress for the clergy and faultless behaviour was intended primarily to discern the clergy from the laity, to draw attention to their divine calling, and transform them into ideal Christian role models. Rawson is just one example of how clergy had not lived up to Pope Innocent III’s remarkable vision so skilfully articulated in the chapters of the council’s legislation. And as Innocent had predicted, without this unmistakable visible distinction, respect for the clergy as God’s own special servants, was sorely lacking. This case (just one among many) adds a new dimension to our understanding of the pre-Reformation world.  Hostility towards priests was sometimes anti-clerical; sometimes it was pro-clerical; sometimes it was not clerical at all.

Indifference to sacred space is not as easy to interpret, in part because not all parts of a medieval church were equally sacred. Katherine French has noted that because of financial responsibilities, late medieval parishioners and their priests understood the chancel as priestly space, while the body of the church was parishioner territory.[7] This is reflected in chancery bills. In the 1460s, when parishioners barred James Belgrave, parson of St George’s of Canterbury (Kent), from using the door to his chancel, he was angry enough to demand the intervention of the chancellor to reclaim his space. [8] We see this same sense of indignation when Geoffrey Elys, vicar of Thatcham (Berks.) repeatedly insisted that John Stanshawe had assaulted him in the chancel of his church. Just as insistently, Stanshawe stated that he was in his pew. Clearly, this was an important pleading strategy.[9] Elys and Stanshawe both knew that an intrusion into the priest’s territory magnified the indecency of the offense. Did this territorialism diminish the sacral nature of the body of the church? According to the medieval church, certainly not; but the behaviour of parishioners appearing in the equity courts indicates they thought differently. Parishioners spent most of the mass concealed behind a rood screen that blocked much of their view of the mass. Behind that screen, parishioners were at ease carrying out lay activities. Indeed, parishioners’ talking, gossiping and milling about during mass were the clergy’s most frequent complaints. If these lay activities were suitable for parishioner territory, what else did they find acceptable? It may seem like a stretch to say that parishioners tolerated assault and defamation, other typical lay activities; but we do know that parishioners accepted and carried out the arrest of suspects in the body of the church, another activity associated with the lay realm. This late medieval practice, well evidenced in the records of the equity courts with at least thirteen arrests taking place during divine services, confirms a distinct laicisation of holy space.[10] Some historians have argued that royal officials staged arrests in sacred spaces in the hopes that the charitable environment might avert a violent reaction from their suspects. It is just as likely, however, that arrests took place in church simply because royal officials knew where they would find their suspect. The late medieval church expected Englishmen to attend three services each Sunday; a sheriff had a good chance of encountering the accused at one of those services. Although there were a few objections to this use of church space as improper, the regularity of lay pursuits in sacred space chips away at its sanctity, and slowly indifference to that inviolability seeps in.

Just how often did indifference define late medieval attitudes towards the clergy and sacred space?  We’ve got a whole year until the 500th anniversary to find out.

[Image: Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and Martin Luther kneeling at the feet of Christ on the cross. Woodcut printed by Hans Lufft, 1555.  Wellcome Library reference no. 567391i. Photo: public domain.]

[1] Sara M. Butler, “Sacred People, Sacred Spaces: Evidence of Parish Respect and Contempt for the pre-Reformation Clergy,” Canadian Journal of History 47.1 (2012): 1-27.

[2] J.J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (London: Blackwell, 1984), p. 60.

[3] TNA: PRO C 1/562/26 (1518-29).

[4] Derek Neal, The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008), p. 93.

[5] See TNA: PRO C 1/561/58 (1518-29).

[6] “Polshorne” means “shaven head,” that is “tonsured.” TNA: PRO STAC 2/10, f. 153 (ca. 1525, 1531 or 1536).

[7] Katherine French, The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

[8] See TNA: PRO C 1/27/339 (ca. 1460-65).

[9] TNA: STAC 2/18/171 (1509-47)

[10] The arrests in holy spaces do not include arrests of sanctuary men. For examples of arrests in holy spaces, see TNA: PRO C 1/3/39 (1401); C 1/48/111 (ca. 1473-5); C 1/439/19 (ca. 1515-18).

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