The Medieval Review 11.11.07

Rousseau, Marie-Hélène. Saving the Souls of Medieval London: Perpetual Chantries at St. Paul's Cathedral, c.1200-1548. Church, Faith and Cultue in the Medieval West. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011. Pp. xii, 242. $124.95. ISBN 978-1-4094-0581-8. . .

Reviewed by:

Katherine French
frenchk@umich.edu
University of Michigan

In the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer claimed that rural rectors preferred to leave their parishes to "hirelings" to take up chantry positions at London's St. Paul cathedral.[1] The implication was that chantry chaplains lived cushy if not dissolute lives, amidst the hubbub of London's many attractions. Marie-Hélène Rousseau's new book, Saving the Souls of Medieval London: Perpetual Chantries at St. Paul's Cathedral, seeks to disabuse us of this idea, arguing that not only were most chantry chaplains locally born, but that they were a hard-working and diligent group of men, who were integral to the life of the cathedral and the spiritual well-being of London at large.

Chantries were one of many intercessory institutions designed to provide prayers for the soul of the founder in perpetuity. Founders endowed the chantry with land or rents to supply income for a chaplain or chaplains' salary, and liturgical supplies such as wax, bread, and wine. Founders could also mandate the mass schedule and location of the masses, which might include purpose-built altars, but could also share an existing one. Chantries first appear in Europe in the twelfth century reaching their peak of popularity in the thirteenth century. St. Paul's had at least eighty-four chantries established from the late twelfth century. While some were amalgamated due to lack of funds in 1391, sixty-four survived to 1548 when they were dissolved by the Crown at the Reformation.

While English chantries in general and cathedral chantries in particular have been the subject of a number of studies, St. Paul's chantries have not received much attention since William Dugdale's seventeenth century history of the cathedral. Drawing on extensive cathedral and civic records, Rousseau's study fills this gap, arguing that chantries helped facilitate the cathedral's liturgy, its chaplains augmented the cathedral's staff, and their revenues supported the cathedral and its community. The Valor ecclesiasticus in 1538 valued the chantries' lands at 410, about 20 percent of the value of the cathedral's property.

In her first chapter, Rousseau focuses on founding chantries. Most chantries in St. Paul's were set up to remember members of the cathedral's clergy, but several were endowed and supported by well-to- do Londoners, usually, but not always through the auspices of the merchant guilds. While foundations of chantries in St. Paul's ebbed and flowed with chantry foundations in the rest of England, they did not conform to the three types of funding processes identified by Kathleen Wood-Legh in her study of English perpetual chantries. In general English chantry founders came to favor creating full ecclesiastical benefices, giving the first chaplain and his successors legal ownership of the endowment. Chantry founders at St. Paul's, however, created benefices, but turned the endowments over to the Dean and Chapter. This arrangement integrated the chantries and their personnel into the cathedral's community, rather than allowing them financial and institutional independence. The second chapter looks at the role of chantries within the cathedral, what services besides masses for the dead chaplains offered and how founders' priorities distinguished chantries from each other. Some chantries ran schools, others maintained university scholarships, and still others distributed alms. Chapter three looks at where chantry chaplains said their masses and their living arrangements. By the fourteenth century, communal housing on the west side of the cathedral precinct meant that chaplains did not have to venture out at night among street walkers and other dangers to say mass. Rousseau argues that communal living created an esprit de corps among the chaplains. Chapter four looks at the supervision, oversight, and regulation of chantries and their personnel. While patrons of the chantries generally recommended candidates for empty chaplaincies the Dean and Chapter enforced educational standards. Those chaplains who were not sufficiently literature or musical were given a year to improve or were removed. The Dean and Chapter also had governance over the chaplains' behavior, punishing absences without leave, poor performance in the choir or at mass, drunkenness, or incontinence mostly with fines. While the Dean and Chapter's act books only survive for the years 1411-1448, Rousseau argues they provide evidence that the chantry chaplains were generally well-behaved. While civic records show the occasional chantry priest caught drinking or fornicating, the cathedral's Act Books never cite a chaplain for being with a woman. In the fifth chapter, Rousseau determines to the best of her ability given the sources, the social and geographical origins of chantry chaplain, how long they served, and whether chantry service was a stepping stone to greater office. While chaplains did leave, most often for service in London parishes, these patterns did not remain constant throughout the Middle Ages. Long-serving chaplains did move from chantry to chantry, implying that some were higher status than others, but this was not apparently typical behavior. Thus, Rousseau argues, chantries provided an important source of stability among the cathedral staff. She also examines the surviving wills left by chantry chaplains, finding further evidence of a cohesive community of cathedral clerics. The final chapter surveys the process of dissolving St. Paul's chantries in the Reformation.

Rousseau's study fills an important gap in the history of London's religion. As such she falls squarely within the historiographical tradition that finds the pre-Reformation church vibrant and meaningful. While I do not argue with her overall conclusions, her arguments would be more meaningful and convincing if instead of relying on phrases such as "most chaplains," "some chaplains," "a few chaplains" or "a fair number of chaplains," she provided numerical data. Even granting the difficulty of quantifying some of her sources, numerical data accompanied with a discussion of her sources and how she quantified her data would make her claims to well-behaved chaplains more compelling and her discussion of chaplains' careers clearer. Moreover, Rousseau's vague phrasing makes the examples she uses to illustrate her points anecdotes rather than evidence of historical significance. Rousseau's work, however, does go a long way to showing that St. Paul's was not a closed off community of clerics, but a vibrant part of London life.

--------

Note:

1. Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Prologue, ll. 507-10. Rousseau, 131.