Darryl Ogier

title.none: Crouch, Piety, Fraternity, and Power (Darryl Ogier)

identifier.other: baj9928.0109.021 01.09.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Darryl Ogier, Archivist for Guernsey,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Crouch, David. Piety, Fraternity, and Power: Religious Guilds in Late Medieval Yorkshire, 1389-1547. New York: York Medieval Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 331. 75.00. ISBN: 0-952-97354-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.09.21

Crouch, David. Piety, Fraternity, and Power: Religious Guilds in Late Medieval Yorkshire, 1389-1547. New York: York Medieval Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 331. 75.00. ISBN: 0-952-97354-8.

Reviewed by:

Darryl Ogier
Archivist for Guernsey

David Crouch has written a craftsmanlike account of the gilds of Yorkshire, replete with tables and graphs (35), three maps, and five appendices over 42 pages listing identified gilds; the masters of York's Corpus Christi Gild 1461-1546; York city officials 1397-1550; the officers and finances of the St. Mary Gild, Hull, 1463-1537; and those gilds and 'services' surviving the dissolution of 1547.

The introduction summarises the themes and conclusions of the rest of the book before going on to describe the historiography of English gilds--although omitting Alan Kreider's English Chantries: the Road to Dissolution (Cambridge MA and London, 1979), an important work, and one which supports Crouch's chronology of York gilds. Crouch maintains that writers have hitherto concentrated on the Edwardian dissolution and resistance to it at the expense of gilds' roles as "allies of authority". (5) This defines his subject. His point is not wholly unreasonable, though he might have noted that writers such as Clive Burgess, Eamon Duffy and Gervase Rosser have as often concentrated on gilds' established religious and social aspects. Of H. F. Westlake's Parish Gilds of Mediaeval England (London, 1919) he find the latter's emphasis to have been on devotional aspects at the expense of the secular.

Chapter One describes at length the mechanics of the survey resulting in the gild returns of 1389. Crouch describes a government that viewed gilds as having seditious potential, allied to usable wealth. The returns, unsurprisingly, accordingly emphasised their devotional and fraternal functions, underplayed the popularity of livery and feasting, and exaggerated their poverty. There was also a tendency to credit quite recent foundations with a spurious antiquity.

Although government failed to tap the wealth of the gilds as envisaged by the Cambridge parliament of 1388, by the early fifteenth century gild activities were enlisted in the Lancastrian drive against heresy. Their conventional piety and close association with urban oligarchies, the Statute of Mortmain (1391) and, more significantly, an act of 1436 requiring registration and approval of ordinances by justices of the peace and urban authorities, came together to depict gilds as models of order and orthodoxy, contrasting strongly with the seditious potential of some which had been perceived a few years earlier.

Crouch's main source, an impressive sample of more than 5,000 wills from 1389-1547, is employed in Chapter Two to indicate that in this ambient situation gild activity rose to its highest between 1438 and 1530, with a peak in popularity, among testators at least, in the 1480s. He shows that bequests followed local economic trends, and reasonably suggests that larger populations supported more gilds, which proliferated on trade routes and in market centres. He cannot find gilds actually administering markets and observes that whilst commercial reasons might account for the development of gilds in certain places, "devotional or political factors could also play a part in a a particular place". (60)

Chapter Three looks at members and their activities more closely. Whilst again acknowledging gilds' essential religious and fraternal functions, Crouch stresses their need of proper finances and official approval. Many, therefore, were associated with oligarchies and enmeshed in urban power structures. Nobility and gentry are identified as members of gilds, but rarely testators to them; high churchmen made gifts, but similarly rarely remembered them in their wills. On this evidence it is argued that these groups were more concerned with this-worldly influence obtainable through patronage than with the intercessory services gilds offered for the afterlife. Bequests by chaplains followed usual patterns, but the testamentary record is biased against women and the poor, to both of which groups, the author concedes, gilds may have been important. Indeed, with regard to pious women, Crouch makes the interesting point that gilds may have served their spiritual needs in a manner substituting for the beguinage available in Europe.

There was, then, support for the gilds from Yorkshire's late medieval public, both commons and elite. Whilst acknowledging that the testamentary evidence is biased towards the role of wealthier members, Crouch infers that "if a significant proportion of the civic elite were gild members, then we can assume, with some confidence, that there was a relationship between the government of a town and its gilds". (86) The gilds are found to have been conservative institutions, as indicated not only by elite membership, but also by cults and dedications. Above all, establishment favour was evidenced in the participation of gilds in civic ceremonial. These relationships were not without commercial aspects, and Crouch demonstrates how gilds could influence local economies, owning property, stock, and even trading in groceries. These were just some aspects of the material motivations he finds to have shaped the development and success of the Yorkshire gilds, and the relationships between them, their members, and wider communities.

These attributes are examined further in Chapter Four, which turns specifically to the religious gilds of Medieval York, exploring the possibility of the "subjection of devotional objectives to secular pressures" in the mid to late fifteenth- century decline in bequests to urban relative to rural gilds. (118) Here it is argued that after successes early in the century, economic and population pressures, the effects of civil war, and unrest in the city in the 1490s all combined to lessen the prosperity of York's gilds. Crouch makes much of the relations between the city's administration and its most prominent gilds, identifying common interests in orthodoxy and order, as symptomised, for example, by gild participation in Corpus Christi and other processions, plays and funerals. These, he argues, further enmeshed gild activities in the interests of the secular elite. Merchants (male and female), victuallers and the clergy all favoured city gilds in their wills. Whilst increasing the institutions' prosperity, this may have had the paradoxical effect, Crouch suggests, of creating another cause of decline, as gilds were perceived as more worldly at the cost of a spiritual character, which in turn led to a reluctance amongst testators to favour those which were no longer regarded as essentially pious.

Crouch excepts from this tendency the Corpus Christi gild of York, an in-depth study of which is the subject of Chapter Five. The gild did not organise the famous play, but it did bear the host in the Corpus Christi procession and provided funerals. It remained popular, attracting a wealthy and powerful lay following. It was, however, dominated by its clerical members, perhaps having developed from a gild of chantry chaplains. Over its 150-year existence the gild attracted more than seventeen thousand members, and was notable for orthodox activities. As with lesser gilds, Crouch suggests that "commercial advantage and political ambition played a part in the motivation of some entrants". (178) He supplies a few examples, such as butchers who supplied feasts and tradesmen who wished to step up from gild membership to public office. For all this secular aspect, however, Crouch concludes that the sanctity, cult, and character as a priestly fraternity of the Corpus Christi gild accounted for its success.

In turning to his second case study, in Chapter Six, Crouch deals with a relatively modest institution; the Gild of St. Mary, Hull. He is assisted by the survival of its accounts, from 1463 to 1536. From these he is able to refer to grants made by the gild for the repair of town walls, and loans made to merchants. These civic and mercantile connections lead the author to question whether the gild was not either something of a trade gild, or "simply an arm of the town council". He finds not in both cases, and suggests that early sixteenth-century deterioration in the quality of account keeping indicates a lessening of the merchant interest as membership widened, and merchants increasingly favoured a gild of St George. However, he concludes, the "quality of its general membership" is irrecoverable. (218)

Chapter Seven inevitably turns to the Reformation. Crouch attempts an assessment of the state of lay religiosity at its eve, and refers to the familiar issues of the possible influences of Lollardy, and whether reform came from 'above' or 'below'. He suggests that Lollardy, and Protestantism in its wake, did not at first threaten the gilds. But towards the end of the period covered by this study, Protestant attacks on the raison d'etre of gilds, the belief in Purgatory, surely signalled a threat to their survival. Purgatory was condemned, for example, in the Ten Articles of 1536: the writing was on the wall for institutions perpetuating belief in it.

The Articles were one--if only one--of the triggers of the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536-7 which affected Yorkshire so profoundly. Crouch plausibly suggests that it was because the population was cowed by national government after the Pilgrimage's failure that the gilds came to be suppressed with so little protest. This did not prevent widespread concealment taking place; another factor encouraging gild officers and their supporters to keep a low profile. He concludes that religious injunctions had reduced the more pious institutions to mere "economic entities" (243) incapable of resistance, or even revival under Mary.

This is a valuable and suggestive study of a neglected aspect of gild life. Crouch acknowledges that his sources overemphasise their funereal role. They also often preclude the identification of smaller gilds and the activities of the less well off. This leads the author, perhaps rashly, to consider wealth as "typically" invested in "real estate" and ceremonial to be underlaid by "a political agenda laid down by local government". (246-7) These conclusions may be less sustainable in respect of small and/or rural gilds.

The extent of piety is also difficult to assess, and Crouch does not acknowledge that gifts and services, whether provided by magnates, senior churchmen, elites or ordinary lay people, during their lifetimes, may often themselves have been regarded as efficacious, even if of an apparently secular character. Nor were good works limited to bequests, funeral prayers, processions and commemorative masses. Many other activities-- alms giving, keeping lights, pilgrimage, paying membership fees, accumulating wealth to celebrate cults with ever greater magnificence; even such things as repairing walls at Hull and walls and bridges elsewhere--surely functioned not solely, nor even always primarily, to serve members' secular political and/or financial ambitions, but were made with the pious intent of accruing merit, which might benefit the souls of members, their families and friends in Purgatory. This might be sought via a number of routes, some of which to modern eyes appear quite self-serving in this world and not the next. Though concerned to explore the gilds as "allies of authority" Crouch in fact expresses what remains to this reviewer the true hierarchy of gild priorities most clearly in his title: religious gilds were about piety, and fraternity, and sometimes, perhaps especially in towns, about worldly power.