Kathleen Kamerick

title.none: Farnhill, Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia c. 1470-1550 (Kathleen Kamerick)

identifier.other: baj9928.0206.019 02.06.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kathleen Kamerick, University of Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Farnhill, Ken. Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia c. 1470-1550. York: York Medieval Press, 2001. Pp. v, 237. $90.00. ISBN: 1-903-15305-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.06.19

Farnhill, Ken. Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia c. 1470-1550. York: York Medieval Press, 2001. Pp. v, 237. $90.00. ISBN: 1-903-15305-0.

Reviewed by:

Kathleen Kamerick
University of Iowa

With this detailed and tightly focused study of parish fraternities in Norfolk and Suffolk, Ken Farnhill makes a solid contribution to the history of English guilds, and also adds to the richly textured picture of the religious culture of late medieval East Anglia that has been drawn by literary and historical scholars like Gail McMurray Gibson and Eamon Duffy. Farnhill investigates the structures and functions of East Anglian guilds "within the context of local needs, to which they most obviously responded", (2) but he argues that his findings should be more widely applicable. His four primary goals are to examine late medieval participation in guilds; to explore reasons for the guilds' popularity; to clarify guild and parish relations; and to assess "the impact of the Henrician Reformation on the guilds". (7)

Chapter one takes up the historiography of English and Continental guilds, dividing studies into those that consider guilds' social, economic, political, and religious roles, and a fifth overlapping area--relations between guild and parish. Farnhill believes historians have overemphasized the fraternities' concern with intercessory prayers and Masses, while paying too little attention to their economic functions. He also points out that historians tend to emphasize one element at the expense of others--the religious as opposed to the social, for example--and aims at a more integrated study that will consider all of these elements, but with special attention to guild-parish interactions, a subject that has received attention in recent studies of English guilds by Gervase Rosser and others.

Chapter two examines evidence for the number and locations of East Anglian guilds, and seeks to establish correlations between guilds and economic and social factors. This chapter begins, as does each succeeding chapter, with a meticulous description and evaluation of the source material. Farnhill makes clear that the disappearance of some sources, lacunae in others, and ambiguities in many, make it impossible to answer fully many basic questions about fraternities. For example, the 1389 guild responses to the government's demand for information--a major source for fourteenth-century guilds--are misleading because they present a "sanitized version of reality". (23) Many guilds wanted to hide their assets, others emphasized their charities, and some may have simply ignored the enquiry. He shows that many guilds do not even appear in the 1389 survey. Only by combing all available sources can the number of guilds be reasonably estimated; between 1300 and 1550, he finds references to a far higher number than the 1389 returns indicate, about five hundred in Suffolk and twelve hundred in Norfolk. An appendix lists the place and dedication of each Norfolk guild. Why guilds were more numerous in some locations than others is difficult to track. Certainly towns like Norwich, Ipswich, and Lynn supported numerous guilds. In Norfolk other areas of strong economic activity such as markets and ports also tended to have guilds, but Suffolk does not evince these ties, and its pattern of guilds remains a puzzle.

This chapter also addresses the role of patron saints, and how guilds chose them. Farnhill emphasizes the importance of local associations, such as shrines or the dedication of the parish church itself, but he raises several issues that he acknowledges need more research. Among these are connections between the choice of patron and the images in the parish church, and explanations for a particular saint's regional popularity--East Anglians, for instance, favored John the Baptist, and Londoners, St. Catherine.

Chapter 3 investigates the size of guilds, their members' occupations and sex, and patterns of office holding. Here Farnhill shows strong ties between the fraternities and the parish and manor. A reasonable estimate for a guild's size at a particular time can be derived from combining information from several sources, but fluctuations in numbers over time can only be roughly computed. Farnhill's figures supports the notion that guilds enjoyed "general popularity" into the early sixteenth century. (48) Women made up at least one-third of the total membership of the guilds investigated here, with higher and lower proportions found in both rural and urban guilds. Farnhill finds no pattern to these variations; neither population density nor the gender of the guild's patron saint seems to correlate to high or low female membership. Disappointingly, women's marital status is only occasionally recorded, making analysis of the participation of widows, married women, and single women nearly impossible. Similarly, members' occupations rarely appear in any record, with the notable exception of the clergy, who often joined guilds. Most guilds included a few priests, but in 1522 the fraternity of the Annunciation in Little Walsingham, home to the famous shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, counted twenty-five clerics who made up more than one-fifth of the total membership. Further, clergy often served as guild aldermen, trusted with managing the group's assets. Clerical membership and leadership make clear that guilds cannot be considered specifically lay organizations, and also support one of Farnhill's key points--that the fraternities exhibited great flexibility in their membership, purposes, and activities.

In contrast to studies that show late medieval guilds dominated by small groups, Farnhill finds that a large proportion of the men in Wymondham guilds took turn sharing such offices as holder, lightkeeper, and beadle. Employing manor rolls and the lay subsidy rolls of 1524/5 to determine officers' wealth and social status, he concludes that the guilds to some extent sought out wealthy manor tenants for a "limited and strategic alliance" (57) that provided them with advocates whose voice might be helpful in the guilds' increasingly important land transactions. Still, other factors still unknown clearly played a part in officer selection.

Chapter 4 addresses people's motives for joining guilds; an allied issue is guild profitability, which determined the range of services that guilds could afford to offer members. Guilds' constant need for money led them to engage in commercial activities such as renting property and loaning money. Other sources of income included ales, trade in animals, and legacies. Farnhill focuses on Wymondham and Walsingham guilds whose account books document their economic activities, and demonstrates how failure to manage resources effectively could lead to a guild's dissolution, as happened with Wymondham's guild of All Saints. Guild expenditures were as varied as income sources: renting and maintaining properties, keeping lights before the image of its patron saint, payments to priests for prayers and masses, almsgiving to needy members, funeral doles, and various costs for the all-important celebration of the patron's feast day. As patrons of the arts, guilds also built halls, bought statues of the saints, and paid for windows in churches and chapels. This dissection of guild finances sketches the economic role the guild played in the community, and emphasizes the multiple benefits offered members, who might find sociability in ales; spiritual help in prayers, lights, and images; but also economic advantages as money borrowers or alms recipients.

The next two chapters analyze the geographic distribution of guilds and members, and the relations between guilds and parishes, in urban areas. Overall, the emphasis here is on the guilds' adaptability and fluidity. Using the location of their halls as markers of the guilds' "main base within the parish", (92) Farnhill examines how the fraternities responded to settlement patterns. Several guilds had halls in the dense urban area of Wymondham, for example, but three guilds were located in nearby hamlets that also belonged to Wymondham parish. In these hamlets the guilds seemed to provide a needed "communal focus" (101) that the more distant parish church did not. Guild flexibility is also evident in its membership distribution; people supported and joined guilds based outside their own parish. A guild located on a parochial border might recruit members from the parishes on both sides, and testators made bequests to guilds many miles away.

Since guilds were neither confined nor defined by parochial boundaries, how were their relationships with the parish ordered? Farnhill looks at guild activities and the parochial structure of Swaffham in chapter 6, and then examines two rural parishes in chapter 7. The major issue is responsibility for the variety of devotions in the church. While Swaffham churchwardens had clearly stated duties such as maintaining the church fabric, neither their accounts nor other parish records show that they had oversight of nave altars, lights before saints' images, or other devotional activities. Providing small amounts of money for lights before images was probably the most common and w idespread devotion among laypeople, but who received and distributed this money? This simple question points to the daily mechanics of parish operation; the answer-- at least in Swaffham--is unclear. Guilds perhaps managed the funds for lights, but in some places both guild and parish provided lights. Evidence from rural parishes supports the conclusions that parochial organizations took various forms, that churchwardens did not supervise all moneys or activities in the parish, and that relations between guild and parish changed according to circumstances. Guilds were not simply a subordinate element in the parochial structure, but they cooperated with it when "aims or needs either required it, or at least made it desirable". (152)

Chapter 8 tracks the responses of guilds to the Henrician Reformation, and to the social and economic changes of the sixteenth century. Farnhill delineates a process in which many guilds only gradually ceased functioning, and not without defiance of new religious injunctions. Several East Anglian fraternities still existed in the 1540s. Besides growing criticism of their religious functions, many guilds faced increased financial difficulties. Price inflation and poor management of rental properties undermined their financial stability and contributed to their dissolution.

Farnhill's insistence on the guilds' economic vulnerability as a cause of their downfall underscores one of his major themes, that guilds functioned not only as expressions of piety, but also as economic and political bodies that served the interests of their communities. Still, one might not fully agree with him that we should not view guilds "purely, or even largely, as religious bodies". (171) The importance of patron saints, the associations with the parish, the patronage of religious art, and the many religious services offered to members, all emphasize the guilds' religious interests. Yet in its richly detailed analysis of guilds' economic enterprises and social functions, this study adds a great deal to our understanding of their multiple purposes and vital contributions to late medieval culture.