Carol Davidson Cragoe

title.none: French, People of the Parish (Carol Davidson Cragoe)

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.006 02.03.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol Davidson Cragoe, Victoria County History Institute of Historical Research,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: French, Katherine. People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 304. 59.95. ISBN: 0-812-23581-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.06

French, Katherine. People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 304. 59.95. ISBN: 0-812-23581-9.

Reviewed by:

Carol Davidson Cragoe
Victoria County History Institute of Historical Research

In The People of the Parish Katherine French puts a human face on the history of the English medieval parish between the end of the fourteenth century and the Reformation. Using a wide variety of sources, including churchwardens' accounts, wills, court records, and other documents, as well as physical evidence from architecture and liturgical fittings, she examines collective and individual action within the parish community. She looks at what these sources reveal about the priorities of the ordinary people who worshipped in the parish church in relationship to the institutional priorities of the church hierarchy and draws out some of the tensions and cohesions within local communities. Although the book focuses only on the English diocese of Bath and Wells (co-terminous with the county of Somerset), the models presented in it have parallels for contemporary parishes elsewhere England.

In the mid-thirteenth century, English bishops set out a series of statutes for their dioceses requiring the clergy to maintain the chancels of parish churches and their lay parishioners to maintain the nave and provide most of the church's liturgical goods and ornaments. Although specifically how this was to be accomplished was not defined by the statutes, a system of churchwardens -- lay people chosen by the parish to raise money and look after the parish's goods -- soon arose. The first chapter of this book, 'Defining the Parish', argues that the need to organise such systems for maintaining the fabric and the liturgical goods was the catalyst for the creation of a sense of parochial identity. This identity, as the rest of the book demonstrates, was often separate from that of the secular community around it, and could encompass a wide variety of gender, class, and social differences within it.

The second chapter looks at churchwardens' accounts and record keeping within the parish. This is the most innovative chapter in that it looks at the accounts as literary texts, and not just as historical sources. French demonstrates that non- or partially-literate communities were able to access these texts through an oral rendition of the text to an annual meeting of the whole parish. Parishioners were presented with information at these readings and were able to contribute to and correct this information in the accounts even if they could not read the relevant documents. This chapter also examines the ways in which churchwardens' accounts were, or in some cases were not, used at a later date; in doing this, she demonstrates that in court cases memory and the oral testimony of witnesses was often as, or even more, important than written records until the very end of the middle ages.

The third chapter looks at the office of churchwarden itself. It examines the different ways in which parishes selected their wardens and looks at who served as warden; it also looks at the wardens' relationship to the parish and the wider secular community. Issues of class -- churchwardens tended to come from the middle, not the upper, classes -- and gender issues (in some parishes women could and did take an active role in the management of the church) are of particular concern.

The fourth chapter looks at the mechanics of parish fundraising. Fundraising strategies varied greatly between parishes. Although gifts from individuals -- mostly in the form of donations in wills -- were the most common source of funds, they could not be predicted; therefore, parishes adopted other means of securing income. In towns such as Bridgwater, Bath, and Bristol, this was often done by purchasing properties to rent out, but in rural areas fundraising was much more varied and included parish wide collections, church ales and feasts, and even rummage sales. French's sources tell us not only how people gave, but also who gave what: women, for instance, were more likely to give clothing, jewellery, and other personal possessions, while men tended to give money or property.

In the fifth chapter, on 'The Architecture of Community', French argues that changes to the architecture and fittings of the parish church reflected changes in conceptions of community identity within the parish. She looks at the role of bells as a symbol of the parish community and explores the rebuilding of parish church towers and naves, a common phenomenon in late medieval Somerset. She also explores the interior organisation of the church, looking at roods screens, which divided the parishioners in the nave from the mass in the chancel; at seating arrangements, which were determined by gender and class; and at side altars, which were often maintained by individuals or small groups such as guilds.

The sixth, and final, chapter looks at parish liturgy. The book's actual concluding section is very brief, and this chapter effectively functions as the main conclusion, which is entirely appropriate given that the churchwardens' main function was to provide a suitable building and sufficient fittings of the performance of the liturgy. French is particularly interested in the ways in which liturgy and saints' cults were used to promote and define community identity, and in the ways in which social, class, and gender tensions within this community were played out through celebrations such as processions and pageants. Particular attention is paid to the role of religious festivals, such as the feast of Corpus Christi, in defining the identity of the parish community in relation to the secular community of the town or village around the parish. And finally, French looks at the ways in which individuals and groups within the parish used saints' cults as a way of promoting their own interests in relationship to other individuals and groups both within the parish and within the wider world.

The great strength of this book is that it looks at the parish from the perspective of the laity, a group which here includes not only aristocrats but also ordinary people, male and female, rich and poor. However, the focus on the laity is also the cause of its main weakness: the lack of attention paid to the parish clergy. Although the clergy are not entirely absent -- clerical wills donating liturgical books to parish churches are discussed, for instance, as is the role of episcopal oversight in the development of parish governance -- for the most part, they are simply not present. In her discussion of the celebration of feast days, for instance, French argues that local practice was often at odds with diocesan ideals, but she sets the parishioners against the bishop when in fact the parish clergy must surely have played an important role in promulgating (or not) individual cults at the parish level. Virtually all the decisions and actions discussed throughout the book appear to have been taken without any consultation with the parish priest or his assistants. It may be that the late medieval parish was run by the parishioners for the parishioners, but at the very least a more extensive discussion of the relationship between priest and parishioners would have been useful.

Equally problematic were places where the evidence appeared not to support fully the interpretations placed upon it. For instance, I was not convinced that the reason Bridgwater parish switched in the mid-fifteenth century from a reliance on parish-wide collections to a dependence on income from rental properties was that it "came to value its role as a source of spectacle -- liturgy and decorations -- more than its role as an inclusive and more broadly supportive institution" (pp.115- 5). Resistance to the collection on the part of the parishioners, clearly documented in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century (p. 116), seems a much more likely cause of its abandonment.

The book also has some bibliographic and typographical errors: John Betjeman, for instance, has become John Detjeman in both the notes and the bibliography, an error which may make the poet laureate and commentator on English architecture and society difficult to find, especially for North Americans less familiar with his work. The chapters on architecture and liturgy are occasionally over-reliant on older and/or very general works: John Harvey's 1979 book on The Perpendicular Style is a notable omission from the bibliography, as is Veronica Sekules's important article on the development of Easter sepulchres (in Medieval Art and Architecture at Lincoln Cathedral, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions, 1986).

Despite these problems, this book is a useful addition to the literature on religion in late medieval England. As a close study of a single diocese it occupies an important place among other studies of the late medieval parish which have tended to focus either on single parishes or on broad thematic issues. More importantly, though, its focus on the concerns and actions of ordinary lay people helps to redress the balance in a discipline, which as Eamon Duffy once noted, is all too often "peopled largely by Lollards, witches, and leisured aristocratic ladies."[1]


1. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, New Haven 1992, p. 2.