Suzanne Paul

title.none: Ford, John Mirk's Festival (Suzanne Paul)

identifier.other: baj9928.0703.007 07.03.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Suzanne Paul, University of Hull,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Ford, Judy Ann. John Mirk's Festival: Orthodoxy, Lollardy, and the Common People in Fourteenth-Century England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. 176. $80.00 ISBN-10:1-84384-001-4, ISBN-13: 978-1-84384-001-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.03.07

Ford, Judy Ann. John Mirk's Festival: Orthodoxy, Lollardy, and the Common People in Fourteenth-Century England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. 176. $80.00 ISBN-10:1-84384-001-4, ISBN-13: 978-1-84384-001-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Suzanne Paul
University of Hull


Given the popularity of Mirk's Festial in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and even sixteenth centuries (over thirty manuscripts containing at least one of its sermons and twenty-four printed editions) and the fact that a modern edition of the text has been available for over a century, it is surprising that it has not attracted more critical attention. As Ford points out, this vernacular sermon collection, explicitly written for a lay audience by an Augustinian canon, has often been mined as a source for late- medieval popular religion but has not been properly subjected to critical analysis. Her study is the first full-length treatment of the text and, although her close readings cover only a tiny proportion of the collection, they do reveal a coherent ideology underlying Mirk's homiletics and indicate fruitful avenues for further research.

Ford's main concern, as her subtitle hints, is to investigate the extent to which Mirk's sermons respond to the two key English historical events of the late fourteenth century: the rise of Lollardy and the 1381 Revolt. Her four chapters focus on the issues of literacy, the presentation of clerical authority, relationships between rich and poor, and the nature of authority within the Church.

Chapter One offers an overview of the historiography concerning development of lay literacy and its connection with popular piety. Ford points out that despite the growth of literacy in late- medieval England, however literacy is defined it remained almost exclusively confined to the gentry and the urban population, each of which constituted a small minority of the total population. In privileging religious ideologies associated with literacy, such as Lollardy, scholars may present a misleading image of popular piety. Ford argues that vernacular sermon collections like the Festial, written for oral delivery to a largely illiterate lay audience, "provide information about the cultural construction of Christianity in a popular milieu that can be obtained in no other way" (31).

Having justified the use of the Festial as a source, the second chapter examines how the sermon collection portrays the relationship between clergy and laity. Through a close reading of several exempla contained in the sermons, Ford vividly demonstrates how Mirk presents lay people as active agents in their own quest for salvation, for example, in communicating directly with Christ in visions. However, they are still dependent on priests to dispense the sacraments, and the exempla illustrate the necessity of receiving the sacraments, particularly confession and the Eucharist. She sees this as an orthodox alternative to the Lollard rejection of the sacraments and clerical authority.

Chapter Three demonstrates how Mirk's support for clerical authority is accompanied by a similarly orthodox support for state institutions at a time of popular unrest. Yet Ford also detects within the Festial a certain sympathy for the oppressed. Mirk reconciles these two seemingly opposing viewpoints by reassuring the poor that their reward will come at the end of the world. The key statement, according to Ford, is an assertion that on the day of judgement the poor will sit in judgement on the rich which she describes as "a radical expression of sympathy and support for the economically oppressed." Ford is perceptive in identifying these two strands of support for authority and sympathy for the oppressed but it is rather misleading to suggest that Mirk's approach to the poor is particularly radical and had "even more radical potential" (85) than some Lollard texts. In focusing on the political and economic aspects of poverty, she overlooks its theological associations. The notion of the poor sitting in judgement derives from Job 36:6 and is a perfectly orthodox one (cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Suppl, q. 89, a. 2).

The fourth chapter contrasts the Lollard privileging of the biblical text and lay access to it with Mirk's emphasis on tradition, particularly oral tradition, as the prime source of religious authority. In Ford's interpretation, Mirk is reassuring his largely illiterate congregation that they can access Christian truth through orthodox tradition and ritual and discouraging them from seeking out the scriptures for themselves. She demonstrates how Mirk alters the sermons for the feasts of the four evangelists from his source, Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda aurea, by removing references to the divine inspiration of the gospels and portraying them rather as only one element within Christian tradition.

Ford's analysis demonstrates how Mirk constructed his collection in a way which combines support for both clerical and secular authority with awareness of and sympathy for the needs of his lay audience. In her close reading of the exemplary stories she handles well the complex details of Mirk's treatment of his source materials and teases out the significance of many of his subtle emendations. The attempt to set the Festial into broader historical contexts is perhaps less successful. Given the complexities of the scholarship on these topics, Ford sets out the main issues of the 1381 Revolt and the Lollard movement with admirable clarity, but it is inevitable that her treatment of these themes is heavily dependent on secondary sources and can appear superficial alongside her close reading of the Festial. On the basis of the arguments presented, I think that the conclusion somewhat overstates the case in asserting that Mirk "was engaged in a program of eroding public receptivity to the threats to the establishment posed by Lollardy and rebellion" (147). However, the evidence is certainly there to demonstrate how Mirk endeavoured to uphold the status quo which was threatened by both the Lollards and those involved in the revolt. Moreover, in revealing the alert intelligence and ideological convictions behind Mirk's painstaking adaptation of his sources, this study has done a great service to an often-overlooked text and it is to be hoped that it will stimulate further close investigation of vernacular sermon collections.