The Medieval Review 10.03.09

Bennett, N. H. (ed.). The Register of Richard Fleming, bishop of Lincoln 1420-1431: II. The Canterbury and York Society, Diocese of Lincoln, 99. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 203. $47.95 ISBN 9780907239710 . .

Reviewed by:

Joel T. Rosenthal
State University of New York at Stony Brook (emeritus)

When N. H. Bennett edited the first volume of Fleming's register in 1984, covering the first 85 folios, we were told that more volumes would follow. Now, not quite on the heels of Volume I, we have at least part of the promised project (covering folios 88-204). This volume, calendared into English entries (like Vo. 1 and most other recent volumes of the Canterbury and York Society), opens a wide window on the daily workings of the late medieval Church. We see the church as a vast human-resources establishment or institution--a source of employment (and mobility) for a significant number of men with some kind of appropriate training (or so we hope) and with some luck or skill when it came to catching the eye of those who had a hand in running the system, that is, those who held various ecclesiastical positions and livings within their grip at patrons. This may make the Register sound like pretty dry stuff. It is not. In its laconic way it gives a fascinating glimpse of that "fair field full of folk" of what G. G. Coulton once referred to as the "medieval scene." All of the hundreds of men (and a few women) mentioned in these pages were involved in the vast enterprise of moving clerics into and then perhaps upwards on the career path(s) of mother Church. The size of this enterprise, and the level of involvement and energy it commanded, are among the realities of medieval life, too easily overlooked in a search for the dramatic or the exceptional.

The majority of the 548 numbered entries in this volume relate to the institution of men into a variety of ecclesiastical positions, mostly at the parochial level. The material covers five of the archdeaconries of England's largest medieval diocese (with three having been covered in Volume 1). In these mini-narratives of ordination, promotion, exchange and translation we are far removed from both the contemplative quiet of pastoral care and the strife and tension of the contemporary search for heresy and heretics. Rather, we are very much in the midst of an on-going job fair--business as usual at the ecclesiastical employment bureau. We see men entering the workforce and, in some cases, leaving it. These aspects of a bishop's duties, usually carried out by his archdeacons and by the many others appointed for various special commissions and investigations, were daily fare for the vast administrative apparatus over which Fleming presided. If spiritual succor and a guiding hand on the road to salvation were the Church's ultimate goals, more mundane considerations dominate these folios of Fleming's register. In a sanguine view, we might say that things had to run well in this world to assure that the road to the next was well paved and well sign-posted.

Instituting men into all sorts of vacancies is the business or process covered by the bulk of the 548 numbered entries in this volume. Positions fell vacant for various reasons, though usually we are not told why (allowing us to assume the death of the previous incumbent?); there are some references to resignations, exchanges, and translations (or upward mobility?). Now and then we see that the authorities did not wait until nature took its course; the church at Warboys had fallen vacant because of resignation "by reason of...great age, loss of sight and absence from the cure." An occasional sign of compassion, as when "resignation on the grounds of age and bodily weakness" was softened by a "pension for the retiring incumbent during his life."

Who were the men who made it to the front of the queue, those favored sons now called upon to step forward and take their place? Only a few of these men, out of several hundred, could boast of academic credentials: M(agister) Gilbert Kyere, D.M., M.A. LL.B., or Robert Dykys, B. Th., or William Hoper LL.D., or Walter Bell M.A., priest. Moreover, there is no indication that any of these men were getting juicier plums than their less-credentialed colleagues. Some of those being presented are more laconically identified, usually after an investigation into the process, as being "of honest life, in priest's orders," or "of honest life, over thirty years of age and in priest's orders." But all of these men named in the various proceedings had now come to the head of a long line, representative of that reserve army of labor available for lesser as well as greater duties while awaiting call "to the vicarage of Merton, vacant by resignation of Nicholas Blake," or to "a mediety of the church of Beauchampton" or whatever the case may be. Of course, those men now involved in an exchange or translation had already made the grade; they, presumably, were stepping up.

Of considerable interest and offering still more variations for an over-view of the personnel agenda of the 15th century Church are the ranks of the patrons of the livings now being filled. Here we can start with the king--holding some livings as king, some as duke of Lancaster, some as the guardian of a minor--and then we can run through a Chaucer-like cast list of society; groups of townsmen, an occasional widow, a husband-wife team, abbeys and convents, priests, Oxbridge colleges, the queen, peers of the realm, clerics, the bishop of Ely, and many more. In some instances the patronage was divided among or shared by several parties--three Londoners, one being an M.P. and another a fishmonger, or the lord of Hoby and the countess of Norfolk taking turns in the exercise of patronage--and a commission might have to be empanelled to verify whose turn it was. Many abbeys and convents, having accumulated so many advowsons over the years, figure here: the house at Ramsey, at Reading, at Crowland, at Leicester, that of Jesus of Bethlehem at Sheen, to name but a few and in company with Balliol and Merton among the Oxford colleges, plus Clare Hall, Cambridge. Patronage was a source of power and of prestige; no one was likely to abandon his or her (or their) right to exercise it.

Variety in virtually everything in the Register seems to be the prevailing theme. To what positions and offices were our pool of successful candidates being instituted? If most of them were about to take over a parish church as its vicar, this simple replacement process at the parochial level hardly covers all the cases. In addition to that most familiar and homey institution of the church in the world we have instances of men now being instituted into prebends (rather than vicarages): the fourth prebend in the collegiate church, or the tenth prebend in another such institution. We have men instituted into chantries (the chantry at the altar of St Anne, or the chantry in the chapel of the churchyard of the parish church), into the mediety of a church, into a hospital, and into a vicarage of a church that was "newly endowed." It could be for a chaplaincy, or even for "a portion of the altar." As well as the diversity of positions, we see examples of the Church's penchant for dividing positions (and incomes); high employment figures, though they probably came to the incumbents at the cost of a livable income.

Not infrequently there was an allegation of a flaw in the process of institution, or a question about status of the candidate and/or of the patron now ready to exercise his or her privilege. In such cases--and there were many such--an ad hoc commission was appointed to sort it out; such reports, in brief, abound in the register's pages. Some of these reports looked into (and invariably confirmed) disputed elections in regular houses: there was no impediment, as it was reported after an investigation, and br. William Sadyngton could become abbot of St Mary, Leicester, as the election had indicated; sr. Anna Brynkle could now become prioress of Hinchingbrooke, where she was already a nun. This latter certification came after M. John Aldewyk, B. Cn & C. L. had looked into the election and he was now prepared to accept the report of Anna's proctor, John Almot, rector of the church in which the proceedings were held and her partisan in the proceedings. But mostly the certifications were about the institution of vicars and often the question pertained to the right of the patron: "Queen Katherine was the true patron by reason of her dower," or we have the report of the commissioner who "accepted the resignation of John Langevyll...and instituted (M. John) Nowell in person of Ralph Benyngton, clerk, his proctor." The men involved in these investigations were ecclesiastical officials, often lawyers, and both they and the respondents (plaintiffs or defendants) often did their business through the agency of a proxy, as in the case of Nowell, who was either moving from Stanwick to Warboys or who was about to hold both of them in an unmentioned instance of pluralism.

If this analysis sums up much of the business covered by the Register's first 450 entries we can turn toward the end of the volume to the records of some group ordinations held by the bishop himself or by an official to whom the task had been delegated. These ordinations--the entry point for that cursus honorum that we picked up at mid-point when we looked at the installations--involved big numbers and they give us an idea of scope of the human resources side of the sprawling diocese under examination. We can turn to the ordinations conducted by Fleming himself at the church of Deeping St James, 21 September, 1420. As this was at the very start of his episcopal career he may have had a backlog of men awaiting him. In any case, he set about his duties and the ordination list is impressive and revealing. He ordained a total of 182 men in 12 different categories or ranks. Not to belabor all the details, the bishop bestowed grace and episcopal sanctions upon groups of both beneficed and unbeneficed acolytes, subdeacons in religious orders, unbeneficed deacons, priests in religious orders, and others: as few as one (a single beneficed priest) to 28 (unbeneficed priests) and 34 (unbeneficed deacons) in the larger categories. The scene invokes memories of those mass inductions into the army in WW II. Most of the men involved would probably go forth into less harrowing situations.

For the vast majority of the laity of 15th century England, the Church was an institution that was tightly bound into the warp and woof of life, as it also was the guiding hand on the road to salvation. A focus on the latter role or identity is not the sort of focus we would expect to find in an administrative document, which is what an episcopal register was meant to be. But for the former aspect of the Church in the world--that vast administrative structure that kept a hand on the tiller--it is hard to find a better example of "men at work" than in a register of this sort. If Fleming does not emerge as a spiritual leader or as a reforming bureaucrat, he and the apparatus that functioned under his guidance were certainly not lax about doing their duty--keeping the jobs filled, recruiting and credentialing acceptable applicants, and keeping some cautious eye on the claims of those with a vested interest in controlling some small part of the system. This volume, like its predecessor of 1984, comes with an exhaustive index, an attention to detail that seems in keeping with its larger message about the importance of organization and record keeping in human affairs. N. H. Bennett has served us well.