Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
11.03.20, Stansbury, A Companion to Pastoral Care

The Medieval Review

11.03.20, Stansbury, A Companion to Pastoral Care

This collection of sixteen essays underscores recent developments in the way that scholars have approached the history of medieval pastoral care. Much has changed since the days of G. G. Coulton, when episcopal registers were held up as evidence of the supposed rampant abuses of an ignorant and scandalous medieval clergy. [1] There has also been a shift away from viewing the parish through a Foucauldian lens as merely an instrument of social control. Rather, the essays in this volume consider some of the ways, both routine and extraordinary, that the medieval clergy interacted with the laity. The essays are loosely divided into three sections: pastoral care and the clergy; pastoral care and the laity; and pastoral care and religious men and women. Did laypeople tend to view their parish priest with fear or trust? How much religious knowledge did laypeople acquire from their clergy? How did pastoral caregivers acquire their own religious knowledge? What was the relationship between the ideals and realities of pastoral care? In addressing these questions, current studies of medieval pastoral care are drawing on a rich array of sources, what Father Leonard Boyle, O.P., a pioneer in this field (and about whom Joseph Goering has included a short essay), termed "pastoralia," including model sermons; didactic treatises, handbooks, and manuals; devotional literature; synodal legislation; and episcopal registers. The pastoralia reflect a vigorous and multi-pronged effort at pastoral renewal and reform from the twelfth century through the late Middle Ages.

Although space constraints make it impossible to discuss each essay in detail, I will sketch some of the major themes that emerge from the volume as a whole. While several of the contributors to this volume credit the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) with launching the new pastoral program, their focus is on how this program was implemented on a local level. Indeed, the papacy is notably absent in this collection. Andrew Reeves studies the teaching of the Creed and the Articles of Faith in England during the decades following 1215. His essay contributes to recent debates over how much the medieval clergy actually expected from the laity in terms of religious knowledge and observance. [2] Although Reeves acknowledges the difficulty of determining from the sources what impact the local clergy had on the laity (and the extent of the clergy's own religious knowledge), he maintains that the clergy seem to have been fairly successful in catechetical instruction. Reeves considers some of the ways those with the care of souls, including regular canons and friars, learned their trade, whether by consulting texts or by learning to administer the sacraments "by apprenticeship."

Scholars' interest in a broader category of pastoral caregivers is also reflected in Greg Peters's essay on the pastoral activities of religious orders in England. Although conciliar canons and the pastoralia almost never refer to monks and nuns in connection with the cura animarum, monasteries possessed parish churches and some monks were engaged in pastoral work, whether saying masses, hearing confessions, or preaching in the vernacular to lay audiences. Monks, nuns, and semi-religious men and women also oversaw sick and leprous laypeople in monastic infirmaries, hospitals, and leper houses. The pastoral role of the religious is picked up in an essay by Alexandra da Costa and Ann M. Hutchison on the brethren of Syon Abbey, an English house founded by Henry V that belonged to the Bridgettine Order. As the authors show, the chaplain-brothers, who were bound by religious vows and enclosure, served the pastoral needs of the nuns and lay community associated with the monastery. The brethren not only preached on Sundays, said Mass, heard confessions and administered the sacraments, all fairly typical for a mixed house of male and female religious, but they also translated texts for the nuns (including their breviary, the Augustinian Rule, and the revelations of Saint Catherine of Siena). During the sixteenth century, several brethren authored printed books to provide lay readers with greater religious instruction.

Just as this volume takes a more expansive view of the categories of pastoral caregivers, so too does it expand our thinking about those on the receiving end of pastoral care. A number of essays address specific categories of women as recipients of pastoral care. Beth Allison Barr, for instance, considers the pastoral care of married women. How, she asks, did the fact that married women were under the spiritual authority of priests and under the household authority of their husbands complicate these women's experience confessing to their priests? Susan M. B. Steuer looks at vowesses (or veiled widows) in the north of England during the late Middle Ages. Widows who took religious vows needed their bishop's permission in order to be veiled, but as Steuer admits, unlike with cloistered nuns, "after a vow was taken, no particular expectation of behavior or a clear route for supervision has been identified in either pastoral literature or practice" (337-38).

Church historians have generally approached the study of pastoral care by casting the clergy as the authoritative doers while presenting the laity as mere passive recipients of care. The problems with this simplistic model, however, have become increasingly clear. William Dohar challenges this "trickle-down" model of pastoral care by examining "the higher profile of lay involvement in pastoral administration" in late medieval England (170). Beyond just lay patrons' right of advowson, Dohar studies the various ways some parishioners served as parish advocates, whether as lay churchwardens, or as "fidedigni," providing a visiting bishop with testimony on the misconduct of the clergy and laity. Dohar thus presents a more complex and fluid picture of an assimilated clergy and laity, inhabiting a common social world and asserting collective authority over control of the parish. Likewise, Michelle Armstrong-Partida, writing about late medieval Catalonia, argues that "clerics were fully enmeshed in their communities" (175). In seeking to explain the reasons for antagonistic relations between clerics and parishioners, Armstrong-Partida shows that the Spanish clergy were engaged in many of the same vices, crimes, and secular diversions as their lay counterparts. Yet this is not a return to Coulton's image of a corrupt medieval clergy. Rather, she paints a picture of clerics as family men who entered into long- term sexual relationships and participated in many aspects of lay culture. As C. Colt Anderson's essay on ritual purity and pastoral reform in the thirteenth century illustrates, there was clearly a good deal of anxiety among church reformers about how the clergy's purity or impurity might affect their sacramental activities, evident in the Stella clericorum, an anonymous thirteenth-century text. The rhetoric about ritual purity was meant to frighten bishops and priests, reminding them of their pastoral responsibilities and the ways they would be held accountable.

Two of the essays examine pastoral care in the context of the Devotio Moderna. Mathilde van Dijk studies Thomas a Kempis's Sermones ad novicios regulares (actually, a mixture of sermons, exempla, prayers, and meditative treatises), which he wrote for the novices in the Windesheim community of Mount Saint Agnes, where he was master of the novices. Van Dijk describes Thomas as a kind of behavioral psychologist, laying out what he considered the best path to spiritual perfection, a long process that involved education, practice, and imitation of the lives of Jesus and the Desert Fathers. Sabrina Corbellini examines Jan de Wael's "Manual for the Young Ones," a treatise he wrote in 1510 for the tertiaries of the convent of Saint Agnes in Amersfoot, for which Jan was the confessor. Again in the context of the late medieval Low Countries, we see the profound role that books and reading, both public and private, played in an educational and pastoral program. While various mentors within the community helped direct the sisters of Saint Agnes, it is also clear that books were a crucial element in the sisters' spiritual development.

On the subject of books and learning, several essays address the relationship between medieval Scholasticism and pastoral care. Nowhere are the pragmatic and pastoral dimensions of medieval learning more apparent than in preaching. R. J. Stansbury examines how even before the Fourth Lateran Council, members of Peter the Chanter's circle in Paris produced model sermon collections to teach the clergy how and what to instruct the laity. One of the interesting questions is how the style and substance of a preacher's sermon collection differed depending on whether it was directed at a classroom or parish audience. Anne Thayer looks at an example of a late medieval bestseller pastoral handbook, Guido of Monte Rochen's Manipulus Curatorum, which existed in copious manuscripts and went through over one hundred printings before 1500. Directed at curates of varying levels of learning, the Manipulus supported the practice of preaching by including talking points for sermons; it also included instruction on how to administer the sacraments and mnemonic devices for learning the rudiments of the faith. In Guido's Manipulus we have an example of "the practical application of scholastic thinking and theological values to parish settings" (144). James Ginther approaches the relationship between the pastoral and theological from a different angle, namely Robert Grosseteste's theology of pastoral care. He shows that Grosseteste was not only a vigorous defender of episcopal rights and pastoral responsibilities during his years as bishop of Lincoln, but that earlier, while teaching at Oxford, he also placed great value on pastoral care. Indeed, he composed some sixteen pastoralia, including the "Deus est" that reflected his view of pastoral care and penance as "the means by which humanity may be restored to its proper place in the universe" (121).

At first glance, two of the essays might seem somewhat out of place with the volume's focus, but both conceive of pastoral care in a broader sense. Laura Michele Diener looks at how religious women learned the art of meditation. In particular, she examines prescriptive texts on meditation with an eye to whether these texts were gender neutral or aimed at women. C. Matthew Phillips considers twelfth-century preaching about bodily discipline and spiritual crucifixion as a form of bearing the cross in imitation of Christ. Preaching was not only a central component of pastoral care, but as Phillips shows, preachers at times likened pastoral activities to carrying the cross.

This volume has much to offer. Its fairly wide chronological coverage points to interesting continuities and discontinuities in the different forms of pastoral care that existed between 1200 and 1500. It surely would have been helpful for the volume as a whole if the editor's introduction had done more to tie the essays together and illuminate some of the larger thematic questions raised about medieval pastoral care. That the publisher would allow such a large number of typographical errors is also to be regretted. Nonetheless, the individual essays in this collection will surely enrich our understanding of medieval pastoral care, the transmission of religious knowledge, and the nature of lay-clerical interactions.



1. G. G. Coulton, The Friars and the Dead Weight of Tradition, 1200-1400 A.D., vol. 2 of Five Centuries of Religion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927.

2. Catherine Rider, "Lay Religion and Pastoral Care in Thirteenth Century England: The Evidence of a Group of Short Confession Manuals," Journal of Medieval History 36 (2010): 327-40; Norman Tanner and Sethina Watson, "'Least of the Laity: The Minimum Requirements for a Medieval Christian,'" Journal of Medieval History 32 (2006): 395-423.