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13.07.14, Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church

13.07.14, Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church

The topic of the English Reformation and the subsequent demise of the late medieval English church has been an engaging and thought-provoking discussion amongst historians in recent years. Why did the English people relinquish their religious allegiance to the Pope en-masse and move it to their monarch (although it did take some time and effort)? Much of the discussion centers around the traditional view that the late medieval English church was ripe for change, given its superstitious, corrupt, and fairly unpopular status with the English people. Taking into account the political and religious contentions which the Tudor dynasty had with the Roman papacy adds quite a bit of power to this viewpoint. Then Eamon Duffy's book The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (New Haven, 1992) turned that viewpoint on its head. Duffy argued that the late medieval English church was not half-dead or ready for change; it was quite alive, engaged, and purposeful in its liturgy and involvement with the English population and monarchy. Duffy's viewpoint has stimulated subsequent revisionist research on the pre-Reformation English church, and Bernard's book is his response to Duffy's assertions.

Bernard is well-known for scholarship that presents new ideas, challenges historical assumptions, and provokes more questions than answers. His response to Duffy's book is a careful, dispassionate and balanced presentation of evidence that serves as a counterpoint to Duffy's passionate and vibrant account of the late medieval English church. Bernard starts off with a re-examination of the well-known case of Richard Hunne, the wealthy London merchant accused of heresy and found hanged in his cell in the Bishop of London's prison in 1516. In a new interpretation and presentation of the historical evidence and documents, Bernard questions Thomas More's assertion that Hunne committed suicide and was a heretic, and also whether Hunne was murdered at the instigation of the archdeacon, given the evidence found at the time. I leave Bernard's thoughts and conclusions on this topic as a teaser to the reader.

Once past this first chapter, Bernard examines eight thematic topics on key aspects of the late medieval English church. Chapter 2 discusses the relationship between the English monarchy and the English church, focusing on a historical review of church/state relations in England from the thirteenth through the late sixteenth centuries. The late thirteenth century with the royal taxation of the church, the monarchy's role in ecclesiastical appointments, and crisis support from the church towards the monarchy is considered the beginning of the concept of the monarchical church. The author then turns to the late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries to recount some of the major conflicts in church/state relations, including the influence of the Papacy and the benefit of clergy. The symbiotic relationship between church and crown is seen as both a strength and a weakness of the late medieval English church by the author, who takes the time in each chapter to present the historical evidence available and to then place that topic within the sub-title of the book.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine the senior administration of the late medieval English church: the bishops and the clergy. The author highlights the many challenges and contradictions that medieval bishops faced, not the least of which was serving two masters: both church and state. Having to adhere to an ideal model of apostolic administration, while at the same time constantly embroiled in crown and monarchial affairs, caused quite a lot of stress and strain on these individuals. The topic of canonization and sainthood is discussed in relation to the late medieval English church, and how very few English bishops of this time period were actually elevated to sainthood. In Chapter 4, clergy are also described with similar challenges and concerns as bishops. Cathedral clergy in particular are examined in-depth in areas such as learning and preaching, involvement in secular affairs, celibacy, and pluralism and non-residence. Parish clergy exhibited a broad range of expertise, professionalism, attitude, and composure; the author states that making general assumptions about this group is particularly difficult.

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the laity. Chapter 5 examines lay knowledge, and the author saw this area as one of vulnerability for the late medieval English church. While popular devotion is readily documented during this time period, understanding of Christian theology by the laity at large was broadly lacking. There seems to have been a disparity between the pious few and the population at large. Chapter 6 then moves into lay activity, specifically confraternities/chantries and pilgrimage. Both of these activities were well-established and popular during the late Middle Ages, and indicate quite a bit of vitality; however, the vulnerabilities of oversight and motive on the part of many of these activities is again questioned by the author, given the political and ecclesiastical manipulations surrounding the relics market.

Chapter 7 is a short discussion of popular anti-clericalism. There are many recorded and documented disputes between cathedral chapters and the towns that they inhabited. Issues related to cathedral/town jurisdictions, and fees related to church activities such as burials, tithes, and wills are the most common. The author indicates that critics of the church often pointed to the considerable wealth of the church and certain clergy who abused church standards as evidence of broad-based corruption.

The condition of the monasteries in the late medieval English church is considered in Chapter 8. The author documents the high rate of recruitment in many religious houses, and the fact that intense intellectual and educational pursuits were going on well into the early sixteenth century. Reformers of the church, however, often cited the worldly nature of many religious: cozy living conditions, comfortable lifestyles, profitable enterprises in agriculture and other businesses, and costly renovation and new building projects. Many felt that reform of the church was needed, including many bishops. The author indicates that the monasteries were a vulnerability of the late medieval English church.

The final chapter on heresy returns to the case of Richard Hunne, and the author examines heresy from the late fourteenth century up until the time of Henry VIII. Evidence is somewhat lacking on this topic in surviving documentation, with the exception of Lollardy; the author challenges the reader to think of anti-heresy campaigns as examples of vitality in the late medieval English church, and as attempts to reform and mold the institution from both within and without. This is a very different approach on this topic than previous scholarship.

In conclusion, it is very apparent that historians of the late medieval English church should read both Duffy and this book, in order to obtain a balanced, objective view of this important time period. Duffy's passion and religious insight along with Bernard's skeptical yet insightful scholarship provide highly useful perspectives. Unfortunately, Bernard does not answer the mystery still out there of how or why the English people accepted the abrupt change from the Pope to the English monarchy with relatively little conflict. While Bernard does provide us with both strengths and weaknesses of the late medieval English church, his passive objectivism still has everyone asking questions that will probably never be answered. So while the strength of Bernard's research has always been that he can take old ideas and help all of us think anew about them, in the end we are all still left wondering what it was really all about.