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19.09.22 Burgess, The Right Ordering of Souls

19.09.22 Burgess, The Right Ordering of Souls

Records of medieval English parishes are often lacking or fragmentary. Clive Burgess uses a more extensive record to detail much of the life of All Saints, Bristol. The parish is located in the heart of the city, its properties bordering High Street and Corn Street on two sides. The church hosted not just the parishioners but the Kalendars' Guild, which supported three priests. Before the Reformation, the church contained five altars and some chantries. Outside, All Saints possessed a cemetery and certain houses which had been bequeathed to it.

The records of All Saints lean to the administrative. These include the All Saints Book with its record of benefactions, also the accounts of the church wardens and the Halleway Chantry. This last is very important, since the abolition of the chantries led to many papers being discarded elsewhere. Some records pertain to the clergy, but more concern the laity. Among these were significant families like the Fylers, Spicers, Chestres and Wilteshires. They reappear frequently in subsequent chapters. These connections are further complicated by the second marriages of widows and widowers. Even the language of kinship distinguishes minimally between children and stepchildren.

The book is divided into five sections: For the increase of divine service; All Saints, Bristol and its parishioners; Commemorating the dead; Leaders and administrators; Ordering the parish. The author provides maps, a few documentary examples and an extensive bibliography. Charts of the intermarriages of prominent families would have been useful. The front cover provides an intriguing image of a priest's mass and the alms of the laity drawing souls out of Purgatory's fires to heaven.

The first section sketches out the history of the church in late medieval England, including the impact of the Black Death. Then it focuses on Bristol, a wealthy city in the period covered, before turning to All Saints and its records. In the second part, the status of St. Augustine's Abbey as patron of the living is noted, although its role is given little attention elsewhere in the book. Likewise, the church's alms house and conduit are sketched briefly. The Kaldendars are introduced too, and they play a substantial role in this study.

The book hits its stride with the discussion of evidence, especially the wills of lay persons and clerics. Burgess wisely notes the limits of this evidence, especially where a will is "minimalist."

A husband often left important decisions to his widow, when she was named "executrix" of the estate, or to his executors. This leads us to one of the best sections of the book, "The Widow's Might." Widows took care to commemorate their husbands, even when there had been more than one. They might also be more generous donors to parish and pious causes if they survived well after any children were grown. The section ends with the problems the parish might have in securing benefactions left to it and the legal measures taken when the leadership felt that All Saints had been wronged.

This leads to the third part, a more detailed look at how commemoration was arranged. Here Burgess takes up the example of the Halleway Chantry: how it came to be, and its history in the period before its dissolution. The author shows how the parish leadership took measures to maintain the chantry, because failure to do so would have affected the prestige and credibility of All Saints. As Burgess notes, the lay leadership also was active in maintaining the income of the chantry, which supported an additional priest. (The Kalendars too provided additional clergy for worship services.)

These observations lead us to the fourth part of the book, an examination of the lay leadership. Here families familiar from earlier parts of the book reappear frequently. The evidence points to a wider circle of leadership than the successive wardens, who managed day-to-day income and expenditures. The "worshipful" or masters, the elite of the parish, played a predominant role, especially in matters of construction and fund raising. However, they made provision for the less privileged parishioners in order to avoid problems, including slackness in contributing to the parish's coffers. One notes the frequent presence of mayors or sheriffs of Bristol among the parochial elite. These men were sensitive about their reputations, but they worked hard for the welfare of the whole ecclesial body. They saw themselves as trustees and acted accordingly. This is shown in part by the case of the Haddon endowment, the lay leaders winning back as much of that resource as they could after it had been embezzled. Burgess adds some reflections on the relationship of clergy to people. He notes less confrontation than cooperation, unlike the conclusions of some writers on pre-Reformation church history. The respect shown successive vicars of All Saints includes the several bequests lay families made to them, especially to John Thomas.

The final section looks at worship, mainly by sketching recorded expenditures and the numerous gifts in kind offered by the parish's clergy and the lay elite. Many of these benefactions, lights, including windows chalices, altar cloths and vestments, ornamented the liturgy. Such familiar figures as the widow Maud Spicer were among the donors. The parish's record of payments casts some light on the liturgy. Boys were paid small sums for singing on Corpus Christi, and expenditures were made for organs and sung music. One clerk of the parish, William Brigeman, bequeathed a collection of music to be used by the parish. It included his own compositions. This suggests that services All Saints were well served with music of the latest sort.

Burgess concludes with reflections on All Saints as an example of a church which had achieved a corporate identity. Many other churches are not as well documented, but there is evidence supporting this observation. The involvement of the laity was an integral aspect of this identity. Most of this was swept away by the Reformation with many assets confiscated by the crown. Thomas Pacy, son-in-law of the Spicers, lived through these upheavals. By the time of his death in 1560, worship was more austere and corporate identity discouraged. Pacy still left money to Al Saints for such commemoration as the new regime allowed. Others adjusted better to the new life of Reformed England.

Burgess' book is somewhat repetitive. However, it is well worth the reading for its insights into parish life, insights ranging from the roles of widows to the frequent making of alterations and repairs through the period before the Reformation.