Some time ago I started an occasional series on the various roles in fourteenth-century society. It was so occasional that I didn’t finish it. I don’t promise to finish it now, but I will get to some of the things that I left out.
We’ve spent a lot of time with monks recently, but the medieval church was more than monks. There were many clerics who lived and ministered in various capacities in the secular world and some of them were more secular than others. Today I want to look at priests.
Anyone other than a serf was eligible for the priesthood. Once ordained there was nothing, in theory, to stop them becoming bishops. William of Wykeham was a good example of this in the fourteenth century. His father was a freeman, but he went to school and started work as a secretary, becoming supervisor of Edward III’s building works. When he was almost 40, he was ordained. Four years later, he was made Bishop of Winchester. It is true, however, that few men of humble origins rose so far. They were far more likely to become the priest of a parish not far from where they were born.
There were about 9,000 parishes in England at the beginning of the fourteenth century and each one needed at least one priest. The lord of the manor appointed the rector, who was responsible for the parish, but the rector didn’t always live there. He could hire a deputy, a vicar, to manage the parish in his place. The rector received the revenues from the glebe and the parishioners’ tithes. From these he paid the vicar a stipend.
The glebe was land that was used to provide a living for the rector. A glebe would, on average, be about 100 acres in size. Like everyone else in the parish, unless it was in a town, the priest would grow crops to eat on some of the land and grow crops to sell on the rest of it. Most rectors paid men to work on the glebe. Parishioners gave a tenth of what they produced each year to the priest. This might be in the form of money, crops, eggs, milk or animals. This was the tithe. For most parish priests the tithes provided more than the glebe and they were able to sell some of the crops they grew themselves.
If the rector was a local man, he tended to live in the parish and do the work himself. In this instance he was usually the son of a freeman or a craftsman. Absentee rectors were more usually members of the nobility who lived on the income from one or more parishes. It wasn’t uncommon for rectors to have several parishes. As you would expect, some took care to make sure that the work was being carried out properly, while others did not.
Parish priests were very much part of the community they lived in, even though they were distinct from it. They joined in all the village celebrations and activities, and they worked their land like their neighbours. They were different in that they could absolve sins and, as they saw it, ‘make God’ in the mass. They were also supposed to be celibate.
It took a long time for the first Lateran Council’s ruling on celibacy in the first half of the twelfth century to be imposed, but by the fourteenth century it was generally accepted in England that priests weren’t supposed to have wives. Some priests kept concubines, however. It wasn’t until the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century that celibacy was finally enforced.
Another distinction was that members of the clergy were tried in church courts, which tended to be more lenient than other courts. Although priests, like monks, were supposed to be tonsured, most weren’t. There wasn’t really any way to differentiate between a priest and anyone else by the way they were dressed, so priests who were accused of a crime could find themselves in the position of having to demonstrate that they had the right to be tried by a church court. The test was whether or not they could read a passage from the Bible. This wasn’t the easy test that it sounds, as the Bible was in Latin and the majority of priests received little formal education.
The lack of educated priests was tackled by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It took a few decades for its effects to be felt across England, but bishops began to require that their parish priests should know and understand the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins, the seven sacraments and the creeds. They were supposed to preach about these to their parishioners, teaching them how to approach the sacraments. Other duties were catechising children and guiding the morals of their parishioners. Since priests had to look after the glebe, there was always the fear that they would spend most of their time growing food rather than looking after the spiritual needs of their parishioners.
Despite the growing use of instruction manuals for priests since the thirteenth century, there were many complaints at the end of the fourteenth century that parish priests were so ignorant they were leading their parishioners to hell.
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