Category Archives: Church

The Church Porch

Church Porch at Boxgrove Priory

Church Porch, Boxgrove Priory

Church porches are important in historical romances set in the Middle Ages. The church porch is often where the hero and heroine end up to get married.  Stupidly, for someone who grew up and lives in a country where there are plenty of medieval churches, I always assumed that this meant they were married outside the church, more or less in the open air, with only a small porch to cover them. It was only when I saw a photograph of a medieval church porch that I realised how wrong my image of it was.

A couple of weeks ago I was at Boxgrove Priory near Chichester. It was a lovely day and I took some photographs. The priory was built from the end of the eleventh century to the beginning of the twelfth century. The porch was built in the thirteenth century. It’s not on the same level as the rest of the church and there are six or seven steps down to the church door.

As you can see from the photograph, it’s certainly large enough to hold bride, groom and witnesses, even a priest, if necessary. Although a priest wasn’t, strictly speaking, required in order for a marriage to be binding, the church encouraged it.

Next time you read a novel in which the hero and heroine marry in the church porch, this is the kind of thing you should have in your mind’s eye.

Here’s a bonus photograph of the ruins on the other side of the church.

Boxgrove Priory

Boxgrove Priory

 

 

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The Food of Love, or King Alfred’s Last Resting Place

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Last week I had the privilege of performing in St Bartholomew’s, Hyde, a medieval church in Winchester. Rather confusingly the performance was commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death as  part of the Hyde900 festival, which originally commemorated the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Hyde Abbey where Alfred the Great was buried, but is now an annual festival. The occasion was a semi-dramatised performance of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, which is really rather risqué for a church setting.

Winchester was the capital of King Alfred’s Wessex, and he was originally buried in its minster (the Old Minster), but, shortly after the Conquest, the Normans wanted to build a larger cathedral and Alfred’s body, together with those of his wife, Alswitha, and their son, Edward the Elder, was moved to the newly-built abbey at Hyde.

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The Norman doorway

 

A church was built near the abbey gate around 1110 by the monks as a place where their tenants could worship, but it was probably destroyed in a fire in 1141. A new church was completed by about 1185. After the abbey was dissolved in 1539 some stones were salvaged to be used in the church, which was left to serve the parish, but the church fell into disrepair fairly early on and apparently fell out of use altogether during the Commonwealth. It wasn’t until 1690 that regular services were held again. Despite this, the necessary repairs were not carried out. As the diocesan website remarks succinctly “The Church was extensively repaired by the Victorians”.

14th-century-tiles

These encaustic tiles from the abbey were on display as part of the Hyde900 weekend.

 

Hyde’s connection with Shakespeare is that it was part of the estate of the earls of Southampton. The first earl was partially responsible for the demolition and ’looting’ of the abbey and received the abbey’s estates in return.  The earl also took over the estates of two other wealthy abbeys: Beaulieu in the New Forest and Titchfield to the east of Southampton. Titchfield became the seat of the earls of Southampton. The third earl was Shakespeare’s patron for a time and Venus and Adonis was dedicated to him. As one of the festival organisers remarked, with a trace of bitterness, it was the first earl’s looting of Hyde Abbey that gave the third earl enough money to be a patron to Shakespeare. This allowed Shakespeare to write poetry, a gentleman’s pursuit. Writing plays was not something that a gentleman did, apparently.

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Stonework salvaged from Hyde Abbey

 

“The food of love” is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – “If music be the food of love, play on”. Since we were providing the musical interludes for Venus and Adonis, this seemed an appropriate name for our sextet.

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Wall paintings at Romsey Abbey

romsey-abbey-through-the-tuddor-garden

On a recent visit to Romsey Abbey I was reminded once again of how wrong my view of life in the Middle Ages is. When I went into the abbey I saw that the walls were just grey stone and it’s easy to assume that they’re unchanged since the church was built in the twelfth century, but that’s not the case.

Most churches would have had a depiction of the Last Judgement painted on a wall that could easily be seen. This would have shown Christ enthroned deciding who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Hell would be shown as a dreadful place, and the demons leading the damned souls into it usually had sharp teeth and claws with which they tormented their victims. Heaven would be full of light, and the blessed would be led there by beautiful angels. This was supposed to make the parishioners consider their eventual fate.

painted-wall

Wall painting in the Chapel of St Mary, Romsey Abbey

 

This wall painting is from the Chapel of St Mary in the abbey and is thought to represent the life of St Nicholas. It is from the late thirteenth century. Nicholas lived at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth centuries. He was made bishop of Myra and is said to have been one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed in 325. The colours are faded now and it’s hard to imagine how bright the whole church must have been when all the walls, columns and ceilings had just been painted. A church was considered unfinished until the painting was complete.

Not all wall paintings were there for instruction. Sometimes decoration was just decoration. The ribbed vault and the pillar shown below were painted just because all the stone in the church was covered in plaster and then painted. The effect of all the colour on top of the size of the building itself would have struck those inside it with awe. Although wealthy people decorated their own homes in a similar way, frequently with secular as well as religious images, poor people did not. Their homes would have been dull and drab. For them, coming into the abbey would have been a very different experience from their everyday life.

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Painted ribbed vault, Romsey Abbey

 

Paintings were almost constantly being updated as tastes changed or a new patron took over a church. They were not considered permanent.

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Painted pillar, Romsey Abbey

 

In England the paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation, but most were destroyed by the Victorians. Instead of exposing the pictures by removing the whitewash, they preferred to expose the stone by removing the plaster onto which the paintings had been painted. This was, of course, very far from the intentions of the medieval builders, who had gone to great lengths to cover over the stone, which was no more than the skeleton of the church, even when it had been beautifully cut and dressed.

 

 

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The influence of the mendicant orders in the fourteenth century

pilgrims-hall-2

Towards the end of the eleventh century there was an increasing desire in many monks to return to the life of the hermit. There was also a desire to emulate the apostles by owning nothing and sharing everything. This was known as the apostolic life. Religious fervour swept through parts of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and more and more people came to live together in religious communities. They were usually lay people, rather than ordained monks. Frequently their beliefs tended towards the heretical – the Cathars and the Albigensians for example. All their beliefs were based on interpretations of the apostolic life and a desire to embrace poverty as Christ had done.

The Franciscans

Founded by St Francis in 1209, the Franciscans were the Grey Friars or Friars Minor. ‘Friar’ is a corruption of the Norman French ‘frere’ which in turn came from the Latin ‘frater’ or ‘brother’. The Franciscans were the least intellectual of the mendicant orders, which may explain why they seemed to be rather prone to heresy. They took a vow of poverty and preached with great emotion about the sufferings of Christ.

Francis wanted to return to the simplicity of the early church. He embraced poverty and aspired to preach in the streets as the apostles had. He lived in caves, begging for food and wearing cast-off clothes.

Francis’ aim was to reform the church from within by example. He did not criticise the church, although its faults were very clear to him. His early followers were members of the aristocracy and the merchant class, who had wealth to give up. The call to poverty did not appeal to those who already had next to nothing.

The Franciscans realised that, if they were to evangelise, which was an important element of their interpretation of the apostolic life, they could not live in monasteries, but would have to be in the world. They had houses, between which individuals moved in small groups as directed by their superiors, but the friars did not have permanent homes.

As people living in towns began more frequently to receive an education and there was greater access to books, occasionally even a New Testament in their own language, they began to realise that their parish priests were not well-educated and knew little more than they did themselves, sometimes less. They became critical of their priests and open to the various heresies that arose when people were able to study the New Testament for themselves. By the time the Franciscans started travelling from town to town, town dwellers were used to seeing laymen preach the gospel. The only difficulty was telling the difference between a preacher approved by the church and a heretic.

The Franciscans first arrived in England in 1224, when they established themselves in Canterbury, London and Oxford.

There were constant arguments in the order about whether or not they should become university-trained theologians, or whether they should have servants, or whether they should own property. Within twenty-five years of Francis’ death the minority who insisted on simplicity and poverty became known as the ‘Spirituals’; their opponents were the ‘Conventuals’. At the end of the thirteenth century the Spirituals were accused of heresy and their leaders were burned to death. They had developed extreme views, believing that St Francis had replaced Jesus. They did not accept the authority of the pope.

Early Franciscans had been lay men and this was a great problem for the medieval church, as they could neither hear confessions nor dispense the sacraments. Not long after Francis’ death control of the order passed from lay brothers to ordained brothers, which made the order more acceptable to the rest of the church.

The Franciscans eventually moved into the universities and the intellectual world of the later Middle Ages was dominated by Franciscans like Alexander of Hales (1185 – 1245), Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), Duns Scotus (c. 1266- 1308) and William of Occam (1285-1349).

The Dominicans

The Dominicans were the Black Friars who gave their name to the area of London between the Thames and St Paul’s. They were founded in 1215 by St Dominic. Their full name was the Order of Friars Preachers, which indicates their rôle. They were mendicants who went from place to place preaching against heresy. They were used to combat the heresies that were rife in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly in southern France. By the middle of the thirteenth century most of the members of the recently formed Inquisition were Dominicans. They encouraged leaning and rational theological debate, as they believed this was the most effective way to combat heresy.

The Dominicans were an ordained order from their inception. They were well-educated and dedicated to preaching. Dominic had been involved in preaching against the Cathar heresy in Languedoc. Very quickly they decided to focus their activity around the universities, initially in Paris and Bologna. When they came to England in 1221 they went to Oxford.

The rule they followed was Augustine’s. This was based on an annotated version of St Augustine of Hippo’s letter number 211, which he wrote for his sister when she entered a religious community. It contained instructions for liturgical prayer, poverty, reading and silence. In this rule study was more important than manual labour.

The Dominicans were the first compilers of Biblical concordances, as they were an aid to preaching. They also collected anecdotes from the lives of the saints as examples for their sermons. By the thirteenth century few parish priests were capable of preaching a sermon, and the situation worsened after the Black Death. The friars stepped into the gap.

A friar had to study for three years before he was permitted to preach. There was a teacher of theology in each house, as well as special schools for friars who were going to teach. From these a few would go on to teach at the universities. Some of the greatest minds of the thirteenth century were Dominicans – Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) and Robert Kilwardby (1215 – 1279).

The Carmelites

The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was founded at Mount Carmel in the early thirteenth century. It was approved by the pope in 1226. These were the White Friars.  The order’s early members were hermits in the deserts of the Holy Land. The first Carmelite house in England was founded in Aylesford after 1240 when many monks left the East after the failure of the Crusades. The twelfth century Pilgrim’s Hall at Aylesford is pictured above. Aylesford was on the pilgrim route from London to Canterbury and pilgrims were offered hospitality there. The monks were removed from Aylesford in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but returned in 1949, and this photograph shows the modern open air shrine area.

shrine2

The Carmelites were the most contemplative of the mendicant orders. From the middle of the thirteenth century the emphasis of the order changed to the Franciscan model of mendicant preachers.

The Fourteenth Century

Most parish priests were not well-educated and their parishioners flocked to hear the friars preach, particularly the Dominicans. The friars gave the laity a way of living the Christian life whilst living in the world. Ordinary people saw that they did not have to become monks or priests in order to follow Christ fully.

It was easy for people in general to identify with the poverty of the friars, since that was their own lot in life. Monks in wealthy monasteries seemed very remote from their lives and increasingly irrelevant.

By the mid thirteenth century there were many mendicant orders as well as splinter groups, and the Second Council of Lyons abolished the smaller orders in 1274. Only orders created before 1215 were allowed to continue, save where they had received papal authority. This meant that only the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites and the Austin Friars survived into the fourteenth century.

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The Monastic Orders

Wenlock Priory

By the fourteenth century there were four major monastic orders: the Benedictines, the Cluniacs, the Carthusians and the Cistercians.  The three later orders began as reform movements. Most monastic movements began with the intention of reflecting the austere life of the desert monks of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, but over time they became increasingly remote from their origins and there would come a point when someone would think that things needed to change.

The Benedictines

The Benedictines dated from the sixth century and they were the dominant order from the ninth century on. Their way of life was based around the Rule of St Benedict. They lived in community, slept in dormitories and ate together in a refectory. Each monastery was an independent entity under the control of its abbot. The monks wore black habits.

Throughout the Dark Ages the Benedictines managed to keep scholarship and liturgical worship going. Their abbeys were centres of learning throughout the Middle Ages.

In England they became rich and powerful, owning vast swathes of land.

The Rule was very flexible and its practitioners eventually came to be seen as lax, both by monks and by people outside the monasteries.

The Cluniacs

The first reform movement began with the abbey at Cluny in 910. It was founded by William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine. One of the major differences from the Benedictines was that the abbot of Cluny controlled all the daughter houses. Everything was centralised, and English or French monks owed their allegiance to Cluny rather than to church authorities in their own countries.

The Cluniacs had an elaborate liturgy and the architecture of their buildings was extravagant. They also wore more expensive clothing than that worn by other monks. Their focus was on prayer and they did little manual labour.

Their first English house was founded in 1077 at Lewes. Wenlock Priory, pictured above, was a Cluniac house.

The Carthusians

The Poor Brothers of God of the Charterhouse were founded in 1085 by St Bruno of Cologne. They did not have their own rule, but followed the Benedictine Rule in a different way. Their way was austere. These monks were silent and they fasted for much of the time. They took vows of austerity, humility and silence.

The monks slept in cells rather than in dormitories, reflecting a desire to return to the roots of the desert hermits. Each cell had its own garden and each monk had a patch of land to cultivate. For three days a week they were allowed only bread and water. On other days they had fish, eggs and vegetables. They usually ate alone, but ate together on feast days.

The monks met together only for Mattins, Lauds and Vespers. They celebrated the other liturgical hours alone in their cells.

Each house contained a prior and twelve monks with eighteen lay brothers. These last looked after the crops and animals belonging to the house. The Carthusians wanted to avoid a priory growing too large or becoming too well endowed.

Their monasteries were called charterhouses and the first one in England was built in 1178.

The Cistercians

Robert of Molesme founded the abbey at Cîteax in 1098, clearly believing that the Carthusians were insufficiently austere. The Cistercians’ clothing was made of undyed wool, hence they were called white monks. They ate neither fish nor eggs. They lived in cells and slept on boards. They worked in the fields and did not study. They used lay brothers to do much of the manual labour so that they could devote themselves to prayer. Their churches were plain with white walls and had no stained glass, or towers.

The most famous Cistercian was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). He arrived a Cîteaux a few years after it was founded. A former soldier, he had a difficult fight against the temptations of the flesh, but he preferred to fight on his own rather than with the assistance of his fellow monks. He believed in fasting and physical suffering, and was considered extreme even by the Cistercians. He was sent to Clairvaux to set up a monastery. He almost died in the early days, but Clairvaux became the most influential monastery in Europe. Under Bernard’s guidance all Cistercian abbeys became very similar in their layout. There were 343 Cistercian abbeys in Europe by Bernard’s death.

In 1132 the Cistercians founded Rievaulx in Yorkshire. It was remote and desolate. They were experts at transforming the landscape and exploiting mineral resources. By the end of the twelfth century they owned so much land and so many sheep that they were responsible for most of the wool exported from England. They chose sheep originally because they had so many uses. Their fleece became wool; their milk made cheese and butter; and their skins could be turned into vellum for books or sold to glovemakers.

The Cistercians were entrepreneurs, which went against the Rule. Benedict had prescribed that monks should not engage with the world. In another contravention of the Rule, each Cistercian house was subject to the house from which it had been founded, rather than ruled independently by its abbot.

Their first house in England was founded in 1128. They usually built in remote places and made them flourish by their labour.

The Fourteenth Century

There’s no denying that by the fourteenth century St Benedict would have recognised few monasteries as living in accordance with the Rule. Even though the Rule was flexible, many abbots and monks bent it until it broke. Monasteries were wealthy landowners; monks had servants; they ate meat and they were no longer respected by the people around them. The writing was on the wall in the thirteenth century and men like St Francis and St Dominic found a different route to reformation, as we shall see next week.

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What is the Benedictine Rule?

St._Benedict_delivering_his_rule_to_the_monks_of_his_order

 

In the early centuries of Christianity, those who wanted to concentrate on the spiritual life tended to go to remote places such as deserts, wild coasts or mountains, to live as hermits. They were often joined by disciples, and small communities developed. It was St Benedict of Nursia who had the greatest success in organising the way in which hermits and their followers could live in community and he developed the Rule by which they should live. He was not the first to have the idea of living in a community, or even the first to develop a rule, but it was his rule that was taken up most widely and lasted the longest.

Benedict lived from about 480 to about 550. He was a hermit at Subiaco, near Rome, living in a cave for about three years. He organised his disciples into groups of twelve and eventually founded a monastery at Monte Cassino, where he finished writing the Rule that he had been developing for several years. Moderation was important to Benedict and he created the Rule to provide an environment of authority, obedience, stability and community life for the monks. These had been missing for other groups of disciples who had gathered around other hermits, where excessive asceticism was the norm.

The aim of early monks was union with God through prayer, and the Rule was supposed to help them to achieve that aim. Little is known about origins of the Rule, but it seems to reflect some of the elements of many rules from the sixth century. The Rule was very straightforward and covered every hour of every day. Monks had to be doing something all the time, even if it was just sleeping.

The word ‘monk’ comes from the Greek ‘monos’, which means ‘alone’, reflecting their origins as hermits. When they joined a monastery, monks were to serve a novitiate of a year and then take binding vows to remain in the community until death. Each monastery was to be independent of the others and monks did not move from one monastery to another.

The monks were to occupy themselves with liturgical prayer accompanied by sacred reading. They were also to be involved in manual work. According to the Rule, monks could only speak when permitted to do so by a superior and were not allowed to have possessions.

The abbot of a monastery was to be a spiritual father of his community and its supreme authority, but even the abbots were not greater than the Rule. Everyone had to live according to its precepts.

Monks were to be obedient and humble. The prologue of the rule and the first seven chapters talk about the ascetic life. The next thirteen contain detailed instructions for the services including prayers, readings and psalmody. The rule set out that all 150 Psalms were to be recited every week.

It then describes how abbots are to be elected, what other senior members of the community are to do and then there are instructions for the monks’ daily lives. This included how many hours they were to sleep, how many hours they were to perform manual labour, how many hours reading, and how many hours eating. Within these chapters a penitential code laid out the penalties for breaches of monastic discipline. It also describes how new members are to be trained. The Rule is so wide that it encompasses the practicalities of communal life as well as the monks’ spiritual lives.

In comparison with other rules for monastic life that were being developed at the same time, Benedict’s Rule is humane and gentle. Most of the other rules were based on the desert origins of monastic life. Life in the desert was hard and these rules made life hard for the monks. For the hermits in the desert, the master (the original hermit around whom disciples had gathered) was the ruler and the disciples had to obey him and whatever rule he put in place.

The Rule always acknowledged that the life of the hermit was the ideal and, even in the fourteenth century, most Benedictine monasteries had two or three monks living as hermits away from the monastery.

The Rule insisted that a guest be received as if he were Christ himself and there were many who were prepared to abuse this principal, travelling from monastery to monastery.

The Rule was flexible enough to adapt and some monasteries became centres of learning, others excelled at agriculture and still others at medicine.

For Benedict communal prayer was the centre of monastic life. Vigils, or Nocturns, was sung at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the season. Lauds was sung at first light. The remaining offices were relatively short and sung at the first, third, sixth and ninth hours. Vespers was the evening office and the day ended with Compline, which was very short. Nocturns was the longest and most elaborate office. Sometimes it could take two hours. Prime was sung at sunrise, after which the monks went to carry out their manual labour. Not only did Benedict lay down the pattern for monastic life, but most Christian services in the western church today, whether Catholic or Protestant, still follow this structure.

 

 

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Let The Sweet Smell Of Incense Rise Up

German_-_Censer_-_Walters_57699_-_View_B

I was recently writing a scene in a novel in which the main character appears to become unwell during mass.  His worried friends cast around for reasons why he might not be himself and one of them suggests incense as the cause, as it’s some time since he has attended mass. Then I had the dreadful thought: would there have been incense during mass in Calais in 1367? A lot of my research  (and these posts) starts in this way.

Incense was in use long before the fourteenth century in the Middle East and is recorded in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. It was used in the Temple in Jerusalem and was one of the gifts brought by the magi to Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel. In the book of Numbers Aaron and Moses used it stop a plague, and people hoped that it would have the same effect during the Black Death and later plagues. It is a spice or gum that gives off a sweet smell when burned. This is usually achieved by placing it on burning charcoal.

The use of incense in the western church is recorded from the sixth century. The smoke as it rises up symbolises the prayers of the earthbound parishioners rising up to Heaven and the sweet smell represents the sweetness of those prayers to God.

These days, if we’re used to the idea of incense in church at all, it’s usually as dispensed via a small hand-held thurible, or censer. These are usually shaped like a ball and made of metal, with perforations to allow the smoke to escape. There is a lid through which the charcoal and incense can be inserted. Thuribles hang on chains which the thurifer holds. The thurifer is the name of the acolyte or altar server who holds the thurible. When the thurifer swings the thurible the smoke, with its attendant smell, is released. Fourteenth century thuribles were very similar, although some were much more elaborate. Rather than being spherical some were representations of churches and the perforations were in the shape of windows.

Perhaps the best-known thurible in the world is the huge one in Santiago de Compostela cathedral – the Botafumeiro. Botafumeiro is Galician for thurible. These days the Botafumeiro is 1.6m tall and looks like a very large urn. It’s suspended on ropes from the ceiling of the cathedral and it takes 8 men to set it in motion. You can see a video of it here. The current censer dates from the nineteenth century, but (smaller) censers have been swung from the ceiling here since the eleventh century, according to tradition. Millions of pilgrims must have been awed by the sight over the years, but that’s a story for another post.

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Christmas at Aston Eyre

Acton Eyre church

This lovely view was what presented itself to me while I was sitting in my pew on Christmas morning. It was my first time inside this twelfth century church in rural Shropshire, but I don’t think it will be my last. I thought I’d share it with you in lieu of a normal post, given the busyness of the season.

Technically the church is a chapel of ease, which means it was built for parishioners who live a long way from the parish church. In this case it was for the wealthy family living in the village in 1132. It’s about a mile to the parish church in Morville.

It’s a tiny church, with the pews wide enough to take only three (if large) or four (if small) people, but it’s easy enough to imagine it without the pews and with its medieval congregation standing around.

 

 

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The Church and the Black Death

There were already signs that the feelings of the laity towards the church were changing before the Black Death ravaged Europe. It was more obvious on mainland Europe where there had been crusades against heretics in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There had always been opposition to the church and heresy had always been rife, but with the arrival of the Black Death heretical sects abounded and even the most orthodox could find themselves re-examining their respect for the institution of the church.

People demanded to know why the church hadn’t seen this dreadful judgement from God coming. Since nothing happened that was not God’s will, it was obvious that he had sent the plague. Biblical plagues had been sent to punish sinful men, therefore the Black Death was a punishment sent by God to punish sinful Christians. It was partly for this reason that self-flagellation became so popular. If the Black Death was God’s punishment for sin, perhaps it was possible to ward it off with repentance and severe self-punishment. With sufficient warning it was thought that everyone could surely have repented and stopped the plague before it had begun. The church was blamed for not providing the warning.

Once the plague had begun, the prayers of the priests and bishops proved insufficient to halt it. Worse, they started dying themselves. No one could understand divine judgement that didn’t discriminate between good and bad people. It made far more sense to believe that the priests, bishops and monks were also being punished for their sins, which meant that they were as bad as everyone else and that God did not favour them.

One of the reasons why so many priests and monks died was because the church had always said that the sick had to call on them before they called for help from doctors. Such hospitals as there were were run by monks. When parish priests and monks died they were replaced by lesser men who were often no more advanced in learning or understanding of things theological than their parishioners. These men were less respected than their predecessors and that lack of respect spread to include the institution they represented.

Whilst many priests died because they stayed in their parishes and cared for the sick, many abandoned their posts and this, too, fed the negative view that people had of the church. They had been let down by their priests when they most needed them.

The church was supposed to show the laity how to live. Very few people could read and, even if they could read, books were beyond the pockets of any save the very rich and even they could not afford a whole Bible. It was the church’s rôle to interpret God’s word to the people, since few were able to read it for themselves. In addition to the Bible there was over a thousand years’ worth of teaching from the Church Fathers and various theologians. Yet none of it had been sufficient to improve the world enough to stop God having to punish it. Once again the church was blamed for not providing a correct interpretation of God’s word.

For the English it was increasingly a problem that the Pope was in Avignon. The papacy had moved there in 1309 and didn’t return to Rome until 1376. The Pope himself was seen as little more than a lackey of the French king, which wasn’t always very far from the truth and the French king was England’s enemy. The papacy itself was also seen as decadent and worldly.

Because clerics were dying in such high numbers, members of the laity were allowed to hear people’s dying confessions if there wasn’t a priest available. This raised the question about the necessity of a priest hearing confession at all. If a lay person was good enough in a time of crisis, why weren’t they good enough when the crisis was past?

Some commentators have seen this change in attitude as leading inexorably to the Reformation and it’s a view that I was coming to myself, except for the fact that there were already challenges to the church’s authority before the Black Death. The inquisition had been created in 1231 to deal with the rise of heretical sects, of which there were many. I think the Black Death simply gave clarity to people who were already vaguely uneasy about the church and its rôle in their lives.

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