On Medieval Parish Guilds in England

Today I bring you something I worked on a few years ago when I was doing my MA investigation: Medieval guilds and fraternities. I remember this was a very relaxed module – only 2 students! – but we had an amazing field trip to see some of the most spectacular gothic cathedrals of the south of England. As the topic for the module was the general development of the English church in the later middle ages, i found myself a little out of my depth..Yeah I know religious history and I are like bread and butter…But perhaps you missed the Later Middle Ages in England…So I decided to focus on something that was not so foreign territory. I had considered focusing my undergraduate dissertation in cults and sects in the later medieval period as well as societies and fraternities rising at this point in history. So, i decided to dust up some tomes, research and different bag of beans to put something on the subject together. This is very much condensed and edited from the general investigation, but I hope it sparks some interest. /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0cm; mso-para-margin-right:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:8.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0cm; line-height:107%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:”Calibri”,sans-serif; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:EN-US;} Introduction to The Religious Fraternities I guess you all would like to know what we consider guilds or parish fraternities. Well, here is the first issue: there are many words that refer to the same type of association. Farnhill provides several names such as guilds, brotherhoods, fraternities, charities, companies and confraternities. All these words seem to be synonyms of the concept of parish fraternities. Whatever the name of these associations may be, it seems clear that they originated from the efforts of the lay community to get more involved in their religious life. Most of them were created to help the building of cathedrals and other churches in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although the origin of these communities changed with time.  A good example of these Samaritans is the Brotherhood of St. Andrew at Wells. We also see the rise of these guilds in correlation to the period of the Black Death. They became means to obtain salvation, by founding a chantry where to perform prayers for the souls of the founders and benefactors. But as usual, there are other theories and it has been suggested that the origin of these fraternities goes far back to Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon times. Although these associations were predominantly formed by the laity, some included members of the clergy as well. In fact, the parishes tried to incentivise these organisations as they were beneficial for the church: the guilds provided with clerical funds, and they contributed to the pastoral work as well as to the acquisition of money for the altar fabrics. However, the guilds were not always welcomed by the clergy or the English society. At the beginning of the movement, it was considered by many that their practices were “pre-Christian” if not “un-Christian”. But eventually the clergy stopped their criticism and some joined in their local groups….If you can’t fight them…Right? I guess it was all for the benefit oftheir own pockets… There are other complications that muddle the investigation of these guilds; for instance, the dualism between religious and craft fraternities. Sometimes it is fairly difficult to identify them as separate beings. Barron suggests that at the core of every trade guild was ‘a religious brotherhood dedicated to the worship and promotion of a particular saint’. We have to consider that in many ways these associations were as much of a religious community as they were a social group. Brown actually questions in his work how much the actual legitimacy of the religious implication of craft guilds was. He does indeed consider that, although they would most likely profit from the spiritual intercession of their cult, perhaps there was more wealth and social status display involved in their activities than actual religious ritual. Another problem is that a lot of these societies seem to be rather ephemeral in nature. There is a definitive date of termination for these associations, as they were abolished in 1547 because of the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries. But before that not much can be inferred from the sudden termination of their activities. They seemed really active and involved whilst they lasted. Role and Function of the Guilds The guilds primary function was to provide for the souls of the laity that were part of these groups. However, they performed many other activities from which laity benefited, and in which they contributed. Let’s have a look at the case of the fraternity at St.Laurence in Reading. The records show that he churchwardens of the parish acquired ₤6, 2s and 4d from the guild of Our Lady to repair he chancel. Furthermore, the biggest achievement a fraternity could hope for was to provide with a perpetual chaplain for the guild, or even the parish, but this was expensive and not all associations could afford it. Primordially guilds oversaw providing lights for their saints’ altar and for the high altar on Sundays, as well as performing funerals for their departed brethren and commemorations. The guild was also in charge of organising their annual meal, and patron feasts, where all their members would gather. This was almost a process on its own, perhaps less ritualistic, where commensality and solidarity, bringing people from different background and status, were key factors. These were also opportunities to carry other other charitable events, for example, the members Saint Lawrance’s guild in Lincoln invited paupers to their feast to share their food and drink. Rosser argues that these activities apart from being para-liturgical, were a way of reclaiming the moral authority that the parishioners had and that the canons had denied to the lay members of society. It seems likely that this type of activity was one of the biggest appeals for the lay people to belong to a guild. Once again, Rosser argues that the proportion of members attending the guild meal was higher in smaller, more localized guilds, although the attendance level was satisfactory in general for most of the brotherhoods. Finally, it is likely that some guilds would have asked for their members to go on pilgrimage, although this sort of activities seem to decline in popularity by the end of the fifteenth century. Other guilds carried out more liturgical activities. Such is the case of the Kalendars. The Kalendars were an interesting and uncommon fraternity; there are barely three recorded in England, located at Bristol, Exeter and Winchester, and they met to celebrate the Kalends, from where their name comes from, on top of the usual intercessory masses. Nevertheless, the guild at Bristol acquired an evangelic function when Bishop Carpenter decided to fund a public library in the fifteenth century, to try and eradicate the seeds of Lollardy spread around the area. So, in this sense the members of these guilds were meant to behave not only like good citizens, but in general like good Christians. They were role models even. Their sense of communitas drove the brotherhoods to help maintaining good relationships with the city rulers as well, in addition to organising collective activities and being arbitrators in certain issues affecting the town. In some cases, fraternities would become shadow governments like in the case of the guild of St. George in Norwich, whose members acted as a parallel town authority and dispensers of the town’s law. On a final note, it seems that many of these associations could have acted as sources of credit, as well as patronage and employment. It is more than likely that many of these fraternities would have provided money for the poor, as well as for their sick members, but this type of transaction is not properly recorded in their official accounts, which suggests perhaps it was a more informal action that was not strictly regulated. This is my brief introduction to the topic. However, if this is something that interests you, here are some bibliographical references so you can dig in and find out more about these religious societies: Ken Farnhill. Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia, c. 1470–1550. York: 2001. Richard Goddard. ‘Medieval business networks: St Mary’s guild and the borough court in later medieval Nottingham’, Urban History, Volume 40, Issue 1, (February 2013) , pp. 3-27 Caroline Barron. London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500. Oxford: 2004 Andrew D. Brown. Popular Piety in Late Medieval England: The Diocese of Salisbury, 1250-1550. Oxford: 1995. Gervase Rosser. The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England 1250-1550. Oxford: 2015. Nicholas Orme. Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. New Haven and London: 2006. – this one contains a fair bit of info about the guilds themselves like the Kalendars.

The Creation of the Anglo-Norman Church

Carrying on with my talks on church reform, we will have a quick look at the case of the Anglo-Norman church following the conquest of 1066. Pre-conquest England had a relatively coherent religious agenda and structure, founded on the Regularis Concordia and an active cult of saints. The Anglo-Saxon monasteries were prosperous thanks to the ritual donations of their patrons and the wealth obtained from their different economic exploitations. One cannot help but wonder if there was a real need to transform a well-established religious system. Leaving aside William’s personal interests and political agenda, it could be argued that the English Church was rather static and conservative.

Let’s take a look at the stance the Conqueror took regarding Papal control over the English Church. It was William I’s intention to keep the English Church development under the guidelines provided by Rome, but at the same time he took measures to avoid papal intrusion in the affairs of the state. The effort of the pontiffs to get English high-ranking clergymen to travel to Rome and do homage to the Pope only made the situation degrade. This is reflected in the events that took place in autumn of 1079 with the announcement of the forthcoming Lenten synod when William refused to allow any of his clergy to go to the synod. On top of that it was decreed that any legate sent by the Pope would only be admitted as a diplomatic envoy and not as someone with an interest towards the affairs of the English Church. It was only thanks to Anselm, during the reign of William Rufus, that the barrier between the papacy and England was partially broken, but to the eyes of Rome, England was like the prodigal son.

Perhaps some of the most noticeable changes in this re-structure involved the liturgical discourse, which required a changed in religious architecture and processional space. The most significant elements that configured the new buildings were the twin tower façade without a porch or narthex, the lantern tower, the three-bay presbytery, the apse-echelon plan of five chapels and the three-story elevation with full tribune. Moreover, metropolitan offices such as Canterbury added the use of a crypt to host the relics of their patron saints. Furthermore, there was a redistribution of the different altars and their function regarding the processional route that the lay community would take within the church. These customs were adopted by many churches, but not all. A clear example is Winchester, which carried on the traditions imposed by the Regularis Concordia, incorporating odd elements within its architecture. The most relevant is the west end that most likely represents the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon customs of crown-wearing rituals.

Nevertheless, the most significant changes that the English Church underwent in the post-Conquest era are those related with monastic foundations. The Norman settlers invested a great deal of their fortunes in these religious houses. There were several reasons that encouraged the lay population to invest in such foundations such as the protection for the benefactors’ soul, the display of power and wealth, and in many cases profitable land revenues. New monastic houses were introduced in England between 1066 and 1086, although admittedly most of them were of Norman origin. This process carried out during the reign of William II who commissioned some of the important ‘alien’ houses of the island: Binham (1093), Norwich cathedral priory (1096) and Wymondham (1107). Due to the arrival of these institutions two new types of foundations were created; daughter houses, which were directly dependent of their mother house in the continent, and monastic cells that acted as centres of administration for these English properties. Of course, the old  foundations were still used – or re-purposed in some cases. This is the case of the cell of Bec at Clare, Suffolk, that Gilbert of Tanbridge re-founded around 1090. The foundation of new nunneries after the conquest is somehow obscure – it seems that some monastic orders did not want to be associated with the female communities…Nonetheless, new women houses were founded, although the reasons and circumstances about their establishment might differ from those of the monasteries. For instance, Elstow was established by Countess Judith (1076-86), as she became the widow of Earl Waltheof, who was executed due to treachery, therefore buying herself a way to survive in the new regime. In addition, it seems that men of lower social and political status with not enough money to found a monastery, set up nunneries instead, especially in the northern areas of the country. Some old nunneries continued under Norman patronage.  The appointment of abbesses like Cecily who run the house from 1107, and was the daughter of Robert fitz Hamon and sister-in-law of the Earl of Gloucester, is an example of this continuity.

However, it is clear that despite all these changes there was a degree of continuity of the Anglo-Saxon traditions incorporated within the Norman rule. This is most clearly shown by the revitalising of old religious houses, like Gloucester Abbey. Such a place was important for the Normans; its location provided easy access to the problematic Welsh marches. Besides, it was a nodal point for communication, a profitable town and a good site for hunting. Maintaining and advancing its Anglo-Saxons roots was, therefore, crucial and so many investments were done in the abbey and other local churches, especially during the reign of William Rufus. Another example of continuity is the cult of saints. Despite it has been actively argued that the Normans erased all the native saints from their calendar and replaced their relics for others of their taste, recent studies demonstrate that the previous statement is wrong. Even Lanfranc shows a personal devotion to an Anglo-Saxon saint, St.Dustan, whose relics were moved with the majority of the other holy remains to his newly reformed Christ Church cathedral. Most importantly the fact that despite all the efforts to try to distinguish the secular from the regular clergy, the Normans adopted and carried on the old tradition of monastic cathedrals, unique of Anglo-Saxon England is significant.

Therefore, in order to understand the nature of the Anglo-Norman church and the developments of the English church for years, and even centuries to come, it is crucial we recognise the importance of the previous Anglo-Saxon traditions, as well as the political context in which the Normans had to liaise the control over liturgy and practice.

Carolingian Church Reform? A Re-evaluation of the Renovatio of the 8th and 9th Centuries

Today we are going to talk about something intrinsically linked with my second favourite Renaissance (Yes, you hear me correctly…) – The Carolingian Renaissance and the impact this had in the constitution of the Church. Again in the revisionist fashion of my posts-of-late, I will be re-evaluating this process, and explore it in a way I think we should really be considering the subject. And here it goes…

During the eighth and ninth centuries the Carolingians attempted to remodel and reorganise the Frankish church considerably. This process has been usually defined as a church reform which, at least, seems an erroneous way to understand what happened in ecclesiastical terms. The word reformare for the Carolingians ‘was used only sparingly, usually to refer to the punishment of serfs, and hardly ever to the reform of churches, which was usually defined as correctio, a very general term lacking the theological overtones of reformatio’ – this is J.Barrow speaking and not me. There was a church, but certainly it lacked unity or proper organisation. In fact, it has been disputed by scholars like Claussen that there was no such thing as a Frankish church until Chrodegang became bishop and unified the churchmen. There is no denying that, during the previous centuries the church was modelled on a traditional Roman style that was ill-defined and did not suit the complexity and necessities of the Carolingian empire. So the winds of change were doomed blow at some point…

So Chrodegang will be our man to take upon this task. His concerns about pastoral care and the responsibility of abbots, influenced by the ideas of Gregory the Great and the Rule of Benedictine, were compiled in his Regula Canonicorum. This document would have an important ulterior impact, particularly once Charlemagne was on the throne. Based on the Regula and thank to the influence of the Dionysio-Hadriana, the Admonitio Generalis was created in 789, in Aachen. These capitularies set the re-establishment of the bishops’ functions and clergy behaviour, the importance of preaching, bishops’ responsibilities with churches, monasteries and houses of canons, and the importance of matter of education. Episcopal statutes were created, covering every aspect of the priests’ part in the parish, preaching and training to clergymen. Rules, Rules and More Rules were applied.

Louis the Pious would be the second player in this renovatio. He promoted a series of Synods from 816 to 819 for the introduction of the Benedictine Rule in an attempt to make monastic life the same for everyone. This may be reflected by the plan of St.Gall – Horn and Born believed that the plan was designed to create a general layout of an ideal monastery that would be copied throughout the Carolingian empire creating unity amongst the communities. In any case, what is clear is that the role of monasteries was crucial for the Carolingian ‘reform’. Moreover, so were the parishes spread all over the empire. The church established a connection with every man and woman within the Christian faith, and the correct measures would ensure this desire of community. The main relationship that lay people had with the church was the liturgical process. But the way the clergymen and the rest of the population lived their Christian life was different. A common and clear liturgy was needed for everyone to live as proper Christians and not fall in the evil ways of paganism or heresy.  And this ties in with the other great aspect of this great restructure: improving the education of both the clergy and the laymen. First of all, the clergy needed to be trained and provided with the appropriate materials so they could preach the Christian messages effectively. They had to understand properly what they were meant to teach, in order to provide true knowledge and not create misunderstandings. An example can be found in the corrections that Benedict of Aniane produce in the Gregorian sacramental that came from Rome, in order to make it suitable for Carolingian learning. In this process of creating true clergymen, true Christians were also formed, which settled the base for the code of conduct of lay community.

The last but not least feature of the rebirth of the Carolingian church was the missionary activities and conversion of the new territories acquired by the Franks. Several regions of the eastern part of the empire were still allegedly pagan. There were missionary centres spread all around the territory in order to avoid attempts of insurrection against the true faith. Sermons were preached in order to explain the concepts of the Christian religion, although the evidences suggest that the preachers were more fond of attacking the false gods and pagan rituals of the folk. This was complemented by the ever so effective destruction of temples and pagan objects – actions that even Charles Martel and Charlemagne would have performed. However, in other parts of the realm, such as Bavaria, the sources suggest that the real problem was not paganism but a wrong understanding of Christian practice which required a reorganization and consolidation rather than conversion per se. So, perhaps it should be considered this was not so much a renovatio but rather a series of adjustments. Moreover, do you know what happened to all this after good old king Louis the Pious died? Well…Not Much…

The quarrels between his heirs created tensions within the church. Italy never fulfilled the ‘reform’ programme, and in the Germanic lands action was taken but the system collapsed due to the internal problems of the empire. The clergy did partially fail in the guidance of the society as they were not worried too much about their Christian souls once they were baptised. The cult of saints  was so professed that really verged the edge of idolatry that Charlemagne and his missionaries feared would never leave their society. Pagan and folk believes prevailed all over the empire, from those cited by Boniface in his list of superstitions and pagan practices, to the so-called tempestarii referred by Agobard of Lyons –  yes, this super cool weather wizards that called upon hail and thunderstorms to affect the crops. The problem with bishoprics and landowning was never solved. The curious case of Saxony explains the issue in great detail. Land and grants were given to the bishoprics, and so the privilege of immunity for the main five episcopal churches of Saxony. The system never worked properly due to the lack of patronage from the few Saxon noble families remaining, and the incredibly inefficient and slow conversion process. Not to mention the lack of And  local support due to the rather violent conversion, to which not most of the people were happy to succumb -nobility included . In conclusion, the Carolingians may have succeeded in their task for a couple of decades, but not longer than that. And even during that period, the renovatio was not achieved completely. The common people’s ‘wrong’ practice of Christianity, was rather similar to the paganism they were trying to eradicate (unsuccessfully). The monasteries ended collapsing, and their status would not be properly restored until the Cluniac or the Cistercian efforts centuries later. Which made me reached the same conclusion than Charlemagne so cautiously raised in his court regarding this poorly solved, and unsolved issues: “are we really Christians?”…And if so, did this so-called reform ever happen or it is just a misunderstanding of the Carolingian church from the modern historical point of view?


Now my conspiracy theories do not come from the depths of my imagination…I did put a great amount of time into this subject, and there is a few books worth reading if you’re interested on the subject:


-Dutton, P.E., Carolingian Civilization: A Reader (Ontario, 2004) – I mean it is like the ultimate gospel of Carolingian documents – go buy it. No questions asked.

-Barrow, J., ‘Review Article: Chrodegang, his Rule and its Successors’, Early Medieval Europe 14 (2006), pp.201-12 – this is the article that I referred to earlier on my text. Even if it’s just for that discussion of the terminology, it is worth while.

-Carrol C., ‘The Bishoprics of Saxony in the First Century after Christianization’, Early Medieval Europe 8 (1999), pp.219-245 – just to give you an idea of the scope and differences between the lands the Franks ruled over.

-Claussen, M.A., The Reform of the Frankish Church: Chrodegang of Metz and the Regula Canonicorum in the Eighth Century (Cambridge, 2004) – very thorough investigation of Chrodengang and the contextual work also very impressive.

-Couser, J., ‘Inventing Paganism in Eighth-Century Bavaria’, Early Medieval Europe 18 (2010), pp. 26-42 – this will blow your mind, on how “Christian” central Europe was.

-McKitterick, R., The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895 (London, 1977) – even though written some time ago, this should be your starting point.



Medieval Graffiti: the boredom of choirboys?

From Winchester Cathedral to the Rosslyn Chapel, the walls of Britain’s religious houses echo with the voices of a long-dead past. But why is medieval graffiti so commonplace? And what does it mean for modern historians?

In a recent article for History Extra, Jessica Hope explores various meanings behind the countless examples of graffiti which cover the walls of Britain’s medieval churches. She writes with disappointment that past generations of historians too often overlooked the inscriptions and doodles, viewing them as little more than the ‘creations of bored choirboys’ and therefore unworthy of academic or scholarly surveyal. However, she goes on, paradoxically much of the graffiti actually dates back to ‘long before there actually were and choirboys to be found in the church.’ Indeed, in recent years, new large-scale surveys have revived interest in medieval graffiti and, unsatisfied with the crude suggestions of the past, many historians are now undertaking academic research to reveal the meaning of medieval graffiti once and for all.

An example of such research is the work of Matthew Champion, which draws on thousands of examples from surviving medieval churches across the width and breadth of Britain. He believes that while graffiti in the twenty-first century may be seen as ‘both destructive and anti-social, and certainly not something that should be either welcomed or encouraged in our parish churches,’ this appears to be a relatively modern attitude. Conversely, during the Middle Ages, graffiti appears to have been both accepted and acceptable, leaving many of our medieval churches ‘quite literally covered with inscriptions.’

Champion writes that the purpose of studying medieval graffiti is simply that it is so unlike any other form of historical research. He suggests that ‘If you walk into just about any one of the surviving medieval churches scattered across the British countryside, you will undoubtedly see a wealth of features surviving from the Middle Ages- stained glass windows, the sheen of alabaster monuments and the dull glow of memorial brasses set into the floor. However, almost without exception, all of these were created by or for the top five or ten percent of medieval society; the parish elite that could, quite simply, afford to have themselves memorialised.’ Where then, asks Champion, are the lower orders of medieval society? Where are the common people who for generations worshipped within the church walls? Where are the memorials to the simple commoners who paid for, and in many cases helped to construct, these monuments to their ‘betters’?

While yes, occasionally these individuals do turn up in legal agreements, wills and major court rolls. However, that is only to say that such documents represent the times when those individuals came into contact with the authority of either the civil administration or the church. Certainly, they do not represent their everyday interactions with the church as either a building or an institution. Champion therefore argues that the voice of the people has ‘been muted and distorted by the conventions of the records themselves.’ In contrast, the graffiti has the potential to have been created by anyone and everyone; ‘from the lord of the manor and the parish priest, all the way down the social scale to the very lowliest of the congregation.’ They are, quite literally ‘the lost voices’ of the medieval church.

What then, asks Hope, are the newly rediscovered voices telling us? Champion suggests that to begin with, one must establish the differences between much of modern graffiti which ‘blights our bus shelters, underpasses and public toilets.’ Putting to one side street artists such as Banksy, modern graffiti tends to be largely territorial or memorial in nature. A simple ‘I was here’ or ‘this is mine/ours,’ for instance. This is in no way meaningless or invalid, but according to Champion it’s very different to the graffiti found in Britain’s medieval churches.

Recent research would indicate that, while there are numerous inscriptions which might be little more than a choirboy’s doodle, the vast majority of examples appear to be devotional or religious in nature. Champion writes that they are, in their simplest form, ‘prayers made solid in stone.’ In some cases they are exactly that – a Latin prayer etched deeply into the stonework, or a prayer for the safe return of a ship or good harvest, as well as prayers for the soul of a dead loved one. Other examples though are less easy to decipher. ‘Ritual protection marks,’ often known as ‘Witch Marks’ are common, designed to ward off daemons and the ever-present ‘evil eye.’ These are often found clustered around medieval fonts. Also common are elaborate crosses, cut deep into the arches, perhaps to ask for God’s blessing or in memory of vows taken.

The walls of our medieval churches, argues Hope, are full of minute testaments to faith and beliefs that once were commonplace. ‘They tell the story of life, love, hope and fear within the medieval parish; a record that depicts sudden death and the perils of the soul that, every day, were faced by our ancestors.’ Most of all though, she goes on, ‘these scratched mementoes by the long dead tell us about the people.’ A single church might hold any number of secrets. The church of St Mary’s at Troston in Suffolk, for instance, bears an elaborate compass-drawn design on the tower arch which dates back to the building and consecration of the church. While, further up the stonework is simply the name ‘John Abthorp,’ a lord of the manor in the late fifteenth century.

On the south side of the church, below a beautiful coat of arms, a more sinister piece of graffiti can be seen. It takes the form of a medieval shoe, however etched alongside the shoe, and partly obscuring it, is the head of a daemon. Such imagery was common in medieval churches, yet Champion deems the number of examples of daemons in the graffiti of St Mary’s noteworthy. Higher up the arch is a second daemon inscription, this time shown in profile with its gaping mouth full of sharpened teeth and a lolling tongue. Across this daemon’s head is a pentangle, scored deeply into the stonework where it has been gone over numerous times. The pentangle, a symbol of protection, sits in the centre of the daemon’s head- ‘quite literally pinning it to the wall and trapping the evil within,’ says Champion.

Such symbolism clearly carried important meanings for the individuals who created the graffiti, and it is worth noting that many of the more elaborate designs would have taken several hours to complete. This suggests that they could not have been carried out without the knowledge and at least tacit-approval of the local church. While some designs are clearly devotional in nature, we may never truly understand the reason why the lord of the manor left his name inscribed on the tower arch. Hope wonders, was he simply recording his presence, or maybe marking his territory? Was it even John Abthorp who carved his name into the stonework, or was it perhaps created by another person with ‘a deeper, darker purpose?’

Other examples of medieval graffiti are much less enigmatic, and all too easy to understand. At Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire, for instance, a tiny Latin inscription in the north aisle reads simply, ‘Here lies Margaret in her tenth year.’ An equally tragic tale is evident at the church in Kingston, Cambridgeshire, where a small inscription is cut neatly into the stonework. It only lists three names; ‘Cateryn Maddyngley, Jane Maddyngley and Amee Maddyngley.’ ‘Exactly how old they were,’ Hope resigns herself, ‘we may never know,’ but as they do not appear in the parish records, it suggests that all three were children or infants, and all were related by blood. The date following the names offers a further indication as to their fate — ‘1515,’ the year the Bubonic plague returned to London, the south-east, and Cambridgeshire. This outbreak also appears to have been extremely virulent. Cambridge University is known to have suspended all studies, and the courts and places of gathering were disbanded in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. It was, however, to little avail.

Hope writes that ‘part of the problem was that this outbreak came only a short time after the last major outbreak of the Sweating Sickness in 1507.’ Moreover, as was typical of this period, the years immediately after a major epidemic usually saw an increased birth rate, as families and communities tried to recover the losses of the previous pestilence. This meant that, in the case of the 1515 epidemic, when the plague began to spread across England, the country had a far higher population of infants than it might ordinarily – and unfortunately, these children appear to have fallen victim to the disease in their hundreds and thousands.  Across the country, so many infants died that they were hastily buried in unmarked graves with little or no time to memorialise or remember them. Hope writes that ‘In London, the hasty funeral processions, made up of only a few souls, walked the deserted streets; and in a small village in rural Cambridgeshire, a stolid tenant farmer quickly etched the names of his three dead children into the walls of his parish church.’

‘The simple inscription may well be the only mark those three young individuals left on this planet,’ writes Hope. ‘Sometimes the writing on the walls can break your heart.’

Reform or Monastic Revival? An Insight into the Tenth Century English Church

After my row of updates on prehistoric and ancient times, I have decided to go back to my educational roots: early medieval history. In my early years at university, most of research and essay work focused on ecclesiastical history and the believes of people all over Europe. I think it was a subject I felt comfortable discussing- I got incredibly obsessed with theology and philosophy when I was in college and read upon many things written by the Reformers and humanists of the early modern period, and obviously I tracked this knowledge back to the origins of Christianity. So as someone who was being taught by the eminent Barbara Yorke, I felt it was my duty to gain some idea of what has happened in England in the Early Middle Ages in terms of religion and the developments the church had achieved. I must admit that Anglo-Saxon history is, shamefully, not my cup of tea, and certainly not my area of expertise. However, and upon visitation of old blog files and my own work, I have done some meditation on the 10th century reform and deemed it to be an important event that should be addresses. So here it is for you, from the lady that usually deal with the pagan Old Norse, a piece from their distant cousins and their Christian quarrels.


The 9th century has been pretty disruptive for the Anglo-Saxon rulers and the church, mainly due to the rough raids from the Northmen. Many monasteries were targeted and suffered attacks. In addition, Alfred the Great gave a lot of power within the church to the clerks, leaving the idea of monastic life behind, and letting these clerks lead different paths in the way they approached their doctrine. There was little regulation and centralisation on how the church operated as an entity. So with the relative stability of the 10th century it was time to re-evaluate that situation. One of the key players in this reformation of the church was St Dustan.

He started his  career during king Edmund´s reign to be abbot of Glastonbury, where he established the first monastic community. The buildings were restored and the community adopted the Benedictine rule, based in the 8th century Ordo Qualiter. However, king Eadwig exiled him again, and for that period he stayed in Ghent and watched the Benedictine movement on the continent. Dunstan returned to England when Edgar became the king and was promoted to bishop of Worcester (957), London (959) and later, the Archbishop of Canterbury around 960.  His disciple, Aethelwold, was another important figure.  King Eadred sent to Abingdon to found a second community of monks with people from Glastonbury around 955. He became bishop of Winchester in 963. He took advantage of his position to rebuild the cathedral and to remove the clerks from Old and New Minster and replaced them with monks from Abingdon. Moreover, he is responsible for ‘the Benedictional’ movement-the masterpiece is a portrayal of the Virgin’s coronation, with the intention to show the Virgin as a queen, who is receiving her power from heaven. This was to be the canon followed by every ruler of the Anglo-Saxons. Our third man is St.Oswald.  He established another community of monks in Westbury-on-Trym. Furthermore, he contributed to the restoration of places like Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, Winchcombe, Pershore and Evesham. Eventually he became Archbishop of York in 972.

Yet, and despite all of these men having the same religious background and following the Benedictine rule, their styles were different, so perhaps the centralisation of the church was not so successful. In fact, the effort of these three bishops would have been fruitless without the creation of the Regularis Concordia: the document where all the Benedictine rules were put together for all the monks and nuns of England. This compilation of rules was the result of the synod known as the Council of Winchester, summoned by king Edgar, -with the advise of Dunstan- to regulate all the different issues that affected the community of monks. There are references to abbesses and female religious houses in the code that show the movement was not only confined to monks- as many nunneries where then restored, the nuns also needed to be regulated accordingly. One of the main issues address by the Concordia was celibacy-it was common amongst clerks to get married and have children, but this was not acceptable in monastic terms.

Finally, we have to understand that a lot of this reformation and centralisation happened due to the strong links between the church and the nobility. In fact, it was of interest for the monarchy that the church was reconditioned and functional as a way to extend their own power. Many members of the nobility ended in monastic communities or nunneries; these were destinations for second sons, daughters, widows and other members of the family who may not succeed at acquiring power within the court. However, and like with any kind of reform in this sense, it is difficult to asses the actual impact it had, and to what degree these regulations were actually followed. As a matter of fact, we do know that with the dead of Edgar there was another period of discontent. Particularly in Mercia it transpired that not everyone was so keen on this monastic revival. The leader of this small uprising was Aelfhere the ealdorman. Him and his fellows marred monasteries and drove out the monks from their communities, leaving entire minsters unoccupied. Nevertheless, it seems that with his death in 983, the razing stopped, although many Mercian communities remained damaged. In addition, evidence suggest that the reform was not uniform throughout the country. The northern and western regions were not very well-integrated within the system the monarchy and the church were trying to establish; due to this many places likely kept their old structures. And it is unlikely that all the communities and minsters applied rules evenly.

So the success or relativity of this reform is dubious. As a matter of fact, I feel more comfortable establishing this movement as a purely monastic revival, rather than a whole ecclesiastic reform (hence the title, instead of my original “the tenth century English church reform”). In any case, I hope this helps you understand that, religion and the infrastructures of the Christian doctrine were not crystal clear, and like with political systems, it would take many years, and even centuries to establish a degree of integrity and uniformity…Just to through it all away at the turn of the 1500s. But that, is another story…

Nazarens and drums

Holy Week is supposed to be a religious celebration. And it was. Probably it still is for some people. But in Spain, nowadays, it is more of a cultural manifestation, and a tourist attraction, very popular with nationals and foreigners alike. Each year this week of street demonstrations moves millions of euros; each year it moves less and less consciences into religion.   Though Spain is officially a non-confessional country, and statistics consistently show that religious feeling, and specially Catholic, is constantly declining moreover between the younger population, Catholic presence is still overwhelming in many everyday aspects, from education to holiday, from public ceremony to football. Even in politics and, allegedly, in governmental issues. And, during a whole week, main streets all over the country belong to the quite strange commemoration of a murder.   Most shocking for non accustomed visitants are the Nazarenes. These are the members and associates of “Cofradías”, which are club like institutions, usually focused in the promotion of one specific saint or virgin. Sounds a little strange, but it looks even stranger. Many of them keep company to the images all along the course of the demonstration which, in some cases, can last for more than ten hours.

Penitent in the procession, walking around with the cross as sign of repent.
Penitent in the procession, walking around with the cross as sign of repent.

From an artistic point of view, the most relevant thing of “Semana Santa” is the sublime imagery, which is considered one of the pinnacles of Spanish arts during the Baroque period. Those images, usually made from wood, sculpted and painted to achieve the maximum dramatic effect, are the center of the celebrations, and, although not all are pinnacles of its art, and many are mere copies or inspired by the long-lost originals, are revered in awe and justify by themselves a close look to this celebration. The better sculptures were designed by the likes of Alonso Berruguete and Juan de Juni. These artistic development began as a part of the Catholic Counter-Reform, of which Spain was the greatest defender. As a form of opposing Lutheranism and its despise for religious images, Spanish Catholics developed a fancy for realistic depictions of the life and deeds of Jesus Christ, and preferably of the last night with “Ecce homos” and Crucifixion at the top. Soon Saints, Virgins and scenes of the everyday life of Jesus began to take part in what, from the XVI century onwards, was a Catholic Church sponsored activity which, Spain being the stronger supporter of Catholicism, counted also on the Royal favor: the Spanish Monarchy wanted people showing of their love for God and Christ in the streets, and it was staged as a popular demonstration, state in which it has last.

One of the
One of the “Pasos” during the procession in Santander (Spain). It represents Judas betrayal.

The”Cofradías”, originated in guilds and unions during the Spanish Golden Century, were the center of those devotional celebrations. And they still survive, albeit in a different version, usually related to a specific church or district, otherwise there still are some guild based.   But let’s go back to the “Nazarens”. Clad in their long robes, usually hooded and handling some sort of torch, or light, this ghost-like figures are a constant presence in the Semana Santa. Penitents in the beginning, today most of them take part as a long running family tradition deprived of deepest religious meaning albeit devotion is still strong, mainly in Andalucia, and would probably be described as idolatry in many a culture as the zeal is customarily related only to a particular image and not necessarily as a part of a more complex religious understanding. Lately, the responsibility of increasing the ranks of the “Nazarens” falls mainly in woman and children. Moreover, quite a lot of those kids get involved with “procesiones”, as demonstrations are called, as a school activity as they assist to schools run by religious orders more because of the quality of the education provided than as a result of a strong family involvement with religion.

“Little Nazarene” getting ready for procession with her school’s parish Cofradia.

An act of cultural affiliation, maybe, as Semana Santa and its traditions are considered, at least by a significant share of the locals, as a mains stake of true Spanish culture and way of life. And that extends to music, or some kinds of music at least: it is customary for “Cofradías” to parade along with wind and brass small bands or even to boast their own Nazarene musicians, all clad as their mates but playing the traditional drums and bugles. It is everything but ironic that, for instance, the main “procesión” in the city of Santander is called “Del Silencio” (the Silence) while almost every “Cofradía” plays the drums during the whole parade.   The everyday of a Nazarene during the Passion Week, as it is sometimes called, could be really stressful, because responsibilities with the “Cofradía” must be usually shared with regular life duties, thus creating a very harsh timetable. It depends on the geographical areas and local traditions, and we have to admit that some days are considered Bank Holidays that week, but the fact remains that “procesiones” do start after dusk, and the longest of them end in the morning. And all that could take place after a long day at work or school. When arriving home, the Nazarene must change clothes. Again, there are different local customs, but the customary basic equipment comprises of a large cloak which covers a habit and is held by a soft rope; dark plain shoes, gloves, and the always surprising hood, which sometimes, with newcomers, arise the non too fair and tremendously awkward comparison with KuKluxKlan that so annoys Spaniards.

Different representatives from Spanish Cofradias
Different representatives from Spanish Cofradias

This hood could have a cardboard frame inside to give it a long conical look, and children would not wear it, as is for penitents and sinners and small kids are considered still pure enough. Now clad like an anonymous Templar, you can go out and walk through your town keeping company to a four hundred years old wooden sculpture of Christ in the cross which is considered a masterpiece. And that would last at least four hours. Fortunately, if you are a kid, you’ll probably get some candy for all the effort.

Late Medieval and Early Modern European Celebrations and Festivities

Festivities and celebrations have always been cultural aspects of every civilization. People have traditionally used them to express an idea, to remember something that happened or to celebrate a glorious event. Feasts are somehow part of the collective identity, they are important and frequent, and so they were in the pre-modern world. Celebrations were meant to bring the whole town joy, honour and unity. Obviously we have to consider that these festivities would be different depending on their location and the people who performed them. For example, in Poland and Lithuania, royal celebrations like birth or marriages were less significant than in other countries, because they did not mean anything for succession as they were elective monarchies. Also, different celebrations had different purposes. In Christian Europe, many of them were celebrated in dates that matched the liturgical calendar, so it is reasonable to assume that these would have some sort of religious connections. But there were many reasons for these celebrations: fear and gratitude being some of the most common ones. For example, the Bavarian and Tyrolese Passion plays were performed for the first time due to the end of a wave of plague in 1633. Entries and marches of aristocratic figures into towns were also occasions to celebrate, as well as jousting tournaments, feats of fools, student plays and, of course, carnivals.

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