The secular legacy of the late medieval English parish



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The secular legacy of the late medieval English parish




Beat Kümin

Church houses are prime examples for interactions between the sacred and the profane in late medieval communities.1 As facilities for masons embellishing ecclesiastical buildings or worshippers in need of physical restoration, church houses supported the religious life of their parishes. As socio-cultural centres and communal assets, however, they demanded supervision and managerial expertise. At Holne in Devon, where the church house was erected in 1329 as a resting place for the clergy, both aspects are equally prominent (see Figure 1 [please insert near here]). Legal documents allocate all income from the building to the repair and upkeep of the parish church of St Mary the Virgin ‘and the maintenance of the services therein’, yet consultation of an annual account yields a more sobering picture. The church house, leased to an innkeeper, produced high debts, partly as a result of a need for re-roofing, but mainly due to ‘legal costs resulting from seemingly endless litigation’ initiated by the tenants and contested – on the trustees’ behalf – by a ‘managing agent’. Parish property, administrative chores and frequent litigation: no doubt a common late medieval scenario, except for the fact that this particular evidence derives from the early twenty-first century.2 At nearby Rattery, where the church house allegedly dates from 1028, an inquiry into communal lands held in 1911 found that the parish owns:


a messuage called the Church House … in trust, to permit the churchwardens and sidesmen of the said parish, to receive rents and profits of the said premises, and, yearly, to render an account, to the use of the parish and parishioners, to the intent that the same should be wholly converted and justly employed, towards the reparation of the said church, the better maintaining and setting forth God’s divine service within the said church, the relief of the poor and needy people of the said parish, and all other necessary uses most convenient and meet to be employed at the will and discretion of them, and the greatest number of the sufficientest of the said parishioners, as in time past had been used and accustomed.
The wardens’ accounts of 1906 duly record £12 rent received from this particular property, an inn since transferred into private ownership.3 Devon’s church houses, therefore, provide a first tangible indication of the secular legacy of the medieval parish. The modern heritage industry offers another. Few English towns and villages fail to highlight perpendicular parish churches as principal sites of interest and outstanding symbols of their cultural past. Guides to notable churches abound and a fascination with late medieval religion diverts tourists to otherwise rather inconspicuous locations, as the visitors’ book at Morebath will testify.4 There are still legal repercussions, too: it took a recent landmark ruling by the Court of Appeal to release present-day owners of erstwhile glebe farms from their age-old liability to pay for chancel repairs of the respective churches.5

Over the last few decades, however, the long shadow of the Reformation has focused late medieval parish studies very strongly on religion. After great excitement over who wanted reform when and for what reasons, a ‘post-revisionist’ consensus – that late medieval piety may have been flourishing well into the reign of Henry VIII, but that it was eroded in the ecclesio-political negotiations sparked by successive royal U-turns – is steadily gaining ground.6 This may be an appropriate moment to re-emphasise that late medieval English parishes were about more than religion. They reflected and in turn nurtured a number of general socio-political and cultural processes, which have at best made selective appearances in recent research.7 The following survey is a retrospective account, looking at pre-Reformation parishes with the benefit of hindsight. By adopting a longer-term perspective, it hopes to link up with early modern scholarship on the English parish, which might in turn benefit from greater chronological depth and more intensive engagement with medieval precedent. Common concerns in post-Reformation studies are social organisation, local politics and conflicts over resources, i.e. precisely the sort of issues a fixation on the religious sphere tends to obscure.8 The heavy emphasis on masses, Purgatory and pious works makes the late medieval parish look like a foreign land, with little or no relevance to students of the late Tudor or Stuart periods.

Such an approach does not have to start from scratch.9 To pursue it, furthermore, does not demand an artificial separation between the religious and secular spheres, as vainly attempted in the piety/charity debate of the late twentieth century.10 It would be futile to deny the significance of penitential motive and spiritual yearning, the multi-sensual feasts of colour, scents and music characterising churches up and down the country. And yet, on their own they fail to represent the totality of parish experience. Roger Martyn’s oft-cited reminiscences of religious life in pre-Reformation Long Melford, for instance, tell us as much about the sociology of ritual space and gentry paternalism as about devotional practice.11 The body of parishioners was always a physical as well as a metaphysical unit, a heterogeneous blend of age, wealth and gender groups, each in turn composed of a wide range of personal backgrounds, occupations and individual priorities. Given multiple tensions, John Bossy’s ‘social miracle’ could not be taken for granted.

While Christian teaching had an undisputed impact on medieval society, for some the church mattered above all as a community centre and a place of business.12 At any one time, members of the congregation bore grudges against particular neighbours or resented the economic privileges of their priests. In senior parochial officers, everybody recognized the powerful merchants from the High Street and / or the aldermen from the town council. For some, the leasing of chantry lands constituted a financial investment rather than an act of commemoration, and the contents of the parish chest mattered to the less well-off mainly as a source of cheap credit. Generous benefaction and funeral monuments augmented social capital as well as spiritual merit, while pious resolve faced mundane challenges such as cold winter mornings, statues of bare-breasted saints or terrible toothache. A sizeable proportion of the congregation moved across to the alehouse straight after a service, cherishing convivial fellowship as much as communal devotion.13 Most importantly of all, parishioners gradually realised that collective institutions bestowed more power, resources and influence on local communities than most individuals could mobilise on their own. From this perspective, recent parish studies look distinctly one-sided.14



In what follows, therefore, let us strip the altars prematurely, extinguish the candles and erect some temporary scaffolding around the beautiful images. What, then, remains of note about the late medieval English parish? In what ways might it also be relevant to historians of today? Three aspects are at the centre of attention: first, the way in which the parish facilitated the transition from a feudal to a late or post-feudal society; second, the manner in which it boosted cultural provision and helped to rebalance religious and secular concerns; third, how it served as a political micro-laboratory for the country at large.
Feudalism still serves to conceptualise medieval social relations. In spite of much recent debate, there is no doubt about the ubiquity of noble and clerical privilege in a fundamentally unequal society.15 In comparison with other European cultures, furthermore, England is seen as ‘special’ in terms of strong central institutions (esp. the rule of common law) and – more controversially – as an ‘advanced’ society with substantial traces of early individualism.16 Yet, as early as the late nineteenth century, Pollock and Maitland’s classic account of early English law found it ‘high time’ to move beyond individuals and sovereigns to obtain a better understanding of medieval society.17 The key new and ‘other’ principle emerging in the period was that of communal bonds. Pollock and Maitland rightly warned against seeing this factor at large in each and every development, but there is now plentiful evidence for the relevance of communal units such as towns, vills and hundreds throughout English history.18 In their rising of 1381, according to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, the peasant rebels cherished no other concept more highly than that of communitas, which they identified with the established rights and privileges of their villages.19 More to the point and mirroring a wider European phenomenon, parishes emerge as ‘an important, probably the most important factor in the birth or maturation of the rural community’; not just in the distant medieval past, but still, say, in France at the end of the Ancien Regime.20 Even a cursory look into parochial archives will confirm the prominence of communal language, e.g. in motivating attempts to enhance sacramental provision (the chapel of Goodshaw in Lancashire being edified in 1540 ‘for the Easement of the [founders] and of their neighbours’) or legitimising local decisions through the consent of ‘all the whole body of the parish’.21 For both late medieval and early modern English society, the parish has thus been identified as ‘the locale in which community was constructed and reproduced, perhaps even consecrated’.22 But is all of this merely an optical illusion, the result of vain attempts to plaster over the cracks and faults of internal disharmony? The main conclusion to be drawn from an extensive debate on the merits of the concept of ‘community’ for our purposes is not so much the need to abandon the term altogether, but the necessity to acknowledge the complexity of any social group in any configuration, the simultaneous relevance of multiple types of community to particular individuals, and the constant redefinition of what community meant in a given local environment, not least through processes of inclusion and exclusion.23

Origin and development of the parish as a focus for lay devotion and organisation are now well established. After the parochial network had crystallised by the thirteenth century, lay influence grew from about 1300 through a combination of voluntary activity, legal ingenuity and institutional innovation, in particular the soon universal office of churchwarden.24 By the fifteenth century, and in spite of common law reservations, parishes routinely demonstrated their quasi-corporate status by means of elected officers, communal funds, recourse to various law courts and levying rates on their members. Some even used their own seal!25 Community-formation, however, was not merely a topographical or constitutional phenomenon, but a process with wider material and symbolic repercussions. The church as a physical framework was constantly adapted through rearrangement, embellishment and - particularly in the ‘great age of parish church rebuilding’ on the eve of the Reformation – whole-scale reconstruction. The latter was the most emphatic statement of communal pride and achievement, regardless of who exactly took the initiative or bore the costs, although the socio-economic context was instrumental in determining whether and in what form such an undertaking could be contemplated.26 Imposing structures like St Andrew’s, Ashburton, a church entirely rebuilt in the early fifteenth century, transmit the message of a prosperous and vibrant late medieval parish community right down to the present day (see Fig. 2 [please insert near here]).27 Parish extent and identity were further defined and redefined through perambulation, i.e. the ‘beating of the bounds’ in an annual procession.28 Church and yard hosted numerous liturgical rites and other rituals, which followed official guidelines, but acquired a distinctly local flavour in actual performance. Religious worship in general constituted ever-changing congregations, depending on attendance, occasion and spiritual message, but equally physical setting (e.g. the seating order or spatial differentiation through chantry chapels and the like), so that ‘social identities were necessarily constructed within that framework and as a result … the church building must be seen to represent a domain of secular action within the field defined by Christian liturgy.’29

The dynamics of religious experience thus owed a great deal to secular variables.30 Even mundane administrative records shaped parish identities. Churchwardens accounts, deeds, inventories and other documents commanded authority as reminders of a shared past, repositories of legal rights and statements of corporate aspirations. Throughout the country, parish chests served as archives and safes preserving the most cherished objects of communal heritage. Commissioned for substantial sums and protected by multiple locks to be opened only by the highest dignitaries, they were among the most important secular objects market towns or villages possessed. As if to prove this point, quite a few survive, e.g. at Cratfield in Suffolk or Tavistock in Devon (see Fig. 3 [please insert near here]). The latter, prominently displayed near the entrance to the church of St Eustachius, was re-discovered in 1827 and found to contain late fourteenth-century churchwardens’ accounts!31 Drawing on models derived from linguists and literary theory, Katherine French conceptualised late medieval parishes as ‘textual communities’, in which members participated through a complex combination of written and oral communication. In order to preserve and defend their textual history, parishioners fought rival claims to their ownership – such as those by priests or patrons – by recourse to the courts. The creation of churchwardens’ accounts in particular can be interpreted as ‘a community-defining exercise that acknowledged the importance and uniqueness of a parish’s own space, history and ritual’, e.g. through the interactions between written reckonings and their public rehearsal.32

But what were the wider social implications of these processes? In terms of lay-clerical relations, lay people throughout Europe obtained a greater say by sheer weight of numbers and resources. Emphatic testimony to this development can be found in a late fifteenth-century Epistola (allegedly written in 1475), in which an anonymous author reflects on the dire conditions for parochial clergy in the German lands. No less than nine devils are shown to beset the everyday life of a rector or vicar. Apart from the patron, ecclesiastical superiors, other clerics and stubborn peasants we also find the local churchwarden as a prominent little Satan.33 There can be little doubt that English parsons would have agreed. From the Middle Ages, local religion was no longer a matter of imposition, but of protracted adaptation and negotiation with the middling and upper levels of parish society.34 The centrepiece of the Henrician Reformation, the Act making the monarch ‘supreme head in earth’ of the Church of England, merely carried the principle of lay control to its ultimate conclusion.

In terms of internal social structure, the parish redefined the role of key subgroups. For example, it enhanced the visibility of women in the public sphere. Not so much through greater power in a constitutional sense, as they remained largely excluded from corporate decisions, but still significantly through regular attendance at services, the veneration of a wide range of female saints, the possibility to join most religious guilds – even to obtain office in a few of them – and gender-specific roles in parochial fundraising and the provision of services.35 Situated yet more explicitly on the margins, the poor underwent a reappraisal from the fifteenth-century as well. By differentiating between worthy and unworthy recipients of alms and by asking for ever more scrupulous intercessory activities in return, late medieval parishioners anticipated key developments in early modern public welfare.36

From a social perspective, therefore, English parishes reflected the late medieval phenomenon of ‘communalisation’. Reinforcing horizontal ties already in place in towns, vills and hundreds, they precipitated the corrosion of feudalism. Compared to Central Europe, the communal principle was stronger in the ecclesiastical than the secular sphere and local autonomy remained more limited, even in boroughs. Pollock and Maitland put it very strongly: ‘men are drilled and regimented into communities in order that the state may be strong and the land may be at peace.’37 The English parish cannot be compared to a mighty imperial free city in the Holy Roman Empire, but it evolved into a significant ‘secular’ unit nevertheless.38


Moving to the second theme, late medieval parishes played a crucial part in the elaboration of the cultural life of the realm. Ronald Hutton’s attempt to date the emergence of individual practices from their first appearance in churchwardens’ accounts has met with some legitimate scepticism,39 but the gist of the argument seems perfectly sound. Increasing lay resources and initiative associated with some 9000 parishes, most of which instrumentalised conviviality and entertainment for fundraising purposes, surely boosted both the range of potential sponsors as well as the size of audiences for cultural activities. There is no shortage of evidence to substantiate this point.40

One telling indication is the late medieval multiplication of church houses, particularly (but not only) in the West Country, as social centres where parishioners brewed, baked and staged corporate functions such as church ales (cf. Fig. 1).41 Any one volume of the ‘Records of Early English Drama’, furthermore, testifies to the parishes’ pivotal role in the elaboration of theatrical and mimetic activities. Parochial records are prime sources of information for seasonal rituals, costumes, instruments and the costs of major performances, even in cities with as rich an archival heritage as Oxford.42 At Boxford in Suffolk, the financial requirements for a new tower may have been behind the staging of a major play in 1535. Rewards were paid to actors ‘which came out of strange places’ and helped to generate a handsome profit of £19, doubtlessly aided by contributions from unspecified ‘drinkers in the booth’.43 With regard to music, pre-Reformation churchwardens supported both spiritual and secular varieties, ranging from sophisticated polyphony to folkloric morris dancing, by means of payments for instruments, musical literature and individual artists. Famous composers like Taverner had associations with specific parishes and city waits graced urban churches with their services. The Reformation brought an end to activities related to intercessory institutions, but allowed parishioners to move from sponsorship to active participation through the vastly popular singing of psalms. New trends in musical provision reached the ‘people’ primarily through their local churches, where patronage was often communal rather than clerical or noble. Parishes could thus be seen as the most ‘democratic’ and socially comprehensive patrons of music in the period.44 Is it unreasonable to link late medieval ceremonial tradition to the emergence of a socially inclusive Renaissance audience, most notably for Shakespearean plays?

In addition to boosting the volume of cultural activities, parishioners also contributed to a marked change in emphasis. The parish was set up as an exclusively ecclesiastical unit, administering purely ecclesiastical funds under strong ecclesiastical supervision.45 By the early modern period, however, the notion of a ‘religious monopoly’ had evaporated. Christopher Hill dated the secularisation of the English parish to the century before the revolution, when he saw statutory local government duties and sectarian pressures undermining the pre-eminence of spiritual concerns. John Sommerville, in turn, identified the growth of the state, the impact of new technology like the printing press and above all the new religious climate nurtured by Protestant doctrine as instrumental for the same process. The reformers’ emphasis on scripture challenged the pervasiveness of ritual and sacral space in everyday life and effected a change from a religiously saturated culture to a more individual, objectified ‘religious faith’ in England as a whole.46 Looking more closely at the late medieval parish, however, we find evidence for the growth of secular concerns much further back in time.

In important respects, English state formation merely elaborated and formalised late medieval parish practice. Pre-Reformation local communities experimented with local rates, road and bridge repairs, various forms of poor relief and new local offices long before Tudor legislation transformed them into statutory pillars of local government. As early as the late fourteenth century, the Exchequer had used the local ecclesiastical unit in a successful taxation experiment.47 In this country, significantly, there were to be no centrally paid intendants or other kinds of embryonic bureaucracies – much rather a form of self-government drawing on the services of ‘amateurs’ recruited from among parochial elites.48 An analysis of late medieval parish finance is highly suggestive: some regimes based on contributions by the ‘living’ raised up to eighty-five per cent of their revenue through ‘secular’ fundraising devices like church ales.49 In terms of expenditure, the most conspicuous growth area in a sample of ten churchwardens’ accounts was neither ‘fabric’ maintenance nor religious ‘worship’, but ‘administration’ (see Fig. 4 [please insert near here]). The latter includes money spent on matters as varied as record keeping, property management, public works and legal proceedings.50 At St Michael’s Spurriergate in York, to adduce yet another case study, the Henrician wardens’ accounts read more like an estate agent’s notebook than a reckoning of ecclesiastical officials. The lion’s share of the income consisted of lists of revenues from real estate; churchwardens routinely turned to property deeds and professional counsel to fight legal proceedings and they made sure to be proactive when it came to the parish’s livelihood: in 1544, for example, the wardens tackled the problem of a declining number of feoffees for the parish estate by calling a meeting ‘in the churche to se all the evydens and to make new feoffers of the landes generall all in on deid’.51

At the same time, churchwardens emerged as major local employers, not only of clergy hired for a variety of services, but also of artisans and labourers for routine maintenance projects as well as further embellishment.52 This raises the badly neglected issue of the parishes’ economic importance. One striking phenomenon is the fact that pre-Reformation rectors ‘typically’ leased the material revenues of their benefices. By transferring control over mortuaries, fees and above all agricultural tithes over to (often lay) investors in return for a specific rent, incumbents effectively boosted the market in foodstuffs and helped to satisfy urban demand.53 In parishes like Cirencester, meanwhile, there was clearly a need for more working space to cope with the sheer volume of socio-economic preoccupations. In 1490, the local abbey added a south porch to the parish church of St John’s ‘to appease or at least accommodate’ the townspeople. Such porches ‘were of great local importance, for here the conduct of both church and secular business took place’. As if to reflect the dynamic of parish society, ‘the exterior is in the most elaborate Perpendicular Gothic; restless tracery pushes up through panels and oriel windows towards the parapet. Nothing is still’. It continues to be used for parish meetings today (see Fig. 5 [please insert near here]).54

Is it mere speculation to suggest that the further enhancement of secular parish authority, as informally evolved over the course of the late Middle Ages, proved an attractive and mitigating feature of the English Reformation? Government propaganda, after all, extolled the principle of lay control and the need to reallocate Church resources for the benefit of the commonwealth. Far from breaking down, as Christopher Hill claimed (and might have been expected), the parish retained its ecclesiastical, social and political importance throughout the doctrinal changes, as recent early modern scholarship is at pains to emphasize. It was not the same community any more, more ‘officially’ secular, subject to heavier external pressures and growing social polarisation, but it clearly survived.55 The medieval heritage, furthermore, literally enriched urban corporations and rural settlements through the creative reinterpretation and reallocation of penitential bequests in support of the wider community: revenues from lands and other assets no longer increased divine service, but local infrastructure, credit, poor relief and basic education. At Cratfield in Suffolk, the parish notables ‘skilfully obscured the extent to which the lands had been used to fund traditional religious activities and prevented their confiscation by the Crown. As a result of this lack of conformity Cratfield was able to redirect its landed income to the support of a school and an almshouse’.56 Less ingeniously, but no less emphatically, Long Melford’s parishioners petitioned royal visitors in 1547-48 to spare at least parts of their endowment for the sake of the ‘pore peple & hyghe wayes & churche goodes’.57

Whatever the success of specific manoeuvrings, churchwardens continued to spend ever more on ‘administration’ in the wake of the Reformation.58 Yet the process of secularisation was not linear and never complete. Wine and bread now needed to be bought for communion, church building campaigns resurfaced after a dip during the mid-sixteenth century and new forms of ‘voluntary religion’ such as lectureships emerged in early modern communities, albeit for different doctrinal motives and within a more fragmented confessional environment than before the Reformation.59 Continuity in terms of core pastoral responsibilities, of course, should also be emphasized.60
Finally, let us turn to the parish’s role in English political culture. There is much excitement about the emergence of Parliament in the late Middle Ages, but the simultaneous development of parochial institutions – affecting an infinitely larger number of people much more directly – has attracted rather less interest in recent times. While often anecdotal and nostalgic in tone, older historical work certainly pointed to the significance of this process: around 1900, for instance, Augustus Jessopp interpreted parochial activities as a ‘means to lift people up’ from the yoke of feudal subordination; Bishop Hobhouse saw Somerset parishes operating under ‘a constitution which recognized the rights of the whole and of every adult member to a voice in self-government’, while Austrian legal historian Josef Redlich described English parish meetings as ‘a very democratic type of local government. Presided over by the priest, they appear as assemblies … in which each member had an equal share in discussion and decision-making’. No social historian would put it quite like that nowadays, but the fact remains that parish decision-making followed horizontal rather than vertical principles of political organization. Parish government (as its constitutional sibling in towns) knew neither universal suffrage nor gender equality, but compared to feudal rule it was a government by the relatively many rather than the select few.

The accounts of Bethersden in Kent for 1524 charged ‘the sexton to give all the parish a warning that the whole parish should appear together the 8th day of January [1525] that they might have a communication of how many kene [=cattle] belonged to the church of Betrysden and also to have a perfect knowledge under what manner or form they were given to the church.’61 The reality of such inclusive language is often questioned, but the sources routinely insist on broad participation. Providing the holy bread for distribution after mass, contributing to parochial levies and attending audits emerge as duties shared among all independent householders, on whose shoulders, after all, much of premodern public life rested.62 The most striking case in point must be the dispute about the clerk’s wages at Morebath in the 1530s. In a parish composed of thirty-three households, a vote conducted at the peak of communal division yielded a result of twenty-six against five – representing a turnout of ninety-four per cent!63

Another late medieval legacy, however, gradually undermined this broadly based system. From the later fifteenth century, there is increasing evidence for oligarchic parish regimes. Out of the ‘frontbenchers’ of a congregation, i.e. the local elites worshipping in the most prestigious parts of the church, groups like the ‘masters’, the ‘feoffees’ or the ‘auditors’ gradually assumed a disproportionate role in parochial affairs. As ancestors of the notorious ‘closed vestries’ of the post-Reformation period, they emerged particularly frequently in city-centre communities with a great deal of business associated with landed endowment, but also in certain rural environments.64 At St Michael Spurriergate in the provincial capital of York, a memorandum of 1522-23 records ‘that our masters with all the hoyle parishoners’ had agreed to waive the rent for a parish property, while a body of ‘Five Men’ supervised communal affairs in the village of Morebath.65 Yet, in both cases, the wider body of householders still had a say. Major decisions were to be made collectively, representatives to be elected and accounts to be yielded periodically. This is the late medieval parish constitution in a nutshell: at pre-Reformation Halberton in the West Country, the body of the six men was ‘elect and chosen by all the parishioners’, while at Bethersden’s account-day of 1520 ‘the whole parish and the wardens were agreed that from henceforth the wardens shall give accounts every year the next Sunday after St Nicholas [day] and if so be [that] the churchwardens do not give accounts every year ... then the said wardens that so shall hap[pen] to fail ... shall lose to the church 6 s. 8 d.’66

Parish politics thus anticipated key features of later ‘democratic’ regimes. The practices sketched here raise intriguing questions about the origin of modern constitutional thought. Where, for instance, did political radicals get their ideas from? One of the most advanced programmes ever devised in early modern England, that of the Levellers in the late 1640s, may owe as much to the practical experience of communal regimes in cities and parishes as to abstract influences like common law tradition, natural law discourse and separatist religious doctrine. William Walwyn, a protagonist of the movement, demonstrably served his turn in parish administration at St James Garlickhithe in London a decade or so before helping to draft the Levellers’ famous Agreements. As a member of the parish vestry and subsequently another elected committee of ‘12 men’, he endeavoured to effect a ‘reformation’ in a parish he found ‘out of order’, mainly because of financial irregularities.


And whereas divers parisheners desyred to bee acquainted how the estate of the parish [and] the rents and Revenues of the Church & poores stocke now standeth, for their better sattisfaction therin it was now thought fitt by this vestry to chuse a comitte of 12 men of the vestre to Examen the bookes & accomptes of this parish and […] to that purpose there was now chosen [12 names including] Mr Wallwine […] which 12 men with the parson and churchwardens […] shalbee a full meeting & all wrightinges & bookes to bee produced before them.67
In his tract A whisper in the Eare of Mr Thomas Edwards (1646), Walwyn explains how his zeal for the ‘public good’ took him from this lowest level of St James to reform initiatives in his London ward, then on to petitions to the municipal council and finally, ‘when the common enemy [i.e. Charles I’s party] was at the highest’ to the lobbying of Parliament.68 The late medieval principles of broadly-based elections, officer accountability and periodical assemblies, manifestly at stake in this parochial dispute, all feature prominently in the Levellers’ proposals for political reform in the country at large – a projection of local practices onto the national canvas that has not gone unnoticed among Leveller historians.69

In conclusion, therefore, late medieval parishes repay the pursuit of a plurality of approaches. Religious life, like all other spheres of individual experience, was ‘integrated into complex, long-standing and broad social, cultural, political, economic and demographic systems’.70 On top of a better understanding of the context of ecclesiastical history, engagement with secular aspects reveals long-term legacies in at least three different respects: Socially, parishes ‘embedded’ individuals in a new horizontal framework emerging alongside kinship ties and vertical bonds of subordination, with access to offices and public responsibilities proving instrumental for the rise of the middling sort. Culturally, parishioners helped to elaborate the ritual and ceremonial life of the nation, while contributing to a gradual, if never comprehensive process of secularisation. Politically, parishes offered a universal micro-laboratory for contrasting models of constitutional organization: proto-‘democratic’ principles like election, accountability and periodical assemblies (inspiring radical political thought) on the one hand, and oligarchic tendencies like parish ‘masters’ or vestries on the other. In areas such as education, public works and poor relief, furthermore, the parish set the agenda for centuries to come.

From a historiographical perspective, more pronounced engagement with secular dimensions facilitates scholarly exchange with early modern parish research, particularly with regard to parochial input into English state formation. After all, both the institutions and fundraising mechanisms enshrined in Tudor local government legislation were essentially late medieval parish creations and as such not the least intriguing aspect of the complex relationship between English monarchs and their Church.



Captions for Figures


  1. The fourteenth-century ‘Church House Inn’ at Holne in Devon, which continues to serve the religious and convivial needs of the villagers today. [Picture: BK]




  1. Prospect of the early fifteenth-century church of St Andrew, Ashburton, in Devon – most tangible symbol of a vibrant parish life built on the socio-economic foundations of a prosperous wool and tin trade. [Picture: BK]




  1. The parish chest of St Eustachius at Tavistock in Devon, once the communal archive and ‘memory’. [Picture: BK]




  1. Aggregate expenditure on fabric, worship and administration in the first surviving churchwardens’ accounts (‘First’) compared to the last pre-Reformation years (‘Last’) from a sample of ten parishes (in per cent of total recorded spending).




  1. South porch of the parish church of St John the Baptist, Cirencester, ‘the largest and most complex in England. It is exceptionally grand, three bays wide, three deep and three storeys tall … . It might qualify as England’s first office block’. [Jenkins, Churches, p. 210; picture: BK]




1 P. Cowley, The Church Houses: Their Religious and Social Significance (London, 1970).

2 Information and quotes taken from records kindly supplied by the Charity Commissioners for England and Wales, namely the Scheme: Holne Church Charity (Holne, 1987) and the ‘Annual Report’ of the same charity for the year 2001.

3 The People of the Parish (Comp.), The Book of Rattery (Tiverton, 2001), pp. 22-23.

4 ‘Medieval Norwich had 57 churches within the city walls, and 31 still exist. Most are Perpendicular in style and are skilfully built of local flint’: ‘City of Norwich – Tourism: Churches in Norwich’ (http://www.norwich.gov.uk/norwichcc/tourism.nsf/pages/churches.html; consulted 24 May 2003); S. Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Churches (London, 1999). For the local impact of E. Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (New Haven, 2001) cf. ‘The Media at Morebath’, Devon Record Office: Newsletter 29 (2002).

5 Case reported in The Independent (18 May 2001), 11.

6 The ‘first genuinely post-revisionist account’ in E. Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation (Cambridge, 2003), i; but see earlier reassessments in C. Marsh, Popular Religion in Sixteenth-Century England: Holding their Peace (New York, 1998), esp. ch. 5; D. MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England 1547-1603, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke, 2001), pp. 105-19.

7 One example is the debate on the extent of gentry involvement in the late medieval parish (see the contribution of Nigel Saul in this volume).

The observation of a gradual move towards a religious organization based on ties of conscience (rather than territorial proximity) in D. Beaver, Parish Communities and Religious Conflict in the Vale of Gloucester, 1590-1690 (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), might be expected to point to the tradition of individualised movements like the devotio moderna or networks of interrelated households like the Lollard movement in the pre-Reformation period.

8 K. Wrightson, ‘The Politics of the Parish in Early Modern England’, in: The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England, ed. P. Griffiths, A. Fox and S. Hindle (Basingstoke, 1996), pp. 10-46; S. Hindle, ‘A Sense of Place? Becoming and Belonging in the Rural Parish, 1550-1650’, in: Communities in Early Modern England: Networks, Place, Rhetoric, ed. A. Shepard and P. Withington (Manchester, 2000), pp. 96-114.

9 Notable contributions include D. Palliser, ‘Introduction: the Parish in Perspective’, in: Parish, Church & People: Local Studies in Lay Religion 1350-1750, ed. S. Wright (London, 1988), pp. 5-28; E. Carlson, ‘The origins, function, and status of the office of churchwarden’, in: The World of Rural Dissenters 1520-1725, ed. M. Spufford (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 164-207; and N. Pounds, A History of the English Parish: the Culture of Religion from Augustine to Victoria (Cambridge, 2000).

10 Cf. W. K. Jordan, Philanthropy in England 1480-1660: a Study of the Changing Pattern of English Social Aspirations (London, 1959) and J. A. F. Thomson, ‘Piety and Charity in Late Medieval London’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 16 (1965), 178-95.

11 C. Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors (Oxford, 1993), ‘Prologue’.

12 P. Schofield, Peasant and Community in Medieval England 1200-1500 (Basingstoke, 2003), p. 211.

13 P. Clark, The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830 (London, 1983), ch. 2.

14 The bias in recent parish historiography may be one reason why Tudor textbooks remain rather top-heavy in their social and political coverage: S. Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors 1485-1603 (London, 2001).

15 S. Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford, 1994).

16 A. Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism: the Family, Property and Social Transition (Oxford, 1978).

17 Sir F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I, reprint of 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1923), vol. I, pp. 687-88; see also F. W. Maitland, ‘The Survival of Archaic Communities’, in his Collected Papers (3 vols, London, 1911), vol. II, pp. 313-65, esp. 339.

18 S. Reynolds, An Introduction to the History of English Medieval Towns (Oxford, 1979); R. M. Smith, ‘“Modernization” and the Corporate Village Community in England: Some Sceptical Reflections’, in: Explorations in Historical Geography, ed. A. Baker and D. Gregory (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 140-79, esp. 177; C. Dyer, ‘The English Medieval Village Community and its Decline’, Journal of British Studies 33 (1994), 407-29; Schofield, Peasant and Community; L. Hollen Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People 1700-1948 (Cambridge, 1998).

19 Walsingham is cited and contextualised in S. Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley, 1994), p. 172.

20 L. Genicot, Rural Communities in the Medieval West (Baltimore, 1990), p. 105; P. Jones, ‘Parish, seigneurie and the Community of Inhabitants in Southern Central France during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, Past and Present 91 (1981), 74-108.

21 A History of the Forest of Rossendale, ed. T. Newbigging (Rawtenstall, 1893), p. 177; London, Guildhall Library, MS 1454: Churchwardens’ Accounts of St Botolph Aldersgate, 1494-95.

22 Hindle, ‘Becoming and belonging’, 96; B. Kümin, The Shaping of a Community: The Rise & Reformation of the English Parish c. 1400-1560 (Aldershot, 1996); K. Farnhill, Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia, c. 1470-1550 (Woodbridge, 2001).

23 C. Carpenter, ‘Gentry and Community in Medieval England’, Journal of British Studies 33 (1994), 340-80, esp. 340; Wrightson, ‘Politics of the Parish’, p. 12. For a general introduction to terminological and historiographical issues cf. A. Shepard and P. Withington, ‘Introduction’, in: Communities in Early Modern England, pp. 1-15, esp. 5 (calling on historians ‘to reinvigorate the concept of “community” in order to examine the many different types of association and modes of communication in which people participated’).

24 J. Blair, ‘Introduction: from Minster to Parish Church’, in: Minsters and Parish Churches, ed. idem (Oxford, 1988), pp. 1-19; C. Drew, Early Parochial Organisation in England: The Origins of the Office of Churchwarden (London, 1954). ‘From the mid-fourteenth century onwards, it is the emergence of the churchwarden that dominates [the] story of lay involvement’: Schofield, Peasant, p. 200.

25 Kümin, Shaping of a Community, ch. 2; E. Cannan, History of Local Rates in England (London, 1912), pp. 15-16; for parish seals see the essay by Elizabeth New in this volume.

26 Schofield, Peasant, pp. 193, 195-96.

27 L. Brown, A Guide and Short History of St Andrew’s Parish Church, Ashburton, 4th ed. (Ashburton, 1999), p. 5. This impression is borne out by unusually rich and comprehensive parish accounts: Churchwardens’ Accounts of Ashburton 1479-1580, ed. A. Hanham (Torquay, 1970).

28 E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven, 1992), pp. 136-39.

29 C. P. Graves, ‘Social Space in the English Medieval Parish Church’, Economy and Society 18 (1989), 297-322, esp. 297; see also M. Aston, ‘Segregation in Church’, in: Women in the Church, ed. W. Sheils and D. Wood (Oxford, 1990), pp. 524-52.

30 For an urban case study see C. Phythian-Adams, ‘Ceremony and the Citizen: the Communal Year at Coventry 1450-1550’, in: Crisis and Order in English Towns 1500-1700, ed. P. Clark and P. Slack (London, 1972), pp. 57-85.

31 J. Wans, The Parish Church of St Eustachius, Tavistock Devon (Tavistock, 1990), p. 9.

32 K. L. French, The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese (Philadelphia, 2001), ch. 2 and esp. p. 49.

33 Elaborated and contextualised in E. Bünz, ‘“Die Kirche im Dorf lassen …”: Formen der Kommunikation im spätmittelalterlichen Niederkirchenwesen’, in: Kommunikation in der ländlichen Gesellschaft vom Mittelalter bis zur Moderne, ed. W. Rösener (Göttingen, 2000), pp. 77-167, esp. 144.

34 P. Collinson and J. Craig, ‘Introduction’, in: The Reformation in English Towns 1500-1640, ed. idem (Basingstoke, 1998), pp. 1-19, esp. 16: ‘it is only by exploring … popular politics … that we can begin to understand the English Reformation’: Shagan, Reformation, p. 310.

35 K. French, ‘“To free them from binding”: Women in the Late Medieval English Parish’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 27 (1997), 387-412; C. S. Schen, ‘Women and the London Parishes 1500-1620’, in: The Parish in English Life 1400-1600, ed. K. French, G. Gibbs and B. Kümin (Manchester, 1997), pp. 250-68.

36 M. McIntosh, ‘Local Responses to the Poor in Late Medieval and Tudor England’, Continuity and Change 3 (1988), 209-45.

37 Pollock and Maitland, History of Law, i. 688.

38 Kümin, Shaping of a Community, ‘Epilogue’.

39 K. L. French, ‘Review [of: The Rise and Fall of Merry England]’, Sixteenth Century Journal 26 (1995), 247-48.

40 For an examination of the cultural importance of parishes in another territorial context cf. Kirche im Dorf: Ihre Bedeutung für die kulturelle Entwicklung der ländlichen Gesellschaft im “Preussenland”, 13.-18. Jahrhundert (Berlin, 2002).

41 An artist’s attempt at a reconstruction at http://www.building-history.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Buildings/Churchhouses.htm (consulted 28 May 2003).

42 Cf. e.g. Records of Early English Drama: Oxford, ed. J. R. Elliott Jr, A. F. Johnston and D. Watt (Toronto, forthcoming), a volume for which parishes ‘provided so much relevant material’: ‘Introduction’, note 64.

43 Boxford Churchwardens’ Accounts 1530-1561, ed. P. Northeast (Woodbridge, 1982), pp. xiii, 19. Another example of a profitable communal effort, documented in a separate play account, comes from Bethersden in 1521: The Churchwardens’ Accounts at Betrysden [Bethersden] 1515-73, ed. F. M. Mercer (Ashford, 1928), pp. x-xi, 3-5.

44 B. Kümin, ‘Masses, Morris and Metrical Psalms: Music in the English Parish c. 1400-1600’, in: Music and Musicians in Renaissance Cities and Towns, ed. F. Kisby (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 70-81, esp. 80.

45 See e.g. Statutes of the Synod of Exeter (1287), c. 12: Councils and Synods with Other Documents Relating to the English Church, ed. F. Powicke and C. Cheney (Oxford, 1964), pt. II, p. 1008.

46 C. Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (London, 1964), pp. 420-42; C. J. Sommerville, The Secularization of Early Modern England: From Religious Culture to Religious Faith (Oxford, 1992).

47 W. M. Ormrod, ‘An Experiment in Taxation: the English Parish Subsidy of 1371’, Speculum 63 (1988), 58-82. Parishes also served as bases for subsequent tax levies, e.g. in Devon for the subsidy granted in 1543, but apparently only when they were coterminous with the secular unit of the tithing (I am grateful to Mark Forrest for this information).

48 J. Kent, ‘The Centre and the Localities: State Formation and Parish Government in England c. 1640-1740’, Historical Journal 38 (1995), 363-404; S. Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England 1550-1640 (Basingstoke, 2000), esp. ch. 8 (‘The Governance of the Parish’).

49 Taunton, Somerset Record Office, D/P/yat/4/1/3: Churchwardens’ Accounts of Yatton, 1540-45.

50 The graph charts the aggregated expenditure on the three main categories (in per cent of total recorded spending) from the metropolitan parishes of St Andrew Hubbard and St Botolph Aldersgate in London and St Ewen’s and All Saints in Bristol; the market towns of Ashburton, Halesowen, Peterborough and Prescot; and the rural communities of Boxford and Yatton (adapted from Kümin, Shaping of a Community, p. 142; for methodical information cf. ibid, appendix 2).

51 The Churchwardens’ Accounts of St Michael, Spurriergate, York 1518-1548, ed. C. C. Webb (2 vols, York, 1997), vol. I, p. 5; vol. II, p. 277 and passim. In York, incidentally, parishes also served as administrative units for municipal purposes: D. Palliser, Tudor York (Oxford, 1979), p. 77.

52 Churchwardens’ Accounts of Michael Spurriergate, pp. 9-10. Much detail regarding parish patronage of masons and other workmen in J. Middleton-Stewart, Inward Purity and Outward Splendour: Death and Remembrance in the Deanery of Dunwich, Suffolk, 1370-1547 (Woodbridge, 2001), e.g. p. 105 (contract between parish elders and masons for work on the church tower of Walberswick in 1426).

53 R. C. Palmer, Selling the Church: The English Parish in Law, Commerce, and Religion, 1350-1550 (Chapel Hill, 2002), esp. pp. 99, 248.

54 Quotes from Jenkins, Churches, p. 210.

55 N. Alldridge, ‘Loyalty and Identity in Chester parishes 1540-1640’, in: Parish, Church & People, pp. 85-124; I. Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, 1991); J. Morrill, ‘The Church in England 1642-49’, in Reactions to the English Civil War 1642-49, ed. idem (London, 1982), pp. 89-114.

56 K. Farnhill, ‘Religious Policy and Parish “Conformity”: Cratfield’s Lands in the Sixteenth Century’, in: The Parish in English Life, pp. 216-29, esp. 229; the material gains to be made at the Reformation could boost the fortunes of English towns: R. Tittler, ‘Reformation, Resources and Authority in English Towns: an Overview’, in: The Reformation in English Towns, pp. 190-201.

57 Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk Record Office, FL 509/1/15: Black Book of Long Melford, f. 27v.

58 Churchwardens’ Accounts of Ashburton 1479-1580, p. x; Elizabethan Churchwardens’ Accounts, ed. J. Farmiloe and R. Nixseaman (Streatley, 1953), pp. xxix-xxx; J. Craig, ‘Co-operation and Initiatives: Elizabethan Churchwardens and the Parish Accounts of Mildenhall’, in: Social History 18 (1993), 357-380. A colossal amount of detail can be found in S. and B. Webb, English Local Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Reform Act. Vol. 1: The Parish and the County (1906; reprint: London, 1963).

59 On the resumption of church building: A. Foster, ‘Churchwardens’ Accounts of Early Modern England and Wales: Some Problems to Note, but Much to be Gained’, in: The Parish in English Life, pp. 74-93, esp. 85-93; B. Kümin, ‘Voluntary Religion and Reformation Change in Eight Urban Parishes’, in: The Reformation in English Towns, pp. 175-89, esp. 189.

60 Post-Restoration evidence for extensive lay efforts to enhance pastoral quality in D. A. Spaeth, The Church in an Age of Danger: Parsons and Parishioners 1660-1740 (Cambridge, 2000).

A. Jessopp, ‘Parish Life in England Before the Great Pillage’, Nineteenth Century 43 (1898), 47-60, 431-47, esp. 47; Churchwardens’ Accounts of Croscombe [etc], ed. E. Hobhouse (London, 1890), p. xi; J. Redlich, Englische Lokalverwaltung (Leipzig, 1901), p. 35 [translation: BK].

61 Churchwardens’ Accounts at Betrysden, pp. 60-61.

62 Holy bread rota in Borough Customs, ed. M. Bateson (London, 1904), vol. I, p. 212; parochial dues levied on those with dwelling-houses in the parish: F. Fox (ed.), ‘The Regulations of the Vestry of St Stephen [Bristol] 1524’, Proceedings of the Clifton Antiquarian Club 1 (1884-88), 200; St Botolph Aldersgate in London required ‘persons being a parishioner and a householder in the same parish’ to attend its audit: Churchwardens’ accounts 1494-95. For a contemporary assessment cf. Richard Whitford, A Werke for Householders (London, 1530).

63 Duffy, Morebath, pp. 2 (number of households) and 60 (counting of votes).

64 From a post-Reformation perspective, the parish vestry – whether ‘open’ or ‘closed’ – was the ‘characteristic institutional forum in which popular political culture found expression’: S. Hindle, ‘The Political Culture of the Middling Sort in English Rural Communities, c. 1550-1700’, in: The Politics of the Excluded, c.1500-1850, ed. T. Harris (Basingstoke, 2000), pp. 125-152, esp. 126.

65 Churchwardens’ Accounts of Michael Spurriergate, vol I, p. 91; Duffy, Morebath, pp. 30-31.

66 R. Whiting, The Blind Devotion of the People: Popular Religion and the English Reformation (Cambridge, 1989), p. 91; Churchwardens’ Accounts at Betrysden, p. 81.

67 Walwyn’s presence and role are documented in London, Guildhall Library, MS 4813/1: Vestry Minutes of St James Garlickhithe, f. 52-55 (quote on f. 54v), and ibid., MS 4813/2: St James Garlickhithe Vestry Book, f. 3v.

68 Text edited in Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution, ed. D. Haller (New York, 1934), vol. III, pp. 319-35, esp. 324-25.

69 B. Manning, ‘Introduction [to: ‘The Levellers and Christianity’], in: idem, Politics, Religion and the English Civil War (London, 1973), p. 225; K. Thomas, ‘The Levellers and the Franchise’, in: The Interregnum, ed. G. Aylmer, 2nd ed. (London, 1979), pp. 57-78; B. Kümin, ‘Die kommunale Prägung der englischen Levellers’, in: Gemeinde und Staat im alten Europa, ed. P. Blickle (Munich, 1998), pp. 359-94, esp. 389-94.

70 Schofield, Peasants, p. 215.


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