Login *:
Password *:


5-03-2015, 05:33

Changes and Continuities in Piety

At the beginning of our period the religious orders were seen as offering society the best model for salvation. The proliferation of new religious orders in the twelfth century, such as the Cistercians, Austin canons and Gilbertines (the only medieval religious order to have originated in England), as well as the crusading orders and the friars, and the foundation by the laity of large numbers of monasteries and nunneries over the course of the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, attests to the power of the monastic ideal. By contrast, from c.1300 onwards there is a detectable waning of enthusiasm for the establishment of new monasteries, and at the same time a rise in more parish-based forms of religious expression. The slowdown in support for the religious was, of course, not uniform and some orders fared rather better than others. For instance, the later middle ages witnessed a flowering of devotion within the houses of the more austere and rigidly enclosed orders, such as the Carthusians, Brigittines and Observant Franciscans. Also, studies of testamentary support for the religious orders indicate that, right down to the eve of the Reformation, significant numbers of lay men and women still patronized the religious orders, in particular friaries, and looked to them as suitable places for burial or as intercessory institutions, while the same period also saw the continued formation of lay fraternities within the churches of the mendicant orders. However, it is clear that increasingly parish life and parochial institutions such as guilds appeared to offer more popular and more flexible alternatives to the enclosed and regulated life of the religious houses, and certainly provided a greater level of lay participation in religion and pious expression. In part, this decline in support for the religious was connected less with a burgeoning disenchantment with the monastic ideal and had more to do with structural changes in the life of the church. Historians have pointed to the significance of the passing in 1279 of the Statute of Mortmain, which aimed to stop the flow of land grants to the church through the payment of fines to the crown, and therefore made the establishment of new houses by prospective founders a time-consuming and above all extremely costly affair. Most new foundations in the period after the passing of this statute tended to be smaller-scale and cheaper projects, such as collegiate foundations and chantries. At the same time, the thirteenth century also witnessed a growth in synodal and diocesan legislation, which emphasized the duties of the laity in maintaining the fabric and fittings of their local parish churches. The increased responsibilities of the laity in relation to their churches in turn led to the development of more complex structures of parish government, notably the office of churchwarden, as well as other branches of responsibility such as the parish elites composed of serving and former churchwardens that anticipated the later vestry system of parochial government. Nevertheless, despite these changes, the monastic ideal continued to contribute much to the development of lay piety in this later period. For instance, the rapid growth in popularity of lay fraternities was surely, at least in part, the result of the application of the corporate model of prayer which the monasteries represented, and in particular the ideals of brotherhood and mutual charity promoted by the friars. The fostering by the late medieval laity of new types of pious and charitable projects such as chantries (endowments for masses to be celebrated for the soul of the deceased) and almshouses also owed a great deal to earlier monastic models. At any one time, most parish churches had several temporary chantries founded within them, and a few (usually wealthy urban parishes) could boast large numbers of perpetual intercessory foundations. The almost non-stop liturgical and intercessory round of many parochial institutions by 1500 must surely have resembled, and in some cases perhaps even rivalled, that found within monastic houses.15 Almshouses, the distinctive form of charitable institution of the later middle ages, were not run on the lines of any prescribed monastic rule, as was the case with earlier monastic-style hospitals, but the daily lives of the inmates of these institutions were closely modelled on monastic regimes. It is also arguable that the spiritual duties and the moral obligations of almshouse inmates were at least as strict and rigorous as those observed even within the churches of the more austere religious, such as the Carthusians. Above all, the monastic model of devotion shaped the devotional lives of the laity within their own homes. Many of the households of wealthy aristocratic widows, such as Lady Margaret Beaufort (d. 1487), the mother of Henry VII, developed a precise set of regulated daily rounds of prayer and contemplation which drew inspiration from the spiritual disciplines of the religious orders. Lower down the social scale, many gentry families enjoyed the ministrations of a private chaplain and furnished household chapel to aid them in their devotions. This tendency towards the growth of domestic piety in the later middle ages is clear even among the homes of humbler rural ‘middle classes’ or urban bourgeoisie. In particular, the advent of printing in the later fifteenth century made widely available to many ordinary people the mass-produced Books of Hours, as well as a host of other devotional works, many of which were in the vernacular and thus aided and stimulated the expansion of private devotion throughout all levels of society.

Overall, the later middle ages saw not so much the decline of the monastic life and its ideals for the salvation of the soul as its assimilation by the laity into more informal and more flexible forms that were tailored to suit life and conditions within the world. This, then, was the creation of what is often termed the ‘mixed life’, that is, the pious life lived within the framework of the everyday world, which sought to reconcile secular concerns with the teachings of the church and the obligations that it required from all believers. Rather more open to debate is whether this shift represents not simply the adoption of the monastic ethos into the lives of the medieval laity but a growing feeling among society that the religious orders were coming to be regarded as increasingly unsuited to be entrusted with the care of souls. However, broadly speaking, it seems if there was any significant change at all in pious practices over the course of the 400 years covered by this volume, it was that, whereas in 1100 the context for prayer and intercession was largely confined to institutions run by a small professional elite made up of the clergy and religious, by c.1500 such activities had become increasingly adopted, developed and administered by the laity. Thus, on the eve of the Reformation, the laity were more fully in control of the means of their own salvation than they had been in 1100. We should not, however, assume that this historical movement towards greater lay control in religion provides the key to understanding the success of the Reformation. On the contrary, the religious changes of the mid-sixteenth century in England obliterated many of the avenues of voluntary religion (chantries, pilgrimages, guilds etc.) in which the late medieval laity had participated most vigorously and enthusiastically. The explanation for the eventual triumph of the reformist cause must, therefore, lie in the needs of the Tudor mon-archs and the centralizing tendencies of the Tudor state rather than in any inherent unpopularity of the traditional church.