The Medieval English Church


Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk


Religion and spirituality

bullet In 13th Century England, about one man in fifty was a cleric. Many of these were "in minor orders," i.e. deacons and sub-deacons (not priests) who could conduct services, but not officiate at mass.
bullet The Gregorian reform movement had done something to raise clerical standards. Clerical celibacy was basically established in 13th century England, however, many priests did keep mistresses.

Threxton church, Norfolk
with its round 12th Century tower

The basic administrative division of the church was the parish, which had on average about 400 members. Each parish was a part of a rural deanery; several deaneries comprised an archdeaconry; and a number of these made up each diocese.

bullet Parish priests were called "secular clergy;" whereas monks/nuns and friars were "regular clergy." In the early 14th Century, there were about 17,500 monks and nuns. There were also about 100 houses of Franciscan and Dominican friars. In the 1240's Carmelites & Austin friars arrived. By 1300, all the friars combined had some 150 houses.

"There was also a Nun, a Prioress,
That of her smiling was full simple and coy;
Her greatest oath was but
by Saint Loy;
And she was cleped
named] Madame Eglentine.
Full well she sang the service divine,
Entuned in her nose full seemly;
And French she spake full fair and fetisly
After the school of Stratford at Bow,
For French of Paris was to her unknow."

(Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Prologue)
[Stratford at Bow is a district of London]


bullet By this time, both monks and friars had stopped accepting children and tried in various ways to ensure that their recruits had a genuine vocation to the religious life.
bullet Both the clergy and the laity were becoming better educated. Cambridge University had been founded in 1209 by scholars from Oxford. By the early 14th Century, Oxford University contained about fifteen hundred masters and students.
bullet Friars were particularly attracted to scholarship - in the early 14th Century at Oxford University, there were 90 Dominicans and 84 Franciscans.

Roger Bacon (c. 1220-92) was a Franciscan friar who studied at the universities of Oxford and Paris. He advocated experimental science, studied mathematics and astronomy, and worked on technological advances such as gunpowder and lenses.
"For the things of this world cannot be made known without a knowledge of mathematics."

(Roger Bacon, Opus Majus  IV)


bullet  A new strain of mysticism also entered religious life during the 13th and 14th centuries. In Germany Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 - 1327) suggested that the human soul could achieve complete union with God through self-abnegation. In England, Julian of Norwich (1342 - 1413) wrote her Revelations of Divine Love about the visions she had during a near-death experience.


The English Church and the Papacy

Boniface VIII


bullet The Gregorian reform movement improved clerical standards, but it did not manage to achieve the desired independence of church from state - let alone real control of the state by the church. Nevertheless, the 13th century saw the peak of papal power - kings and emperors disobeyed the pope at their peril.
bullet When Innocent III issued his Interdict (1208-14,) the clergy obeyed him rather than King John. Marriages, masses and funeral services were not performed. Nonetheless, it is also true that only baronial revolt endangered John's power - although excommunicated for four years, his friends and allies continued to obey him.
bullet The papacy was also able successfully to levy taxes. At the Council of Lyons (1245) Henry III complained that the Pope was taking 60,000 marks per year from England. The Pope asked 135,000 marks to place Henry's son on the throne of Sicily.
bullet Naturally, English kings wanted to see the country's revenues in their own pockets - not the pope's. In 1297, this conflict came to a head when Edward tried to tax the clergy and Boniface VIII (1294-1303) ordered them not to pay. In general, however, the clergy reluctantly paid for peace and quiet, and the taxes they paid to the state came to exceed those they paid to the pope.

Ecclesiastical administration

bullet The English Church's administrative structure stabilized during the 12th Century. The new bishopric of Ely was created in 1108 and that of Carlisle in 1133, but thereafter little changed until the 16th century.

Medieval dioceses of England and Wales


bullet The existing parish boundaries also gradually became fixed, and it became increasingly difficult to create new parishes.
bullet In areas of denser population, the shortfall of parish priests was in part balanced by the growing number of friars. These shared the duties of preaching and holding services with the secular clergy.
bullet English Christians were remarkably conformist:  there were very few heretics of any kind. During the 13th century, in France, the Cathars (also called Albigensians) combined Christianity with Gnosticism and Manichaean dualism, and in the 14th Century Netherlands, Gerard Grote and the Brethren of the Common Life advocated new forms of lay piety. Neither movement found many followers in England.

A Jewish Mikveh or ritual bath built in the first half of the 13th century. (Excavated 2001).
bullet There were a small number Jews in English towns (London, York, Oxford, Lincoln, Leicester and Winchester.) Most practiced as bankers or money-lenders:  Aaron of Lincoln, one ironic example, loaned money to finance building monasteries and cathedrals. However, a Statute of 1275 (Statutum de Judeismo) made all Jewish usury (lending money at interest) illegal.
On 18 July 1290, a royal edict expelled all Jews from England. (The law remained in force until 1656.)


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