Popular Piety in Late Medieval England: The Diocese of Salisbury 1250-1550 / Religion and Devotion in Europe, C.1215-C.1515

Article excerpt

Popular Piety in Late Medieval England: The Diocese of Salisbury 1250-1550. By Andrew D. Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. x + 297 pp. $59.00 (cloth).

Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215-c. 1515. By R. N. Swanson. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. xv + 377 pp. $69.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Both books to be considered in this review are commendable but distinct contributions to the growing literature concerning popular piety or lay religious practice in the late medieval western world. Andrew D. Brown's Popular Piety is a detailed regional study which draws upon evidence compiled from monastic cartularies, cathedral receipts, visitation records, and other archival material, to draw a nuanced picture of the variations and transformations in pious giving, parish life, and religious practice among lay people within the diocese of Salisbury during the period 1250-1550. Because such evidence lends itself readily to the statistical tables which dot the book but does not readily reveal the depth of belief, Brown is content to demonstrate the complex ways in which the pious practices of the region appear to be affected by geography, wealth, social and ecclesiastical concerns (p. 17).

Brown traces a general shift in lav interest from the great religious foundations of the twelfth century to the local parish, and ably demonstrates the web of interconnections that linked cathedral, chantries, fraternities, town government, and charitable institutions (almshouses, hospitals) to the local parish, attending all the while to local differences. Parish church building, for instance, was most intense in regions which profited from the wealth generated by the cloth trade, but was not exclusive to such areas. Christian community was weakened, as evidenced by the presence of heretics, in more populous locations, perhaps in part because here the parish fabric funds were supported primarily by endowed rents instead of individual contributions.

In presenting his findings, Brown challenges several traditional assumptions. A case in point is his observation that while traditional religious orders were indeed becoming less important in society as a whole, the obvious decline in landed gifts may reflect changing laws and economic conditions as much as declining interest. Bequests in money and liturgical goods continued to flow into monastic houses right up until the Dissolution, particularly from knights and gentry (p. 47).

Perhaps the most intriguing section of this work is the chapter in which Brown considers the ease sv-ith which the Reformation was accepted in a diocese which, by all external evidence and accounts, appears to have been traditionally pious. He suggests that the Reformation was accepted less because the cry for reform had become stronger and more because it did not represent a complete break with the past (p. 251). The destruction of Catholic doctrine may have altered outward devotional habits only superficially. Fraternities still conducted yearly processions, for instance, but now these were directed ostensibly to civic causes. Here, too, Brown attends to regional differences. The Reformation was more readily received among the literate gentry and merchants, in more populous parishes in which individual attachment to the parish could be weaker, or in parishes in which financial obligations to the dead were more onerous and hence more readily abandoned.

In contrast to the specificity of Brown's work, Religion and Devotion in Europe by R. N. Swanson is a comprehensive general survey of religiosity among laity within the Latinate church of Western Europe during the period framed by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the Reformation. The book is intended as a student textbook, so footnoting is minimal and bibliography is select. He does not assume his readers are Christian and so begins with a brief definition of Christianity, the faith, and its demands. …