Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to 1600 A.D

By Colin Platt | Go to book overview

5

Stability at a Reduced Level: the Church

Nowhere in English society were new departures more evident than in the late-medieval Church. Except as great landowners and, occasionally still, as builders, there will be little to report of the mighty possessioner houses which, in pre-plague years, had dominated the monastic Church. Yet this is not to say that the Church itself was unappreciated, or that its institutions were in a state of disarray. There had been, of course, many signs of religious unrest, with a stepping-up, early in the fifteenth century, of the crown's campaign against heresy. But the association of Wycliffe's Lollardy with the social discontents of the Peasants' Revolt, as with other lesser rebellions, had done nothing but harm to its supporters, and if, indeed, there were to be any turning-away from the traditional institutions of the Church, this would take the form of a realignment of allegiances within the existing fabric of the Church, not a search for new alternatives outside it. In staying away from the great religious houses which their ancestors had favoured and endowed, the devout men and women of late-medieval England were voting with their feet for something a little nearer in spirit to themselves. They found this something in the parish church and the friary, the hospital and almshouse, the chantry and fraternity, with the Carthusians standing out among their fellow monks as most deserving of patronage for remaining most consistently austere.

In post-plague England, there is some risk of over-emphasizing the role of the typical parish church as the mortuary chapel of its parishioners. As the most notable public building in the locality, it had a purpose as much in the business and social life of the community as in the cure and remembrance of souls. 1 Nevertheless, it was generosity in the face of death which contributed most to the very heavy expenditure on parish church fabrics that characterized fifteenth-century England, both in the countryside and in the towns. And the marks of this abiding late-medieval obsession with death are still stamped very firmly on the landscape of today. One of the more striking records of contemporary communal piety, as it found full expression in church-building, is the remarkable parish church of Swaffham, in Norfolk, remodelled almost from the ground at the

-138-

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Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to 1600 A.D
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Preface and Acknowledgments xiii
  • Preface to the 1994 Edition xvii
  • 1 - The Anglo-Norman Settlement 1
  • 2 - Economic Growth 30
  • 3 - Set-Back 91
  • 4 - After the Black Death 126
  • 5 - Stability at a Reduced Level: the Church 138
  • 6 - Conspicuous Waste 173
  • 7 - Reorientation Under the Tudors 205
  • Abbreviations 251
  • Notes and References 252
  • Index 284
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