Academic journal article Albion

Plowshares and Swords: Clerical Involvement in Acts of Violence and Peacemaking in Late Medieval England, C. 1400-1536*

Academic journal article Albion

Plowshares and Swords: Clerical Involvement in Acts of Violence and Peacemaking in Late Medieval England, C. 1400-1536*

Article excerpt

"My men should use their swords and bucklers ... but if John Stanshaw is in one alehouse then I will be in another." (1)

To historians of medieval and Reformation England, these lines should not be all that surprising. Throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the heyday of livery and maintenance, ritualized effrontery was in vogue among the affluent and they often employed large retinues of armed servants as signs of potency and prestige. However, it may surprise some to learn that the above statement was uttered by a priest, Geoffrey Elys, vicar of Thatcham (Berks.), around the beginning of the sixteenth century. Though the medieval Church tirelessly struggled to convince its flock of the wickedness of interpersonal aggression, its own servants were not immune to bouts of conflict and strife. As R. N. Swanson cautions in his study of parish priests, the clergy "can be considered as a group; but they were also individuals who created their own careers and had their own personal relations with their parishioners." (2) Indeed, the conduct of clerics in their parish communities, especially their violent conduct, can be quite baffling if one only evaluates it by the criteria of ecclesiastical proscription and fails to recognize that such proscription was just one thick strand of an intricate web of relations and expectations. In his examination of thirteenth-century parish priesthood, J. Goering has traced the transition of pastors from merely members of the village to semi-detached individuals who were compelled to abide by both village customs and the values of a more unified and doctrinally authoritative Church. (3) As the Church, from about 1215 onward, increasingly defined itself by the sacraments, and the doctrine of transubstantiation in particular, it began to emphasize the distinctiveness and sacredness of the clergy as the conduits of God's power. Nevertheless, unlike monastic child-oblates, most parish curates lived all their life caught "between two millstones," (4) the diurnal demands of village life and the transcendent demands of religious life. Before and during their time as clergy, these men were exposed to, and sometimes firmly entrenched in, secular social relations. Unlike holy men of some faiths, medieval Christian clerics were not sacred by lineage but rather by their admission into holy orders and their participation in its attendant rituals. A sacred status was chosen by and given to someone who had been, up to that point, a normal man of a particular kinship, class and parish community. (5) This tension between sacred identity and secular affinities raises some interesting questions about the personal involvement of parish clergy in conflict. How did clerics function as holy men within a world of "unrestrained passion and unseemly violence?" (6) What parts did they play in conflict? What did the laity expect from their parish curates and how did these expectations affect the clergy's relationship to violence? Did they consider clergy to be untouchable holy men or did they make allowances for the use of violence against them as well as for curates' use of violence against others? Through an exploration of both proscriptive literature from the medieval Church and descriptive sources from late medieval secular and ecclesiastical courts, (7) this study addresses these questions and illuminates important aspects about parish clergy and conflict. The focus is mainly on the actions of rectors, chaplains, vicars, parsons, and parish priests. These men functioned directly within secular society with varying degrees of attachment to lay values and the lay community. On occasion, instances involving monks, canons, or powerful ecclesiastics are noted in order to show the pervasiveness of a particular belief, but for the most part, the focus remains on parish priests whose powers to consecrate, abstention from violence, and vows of celibacy made them distinct members of society.

Bound by their ecclesiastical duties yet steeped in secular values, parish clergy forged their identities as pastors and as community members. …

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