XXVI

CLERGY AND BURGESSES

1 THE ECCLESIASTICAL SOCIETY WITHIN THE FEUDAL WORLD

IN the feudal period the dividing-line between the clergy and lay society was not so clear and firm as that which the Catholic reform movement endeavoured to draw about the time of the Council of Trent. A whole population of ‘tonsured persons’, whose status remained ill-defined, formed an indeterminate borderland on the frontiers of the two great groups. Nevertheless the clergy constituted in a high degree a legal class; for, as a body, it was characterized by its own peculiar law and jealously-guarded rights of jurisdiction. On the other hand, it was in no sense a social class; within its ranks coexisted human types differing widely in mode of life, power and prestige.

First of all we have the multitude of monks, all ‘sons of St. Benedict’, but subject in fact to increasingly varied versions of the primitive Benedictine Rule—a divided and pulsating world, ceaselessly tossed to and fro between pure asceticism and the more mundane cares inseparable from the administration of great wealth, or even from the humble business of gaining a livelihood. Moreover, we must not picture this body as separated from the laity by impassable barriers. Even those Rules which embodied the most uncompromising principles of reclusion had in the last resort to yield to practical necessity. Monks had the cure of souls in parishes. Monasteries opened their schools to pupils who would never assume the cowl; especially after the Gregorian reform they became a nursery of bishops and popes.

Socially in the lowest category of the secular clergy, the priests of country parishes, poorly educated and badly paid, led a life which differed little if at all from that of their flocks. Before Gregory VII they had almost all been married. Even after the great ascetic campaign instigated—in the words of one monastic text—by ‘that teacher of impossible things’,1 the ‘priestess’, the priest’s wife in fact and sometimes in law, long continued to figure among the familiar personages of village folklore. So much was this the case that here the word class could almost have been taken in its strictest sense: in the England of Thomas Becket, dynasties of priests do not

1 K. Rost, Die Historia pontificum Romanorum aus Zwettl, Greifswald, 1932, p. 177, n. 4.

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