The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 551-552
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Selling the Church: The English Parish in Law, Commerce, and Religions, 1350-1550. By Robert C. Palmer. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2002. Pp. xiii, 330. $49.95.)
In this fascinating account of the English parish from a legal point of view, Robert Palmer explores how the Reformation changed the legal relations organizing parishes. In the first five chapters, he introduces the reader to the parish as a governed community and as an important unit in the agrarian economy. He also explains how the common law regulated the functioning of a parish as an economic unit. His main focus in this part of the book is on the practice of rectors leasing out their parishes, often to lay persons, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The chapters on parish leasing breaks entirely new ground. In the second part, Palmer goes beyond earlier historians in tracing the enactment and exploring the enforcement of statutes in 1529 that, he says, changed the nature of the English parish. The statutes regulated mortuary fees and the fees for probating wills. More importantly, the statutes limited absenteeism by rectors, forbade clerics from engaging in commercial activities, and severely restricted clerics taking leases of lands or parishes as tenants. In Palmer's view, the statutes of 1529 and their enforcement by private actions were an important but largely neglected partof the English Reformation. Indeed, it is Palmer's thesis that the 1529 statutes wereresponsible for transforming rectors from entrepreneurs (or proto-entrepreneurs) into "spiritual persons" devoted to the religious life of their parishes.
The two parts of the book do not fit together very well. In the first part of the book Palmer dwells on the practice of rectors leasing out their parishes, frequently to lay persons. Palmer argues that this practice meant that rectors no longer participated in the religious life of their parishes. Lessees had to hire chaplains to perform the religious duties, but neither rector nor bishop had close or direct control over the spiritual life of the parish. He makes the questionable argument that parishioners were thereby alienated: their tithes only helped the lessee's profit margin. One wonders. Because the leasing of lands was the norm in the fifteenth century, parishioners were likely to be either lessors, lessees, or laborers who worked for lessees. Would those people look askance at the leasing out of parishes? If a rector did not lease a parish, did not tithes increase his profit margin?
More detrimental to Palmer's thesis is the fact that the statutes of 1529 only indirectly restricted rectors from leasing out their parishes. The statutes forbade clerics from taking leases as tenants, but not from leasing out parishes as [End Page 551] lessors. The indirect restriction on rectors becoming lessors was the restriction on absenteeism and pluralism. If a man could have no more than two livings and could be absent only for a narrow range of reasons, the number of parishes leased out to lay persons might have declined. Palmer's own evidence shows that for only four of the fifteen years between 1531 and 1545 did enforcement actions for non-residence exceed the enforcement actions for clerics taking leases as tenants. The extent to which the 1529 statutes curtailed the practice of rectors leasing out their parish remains an open question. Yet, the leasing out of parishes is what, according to Palmer, separated the rector and the bishop from the spiritual life of the parish. That most enforcement actions under the statutes were directed against clerics taking leases as tenants might be attributable to economic forces. Beginning in the 1520's there was increased competition for agricultural leases. Landlords took advantage of their relative market power by lengthening the term of leases and thereby achieving greater security of fixed income and by increasing rents. Enforcing the statutes against clerics taking on agricultural leases could have been one method of eliminating competitors for leaseholds. Palmer does not put his research into...