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The People of the Parish

Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese

By Katherine L. French

Publication Year: 2011

The parish, the lowest level of hierarchy in the medieval church, was the shared responsibility of the laity and the clergy. Most Christians were baptized, went to confession, were married, and were buried in the parish church or churchyard; in addition, business, legal settlements, sociability, and entertainment brought people to the church, uniting secular and sacred concerns. In The People of the Parish, Katherine L. French contends that late medieval religion was participatory and flexible, promoting different kinds of spiritual and material involvement.

The rich parish records of the small diocese of Bath and Wells include wills, court records, and detailed accounts by lay churchwardens of everyday parish activities. They reveal the differences between parishes within a single diocese that cannot be attributed to regional variation. By using these records show to the range and diversity of late medieval parish life, and a Christianity vibrant enough to accommodate differences in status, wealth, gender, and local priorities, French refines our understanding of lay attitudes toward Christianity in the two centuries before the Reformation.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Over the course of writing this book I have built up many debts and garnered much encouragement. It is now my great pleasure to acknowledge those debts and thank those who have helped and encouraged me. I have worked on this project in many places. The History Department at the University of Minnesota...

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pp. 1-19

In 1379, the king's court called upon nine parishioners of the Lancashire parish of Walton to remember the baptism of John, the son and heir of Robert de Walton. Their memories served to verify John's age and whether he was old enough to receive his inheritance...

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1. Defining the Parish

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pp. 20-43

Because the parish served as a religious focal point for both urban and rural Christians, it was the center for a variety of associations and obligations that encompassed all aspects of life. The laity's involvement in their parishes went well beyond attending the liturgy and paying tithes. Episcopal mandate also...

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2. "The Book and Writings of the Parish Church": Churchwardens' Accounts and Parish Record Keeping

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pp. 44-67

The Parish as a Textual Community By the thirteenth century, English law, government, and religion all depended on writing and record keeping.1 Consequently, the number of people able to acquire and to use the skills of reading, writing, and numeracy on a daily basis (mostly urban men) seems to have increased throughout the late middle...

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3. "A Servant of the Parish": The Office of the Churchwarden and Parochial Leadership

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pp. 68-98

Within a hundred years of the thirteenth-century requirement that the laity maintain and furnish their parish churches, parishes throughout Bath and Wells had organized offices and procedures to oversee their obligations. Leading this organization was the churchwarden. The churchwardens of Bath and...

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4. "Received by the Good Devotion of the Town and Country": Parish Fundraising

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pp. 99-141

The financial demands of maintaining a parish were too large and too important to depend solely on parishioners' occasional generosity.1 Altars needed candles, sacred images required repainting, and priests, for the often numerous side altars, demanded salaries and vestments. Additionally, roofs...

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5. "Curious Windows and Great Bells": The Architecture of Community

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pp. 142-174

In the anonymous fifteenth-century work Dives and Pauper, the author sets up a conversation between the clerical character of Pauper and the worldly Dives about the ten commandments. The ensuing discussion is a rich source of information about what the clergy understood to be the tensions and concerns...

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6. "The Worthiest Thing": Liturgical Celebrations and the Cult of the Saints in Place

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pp. 175-207

The clergy and laity shared the same goal in building, maintaining, and furnishing the church. They sought a proper space for the celebration of the liturgy. Although many aspects of parish life fell under the rubric of religious practice, formal worship consisted of the liturgy. Parishioners typically...

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pp. 208-209

Moving the late medieval parish out from under the shadow of the Reformation makes a number of issues and themes visible. We can see how much medieval Christianity depended on local resources and priorities; religious practices cannot be separated from the location in which practitioners...


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pp. 211-227


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pp. 229-279


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pp. 281-301


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pp. 303-316

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201956
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812235814

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2011