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Reviewed by:
  • Lay Religious Life in Late Medieval Durham
  • R.N. Swanson
Lay Religious Life in Late Medieval Durham. By Margaret Harvey. [Regions and Regionalism in History, Vol. 6.] (Rochester, New York: Boydell Press. 2006. Pp. xiv, 232. $85.00.)

Recent years have seen a growth in interest in the history of northeastern England, driven to a great extent by historians based at the University of Durham. Margaret Harvey's volume is a significant contribution to this expanding regional historiography, and is also welcome more widely as a valuable addition to work on religious life in pre-Reformation England.

Historical writing on medieval Durham is usually dominated by a focus on the cathedral priory, whose surviving archives are among the most impressive of those still extant for an English monastic house. Analyses of the town's history accordingly tend to be overshadowed by that monastic focus. The priory does indeed overshadow Harvey's volume, but its central thrust is very firmly lay-focused, offering an excellent study of lay religious life in the town. Organized in thirteen chapters (some of them admittedly rather short), it crams in a great deal of information and analysis. The first five chapters focus on the parishes and parish life. They survey the individual parish histories, including internal conflicts; consider the annual rounds of parochial religious observances and the church's disciplinary oversights; and analyze the complex relationships between the laity and the monks and priory (especially in the latter's capacity as patrons and appropriators of the parish churches), their mutual ties, obligations, and discords. Diverse in their contents, these chapters offer a balanced and nuanced picture of a particularly complex set of relationships.

The next seven chapters deal in turn with a range of more specific aspects of Durham's urban religious life. Chapter 6, on "secular clergy careers," may seem inappropriate for a book on lay religious life, but its inclusion is justified by the laity's role as patrons and employers. Subsequent chapters deal in turn with education; chantries; associations, guilds, and confraternities; and "hospitals and other charities for non-monks." Chapters 11 and 12 turn to rather different issues, before the book ends with a short conclusion. The former briefly considers "Durham and the wider world" (which looks to contacts with the papacy); while the latter ("The Reformation in the Durham parishes") effectively terminates the history with an examination of the end of the old order, and the aftermath of the priory's dissolution. The Reformation was not adopted with enthusiasm; it was only in Elizabeth's reign that Protestantism really began to take hold.

One of the obstacles Harvey faced in her research was a lack of sources. In contrast to the priory monks, Durham's laity, however active they were, left few relevant archives of their own generation. Wills are scarce; there are no churchwardens' accounts or other similar parish records. Church courts are also sparse. Luckily, enough scattered material does survive to throw light on the issues and is exploited very effectively. Much information derives from the priory's records of its dealings with the parishes as appropriator. [End Page 354]

This is a useful and well-written volume, which deserves to be widely read. The overall picture that it presents contains little that is actually surprising, but there is much to reward careful and attentive reading. The book focuses on one northern town but offers a significant contribution to the large-scale reconstruction of lay religious experience in late medieval England. That reconstruction has hitherto perhaps been too much dominated by work on southern towns and regions. Here the north strikes back and secures a place in the foreground of the evolving overall picture. [End Page 355]

R.N. Swanson
University of Birmingham


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pp. 354-355
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