- The Black Death and Pastoral Leadership: The Diocese of Hereford in the Fourteenth Century
William Dohar poses two major questions of his sources from the diocese of Hereford. First, how “did the church manage to accomplish its pastoral aims, especially when it was both refuge and victim” (p. 6) during episodes of plague from 1349 to 1404? Second, is the “old historiographical commonplace” that “clerical life and discipline declined markedly after the upheavals caused by the plague and that churchmen made concessions in the urgency of the moment by admitting barely-qualified men to holy orders” (p. 7) true?
Before addressing these questions, Dohar provides some essential background information. First, he describes the administrative structure and normative practices of pastoral care in the diocese of Hereford leading up to the outbreak of the Black Death. Next, he provides as thorough an account as the sources allow of the immediate effects on the diocese of the Black Death as it raged from April through October of 1349. Then, drawing on his prudent and discriminating analysis of the Hereford registers through 1404, he describes and assesses the diocesan and parochial administration during the first two decades following the Black Death, clerical recruitment and pastoral provision for the remainder of the century, and the state of Hereford parish clergy at the century’s end. Throughout these sections he provides numerous statistical figures and tables.
Nearly half the diocesan clergy of Hereford had been taken by the Black Death, and subsequent plagues continued to thin clerical ranks. Though the church would not be restored to its preplague manpower for a century and a half, its ecclesiastical structures and operations, insofar as they are typified by the diocese of Hereford, proved to be impressively resilient. Throughout, the church displayed a sustained capacity to provide its greatly varied services and to fill its richly diverse roles.
This is not to downplay the deleterious impact of the Black Death and ensuing [End Page 147] epidemics on virtually all levels and nearly every aspect of European society. The diocese of Hereford is no exception. But what effect did these six decades of intermittent plague have on the quality especially of parish clergy? Dohar appreciates the complexity of the issues involved. The extent of the effects of epidemics, especially the Black Death, on late medieval society will always be debatable. So snarled is the web of historical contingencies that it is often impossible to untangle the direct and indirect effects of plague on any one facet of society. Hence, he does not suggest facile answers.
Dohar generally is careful not to assign as peculiar to the period features that are common to others. For example, in 1397 John Trefnant, bishop of Hereford from 1389 to 1404, visited the numerous parishes of his diocese to assess their material and moral condition. The record of this visitation has survived and reveals “some glaring cases of misfits at the altar, men who were patently inept at exercising the art of arts, some on account of ignorance, poor training and spare opportunity for learning, others out of incompetence. . . . But,” Dohar correctly notes, “. . . there was little that was new to the clerical follies of the late fourteenth century” (p. 153). Unfortunately he has not always exercised the same wariness. One example is his assessment of the effects of plague on spiritual perceptions and religious commitments. Shortly after the Black Death, and in the vicinity of Hereford, an anonymous author penned “The Three Messages of Death,” whose themes are such commonplaces as the brevity of life, death as the great equalizer, the spiritually salutary effects of death’s messengers (disasters, sickness, and old age), and the superiority of the eternal over the temporal. Dohar introduces a ten-line quotation from this work with the assertion that the “writer confessed his own preoccupation with the ruin experienced in the recent pestilence,” and concludes: “Though the writer does not mention the pestilence specifically, its presence is all about...