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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 732-733
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The People of the Parish. Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese
The People of the Parish. Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese. By Katherine L. French. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2001. Pp. ix, 316. $59.95.)
In one way or another, this book has been in the making for over a decade, but it was well worth waiting for. Building on her doctoral work, Katherine French offers a coherent, well-written, and stimulating survey of parish life in the diocese of Bath and Wells, covering the county of Somerset in England's West Country. Parochial activities, to summarize the main thesis, reflected distinct communal identities composed of a complex blend of secular and religious components. Far from being mere objects of clerical directives, parishes evolved varying types of liturgical, administrative, and convivial practices informed by particular topographical, economic, and social parameters. Substantiated from a variety of perspectives, French's contention is entirely convincing.
The argument rests on a range of primary sources, most notably churchwardens' accounts, wills, and devotional literature. The lack of church court evidence is compensated by an original analysis of Chancery records. After an initial concern with definitions (the controversial term 'community' being understood as "repeated interactions over time of a group of people with shared goals, interests, concerns and ideals," p. 24), subsequent chapters deal with record-keeping, parochial leadership, fundraising, church architecture, and liturgical practices. French draws on extensive familiarity with academic scholarship in various disciplines and a number of maps (admirably produced by Stephen Hana), graphs, tables, and photographs. Readers also benefit from a valuable appendix of pre-Reformation parish endowments throughout the diocese, a substantial bibliography, and a general index. Less convenient is the absence of a list of illustrations and the arrangement of references--many of which with additional information--as endnotes.
Only the briefest impression of content can be provided here. Differences between urban and rural settings were important variables in the formation of communal identities. While country parishes encouraged broad participation through fundraising devices based on seasonal festivals and entertainments, town churches like St. Mary's, Bridgwater, developed a more hierarchical and less inclusive atmosphere. From the mid-fifteenth century, seating arrangements and processional order expressed the superiority of municipal office over parochial service, while the financial regime relied on individual benefaction rather [End Page 732] than communal collections. Gender, too, affected parish involvement. Male householders formed the pillars of local society, but widows occasionally served as churchwardens; maidens' guilds made monetary contributions, and women developed congenial ways of spiritual expression, ranging from mending of church ornaments to gifts of jewellery. Some of the most striking insights, however, emerge in the chapter on parish records. Over and above their mundane administrative functions, churchwardens' accounts were instrumental in creating "textual communities," incorporating both literate and--through public rehearsal--illiterate parishioners. As records of communal history, they became sources of power and local pride.
While offering opportunities, particularly the identification of local varieties within a shared framework, the focus on one diocese has its drawbacks. How representative is the bishopric for other late medieval English contexts, given its relative prosperity and lack of major cities? This, of course, would be an entirely different topic, but more explicit reference to comparable work on neighboring dioceses--Andrew Brown on Salisbury and Robert Whiting on Exeter--might have been illuminating. Similarly, how advisable is the deliberate cut-off point before the Reformation? As French rightly argues, it does allow us to examine parishes in their own right, without the distractions of mid-Tudor politics, but it makes it difficult to judge how much of the 'communal' spirit was due to doctrinal stimuli such as the cult of saints or prayers for the dead.
The parishes of Bath and Wells emerge as Christian communities with a distinctly local flavor. Interaction between laity and clergy, men and women, gentry and cottagers, townsfolk and peasants generated idiosyncratic patterns of fundraising, social...