Thursday, May 28, 2009

Building and replacing the medieval

In the mid-C9th, Muslim geographer ibn Khordadbeh described Western Europe as a source of:
eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, glue, sables and swords
and not much more. The Making of the Middle Ages by R.W. Southern is the classic, highly readable, 1953 summary history about how Western Europe clawed itself up out of the Dark Ages, moving from a situation where simply retaining past knowledge was a losing struggle, to the emerging of a new questioning of the world around them. Southern is very much concerned to place mental outlooks (his prime interest) in social contexts. A great read.

If Southern gives a grand sweep of the beginnings of the medieval period, Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath provides a wonderful, evocative examination of a single parish after the end of it. Using the original parish account book of the time, he traces the impact of the Reformation on a single parish – Morebath in Devon – under a single priest – Sir Christopher Trychay, parish priest from 1520 to 1574 (the 'Sir' is just a customary title of respect). He was their priest from when traditional Catholicism – with all its rich panoply of saints, devotions, and local structures to support that (the elected Parish officers, both general and those specific to the accounts of particular saints) – held sway through Henry VIII’s break with Rome; Edward’s vigorous, highly intrusive, reforming Protestantism; Mary’s Catholic restoration (clearly popular in the parish) and Elizabeth’s mild-but-firm Protestantism.
The degree to which the English Reformation was a rationalising, and institutionally ‘flattening’, imposition from above is very clear – most of the Parish offices fell by the wayside, tied as they were to the cults of saints. An imposition that was financial (both in money extracted and obligations imposed) as much as doctrinal. The degree to which the Reformation was – as so many political struggles with strong ideological elements are – a fight within at least as much as between people is also very clear. Not least in the personal history of their priest who goes from avidly trying to get a relic of a local saint, and Latin masses at the altar, to presiding over the rooting out of such saintly devotions, and the wealth laboriously invested in them, while giving communion at the communion table. All this with an interlude of, almost certainly, encouraging young men of the parish to fight in the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549 against the Edwardine stripping of the altars. Yet this was no ‘Vicar of Bray’, merely a decent man trying to do right for his people of his parish.

Duffy writes (p.67):
Routine, in any case, leaves few records, even though most of what is fundamental to ordinary existence is a matter of routine – undocumented, invisible and, as a consequence, far too easily discounted by the historian seeking to touch the texture of the life of the past.
We think of the medieval Church as an authoritarian and hierarchical organisation. But what struck me from Morebath is the democratic and locally-grounded nature of parish life. It is full of elections, disputes and striving for consensus, with the poorest cottagers willing to dig their heels in and stand up for their perceived rights. Of course, England was overwhelmingly a post-serf society by that stage.

We should be careful of thinking ourselves too superior (or too different) to our ancestors. No book has given me as rich a sense of the nature and ‘feel’ of the Reformation, and the nature of late medieval Catholicism, as this one.

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