The stripping of the altars



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I/ 1IlL LAI I I

SEASONS ANI) SIGNS 45

point. Others emerged after a lengthy history as private devotions. The liturgy was in flux, responsive to pressure from below, a mirror of the devotional changes and even fashions of the age. The multiplication within the Sarum rite of hymns and sequences in the metre of the "Stabat Mater" and "Dies Irae", reflecting late medieval devotional trends, lent a distinctive emotional colouring to many Masses. The mortuary benefactions of individuals and gilds, often specifying the celebration of particular votive Masses and prayers, could and did shape the daily pattern of the liturgy in parish churches and chapels alike. The emergence of new votive Masses on themes such as the Crown of Thorns or the Five Wounds was another sign of the power of popular piety to shape the liturgy itself, and was strikingly demonstrated in the raising of the characteristically English affective devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus to the status of a feast, with its own compulsory Mass and Office, in the late 1480s. The 1480s and 1490s in fact saw a good deal of innovation within the calendar, with the arrival of the feasts not only of the Holy Name but of the Visitation of the Virgin and the Transfiguration."s The arrival of these national observances within specific localities can often be traced by churchwardens' expenditure for the addition of the Mass and Office of the feast to the church's liturgical books. Some Kent parishes in 1511 had not got around to providing for the celebration of these new feasts twenty years after their introductions' Occasionally one encounters more vivid evidence of the imaginative arrival of a new feast in a community. In the early sixteenth century the wealthier parishioners of Westhall iii Suffolk clubbed together to provide a painted Rood-screen with sixteen panels. Most of these panels were filled in the traditional way with helper saints, one to a panel, but three panels on the north screen were set aside to depict the Transfiguration, with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Pl. 15). The choice of this subject, unique on English screens, suggests the existence of a devotion directly inspired by the liturgy. On the other side of England, and with a far greater degree of sophistication, the Chudleigh family had their chapel at Ashton in Devon painted with texts from the Office of the Transfiguration, as well as texts and images bearing on another of the new feasts, the Visitation, an example of the role of educated patronage "with access to skills and imaginative

" These changes are tabulated in C. Wordsworth and H. Littlehales, The Old Service Books of the English Church, 1904, pp. 190—3. The definitive work on the new feasts is R. W. Pfaff, New Liturgical Feasts in Late Medieval England, 1970.

"6 Kentish Visitation of Archbishop Warham and his Deputies, 1511, ed. K. L. Wood Legh, Kentish Archaeological Society: Kent Records, XXIV, 1984, p. 110.

rapidly won popular allegiance. Its progress in lay affections can be traced in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the foundation and spread of Corpus Christi gilds to honour the Host as it was carried in procession, and the emergence of the Corpus Christi processions as major civic events. Craft gilds and urban corporations saw in the ritual order of the great processions associated with the feast an opportunity for civic and social iconography, the display of piety an opportunity for the display of the worship and the social clout of those involved. In Tudor York it was required that "for the honour of god and worship of this Citie" the citizens whose houses lay along the route of the procession with the Host should "hang before ther doores and forefrontes beddes and coverynges of beddes of the best that thay can gytt and strewe before ther doores resshes and other such flowres . . . for the honour of god and worschip of this Citie". In the same way, at Hull in the late fifteenth century testators left sumptuous bed-hangings to drape their hearses on their anniversary obsequies: all these hangings were displayed together in Holy Trinity Church on St George's day to add splendour to the town's celebration of the feast, "emong other worshipful] beddes", thereby presenting an opportunity for a con­certed display of conspicuous consumption persisting even in the tomb." Particularly in urban parishes Corpus Christi became a focus of elaborate ceremonial and lavish expenditure on banners, garlands, lights: the gilds, not the clerks, took over the manage-ment of the processions. These celebrations also became the prin­cipal occasions for the performance of cycles of devotional and didactic plays on the theme of salvation history, which in some places involved virtually the whole community."4

But Corpus Christi was merely the best example of a much wider phenomenon. There were many other new feasts. The cult of St Anne led after 1383 to the widespread keeping of her day and a number of existing feasts were raised in status by being made binding throughout England in the course of the period: St George, St ])avid, St Chad, and St Winifred, for example, in 1415. Feasts already observed, such as the nativity of the Virgin, were raised in solemnity by having a vigil (involving fasting) attached to them. In some cases the new feasts were the result of a new or revived cult — the canonization of St Osmund of Salisbury in 1456 is a case in

" A. H. Nelson, The Medieval English Stage: Corpus Christi Pageants and Plays, 1974, pp. 46—7; cf. the will of Thomas Wood of Hull, draper, in 1490, stipulating that his best bed, "of Arreys werk" should cover his grave each year at his "Dirige" and requiem in Holy Trinity, Hull, and should be hung up in that church each year on the feast of St George, "emong other worshipfull beddes". Testamenta Eboracensia, 1V, p. 60.

"4 Rubin, Corpus Christi, passim, esp. pp. 213—87.

1RC, r.nl1

theological understanding of a high order" in raising the liturgical awareness of a remote rural parish."

"Sacred" and "Secular" Time?

Medieval liturgical books were divided into two distinct sections, reflecting two types of sacred time. On the one hand was the proper of seasons — Advent, Christmastide, Lent, Easter, and Whit, and, attached to the Whitsun season, the feasts of the Trinity and Corpus Christi. Of these only Christmas fell on a fixed date, running from 24 December to 6 January (or, if Candlemas was taken as the last festival of Christmas, 2 February). The other liturgical seasons were linked to the lunar calendar, and there were consequently huge variations in the dates on which these feasts fell — Easter Sunday, for example, could occur on any date between 22 March and 25 April. The other type of sacred time was that attached to fixed dates — the anniversaries of the saints and the new feasts we have just discussed, the Visitation (2 July), the Transfiguration (6 August), the Holy Name of Jesus (7 August)."

Some historians of late medieval religion have sought to draw a very sharp distinction between these two types of sacred time. The latest day on which Corpus Christi could fall was 24 June, Mid-summer, which was also the major feast of the birth of John the Baptist, and the Corpus Christi observances brought to an end the great cycle of celebrations of the Incarnation and Redemption which ran effectively from Christmas to Pentecost. From the end of June until the end of November only the feasts of the saints served to break the unspectacular procession of Sundays after Trinity, until the season of Advent came again, and the cycle of Christmas, Lent, and Paschal tide, with its elaborate ceremonial and processions, began once more. Many commentators have noted this cramming of "all the major observances connected with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ" into the six-month period from 24 December to 24 June, from the winter solstice at the birth of Jesus to the summer solstice at the birth of John the Baptist. In a highly influential study of late medieval Coventry one historian has even suggested that the pre-Reformation year broke into two clearly

" The Westhall screen once had traces of an inscription naming the donors, from which its approximate date, c.1500, can he established; they arc given in H. M. Cautley, Su/Jolk Churches and their Treasures, revised ed., 1982, p. 364; for Ashton see Marion Glascoe, "Late Medieval Paintings in Ashton Church", Journal of the British Archaeological Society, CXL, 1987, pp. 182—90; for a mention of a donor of the "image of the Transfiguration" at Bristol see C. Burgess, "For the Increase of Divine Service", Journal of Ecclesiastical History, XXXVI, 1985, pp. 63-4.

" Conventionally, the two types of celebration were arranged before and after the text of the ordinary of the Mass in missals, and before and after the psalter in breviaries.

SEASONS ANI) SIGNS 47

marked divisions, a "ritualistic" half and a "secular" half."

There is obviously something in this, but we need to beware of oversimplification. Though there is abundant evidence of the fascination which the liturgical calendar exercised over late medieval English men and women, there is very little evidence that they were aware of the sharp dichotomy and certainly not the "absolute contrast" perceived by modern social historians. To fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century sensibilities the liturgical year was spread over twelve months, not six, and none of it was secular.

This is readily grasped by considering some of the celebrations which fell outside the so-called ritual half of the year which ran from December to June. A major feast of England's most im-portant saint, Thomas Becket, the translation of his relics, fell on 7 July, and with it was associated the general feast of relics, kept on the following Sunday and an occasion for pilgrimage and the granting of indulgences in many churches with notable relics. In the same month there were also the feasts of St Mary Magdalene, St Margaret, St James the Apostle, and St Anne. Not all of these days were obligatory feasts or feasa ferianda, requiring attendance at matins, Mass, and evensong, as well as abstention from work, but all were immensely popular and very widely kept; Mirk supplied sermons for all of these days in his Festial. And all of the so-called secular months had feasts of this sort, some of great solemnity. August had the new feasts of the Transfiguration and the Holy Name of Jesus, and the feast of the Beheading of John Baptist, as well as the most important feast of Our Lady, the Assumption, or "Our Lady in Harvest". September had Mary's Nativity, Holy Cross Day, the feast of the Apostle Matthew, and, most important of all, the feast of the Archangel Michael, Michaelmas, the great autumnal celebration of the triumph of celestial powers over those of the underworld.'„' October, in addition to the festa ferianda of St Luke and Sts Simon and Jude, was rich in major local saints not venerated equally throughout England, but whose feasts were of primary importance within their own regions: Wilfrid, Thomas Cantilupe, Etheldreda, the translation of Hugh of Lincoln. November began with the major feast of All Saints, and was immediately followed by All Souls' Day, the focus of the late medieval cult of the dead. It had also many major saints' days with both universal and local importance: St Katherine, one of the most popular of all saints in the period, as well as Edmund, king and martyr, St Hugh, St Winifred, and St John of Bridlington.

" Charles Phythian-Adams, "Ceremony and the Citizen", pp. 106—28, and his Local History and Folklore: a New Framework, 1975.

"'" James, Seasonal Fasts and Festivals, pp. 226-7.


48 LITURGY, LEARNING, AND THE LAITY SEASONS AND SIGNS 49


G iven the number and importance of these celebrations, it makes very little sense to talk of a secular half of the year, over against the ritual half from Easter to Corpus Christi. In some communities, such as Coventry, it is true that there was a particular matching of sacred and secular, because most of the major secular celebrations, such as the election and installation of civic officials, fell within and derived a special resonance from the ritual half. In a number of English towns the Corpus Christi play cycles brought this period to a fitting close by an enactment of the whole of salvation history involving the community at large. Still, in many places this sort of inclusive celebration happened outside the ritual half: at Lincoln the greatest convergence of civic and sacred ceremonial came on Saint Anne's day, at the end of July, when the city gilds organized an elaborate series of pageants.91 Even at York, where the most famous Corpus Christi cycle in England was normally played on the feast day itself, the Creed play and the Paternoster plays which sometimes replaced the Corpus Christi plays were performed in Lammastide, in the heat of August. And of course the ritual focus of communities with their own shrines and patrons varied according to the feast and translation days of the patron saint. So at Ely the great moments fell in late June and mid-October (the feast and translation of St Etheldreda), at Bury in November and April, at Hereford in early October, at Durham in March and September, at Chichester and the Thames valley in early April and mid-June.

Nor was this sort of variation confined to the great shrines. Every substantial parish had a cluster of gilds within the church, each one with its own patron, and with gild celebrations geared to their feast days. Norfolk had an elaborate cult of St Anne, and her gilds met for Masses, processions, and feasts at the end of July; durin such feasts rhymed versions of St Anne's legend might be read.'' A Norfolk town like Swaffham, with gilds dedicated to St Peter, St Helen, St John the Baptist, St Thomas Becket, the Trinity, the Ascension, and St Nicholas, would have had ceremonial and commensal events ranging from gild Masses and feastings to boy bishop rituals, all involving a large proportion of the popu­lation, in June, July, August, and early l)ecenmber."

This blurring of the distinction between a ritual and a secular half of the calendar was further promoted by the production of Books

' I. Lancashire, Dramatic Texts and Records of Britain, 1984, no. 866; Nelson, The Medieval English Stage, pp. 104ff.



The Common-Place Book of Robert Reynes of Acle, ed. L. Cameron, 1980 (hereafter = Reynes Commonplace) pp. 191—228, 406—49; P. Meredith, The Mary Play from the N Town Manuscript, 1977, pp. 9-12.

93 F. Blomfield and C. Parkin, An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, 1805-10, VI pp. 202—3.

of Hours – primers – for a wider public, and the inclusion in all these books of calendars and related material. Late medieval people were fascinated by the passage of time and the significance of its divisions, and this for a variety of reasons, both practical and occult. Seed-time and harvest, when to gather acorns or to kill the pigs, the right time to let blood or take a laxative: all these were determined by the calendar. Many of the Christian festivals, whether by design or by serendipity, roughly coincided with pagan festivals or fell at key moments in the turning of the year – the summer and winter solstices, Our Lady's feast in harvest, the autumn festivals of the angels at Michaelmas, All Saints and All Souls at the change from autumn to winter, and so on. Men and women who were not particularly devout, and who could not read, sought to remember the saints' days and other festivals by which the year was mapped out, and resorted to mnemonic devices to imprint the pattern of the year in their minds. The most common of these devices was the "Cisio Janus", a series of nonsensical rhymes, at first in Latin but later in English, which listed the major feasts of each month. Prognostications based on the dominical letter, or on the day on which festivals like Christmas or the feast of St Paul fell, were extremely common, as were observances connected with auspicious and inauspicious days. The ecclesiastical authorities might fulminate against "they the whiche vowen never to kembe them on the fryday or not to spynne on the satyrdaye / or other semblable superstucyon" but the laity continued to observe days and seasons, and for the most part the church tolerated while trying to control such beliefs. Even astrology, within certain limits, was permitted and endorsed.'

The outcome of all this was the close interweaving of the Church's calendar with divisions and uses of time which in essence had little to do with the Christian year. Astrological patterns and the theme of the ages of man or the labours of the month became woven into religious calendars (Pl. 16) or the sevenfold division of the Hours of the breviary, and constantly recur in religious contexts, on church doors and arches, even on baptismal fonts. In manuscript Books of Hours the custom grew of illustrating the calendar for each month not only with emblems of the principal saints whose feasts occurred then, but with a picture of the secular activities appropriate to that month – pig-sticking in December, sitting by the fire in January, and so on. Later this seasonal theme was applied to the life of a man, divided into six-year units, one

9a Ordynarye of crystyanyte or of crysten men, W. de Worde 1502, RSTC 5198, sig. x iv (v) and see Dives and Pauper, I pp. 182—5.


SEASONS ANI) SIGNS 51
f or each month. Once printed primers began to proliferate, this calendrical material could be elaborated, expanded, and made avail-able across a wide social spectrum: printed primers for the English market incorporate what is effectively a mini-almanac, with a zodiacal man as a guide to phlebotomy, material on the humours (also for medical purposes and linked to the four seasons), and moralistic and calendrical material like the labours, the ages of man, and the anglicized "Cisio-Janus" rhymes for each month. In the cheap primers of the 1520s and 1530s, additional didactic material of the same sort is added, such as the set of pious rhymes, "The days of the week moralised".`'s

These trends were summed up in one of the runaway best-selling

books of the sixteenth century, the Kalender of Shepherdes. First

published in French in 1493, it was first translated into English (apparently by a Frenchman who knew only Scots English) in 1503. Richard Pynson issued a fresh translation in 1506, Wynkyn de Worde produced another in 151)8, and there were further editions in 1518, 1528, and again in both Mary's and Elizabeth's reigns.`"' The



Kalender of Shepherdes is a delightful, well-illustrated, but bizarre

book. It is two-thirds astrological almanac, one-third religious vade-mecum, containing the essentials of Christian belief and practice for lay people as they had been worked out by catechists over the preceding three centuries. We shall have occasion to explore this dimension of the book in a later chapter. The aspect of the hook which concerns us here is its shameless combination of religious divisions of time with astrological divisions. It advertised itself as containing "a Kalendar with the Fygures of euery Saynt that is halowed in the yerc / in the whiche is the signes / the homes / the nurnethes / the molnentes & the lime Mones", and much of the hook was devoted to astrological characterizations and predictions. It moralized not only the days of the week but the months of the year, in a remarkable combination of sacred and profane:


Amonge all the monthes I am lusty Apryll Fresshe and holsom unto each creature

'' J. A. Burrow, Tire Ages (?/ Man, 1986, esp. pp. I—54, 75, 79ff; Mary I)ove, The l'er/i'rt Ages of Man's Li/r, 1986, chapters 8 and 10; I:uues Fowler, "On Medieval representations of the Months and Seasons", Arehaeolotia, X LIV, 1873, pp. 137—224; E. Clive Rouse and Andrew Baker "The Wall-Paintings of Longthorpe Tower near Peterborough", Ardraeolom,'ia,

XCV1, 1955, pp. 1—58; Russell Hope Robbins "English Almanacs of the Fifteenth Century"Philological Quarterly, XVIII, 1939, pp. 321—31; Willard Farnham "The Hayes of the Mone'',

Studies in Philology, XX, 1923, pp. 70—82; I). Pearsall and E. Salter, Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World, 1973, pp. 129—34, 137-40, 142—6.



'"' Modern reprint with introduction by H. Oscar Sommer, The Kalender of Shepherdes, 1892.

And in my tyme the dulcet droppes dystyll Called crystall as poetes put in scripture Causyng all floures the longer to endure In my tyme was the resurrecyon

Of god and man / by dyvyne elleccyon ..
Among the other October I hyght

Frende unto vynteners naturally

And in my tyme Bachus is redy dyght

All maner wyne to presse and claryfy

Of which is sacred as we se dayly

The blyssed body of Cryst in flesshe and blode Whiche is our hope / refeccyon / and fode.`'7

To lay sensibilities nourished by such material, the notion of a contrast between a ritual and a secular half of the year cannot have had much imaginative force. The sacred, while having climactic moments in the great festivals, was an aspect of the whole year, and those festivals themselves seem more likely to have been perceived as falling into a symmetrical summer—winter disposition than seen as crammed into a single half-year. It might be tempting to see in this trend to moralize the weeks and months of the year, as opposed to dramatizing a few focused, ritual, high points, a "bourgeoisifi­cation" of time, part of the smoothing and regulating process which would ultimately seek to abolish the festival calendar altogether iu favour of the regular weekly observance of the sabbath. There might be something in this: certainly the emergence of the morality plays in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries points to the growth of a type of religious sensibility orientated to moral and religious generalities, rather than to the narrative and festive sweep of the Corpus Christi cycles. The morality play Alunthts et /tt/ins, published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1522, is little more than a dramatization of the moralizing of the stages of man's life and the ills which beset him, long familiar from the calendrical material and the illustrations in the primers and such

related works as the Ka/ender of Shepherdes." But there are few

signs of these different approaches to sacred time pulling apart before the Reformation. The regulated and regular piety of the middling sort, geared to the daily and weekly observances of the parish churches and the steady patterns of urban living, could accommodate both the seasonal cycles of Advent and Easter and the

Kalender of Shepherdes, pp. 17—19.

" Modern edition ed. G. A. Lester, Three Late Medieval Morality Plays, 1981, pp. 107—57.





  1. 'l'hc dreaming woman and the miraculous Candlemas procession: from the Miracles olthe Virgin sequence in the Lady chapel of Winchester Cat hcdral.

  1. In the Purification scene at East Harling, the scriptural characters carry blessed candles.
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