The stripping of the altars

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sober pursuit of virtue, day in and day out, urged in the devotional material which printers like Caxton, Pynson, and Wynkyn de Worde poured out. For townsmen and countrymen alike, the rhythms of the liturgy on the eve of the Reformation remained the rhythms of life itself.

Seven-Sacrament fonts: Baptism, Westhall, Suffolk.

35 (below left). Seven-Sacrament fonts: Matrimony, Little Walsingham, Norfolk.

36 (below right). Seven-Sacrament fonts: Eucharist, Little Walsingham, Norfolk.




Priests, People, and Catechesis

Round the fourteenth-century font in the parish church of Bradley, Lincolnshire, is carved an English inscription, which runs

Pater Noster, Ave Maria, Criede, Leren the childe yt is nede.

That injunction was directed to the godparents and was a formal part of the rite of baptism in late medieval England. Just before the blessing of the font at baptisms the priest was required to admonish the godparents to see that the child's parents kept it from fire. water, and other perils, and themselves to "lerne or se yt be lerned the Pater noster, Aue Maria and Credo after the law of all holy churche". The Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, and Apostles' Creed were in fact the irreducible core of a more elaborate catechetical programme for the laity which had been decisively formulated for the English Church at Archbishop Pecham's provincial Council of Lambeth in 1281. The Council drew up a schema of instruction for the laity, De iqformacione simplicium, better known by its opening words Ignorantia Sacerdotum, which was to be expounded in the vernacular to parishioners four times in the year. This scheme was structured round the Creed, the Ten Commandments and Christ's summary of these in the dual precept to love God and neighbour, the seven works of mercy, the seven virtues, the seven vices, and the seven sacraments, and was intended to provide a comprehensive guide to Christian belief and practice.

The Ignorantia Sacerdotum was to prove an immensely influential and long-lived schema. Adapted and translated into verse for the Northern Province at the command of Archbishop Thoresby in

F. Bond, Fonts and Font Covers, 1908, p. 113; Marinate ad Usum Percelebris Eadesie Sarishuriensis, ed. A. jefferies Collins, Henry Bradshaw Society, XCI, 1960 (hereafter = Manual() p. 32.

1357 as the so-called Lay Folk's Catechism, with an indulgence of forty days attached to it for all who learned it or taught it to others, it was imitated or directly used in dioceses all over England up to the Reformation. John Stafford, Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1425, had it translated into English and placed in every church in his diocese, instructing his archdeacons to provide copies to all the clergy at a cost of not more than six pence. It was reissued by Archbishop Neville in the Northern Province after 1465, and again by Cardinal Wolsey in 1518.2

The educational priorities promoted by English bishops from the late thirteenth century onwards were intimately linked to a new religious obligation imposed on lay people by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, that of annual confession to their parish priests. In principle, this ruling put into the hands of the parish clergy an immensely valuable pastoral and educational tool, for the priest in confession could explore not only the moral condition of his parishioners, but also their knowledge of Catholic faith and practice. Confessors were to examine each penitent in the articles of the Creed and on their ability to recite the Lord's Prayer. But the obligation of annual confession placed enormous demands on both confessor and penitent. The penitent needed to know how, what, and when to confess, the priest needed to be able to distinguish between what was serious and what trivial, to impose the appro­priate penances, and to apply the best remedies for his parishioners' spiritual ailments. Theologians and bishops alike were realistic about the extent to which the average priest could be expected to rise to this challenge,' but a whole literature emerged to help equip curates to discharge their responsibilities, of which the best-known was probably William of Paula's Oculus Sacerdotis, produced in the early fourteenth century.' The Oculus was divided into three sections. The first was a manual for confessors, teaching the priest how to hear confessions, in particular how to interrogate a penitent using the seven deadly sins as a framework. It had a series of particular interrogations for different states of life and types of

2 W. A. Pantin, The English Church in the Fourteenth Century, 1955, reprinted 1980, pp. 189-95, 211-12; Roy M. Haines, Ecclesia Anglicana: Studies in the English Church of the Later Middle Ages, 1989, pp. 129-37; P. Hodgson, "Ignorantia Sacerdotum: a Fifteenth-century Discourse on the Lambeth Constitutions", Review of English Studies, XXIV, 1948, pp. 1-11.

3 Leonard Boyle, Pastoral Care, Clerical Education and Canon Law, 1981, pp. 19-32.

4 On the literature see Pantin, op. cit.; T. F. Tender, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation, 1977; R. M. Ball, "The Education of the English parish Clergy in the Later Middle Ages with Particular reference to the Manuals of Instruction", Cambridge PhD thesis 1976; H. G. Pfander, "Some Medieval Manuals of Religious Instruction in England and Observations on Chaucer's Parson's Tale", Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XXXV, 1936, pp. 243-58.person, such as drunkards or those who are wrathful. This section also provided the priest with canonical information about sins whose absolution was reserved to bishop or pope, and about the different ways in which excommunication might be incurred. The second part of the Oculus provided a programme of instruction for lay people in essential religious knowledge, such as how to baptize babies in case of emergency, the age at which children should be confirmed, and questions of sexual and social morality, as well as doctrinal knowledge. As in the Ignorantia Sacerdotum, the doctrinal section followed the pattern of the Creed, the seven sacraments, seven works of mercy, seven virtues, Ten Commandments of the law and two of the Gospel, and the seven sins, these latter elaborately treated. All this the priest was to explain regularly to his people in English. This section concluded with material on remedies against sins, how to deal with temptations, and a final devotional passage, taken from James of Milan's Stimulus Amoris, on Christ and his wounds as the refuge of sinners, which moved the whole exercise away from the merely canonical towards a devotional context. The third and final part of the Oculus provided the priest with theological, canonical, and practical material on the sacraments and their administration.'

A large number of works of this sort, some derived from the Oculus, others independently composed, were in circulation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. John Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests, for example, was a short treatise in English verse derived from the Oculus and designed to help simple and unlearned priests to carry out their duties in pulpit, confessional, and at the deathbed.' It has been suggested that in the early fifteenth century there was a slackening in commitment to the improvement of the pastoral activities of the rank and file clergy, and that clerical manuals were acquired and used mostly by better educated urban clergy, more interested in the liturgical dimension of priestly work than in the confessional or the pulpit.' The evidence for this suggestion is equivocal and inconclusive, being largely dependent on surviving notes of provenance and the character of the annotations in some surviving manuscripts, and the astonishing abundance of catechetical and penitential material for the laity produced and used in fifteenth-and early sixteenth-century England suggests that this area of pastoral activity remained a high priority. Certainly the advent of printing at the end of the fifteenth century saw the publication

5 L. Boyle, "The Oculus Sacerdotis and sonic other works of William of Pagula", Trans­actions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series V, 1955, pp. 81-110.

6 Instructions for Parish Priests by John Myrc, ed. E. Peacock, EETS, 1868.

Ball, "Education", p. 363.

of a whole range of manuals designed to assist parish clergy in their pastoral work, notably the eminently practical and simple fourteenth-century manual, the Manipulus Curatorum, with its emphasis on the practical skills of the priest and its insistence, like that of Mirk, that the priest should know the scriptures. The Manipulus was first printed in England in 1498, and went through at least nine editions before the Edwardine Reformation made it obsolete.'

The Manipulus was in Latin, but there was also a series of vernacular treatises in print at the end of the fifteenth century, in addition to Mirk's perennially popular work. Caxton translated a French pastoral manual, the Doctrinal of Sapyence, in 1489, for "symple prestes that understande not the scriptures" to "lerne and teche to theyre paryshens", which had an indulgence of twenty days attached to it for anyone who read a portion of it to another. Caxton clearly envisaged that lay people might also read the Doctrinal and produced two editions, one containing and one omitting material on the mishaps that can occur during the cel­ebration of Mass, "by cause it is not conyenyent ne aparteynyng that every layman sholde knowe There were a number of vernacular pastoral manuals printed at about this time, mostly translated from French originals and principally designed for con­fessors, catechists, and preachers, but also aimed at a literate lay audience, for example, the Ordynarye of Crysten Men (1502) and the Flour(' of the Commandments (1510). Production of specifically clerical treatises, following the same basic pattern and designed to help priests hear confessions and expound the duties of the faith and the doctrine of the sacraments, went on right up to the break with Rome. In 1531 Wynkyn de Worde published an edition of the Stella Clericorum, first produced in France in the 1490s and devoted to the dignity and obligations of priesthood. In 1534 Thomas Godfray reissued an English version of the Exonoratorium Curatorum, a practical work modelled on Pecham's Ignorantia Sacerdotum. As late as 1542 Thomas Petyt produced an edition of the Cura Clericalis, which had had its first printing in England as recently as 1532, but whose instructions about pilgrimages and indulgences were by 1542 effectively illegal.'"

Manipulns Curatorum, R. Pynson 1508, RSTC 12474.

The Doctrinal of Sapyence, W. Caxton 1489, RSTC 21431; George I). Painter, William Caxton, 1976, p. 170.

l" Here johmieth a notable trearyse . . . named the Ordynarye of crystyanyte or of crysten men, Wynkyn de Worde 151)2, RSTC 5198; The fionre of the commaundementes of tod 'pith many examples and authorytees ... the whidie is moche style and proutfytable unto all people, W. de Worde 1510, RSTC 23876; Stella Clericorum, W. de Worde 1531, RSTC 23244 — first published in England in 1497 and again 1503 by Pynson; E.vonoraterium Curatorum, T. Godfray 1534 (?) RSTC 10634 — the first English edition is thought to have been in 1516; Cura Clerical6, Thomas Petvt 1542, RSTC 6128.

The Cura Clericalis, reflecting the received wisdom on the subject, defined four roles for the priest. He was to be a celebrant of Masses, and so needed to understand the basic texts and be able to pronounce the Latin grammatically and clearly. He must be a minister of the other sacraments and so needed to know what and how many they were, to grasp the essential matter of the sacrament and be able to distinguish it from the peripheral features, and to know the proper mode of administration. He was to be a confessor, and so must be able above all to distinguish venial from deadly sin —"inter lepram et non lepram". Finally he was to be "plebis doctor'', the teacher of his people, able to instruct them in the articles of the faith and the other precepts of God.

It will be noticed that preaching is not given a high priority in this list, or rather it is assimilated to catechesis, instructing the people in the precepts of God. Fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century lay people were enthusiastic sermon-goers, where preaching was to be had, and Margery Kempe records "how fast the pepyl cam rennyng to heryn the sermown- when a notable preacher came to King's Lynn, but this very fact suggests that it was something of an event. Preachers themselves could be sceptical of the motivation of those who flocked to hear them, and dubious about the value of the growth in choice of preachers:

These days mochyl folk wyl nowt lowyn hem to syttyn doun at the sermoun, ne welyn heryn it with meek herte, but thei welyn stondun that they moun redely gon awey yif the prechour plese

hem nout. Summe comuyn obstinat in here synne Summe

comyn only to heryn coyouste and newe thyngis Summe comyn only to be seyn. Some comyn only for the mailer and for non devocion ne for no profyght of here soule and swyche fallyn sone on slepe.

Mirk expected that parish priests would expound the essentials of the faith and the meaning of the major feasts on Sundays, and his Festial was designed to provide simple priests with material for these short Sunday homilies. It is difficult to be sure just how widespread Sunday preaching was: over two hundred pre-Reformation pulpits survive in England, most of them from the fifteenth century, a remarkable number which does suggest a growth in the perceived importance of preaching as part of parochial life. It is true that pulpits had a variety of uses, and parish priests almost certainly used them more regularly for "bidding the bedes" at the parish Mass than for preaching, but inscriptions and paintings on

CuraClericalis, sig. a ii.

12 Book of :Waf,ery kempe, p. 149; Anne Hudson, Hie Sermons of MS Longleaf Medium .4eumn, LIII, 1984, p. 223.

some pulpits do suggest that pulpits in general were seen primarily as platforms for teaching, not for prayer. The practice of painting or carving the Four Latin Doctors on the panels or posts of the pulpit, as at Castle Acre (Pl. 17) or Burnham Norton in Norfolk, or the reference to John the Baptist, the archetypal preacher, on the pulpit at South Burlingham (P1. 18) – "Inter natos mulierum non surrexit major Johanne Baptista" – certainly suggest this."

At any rate, everyone agreed that the average parish priest was by and large ill-equipped for preaching, hence the production of Mirk's Festial. Most treatises for priests concentrated on the final two functions listed in the Cura Clericalis, the priest as confessor and as "plebis doctor", since these were held to be intimately related. It was assumed that the priest would have to help the majority of his parishioners to make a full and coherent confession, since most would be unlettered folk. So the priest, especially when dealing with the young "or other symple persones and rude", was instructed to work through the Ten Commandments, the seven sins, the corporal works of mercy, the five bodily senses, asking the parishioner whether they had fulfilled the commandments, committed the sins, carried out the works, and so on. This served simultaneously to elicit confession of the penitent's particular sins and to instruct them in the practice of the faith, but the Ordynarye of Crystal men warned the priest to be careful here, since simple people, overawed by the occasion, tended to answer "yes syre unto that / that a man them demandeth be it trouth or lesynge.""

Manuals, printed or manuscript, produced by experts for the instruction of parish clergy, tell us the theory of the confessional. A remarkable fifteenth-century manuscript at St John's College, Cambridge, allows us to see something of the actuality in practice. This manuscript is a compilation, assembled by at least two dif­ferent priests and with a considerable amount of consequent over­lapping, of practical material to assist them in the shriving pew (Pl. 19). Carvings of confession on several of the East Anglian Seven-Sacrament fonts, like those at Gresham and Alderford in Norfolk, show priests' handbooks of this sort actually in use.15 The St John's collection includes exhortations to penitents to encourage them to a full and true confession, different formulae of absolution

13 G. R. Owst, Preach* in Medieval England, 1926; T. Harjunpaa, Preaching in England During the Later Middle Ages, Acta Academiae Aboensis, Ser. A, XXIX no. 4, 1965; J. C. Cox and A. Harvey, English Church Furniture, 1908, pp. 148-50; M. D. Anderson, The Imagery of British Churches, 1955, pp. 42-3.

14 Ordynarye, sig. S iii (v): on the didactic roll of the confessor see V. Gillespie, "Doctrina et predicatio: the Design and Function of Some Pastoral Manuals'', Leeds Studies in English, ns XI, 1980, pp. 36-50.

15 St John's College, Cambridge, MS S 35.

and reassurance, prayers for repentance and forgiveness, verses from the Psalms, theological notes on contrition, confession, and satisfaction, procedure to be followed in absolving the dying, including forms of absolution for use with those who possess bulls of indulgence, and prescribed remedies against the sins. The main body of the collection, however, consists of a systematic set of inquisitions for use by the priest in confession, structured round the seven deadly sins, the Ten Commandments, and the five bodily wits. After the inquisitions comes a section of instruction on the cardinal and theological virtues, with an exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 as a practical treatise on charity, the beatitudes, the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, and a series of queries about the sins of people in particular states of life – merchants, artificers, magistrates, house­wives, and so on. In the section of inquiries about the deadly sins which forms the principal part of the compilation, the main text on each sin has a line drawn under it, below which the first compiler has jotted down a series of one-word headings which serve as a summary of the longer text and an aide-memoire to himself in the course of hearing a confession. It is unmistakably a working book designed to help the owners to carry out their duties thoroughly and sympathetically.

The tone of the collection, and something of the social realities to which it was addressed, can be gathered from the enquiries about the sin of envy:

Have ye hadde anie envie to your neighbores or to your even cristen and be glad of here harmes and of here evel fare and loth of here good, or of the adversite or desese that hath falle to hem and be sorie or hevie of here prosperite or welfare . . . and of here good name and good fame. Have ye backbited and dispraised your even cristen or tolde evil] tales of hem to a pewn I?] here good name or wolde not heere noo good spoke of hem bi your wille but lette it or stopped it as much as ye might. Also sterid or procured other to hate hem ... Also when ye have mette hem that ye hatith or hadde [anger] to: have ye made hem good chere and feire face withoute forthe and hatid hem with yn forth. And saide worse bi hinde him thole ye wolde avowe afore him for hatrade and envie that ye hadde to him.'

This is entirely standard material, closely resembling, for example, the equivalent section of Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests. So, as in Mirk, or even in the confession of the deadly sins in Langland's Piers Plowman, the sin of sloth is treated largely in terms of failure to fulfil religious duties: "Have ye be slowe to lerne your be leve

16 St John's MS S 35.

and the comanndmentes and the lawe of God and to teche it to them that both under your governaunce ... to come to chirche to here dyvine service and prechinge of the worde of god and to worship your lorde god of heven."17 The significance of the St John's manuscript is not in any originality it contains, but in the evidence it provides of the actual employment of the theories and advice of the textbooks by working priests in their day-to-day practice.

Confession following the pattern prescribed in the textbooks or even the St John's compilation could have been a lengthy and harrowing business. In practice it must usually have been much abbreviated, for confessors were sensibly advised to save their close enquiries for the sins particular people were likely to have committed — "as unto the people of the chirche of symonye

unto yonge people of temptacyons carnalles".18 Most people in most parishes confessed once a year, in Lent, and as often as not delayed coming till Holy Week. In any community with more than a hundred or so "houselling folk" a systematic confession of the sort envisaged by the manuals would have occupied the priest and his people for most of Lent. Pious and leisured lay people with spiritual guides were by the later fifteenth century confessing more regularly, using the confessional as a form of spiritual direction. There was a growing literature of penitence and compunction designed to help lay people to use confession in this way. But we should not take the devout introspection of a Lady Margaret or the scrupulous anxieties of a Luther as our model of what a late medieval confession entailed. For the majority of parishioners it remained a less subjective exercise, a time for practical reassess­ment, reconciliation with neighbours, and settling of spiritual accounts. It was, moreover, an exercise carried out with queues of waiting fellow-parishioners looming close behind, the mutter of their rosaries or their chatter plainly audible (Pl. 20). Pastoral realism therefore demanded that the confession be kept within manageable dimensions; in a time-honoured formula the penitent was to be brief, be brutal, be gone.'

17 Cf. Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests, pp. 37-8: Piers Plowman B Text, Passus 5 lines 392-461.

Ordynarye, sig. S iii (v).

9 Professor Ann Nichols, whose forthcoming book, Seeable Signs, explores the icono­graphy, theology, and history of the Seven-Sacrament fonts, tells me that waiting penitents queue up in one-third (thirteen) of the confession panels on the fonts. Given the space available to the sculptor on the panel, the queue is usually made up of one or two people, but there are four at Nettlecombe. For discussion of the conditions in which late medieval confession was heard see L. G. Duggan, "Fear and Confession on the Eve of the Refor­mation'', Archie fiir Reformationsgeschichte, LXXV, 1984, pp. 153-75; A. E. Nicholls, "The Etiquette of Pre-Reformation Confession in East Anglia", Sixteenth Century Journal, XVII, 1986, pp. 145-63.

And quite apart from pastoral realism, many clergy were slap­dash or negligent. The jest-book A Hundred Merry Tales has a

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