The stripping of the altars

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joke about a priest hearing confessions on Ash Wednesday with a massive hangover as a result of Shrove Tuesday junketing. He falls asleep in the midst of one woman's confession that she had stolen a pot, and in disgust she gets up and goes away. The next woman in the queue kneels down and begins with the conventional opening request for blessing. "Benedicite", at which the priest wakes con­fused and exclaims, "What, art thou now at `benedicite' again! Tell me what didst thou when thou hadst stolen the pot. "2"

Nevertheless, it is clear that the framework of sins, command­ments, works of mercy, and bodily wits did form the basis not only of clerical enquiry in the majority of confessions but of lay examination of conscience in preparation for confession. The brief English "Form of Confession" provided in sonic of the most popular primers of the 1520s and 1530s follows this form, taking the penitent through a check-list of the seven deadly sills, the Ten Commandments, the five wits, the seven works of mercy both corporal and spiritual, the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, the seven sacraments and the eight beatitudes.' When in February 1536 John Stanton, a Protestant agent provocateur, denounced his confessor to Cromwell for papalist views revealed in the course of confession, his report revealed the traditional framework in operation:

First the said John Stanton said Benedicite, and the priest said Dominus. And then the said John said Confiteor, and afterwards rehearsed the seven deadly sins particularly, and then the mis­spending of his five wits. And then the priest said, Have you not sinned in not doing the five !sic] works of mercy? The said John said, Yea, forsooth, for the which and all other I cry God mercy and beseech you, rii7 ghostly father, of forgiveness, and give me penance of my sins.—

Confessional practice and the catechetical and preaching programme of the English Church in the fifteenth century were closely linked: expositions of the Lord's Prayer by the parish clergy, for example, normally presented the seven petitions of the prayer as remedies against the deadly sins, and related them to the three theological and four cardinal virtues.23 To assist and supplement the efforts of the parish clergy there evolved a massive and growing literature

A Hundred Merry Tales, p. 139.

21 E. Hoskins, Home Beatae Maria(' VirsUnis, or, Sarum and Fork primers with Kindred Books and Primers of the Reformed Roman 1, 'se, 1901 (hereafter = Hoskins) p. 133.

22 G. Elton, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell, 1972, p. 28.

23 Testial, pp. 282-8; Middle English Sermons edited Efrom British Museum 3./S Royal 18 B ed. W. 0. Ross, EETS, 1940, pp. 46-59.



in English designed to instruct and edify the laity and to provide the simple clergy with material for their preaching and teaching. Some of this material, such as the publications of John Mirk, was by working parish priests. Some was directly commissioned or inspired by the bishops, like Nicholas Love's immensely popular translation of the Meditationes Vitae Christi usually attributed to Bonaventura, the Mirrour of the Blessed Lyle of Jesu. But much was the product of private initiative or the activities of religious orders such as the Brigittines of Syon or the Carthusians of Sheen or Mount Grace, not directly involved in pastoral work. Though almost entirely the work of clerics, the growth of an English theological literature in this period "was largely unofficial, informal, and supererogatory"' both promoting and responding to a growing lay demand for religious instruction and edification. This vernacular literature was also enormously varied. Compilations like the Poor Caitiff, a series of didactic and devotional treatises aimed at the growing number of devout literate lay folk, or Dives and Pauper, a systematic exposition of the Commandments probably intended to assist clergy in preaching and confession, relate very closely to the catechetical aims of the clergy, though the Poor Caitiff incorporates much devotional material and is heavily influenced by Richard Rolle and his school.'

As all this suggests, the original modest aims of the thirteenth-century Church, to equip the laity with basic prayers, the means of examining their consciences, and the bare essentials of belief, had expanded by the fifteenth century. Meditation on the Passion or the life of Christ, affective devotion to his sufferings, to the Sacrament, or to the saints, the recognition of a desire for a more structured and elaborate prayer-life, had all been accepted by the early fifteenth century as legitimate for lay people as well as for religious, and a literature emerged to cater for it. The career of Margery Kempe reveals the extraordinary accessibility of the devotional classics of the period to a bourgeois laywoman, and the range of clerical and religious guidance she could draw on, from parochial or monastic

22 A. I. Doyle, "A Survey of the Origins and Circulation of Theological Writings in English in the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries", Cambridge PhD thesis, 1953, p. 283;

M. G. Sargent, -The Transmission by the English Carthusians of some Late Medieval Spiritual Writings", Journal of Ecclesiastical History, XXVII, 1976, pp. 225-40; J. Hogg, ''Mount Grace Charterhouse and Late Medieval English Spirituality", Analecto Cortusiana, LXXXII/2, 1983, pp. 1-43.

2.5 M. Aston, -Devotional Literacy" in Lotion's and Reformers, 1984, pp. 101-33; H. G. Pfander, ''Sonic Medieval Manuals of Religious Instruction'', Journal (`. English and Germanic Philology, XXXV, 1936, pp. 243-58; G. H. Russell, "Vernacular Instruction of the Laity in the Late Middle Ages in England", Journal of Religious History, II, 1962, pp. 98-119; M. T. Brady, "The Poor Caitiff an Introductory study", Troditio, X, 1954, pp. 529-48; for a survey and listing of surviving catechetical manuscripts see P. S. Joliffe, A Check-List of Middle English Prose Writings of Spiritual Guidance, 1974.


clergy willing to read and expound the works of Rolle, Hilton, or Nicholas Love, or the lives and writings of modern saints like Christina of Markyate or Bridget of Sweden to serve as role models and exemplars, to expert spiritual guides like the parish priest Richard of Caister or the anchorite Julian of Norwich, willing and able to advise her on her own spiritual development." Margery was a formidably determined woman with some means, living in what was possibly the most religiously privileged part of early fifteenth-century England, for the towns of East Anglia had far more in the way of religious resources. than the scattered com­munities of Derbyshire, Cumberland, or Wales. The religious horizons of villagers in remote areas probably remained fairly con­stricted even late into the century, but in Yorkshire, the East Midlands, East Anglia, the South-east, and many parts of the West Country, a common and extremely rich religious culture for the laity and secular clergy had emerged by the fifteenth century, which far exceeded the modest expectations of Pecham and the thirteenth-century bishops who devised the catechetical strategies of the medieval English Church.27

The Impact of Catechesis: Imagery and Dramatic Evidence

The ubiquity of the catechetical preoccupations of the late medieval Church in the imaginative world of the laity is testified to in a range of types of evidence. From the late fourteenth century onwards wall-paintings illustrating the moral framework of the teaching of the confessional manuals abound. A particularly well-preserved one at Trotton in Sussex shows Christ in judgement, enthroned on the rainbow. Below him stands Moses, holding the tables of the Commandments. To Christ's left stands the figure of a man sur­rounded by circular medallions in which are portrayed the seven corporal works of mercy. On Christ's right is a gigantic naked figure, from whose body dragons emerge: in their gaping jaws small human figures enact the seven deadly sins. The painting would have provided the fifteenth-century parishioners of Trotton with a pictorial rendering of a standard examination of conscience.-8 Paintings of this sort were extremely common in the late four­teenth and early fifteenth centuries. As windows became larger and wall-space smaller, such representations were shifted into the

2`' C. M. Atkinson, Mystic and Pilgrim: the Book and the World of Mawcry Kempe, 1983.

27 For a good account of its development in northern England, which probably over 

emphasizes its regional distinctiveness, see Jonathan Hughes, Pastors and Visionaries, 1988,

esp. pp. 127-73.

28 M. 1). Anderson, History and Imagery in British Churches, 1971, pp. 145-6 and plate 46.

painted glass. The works of mercy in particular were increasingly represented in the painted windows paid for by prosperous

(P1merchants or yeomen in the hundred years before the Reformation . 21). At Lamas in Norfolk the north window had a picture of the Doom, with Christ uttering the words of the Matthean parable: "Venite Benedicti", "Ite Maledicti". In the other panels of the window the works of mercy were represented, with the cry of the poor answered by the charity of the donor: "For hunger gredy –Thee to fede, lo me nogh reedy, Hostel I crave – Come wery in and you shal have." Parts of a similar window survive at Combs in Suffolk (Pl. 22-3).'

At Blythburgh visiting the sick is carved on a bench-end, the bedridden man turning hands of supplication upwards, while on the bench behind him a prisoner in the stocks implores help with the same gesture (P1 24-5). The vices were also carved: at Wigginhall St German Lust is represented by a man and woman embracing, Avarice clutches his money-bags, while Gluttony pours wine from a bottle into a cup (Pl. 26-7). At Thornham Sloth dozes over his rosary. At Blythburgh Gluttony hugs a distended paunch, while Pride is a hypocritical devotee (P1. 28), pretending to pray while actually peering over devoutly poised hands to see who is taking notice, a direct borrowing from the standard treatments of Pride in the confessional textbooks: "Have ye synned in ypocrisie and schewid you holier and better owte warde than ye were inwarde. And desired to be holde holie or good . . . have ye doo your alines or maide your prioures ... or do the other goode dedis openlie that thei schulde be knowen."3"

Other aspects of the catechetical programme were also presented visually. The twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed were conven­tionally attributed to the twelve Apostles, Peter having composed the first article "Credo in Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem", Andrew the second, "et in Iesum Christum", and so on. Portrayals of the twelve Apostles, each carrying a banner or a scroll on which the relevant article of the Creed is inscribed, became extremely common in windows and on the dados of Rood-screens in fifteenth-century England. They were also portrayed in alabaster altar-pieces and they can be found on the west front of Wells Cathedral. A complete Creed window survives at Drayton Beauchamp in Buckinghamshire,

Blomefield, Norfolk, VI, pp. 291-2. There is discussion of this and related windows in

C. Woodforde, The Norwich School of Glass-Painting, 1950, pp. 192-6. The best surviving examples are at All Saints, North Street, York (which contains only the six works mentioned in Matthew 25, omitting the burial of the dead, which was derived from the Book of Tobit). The remains of another tine set are at Combs in Suffolk.

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

and Rood-screens with the Creed survive at Gooderstone, Ringland, Mattishall, Thetford, and Weston Longville, all in Norfolk (P1. 29-30). At Mattishall the didactic purpose of the paintings with their texts was elaborated by the carver who framed the paintings within the screen. The clause of the Creed associated with the Apostle James the Great is "who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary" (P1. 31). In the spandrels above the painting of St James with this text the carver has set the biblical scene of the Annunciation by Gabriel to Mary, thereby providing the parishioners with a portrayal of the moment at which the conception took place (Pl. 32).3' In general, the emergence of the common arrangement on East Anglian Rood-screens in which the dado was occupied by the Apostles, with or without their clauses of the Creed, and the doors or pulpit by the Four Latin Doctors, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, and Jerome, symbols of the Church's teaching, suggests a heightened awareness of the importance of preaching and catechesis in parishes in the second half of the century (Pl. 33).3'

One of the most remarkable manifestations of the impact of the Church's catechetical concerns on the laity is the collection of forty or so octagonal baptismal fonts, the majority of them in Norfolk and Suffolk, which portray the Seven Sacraments around the bowl. These fonts date from the three generations before the Reformation. One of the earliest is at East Dercham, acquired in 1468, and the last, at Walsoken, was made ten years after the break with Rome, in 1544. Many, perhaps most, of these fonts are the result of lay benefactions to the parish church, and in some cases the donors are known, as at Blythburgh, where John Mason and his wife are commemorated on the top step of the font pedestal. The choice of subject-matter on the fonts must at the very least have met with the approval of the donors and the rest of the parish.

The fonts are common in areas where Lollardy had been par­ticularly strong in the generation prior to their appearance, as at Martham in Norfolk, the home of the redoubtable Margery Baxter, and it has been plausibly suggested by Professor Ann Nichols, the leading authority on the subject, that they represent a con­sidered response to the Lollard attack on the sacramental teaching of the Church, and mark the understanding and acceptance of that

31 There is an account and listing of the Apostles with their clauses in M. R. james„S'nflolk and Norfolk, 1930 reprinted 1987, pp. 215-19.

32 F. Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters, 1984, p. 69. The Apostles and Doctors are found together at Salle and Cawston, Gooderstone and Castle Acre (where the doctors are on the pulpit, as at Burnham Norton). It is likely that they occupied the doors (now mostly vanished) in many other Apostle screens.

teaching by the most influential laity of East Anglia.33 Certainly the iconography of the sacraments on the fonts is extraordinarily precise and "correct". In many continental and some English rep­resentations of the sacraments in other media they are represented by some peripheral part of the ritual, such as the anointings in baptism, or the handing over of the chalice in ordination, the tying of the chrisom-cloth in confirmation, or the blessing of the ring in marriage. On these fonts, by contrast, the scene depicted is almost always that of the action held by the theologians to be constitutive of the sacrament – the sacring at Mass (Pl. 36, 40, 42), the actual immersion of the child in baptism (Pl. 34), the laying on of hands in ordination, the hand-fastening of bride and groom in the presence of witnesses in token of the vow which constitutes the sacrament of matrimony (Pl. 35). Often the priest or bishop in these panels has a book open before him, on which the key words of the ritual might be painted. The carvings therefore represent an extremely precise and full form of catechetical teaching, perhaps designed to counter­act heresy. At any rate the very large number commissioned in the later fifteenth century bear witness to lay interest in and enthusiasm for the teachings they enshrine. After the Reformation, Protestant activists recognized in the iconography of these fonts a rallying point for Catholic belief and a means of propagating it, and attacked them accordingly.'

The Seven-Sacrament fonts represent an appropriation by the laity of the catechetical concerns of the clergy. A similar and even more emphatic appropriation is evident in another medium, drama. The Corpus Christi gild and the Pater Noster gild at York regularly mounted plays designed to teach the citizens the elements of the faith. The Pater Noster gild had been founded to present a play "setting forth the goodness of the Lord's Prayer . . . In which play all manner of vices were held up to scorn, and the virtues held up to praise-." The Creed play was designed to impart "instruction and information of the Christian faith" to the glory of God "and especially to the instruction of the people" and to teach the Creed "to the ignorant". It was in twelve pageants, each with a banner

Till Professor Nichols's hook appears, the essential works are A. C. Fryer, "On Fonts with representations of the Seven Sacraments", Archaeological Journal, LIX, 1902, pp. 17-66, LXXXVII, 1930, pp. 24-59, Supplement XC 1933, pp. 98-105; C. McN. Rushforth,

J"Seven Sacrament Compositions in English Art'', Antiquaries Journal, IX, 1929, pp. 83-100; ohn Foxe, The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, ed. G. Townsend and S. R. Cattley, 1837-41, iii pp. 594-6; there is a selection of images of the Sacraments in H. S. Kingsford, Illustrations of the Occasional Offices of the Church in the Middle Ages, Alcuin Club, XXIV, 1921.

See below, chapter 17, "Elizabeth" pp. 582-3.

35 Toulmin-Smith, English p. 137; Meg Twycross, "Books for the Unlearned", Themes in Drama, V, 1983, pp. 65-11(1; Alexandra F. Johnston, "The Plays of the Religions Guilds of York: the Creed Play and the Pater Noster Play", Speculum L, 1975, pp. 55-90.

on which the relevant clause of the Creed was painted, and it frequently replaced the longer Corpus Christi cycle, which was also the Corpus Christi gild's responsibility. The articles of the Creed were probably illustrated with the relevant plays from the Corpus Christi cycle, the article on the forgiveness of sins, for example, by the play of the woman taken in adultery. The Pater Noster play was clearly linked, as it generally was in contemporary preaching, to the seven sins and the seven virtues, though petitions like "give us this day our daily bread,- which will certainly have had a play illustrating Sloth, might also have borrowed the Last Supper play from the Corpus Christi cycle to represent the Eucharistic dimension of the petition often discussed in sermons and expositions of the prayer.36

Whatever their precise content, these plays clearly involved a massive corporate effort by the laity of York to foster knowledge of the elements of the faith. The Pater Noster play had originally been a private initiative, and the gild certificate described how the first performance had such an effect "that many said, 'Would that this play could be put on a permanent basis in this city for the good of souls and for the consolation of citizens and neighbours.' The formation of the Pater Noster gild had been the result, but in the course of the fifteenth century the city itself took over responsibility for both of these cycles of plays, and the catechetical and devotional enterprise they represented became the responsibility of the citizens as a whole.37

Few communities could match this sort of commitment to the task of instruction and consolation, but religious plays everywhere were a fundamental means of transmitting religious instruction and stirring devotion. William Revetour, chaplain of St William's Ousebridge, York, who left the text of the Creed play to the Corpus Christi gild, along with other play-texts and properties, in 1446, also left a small library. This contained a number of pastoral and liturgical treatises, and a handful of works which reveal his catechetical preoccupations – a treatise on the Lord's Prayer and an illustrated table setting out its petitions and the related vices and virtues, a copy of the Prick of Conscience, a book of the Gospels, some saints' lives in English, and a book of sermons for Lent.' He was clearly actively engaged in teaching, and it is probably sig­nificant that he left his English books to lay friends, his Latin books to clerics. His involvement with the York plays was an entirely consistent extension of this activity.

36 Johnston, -Plays of the Religious Guilds-, pp. 70-80.

37 Ibid. pp. 80, 87.

38 Twycross, -Books for the Unlearned", pp. 65-6.

What was true of Revetour at York was also true more generally. The Tudor reader was meant to smile but not to sneer at the Warwickshire curate in A Hundred Merry Tales who, though "no great clerk nor graduate of the university", was wont to expound the Creed to his parish on a Sunday, and told them that "if you believe not me then for a more sure and sufficient authority, go your way to Coventry and there ye shall see them all played in Corpus Christi play."' Relatively few communities mounted an entire cycle of plays, of course, but the many miracle and saints' plays performed by gilds and other groups in the villages and towns of England into the 1560s served much the same function. The Croxton miracle play of the sacrament vividly combined orthodox sacramental instruction, a devotional set piece derived from the cult of the Image of Pity, and farcical elements borrowed from illumining plays into a highly effective piece of religious drama, possibly designed to consolidate orthodox lay repudiation of Lollardy.' The story of the old man quizzed in James l's reign about his knowledge of Jesus Christ who replied that he had certainly heard of him, for he had attended in his youth the Corpus Christi play at Kendal, where there was a man on a tree and the blood flowed down, is usually told to illustrate the religious ignorance of the peasantry in the early modern period. What it actually attests is the enormous didactic and imaginative effective­ness of the religious plays of the late Middle Ages: once seen, never forgotten. The old man's ignorance of other aspects of the faith is a tacit testimony to the disastrous effect of the suppression of the plays by the Protestant authorities from the mid-1560s onwards. 41

The Impact of Literacy: Lay Didactic and Devotional Collections

But the crucial factor in the growth of a well-instructed laity in fifteenth-century England was the spread of literacy down the social scale, even to many women. We have already considered the impact of this development in connection with the multiplication of primers, but many other types of religious texts also circulated –didactic treatises on the virtues or vices, saints' lives, rhymed moral fables, accounts of visions or visits from or to the afterlife, and collections of prayers and devotions. Much of this material was originally intended for reading aloud to the laity by clerics, as was

A Hundred Merry 'Hiles, pp. 115-16.

4" See' below, chapter 3, -The Mass,- pp. 106-8.

'I Charles Jackson (mi.), -The Life of Master John Shaw" in Yorkshire Diaries and Autobio­graphies in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Surtees Society, LX V, 1877, pp. 138-9, quoted in I. Lancashire, Dramatic Texts and Records of Great Britain, 1984, p. 160.

the case with the long fourteenth-century didactic poem Speculum Vitae, designed to be read piecemeal to gatherings of unlettered lay

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