The stripping of the altars

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The Our Father, From the Arte or Grape to Lyt'e Well.

  • Matrimony, from the Arte or Cni%te to Lyre Well.

    70. Scene from the legend of St Margaret, Combs, Suffolk.

    72. Helper saints: Master John Schorne, portraye (right) at Gateley in Norfolk, was invoked against the ague.
    \gatha, Wiggiuhall St Mary, Norfolk.

    per saints: the presence of plague saints ache (right) on this late screen at North am, Norfolk, reveals anxieties about the Tepidemic disease.

    THE MASS 117

    Praying the Mass: the Individual's Experience
    According to Lyndwood, the canon of the Mass was recited by the priest in silence "ne impediatur populus orare", so that the people might not be hindered from praying.75 As that explanation reveals, it was not thought essential or even particularly desirable that the prayer of the laity should be the same as that of the priest at the altar. According to John Mirk, the parish priest should teach his people that

    whenne they cloth to chyrche fare,

    Thenne bydde hem leve here mony wordes, Here ydel speche, and nyce bordes,

    And put a-way alle vanyte,

    And say here pater noster & here ave.

    While at Mass they were neither to stand nor to slouch against pillars or walls, but to kneel and pray meekly and quietly on the floor. There were certain moments in the Mass when they might rise:

    whenne the gospelle i-red be schalle Teche hem thenne to stonde up alle, And blesse fcyrc as they conne, Whenne gloria tibi is begonne.7''

    These were the fundamental requirements for the laity at Mass: to kneel quietly without idle chatter, saying Paters and Aves, to respond to certain key gestures or phrases by changing posture, above all at the sacring to kneel with both hands raised in adoration, to gaze on the Host, and to greet their Lord with an elevation prayer. Mirk supplies a sample:

    Ihesu Lord, welcome thow be,

    In forme of bred as I the se;

    Ihesu! for thy holy name,

    Schelde me to day fro synne & schame.

    Schryfte & howsele, Lord, thou graunte me bo, Er that I schale henries go,

    And verre contrycyone of my synne,

    That I lord never dye there-Inne;

    And as thow were of a may I-bore,

    Sofere me never to be for-lore,

    ' EWE, p. xx.

    " Instructions for Parish Priests, 9, lines 265-81.


    But whenne that I schale hennes wende,

    Grawnte me the blysse wyth-owten ende. Amen!'"

    A century on, Richard Whytford gave the devout Tudor house-holder almost identical advice, telling him to instruct his children that the church was "a place of prayer / not of claterynge and talkynge . . . charge them also to kepe theyr syght in the chirche cloce upon theyr bokes or bedes. And whyle they ben yonge / let them use ever to knele / stande or syt / and never to walke in the chirche." They were to hear the mass "quyetly and deuoutly / moche parte knelynge. But at the gospell / at the preface / and at the Pater Noster, teche them to standc / and to make curtsy at this worde Jesus as the preest dothe.""1 This was indeed a modest requirement. It demanded from the laity no more than decency in church and the recitation of the rosary while the priest got on with the sacrifice at the altar. His liturgy and theirs converged only at the climactic moment when Earth and Heaven met in the fragile disc of bread he held above his head, and everyone found some heightened form of words to greet and to petition the sacramental Christ for salvation, health, and blessing. The parishioners of Woodchurch in Kent, complaining about their neighbour Roger Harlakinden in 1511 that "he janglith and talkithe in the chirche when he is there and lettithe others to say their divociones" give us a glimpse of that modest ideal actually in practice."

    In fact this minimum requirement was frequently felt to be inadequate both by the church authorities and by the laity them-selves. Texts to assist the devout laity to a fuller participation in the Mass were produced thoughout the later Middle Ages, of which the best known is the rhyming Lay Folk's Mass Book, perhaps originally produced in Norman French, and Englished in the fourteenth century. Lydgate produced a somewhat more elaborate but essen­tially similar work for the Countess of Suffolk in the mid fifteenth century, and Caxton published a lengthy prose guide, "the Noble History of the Exposition of the Mass" at the end of his version of the Golden Le'end.83 None of these works is a translation of the Mass itself, though they all contain paraphrases of some of the prayers in the outer sections of the mass, such as the "Gloria in Excelsis" or the Lord's Prayer. All adopt essentially the same method, offering moralized or allegorized meditations on the stages

    "0 [bid, lines 290—301.

    Werke for Householders, p. 34.

    82 Kentish Visitation, p. 160.

    as LFMB, passim; Minor Poems of John Lydgate: Part I, ed. H. N. MacCraken, EETS, 1911, pp. 84—117; Golden Legend, VII pp. 225—62; Rubin, Corpus Christi, pp. 98—108, 155—63.

    of the Mass, in which the more distinctive actions of the priest, such as ascending or descending the altar steps, changing position at the altar, extending his arms, or turning towards the congregation, are related to the incidents of Christ's life and Passion, or to generalized aspects of Christian doctrine. So at the offertory the Lay Folk's Mass Book provides a prayer which recalls the gifts of the Magi, while Lydgate moralizes the priest's departure at the end of Mass as recalling Moses' leading of Israel through the Red Sea."4 In some later medieval Mass devotions, such as those associated with the Brigittine house of Syon, the correspondences with the Passion are very closely worked out, on the premise that "the processe of the niasse representyd the verey processe of the Passyon off Cryst." Thus as the priest places the fanon or maniple on his arm the devotee is to recall the rope with which Christ was led "fro Tyrant to Tyrant", while the chasuble was to recall the purple vestment in which Christ was mocked."5

    Devotion at Mass on this method became a matter of inner meditation on the Passion, using the stages of the liturgy as triggers or points of departure, and Margery Kempe's visionary practice shows how far it could be carried. But all fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century methods of hearing Mass, however reflective or comparatively learned, were essentially elaborations of the basic method outlined by Mirk: intense prayer at the elevation, preceded and followed by private prayers keyed to a few significant moments in the ceremony – the confession of sins, the Gloria and Sanctus, the offertory, the commemorations of the living and of the dead before and after the sacring, the receiving of the pax. And these few moments did, in fact, encompass the essentials of Christian prayer – praise and self-surrender to God, confession of sins, intercession for one's own needs and those of one's "even-Christians", and for the building of community in charity. All these were focused on the event which made all of them possible and meaningful, the con­secration which renewed and gave access to the salvation of man-kind on Calvary.

    The overwhelming majority of prayers provided for the laity at Mass were, therefore, elevation prayers. The primers invariably included a range of such prayers in Latin, many of them with in­dulgences; sonic sixteenth-century printed primers supplied dozens. Though often repetitious and litany-like in form, these prayers offered a remarkably balanced and comprehensive Eucharistic theology. Linked firmly to the death of Christ on the altar of the

    LFMB, pp. 22—3.

    ris Tracts on the Mass, pp. 19—21.


    cross, they nevertheless emphasized the glorious and risen character of the body on which the devotee gazed. The prayers invoked Christ not only by his death but by his resurrection, by the descent of the Spirit, by his coming again in glory. His flesh was seen as life-giving "salus, victoria et resurrectio nostra", and the Host was seen as the pledge of delivery from every type of evil afflicting humanity, spiritual or physical."t' The primer prayers were generally in Latin, but vernacular prayers proliferated, often in verse for easy memorization: they follow fairly closely the pattern found in Mirk's Instructions. Lay people attending Mass regularly collected such vernacular devotions for their own use. A manuscript Sarum primer compiled in London about 1500, whose owner was a member of the Jesus gild at St Paul's, has an English prayer of adoration of the sacrament for every day of the week copied into blank spaces on the back of the illuminations which precede the Hours. The prayers typify the tone of this Eucharistic piety, and the cult of spiritual communion by gazing on which it was built:

    O thu swettest manna aungyll mete o thu most likyng gostly drynkc brynge in to myn inwarde mowthe that honyful tast of thin helthful presence and also thin charite. Quenche in nee alle maner of vices, send in to me the plente of vernies, encrese in me giftis of graces and geve to me hele of body and sowie to thi plesyng."7

    One preoccupation in particular is especially notable in vernacular elevation devotions, though it is also found in many of the Latin prayers. This was prayer for delivery from sudden and unprepared death, without the benefit of communion. Late medieval believers, gazing on the Host, were often moved to reflect on the last moment when they would gaze on it, the hour of death. Petitions for "schrift, housil and good ending" are one of the most frequently encountered elements iii such prayers, and it was believed that for those who did die suddenly, the mere sight of the Host that day would be accounted to them as housel." It may be significant that the sight of the Host was thus linked instinctively with the solitary communion of the deathbed, and the lonely journey into the other world for which it was preparation. But there was here no necess­ary contradiction with the communal character of most Eucharistic experience. Communal and individual experience could be held together without tension as the rhythm of the Mass, from pro 

    Hor. Libor. pp. 70-4.

    " E. S. llewick, "On a manuscript Sarum Prymer" Transactions of the St Paul's Ecclesiolotical Society, V, 1905, pp. 170-5.

    " See below, chapter 9, "Last Things", pp. 311-3.

    cession to prayer to rapt gaze and outwards once again to the bustle of offertory or pax. And as we shall see, the solitary character of the medieval experience of the deathbed may itself be questioned. The hour of death was one not of isolation, but itself an experience of community.

    Praying the Mass: Privatization?

    Nevertheless, the private and privatizing dimensions of lay Eucharistic experience have tended to catch the attention of some historians of late medieval religion, not without apparent justifi­cation. Richard Whitford, as we have already seen, thought that devout lay people at Mass should "kepe theyr syght in the chirche cloce upon theyr bokes or bedes", except at the sacring and other key moments. Colin Richmond has argued that the religion of the gentry was developing away from the religion of the rest of the parish in this period, precisely because they, more than others, had their sights "cloce upon theyr bokes". They sat in their private pews, even sometimes in their own family chapels screened off from the rest of the church, and read.

    Whether they followed the Mass in the liturgical books or in a paraphrase and devotional commentary, or they read something unconnected with the service, they were, so to speak, getting their heads down, turning their eyes from the distractions posed by their fellow worshippers, but at the same time taking them off the priest and his movements and gestures. Such folk, in becoming isolated from their neighbours, were also insulating themselves against communal religion."
    Pamela Graves has taken this argument further, arguing that the primers and similar texts encouraged lay people "to muster their own thoughts, rather than construct a communal memory of the passion through the action of the Mass", and has suggested that literate people at Mass "already isolated in their pews and chapels" may even have "experience(edJ religion in probably quite different ways from their illiterate neighbours".''

    There are several causes for unease with any such arguments. In the first place, too much is being assumed here about the dif­ference between literate and illiterate experience of religion.' In the

    " C. Richmond, "Religion and the Fifteenth century Gentleman", in B. Dobson (ed.), The Church, Politics and Patrona'e, 195, p. 199.

    Pamela Graves, "Social Space in the English Medieval Parish Church", Economy and Society, XVIII, 1989, pp. 297-322.

    "' See below, pp. 295-8.

    THE MASS 123

    second, the evidence on the relationship of the literate and the gentle to parochial or communal religion in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century seems to this observer at least to run overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. It was often the gentry who paid for the vestments, vessels, processional crosses, monstrances, sepulchres which beautified the parish's Eucharistic worship, for these simultaneously established within the com­munity the "worship" and importance of the Host and of the donors. The Cloptons, Martins, Halleways, Chesters did indeed have their private pews and even chapels, but those chapels were the location for observances valued by the whole community, and many gentry loaned vestments, vessels, and books from their private chapels to beautify the parish worship on feast days. Our most valuable single commentator on early sixteenth-century parochial religion in East Anglia is Roger Martin. His grandfather seems to have managed Long Melford's summer processional round, and the family's estate chapel was one of the focuses of that round. Roger Martin himself played a leading role in the recon­struction of parochial religion under Mary. Yet the Martin family owned and sat in one such proprietary chantry chapel in their parish church, and Martin's writing about the figure of Christ and his Mother reveal a sensibility saturated in the devotional common-places which filled the literature being read by the pious. There seems little tension here between the couununal and the private. Martin is not unrepresentative. In most communities the gentry and the urban élites chose not to withdraw from communal worship, but to dominate it. To call this process privatization seems unhelpful.','

    But did the gentry and other literate people experience the Mass in a qualitatively different way from those who could not read? Everyone at Mass was expected to participate in two quite different modes — private prayer, focusing on the relation between the I lost and the Passion of Christ, and ritual action, geared to the com­munity. The gentry may be assumed to have valued ritual par­ticipation, since they so often provided its props. Clearly, the scope of their private devotion was enormously broadened and deepened by literacy. There was a qualitative difference between those who could greet the Host only with a Pater or an Ave, and those who were able after the sacring to read the Eucharistic and Passion prayers of the primers, most of them in Latin and many of them with a long tradition of learned and patristic imagery behind them.

    °' Sec C. Carpenter, "The Religion of the Gentry in Fifteenth-Century England", in D. Williams (ed.), England in the Fifteenth Century, 1987, pp. 53-74.

    But here above all we need to beware of attractively stark polarities. The Book of Margery Kempe is a formidable warning against any assumption that the religion of ritual, relic, and miracle is somehow at odds with the religion of meditation, reading, and the quasi-monastic devotion of the mystics and spiritual guides, as filtered into the devotional handbooks of the later Middle Ages. For Margery as for many of her contemporaries, the liturgy and above all the Mass was the natural focus of her private religion. She, of course, was no gentlewoman, but it is a mistake to sec the access to primers and related books as the preserve of the gentry, especially once printing dramatically reduced the cost of a Book of Hours. As we shall see, such books were used by a very wide range of lay people, especially in the towns.`'] To read during Mass a religious book which no one else has access to might indeed cut one off from communal religion. To read a book which in its essentials might be read by a duchess or by a brewer's wife, and which was jammed with highly conventional phrases, metaphors, and images which were part of the stock repertoire of devotional topoi, derived from or echoed in the liturgy itself, and in the paintings, screens, carvings, and windows of the church, was hardly to retreat into élitist privacies. The illiterate gazing during Mass on a cheap indul­genced woodcut of the Image of Pity was not necessarily worlds away from the gentleman reading learned Latin prayers to the wounds of Jesus, and both of them would have responded in much the same way when summoned to put aside book or block-print to gaze at the Host. We shall return to this issue in the next chapter, and also when we conic to consider the prayers of the primers themselves.

    Praying the Mass: the Parochial Experience
    None of the devotional guides to the Mass produced for lay people in the later Middle Ages can really be said to have had the main parish Mass on Sundays in mind, for none of them refer to the ceremonies which differentiated the parish Mass from low Masses said at other altars. The Mass fill into four main sections. In the first the priest vested himself, on weekdays often at the altar, recited the ''Confiteor'' and an opening prayer or collect, read the scripture lessons of Epistle and Gospel, and if it were a solemn day recited the Creed. The second section of the Mass was called the offertory, when the priest received the Mass pennies, if any were to be offered, and prepared the bread and wine for consecration. He
    " See below, chapter 6, "Lewed and Lerned", pp. 212-3.


    ritually washed his hands, and at this point in requiem and chantry Masses would turn to the congregation and invite them, in English, to pray for the deceased in whose memory the Mass was being said. The third section, the canon, was the most solemn, the long prayer of consecration at the centre of which the priest recited Christ's words at the Last Supper, and during which he elevated the Host and chalice for adoration by the people. In the final section, starting with the Lord's Prayer, he received communion and then dismissed the people with a blessing. As he left the altar, or while still standing at it, he recited the last Gospel, the first fourteen verses of St John's Gospel, "In principio". Indulgences were attached to hearing this Gospel read, perhaps in order to encourage the laity to remain to the end of Mass, even after the climactic moment of elevation: to gain the indulgence one had to kiss a text, an image, or even one's own thumbnail, at the words "The Word became flesh.""

    To this basic weekday pattern a number of crucially important ceremonies were added at the high Mass on Sundays. Mass began with an elaborate procession round the church, at the commence-ment of which salt and water were solemnly exorcised, blessed, and mixed. In the course of the procession the altars of the church, and the congregation, were sprinkled with holy water, which would later he taken to the households of the parish, where it was used to banish devils and ensure blessing. The importance of this blessing and distribution of holy water is indicated by the fact that in many places the parish clerk's wages were linked to it, and he was generally known as the "holy-water clerk".''s

    The second additional ceremony on Sundays was the bidding of the bodes. This was a solemn form of prayer in English, which took place before the offertory. The priest from the pulpit called on the people to pray for the Pope, the bishops, the clergy, and especially their own priest, for the king, lords, and couinions, for the mayor or other authorities of the town or village, for "all our good parisshens", and for those in special need such as pilgrims and travellers, prisoners, "and all women that be with chylde in this parysshe or any other", and finally for the household which that week was to supply the holy loaf, the basis of another parochial ceremony peculiar to Sundays. hn the second half of the bidding the congregation prayed for the dead, especially the parish dead. Recently deceased parishioners or special benefactors of the church

    '" E. G. C. Atchley, "Some Notes on the Beginning and Growth of the Usage of a Second Gospel at Mass", Transactions of the St Paul's Ecclesiological Society, IV, 1900, pp. 161-76.

    95 For the ritual, Missale, cols 29**—33**; for the holy-water clerk, The Clerk's Book, passim.

    or parish were mentioned by name, and once a year every name on the parish bede-roll would be read aloud, at the parish requiem. At the conclusion of these prayers the priest gave warning of any feast or fast days in the coming week."

    A further ceremony was added on certain days of the year, the offering days, when people paid parochial dues in coin or wax. A procession was formed (in order of seniority, wealth, or "worship" in the parish pecking order) and the offerings were delivered to the priest at the chancel step. On certain feasts objects to be blessed might be brought up at this point: candles at Candlemas, butter, cheese, and eggs at Easter, apples on St James's day.`17

    The next ceremony which was elaborated on Sunday was the pax: just before his own communion the priest kissed the corporal on which the Host rested, and the lip of the chalice, and then kissed the paxbred, a disk or tablet on which was carved or painted a sacred emblem, such as the Lamb of God or the Crucifix. This pax was then taken by one of the ministers or, in small parishes, by the clerk, to the congregation outside the screen, where it was kissed by each in turn, once more observing seniority. Primers often supplied a short prayer for use at this point, asking for peace in our times and deliverance from enemies, spiritual or bodily."

    The pax was clearly a substitute for the reception of communion. At the end of the parish Mass an even more obvious substitute for lay conununion was provided. A loaf of bread presented by one of the householders of the parish was solemnly blessed, cut up in a skip or basket, and distributed to the congregation. The offering of this loaf, which was regulated by a rota, was attended with con­siderable solemnity, the provider processing to the high altar before matins, reciting a special prayer, and offering a candle to the priest at the same time. It was usual for the curate to pray explicitly "for the good elan or woman that this day gevcth bread to make the holy lofe" when he bid the bedes. This holy loaf was meant to be the first food one tasted on a Sunday; eaten or simply carried in one's pocket, it was believed to have apotropaic powers. If one died without a priest, reception of holy bread was accounted a sufficient substitute for housel»o

    `"' for the beds-roll see below pp. 334-7.

    ()n these blessings in general sec Scribner, Popular Religion, pp. 5—12, 39—41: for those mentioned, Manual(' ad Usurn Pero'lebris Ecrlesie .Sarisburieuscs, ed. A Jcfferies Collins, Henry Bradshaw Society, XCI, 1960, pp. 7-8, 65, 66.

    " Hoskins, p. 108.

    09 On the method of offering the holy loaf see Stanford (:WA, p. 71; for examples of bidding the bedes for the provider see Church of Our Fathers, II pp. 295, 7, LFMB, pp. 71—2, 79, and Manuale et Processionale ad Usum Insignis Ecclesiae Ehoraciensis, ed. W. G. Henderson, Surtees Society, LXIII, 1875, pp. 126, 224.


    What all these dramatic Sunday ceremonies have in common is an emphasis on the location and maintenance of blessing, healing, and peace within the community. Absence from these ceremonies was resented and might be taken as a mark not merely of sloth or carelessness, but of heresy."' Quite clearly, the use of these ceremonies on Sunday must have reorientated the Mass, giving it a communal dimension, expressed in dramatic and time-consuming ceremonial, wholly lacking at weekday Masses. Parishioners at the Sunday Mass would perhaps have had time for quiet prayer amid the bustle, activity, and loud gossip which countless court present­ments and sermon exempla portray. The sacring at the Sunday Mass would certainly have been especially solemn, surrounded by torches and accompanied by the mutter of elevation prayers from one's fellow parishioners, and the tolling of one of the great bells, so that those abroad in the parish would know, kneel, and share. But the corporate dimension of the sacrament of the altar, its role in building and maintaining community, would have been inescapable at these Masses, as it was not on a weekday. Here again, the recognition of a plurality of Eucharistic experience is vital.

    Mak* t{le l'evice

    Of course these ceremonies, so clearly concerned with peace and charity, are as much a testimony to the fragility of those blessings in the communities of late medieval England as they are to their presence. They were used not only to promote harmony, but to impose hegemony, the dominance of particular individuals and groups within the parish and the wider community. The Wife of Bath's rage in parish processions when another woman claimed precedence is well known, and her concern was widely shared; quarrels for precedence seem at times less the occupational hazard of churchgoers iii late medieval England than their principal occupation. Thomas Rode and William Moreton at Astbury in Cheshire quarrelled ferociously in 1513, "concerning which of them shold sit highest in church", and which should "foremost goe in procession".

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