Review by Richard J. Mammana Jr.
Going to Church in Medieval England
By Nicholas Orme
Yale University Press, pp. 483, $35
Lay Canon Nicholas Orme of Truro Cathedral is one of the most prolific historians of religion in England, with more than 30 extraordinary titles to his name. Perhaps the most delightful was Medieval Children (2001), but his areas of expertise have been the history of cathedrals, pilgrimage, religious hospitals, education, and saints.
No scholar of the history of English lullabies can go without his Fleas, Flies, and Friars (2001). Now that he’s in retirement from a long teaching career at the University of Exeter, Canon Orme’s newest book, Going to Church in Medieval England, brings together a lifetime of work with a comprehensive account of medieval life in England’s nearly 10,000 parish churches. (The word medieval in the title is somewhat misleading; his period begins with St. Augustine’s mission to the English in 597 and ends with the Elizabethan Settlement in 1559.)
The parish system in the Church of England today is of course the direct successor of the world explored in Orme’s book, continuing to offer a Christian presence in every community, with pastoral and sacramental services available to all local residents. Tracing its origins to the ministry centers where clergy engaged in the worship of God “through the daily round of services known as the Divine Office and through the celebration of the Mass,” the parish system had reached most parts of England between the 10th and 12th centuries. By this time, it had completely transformed the English landscape and created the world sung into modern poetry by John Betjeman.
Legally required tithes and parish rentals supported the building of churches and the maintenance of clergy, and could be paid in young animals or money, as well as in “the wool of sheep, milk, butter and cheese, geese, ducks, hens and their eggs, honey from bees, doves from dovecotes, and catches of fish … hay, peas and beans, hemp, orchard fruit, garden vegetables, cider, timber, brushwoods and reeds, and the bracken used for animal bedding.”
Most English Christians during the period could expect to spend the entirety of their lives in easy walking distance of one parish church, with many also experiencing the worship of smaller chapels (and domestic chapels), as well as monasteries and convents or cathedrals and pilgrimage centers. The parish priest was a figure of extraordinary importance, with divine responsibilities and authority but also an uneasy status as a community employee of sorts.
The pervasive sacramental ordering of life through the parish meant that English persons came into the world fortified by baptism, organized their families through marriage, and continued to be remembered liturgically in the same churches long after their death in the omnipresent system of chantry Masses. This was of course the same lived experience of “going to church” known to most Western European Christians, but Orme is keen to track its development and specifics to currents in English history, such as observances related to English saints and local pre-Christian traditions, as well as the ever-changing attitudes of nobles and royal families.
Orme breaks his work down into separate chapters on the staff of the church, church buildings, the congregation, the daily and weekly cycles of worship, the seasons of the year and their traditional observances, the parish church as the center for the human life cycle, and finally the effect of the English Reformation on the world described in each of these ways.
There are wonderful glimpses of historical personalities in accounts of clergy and laypeople alike, suggesting substantial human continuity with church life in the present. There are also important social realities mentioned along the way, such as the regular tolling of the church bell as the only non-natural way of telling the time of day for most of English history. Orme is evenhanded in his evaluation of the Reformation as a time of profound disruption of many aspects of parish life, but also substantial survivals of earlier forms varying widely by individual community.
Some readers may ask why there is a need for a new treatment of what may seem familiar ground for students of English church history. Many will remember Eamon Duffy’s work in the 1990s and early 2000s in his monumental books The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 and The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village.
Orme’s work is different and welcome in its somewhat longer scope, as well as a slightly less academic register of writing. There are copious endnotes and a good bibliography, but Going to Church in Medieval England is less specialist in emphasis and tone than Duffy’s contributions. It is an attractive and substantial brick of a book, with 60 color illustrations and maps depicting everything from medieval celebrations of the sacraments to building renovations during the Reformation. It would be an ideal seminary textbook for courses on English church history, and an important addition to any parish library.
Richard J. Mammana Jr. is the Episcopal Church’s associate for ecumenical and interreligious relations.