Historical Reprints Religion Parish Priests and Their People in the Middle Ages in England

Parish Priests and Their People in the Middle Ages in England

Parish Priests and Their People in the Middle Ages in England
Catalog # SKU0192
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 2.00 lbs
Author Name Edward L. Cutts
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Parish Priests and
Their People in the
Middle Ages in England

Edward L. Cutts

A great mass of material has of late years been brought within reach of the student, bearing upon the history of the religious life and customs of the English people during the period from their conversion, in the sixth and seventh centuries, down to the Reformation of the Church of England in the sixteenth century; but this material is still to be found only in great libraries, and is therefore hardly within reach of the general reader.

The following chapters contain the results of some study of the subject among the treasures of the library of the British Museum; much of those results, it is believed, will be new, and all, it is hoped, useful, to the large number of general readers who happily, in these days, take an intelligent interest in English Church history.

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When we have the pleasure of taking our Colonial visitors on railway journeys across the length and breadth of England, and they see cornfields, meadows, pastures, copses, succeed one another for mile after mile, with frequent villages and country houses, what seems especially to strike and delight them is the thoroughness and finish of the cultivation; England seems to them, they say, like a succession of gardens, or, rather, like one great garden. This is the result, we tell them, of two thousand years of cultivation by an ever-increasing population.

On the other hand, we are helped to understand what the land was like at the time of the settlement in it of our Saxon forefathers, by the descriptions which our Colonial friends give us of their surroundings in Australia or Africa, where the general face of the country is still in its primeval state, the settlements of men are dotted sparsely here and there, the flocks and herds roam over "bush" or "veldt," and only just so much of the land about the settlements is roughly cultivated as suffices the wants of the settlers.

For in England, in those remote times of which we have first to speak, the land was, for the most part, unreclaimed. If we call to mind that the English population about the end of the sixth century could only have been about a million souls-200,000 families-we shall realize how small a portion of the land they could possibly have occupied. A large proportion of the country was still primeval forest, there were extensive tracts of moorland, the low-lying districts were mere and marsh, the mountainous districts wild and desolate. The country harboured wolf and bear, wild cattle and swine, beaver and badger, wild cat, fox, and marten, eagle, hawk, and heron, and other creatures, most of which have entirely disappeared, though some linger on, interesting survivals, in remote corners of the land.

Their possession of the country by the English was the result of recent, slow and desultory conquest. Independent parties of adventurers from the country round about the mouth of the Elbe had crossed the German Ocean in their keels, landed on the coast, or rowed up the rivers, and pushed their way slowly against a tenacious resistance. Then, when a party of the invaders had made good their conquest, came its division among the conquerors.

Our own history tells us so little of the details of the Anglo-Saxon conquest, that we have to call in what we know of the manners of their Teutonic neighbours and Scandinavian relatives to help us to understand it. The late Sir W. Dasent, in his "Burnt Njal," says that the Norse Viking, making an invasion with a view not to a mere raid, but to a permanent settlement, would lay claim to the whole valley drained by the river up which he had rowed his victorious keels; or, landing on the coast, would climb some neighbouring height, point out the headlands which he arbitrarily assigned as his boundaries on the coast, and claim all the hinterland which he should be able to subdue. The chief would allot extensive tracts to the subordinate leaders; and the freemen would be settled, after their native custom of village communities, upon the most fertile portions of the soil which their swords had helped to win. In the broad alluvial lands of the river valleys there would be ample space for several neighbouring townships; in forest clearings or fertile dales the townships would be scattered at more or less wide intervals. The unallotted lands belonged to the general community; it was Folk land, and its allotment from time to time, probably, in theory needed confirmation by a Folk-mote, but was practically made by the supreme chief.

Every township possessed a tract of arable land, which was divided by lot yearly among the families of the freemen; a tract of meadow, which was reserved for hay, cultivated and harvested by the common labour; a wide expanse of pasture, into which each family had the right to turn a fixed number of cattle and sheep; and into the forest, a fixed number of swine to feed on the acorns, mast, and roots.b The people were rude agriculturists, not manufacturers, not traders, not civilized enough to profit by the civilization which the Romans had established in the country; they stormed and sacked the towns, and left them deserted, and selected only the most fertile spots for occupation.

It is a subject of dispute among our most learned historians to what extent the native Britons were slain or retired before the invaders, or to what extent they were taken as captives, or reappeared from their fastnesses after the slaughter was over, to be the slaves of the conquerors. When we first get glimpses of the situation of things after the conquest, we find that the British language and religion have disappeared from the Saxon half of the country; and this implies the disappearance of the great body of the people.

The fact of the continuance of some ancient place-names, chiefly of great natural features, as hills and rivers, and of a few British words for things for which the Teutons had no names, would be sufficiently accounted for by the survival of a very small remnant. In their native seats the social condition of these Angle and Saxon freemen was patriarchal and primitive; they venerated their chiefs as Woden-born; they elected one of them as their leader in battle; but they did not obey them as their subjects. On questions of general importance the chiefs and wise men advised the Folk-mote, and the people said "Aye" or "No." But their circumstances in their new conquests led to changes. It was necessary to maintain some sort of permanent military organization not only for the defence of their new possessions, and the extension of their conquests against the old inhabitants of the island, but also against the encroachments of rival tribes of their own countrymen. And a supreme chief, to whom all paid a kind of religious veneration, who exercised permanent military authority over lesser chiefs and people, soon became a king; limited, however, in power by the ancient institutions of the Council of the wise men, and the assent or dissent of the Folk-mote.

The several parties of invaders gradually extended their conquests until they met, and then made treaties or fought battles with one another, until, finally, by the end of the sixth century, they had organized themselves into seven independent kingdoms.

The freemen of each Township managed their own affairs in a town meeting; a number of neighbouring townships were grouped into what was called by the Saxons south of the Humber a Hundred, by the Angles north of the Humber a Wapentake; and each township sent four or five of its freemen to represent it in the Hundred-mote every three months. Three times a year, in summer, autumn, and midwinter, a general meeting of the freemen was held-a Folk-mote-at some central place; to which every township was required to send so many footmen armed with sword, spear, and shield, and so many horsemen properly equipped.

At these Folk-motes affairs of general interest were determined, justice was administered by the chief and priests, and probably it was at these meetings that the great acts of national worship were celebrated. Except for these periodical meetings, the scattered townships existed in great isolation. A striking illustration of this isolation is afforded by laws of Wihtred of Kent and of Ine of the West Saxons, which enact-or perhaps merely record an ancient unwritten law-that if any stranger approached a township off the highway without shouting or sounding a horn to announce his coming, he might be slain as a thief, and his relatives have no redress. A subsequent law of Edgar enacts that if he have with him an ox or a dog, with a bell hanging to his neck, and sounding at every step, that should be taken as sufficient warning, otherwise he must sound his horn. The local exclusiveness produced by this isolation, the suspicion and dislike of strangers, survive to this day in secluded villages in the wilder parts of the country.

These Teutonic tribes were heathen at the time of their coming into the land. Of their religion and its observances our own historians have given no detailed account, and few incidental notices. Our names for the days of the week, Sun-day, Moon-day, Tuisco's-day, Woden's-day, Thor's-day, Frya's-day, Saeter's-day, make it certain that our Anglo-Saxon ancestors worshipped the same gods as their Scandinavian neighbours, and probable that their religion as a whole was similar. Their supreme god was Odin or Woden, with whom were associated the twelve Æsir and their goddess-wives, and a multitude of other supernatural beings. In their belief in an All-father, superior to all the gods and goddesses-we recognize a relic of an earlier monotheism.

They had structural temples, and in connection with their temples they had idols, priests, altars, and sacrifices. They believed in the immortality of the soul, in an intermediate state, and a final heaven and hell. The souls of the brave and good, they believed, went to Asgard, the abode of the Æsir; there the warriors all day enjoyed the fierce delight of combat, and in the evening all their wounds healed, and they spent the night in feasting in Valhalla, the hall of the gods; the wicked went to Niflheim, a place of pain and terror. But the time would come when the earth, and sun, and stars, and Valhalla, and the gods, and giants, and elves, should be consumed in a great and general conflagration, and then Gimli and Nastrond, the eternal heaven and hell, should be revealed.

Gimli-a new earth adorned with green meadows, where the fields bring forth without culture, and calamities are unknown; where there is a palace more shining than the sun, and where religious and well-minded men shall abide for ever; Nastrond-a place full of serpents who vomit forth venom, in which shall wade evil men and women, and murderers and adulterers.

A knowledge of their religious customs would help us to judge what hindrance they opposed to the reception of the system of the Christian Church; or, on the other hand, what facilities they offered for the substitution of one for the other; but it is only from the assumption that the religious customs of our English ancestors were similar to those of the Norsemen that we are able to form to ourselves any conception on the subject.

In Iceland, conformably to the constitution of its government, each several district (the island was divided into four districts) had its priest who not only presided over the religious rites of the people, but also directed the deliberations of the people when their laws were made, and presided over the administration of justice (Neander, "Church Hist.," v. 418).

Sir W. Dasent says that after the Norse conqueror had marked out his boundaries and settled his people on their holdings, and chosen a site for his own rude timber hall, he erected in its neighbourhood a temple in which his followers might worship the gods of their forefathers, and that this was one means of maintaining their habitual attachment to his leadership.

The evidence leads to the conclusion that both Scandinavians and Teutons had very few structural temples, perhaps only one to each tribe or nation; and perhaps only three great annual occasions of tribal or national worship. We get a glimpse of one of these structural temples in the story of the conversion of Norway.

The great temple at Maere, in the Drontheim district, contained wooden images of the gods; the people assembled there thrice a year at midwinter, spring, and harvest; the people feasted on horseflesh slain in sacrifice, and wine blessed in the name and in honour of the gods; and human victims were sometimes offered.

The English townships, generally, it is probable, had no structural temples, but sacred places of resort, as an open space in the forest, or a hilltop, or a striking mass of rock, or a notable tree or well. The religious observances at such places would probably not be a regular worship of the gods, but such superstitions as the passing of children through clefts in rocks and trees, dropping pins into wells, and others; these superstitions survived for centuries, for they are forbidden by a law of Canute, and one of them, the consultation of wells, so late as by a canon of Archbishop Anselm; and, in spite of laws, and canons, and civilization, and a thousand years of Christianity, some of them survive among the peasantry of remote districts to this very day.

In the "Ecclesiastical History" of Bede, we find notices of only three structural heathen temples in England. The first is that at Godmundingham, which Coifi, the chief of the king's priests, with the assent of King Edwin and his counsellors and thanes, defiled and destroyed on the acceptance of Christianity at the preaching of Paulinus. Of this we read that it had a fanum, enclosed with septis, which contained idola and aras; and since the temple was set on fire and thus destroyed, it seems likely that the fanum was of timber. The second temple named is the building east of Canterbury, in which King Ethelbert was accustomed to worship while yet a heathen, which, on the king's conversion, was consecrated as a church and dedicated to St. Pancras, and was soon afterwards incorporated into the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul built on the site.

This was probably a stone building, and recent researches have brought to light what are possibly remains of it. The third temple is that in which Redwald, King of the East Anglians, after his conversion at the Court of Ethelbert, worshipped Christ at one altar, while his queen continued the old heathen worship at another altar in the same building. It will be observed that all these were the temples of kings, and this accords with the supposition that such structural temples existed only in the chief places for worship of tribes and nations; just as the twelve tribes of Israel had only one great national temple, while they had numerous altars on the "high places" all over the country.

Again, there is a remarkable absence all through the history of any mention of, or allusion to, the existence of a priesthood ministering among the people. The only priest clearly mentioned is the worldly-minded Coifi spoken of above, but as he is mentioned as "the chief of the king's priests," we assume that there was a staff of them, probably attached to the king's temple at Godmundingham. We suppose that Ethelbert of Kent, and Redwald of East Anglia, would also have a priest or priests attached to their temples; but we find no trace or indication of any others.

This all tends to confirm our belief that there were few structural temples, one for each kingdom, or perhaps one for each of the great tribes which had coalesced into a kingdom; and that the priests were only a small staff attached to each of these temples; while all the rest of the temples were open-air places to which the neighbouring inhabitants resorted for minor observances, without the assistance of any formal priesthood.

Another possible source of information on the subject is the ancient place-names. Godmundingham naturally invites consideration, and looks promising at first sight; but analyzed and interpreted it means the home of the sons of Godmund, and Godmund merely means "protection of God" as a name.

516 pages - 7 x 8½ softcover

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