The Pastoral Reform Movement

Katherine Dixon explores changing approaches to pastoral care in late medieval England.

Cæcus autem si cæco ducatum præstet, ambo in foveam cadunt.

If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit – Matthew 15:14

The prevailing stereotype of the medieval “Joe Bloggs” is one of a god-fearing, pious individual with a wealth of Biblical knowledge for whom faith was the keystone of their life. When we examine the legislation put in place throughout the medieval period however, a different image of the experience of the laity begins to emerge. Over the course of the Middle Ages, a series of policies and recommendations were introduced by the Church – and these trickled down into religious practice and pastoral literature – in an effort to resolve concerns about the religious knowledge and commitment of both priests and their parishioners across Europe.

The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 is traditionally designated as the catalyst of what we refer to as the ‘pastoral reform movement’ of the Middle Ages, although recently scholars have proposed that the roots of reform can be identified considerably earlier. Nevertheless, the canons (decrees) conferred by this assembly of more than 500 members of the high clergy from throughout the Catholic Church are useful to scrutinise as they set the tone for over three hundred years of reforms. The most-cited of the 70 canons passed at Lateran IV are the tenth and twenty-first: De predicatoribus instituendis and Omnis utriusque sexus. These canons are indicative of a movement that sought to reappraise and reinforce the responsibilities of a priest to ensure they could administer their duties effectively and, as such, cultivate informed and engaged churchgoers. The tenth canon concerns the appointment of capable preachers and penitentiaries, while the twenty-first states that: ‘Every Christian person, of either sex, who has attained the age of reason, must confess his sins to his own priest at least once a year, strive with all effort to fulfil the penance imposed upon him, and devoutly receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, at least at Easter’.

In addition to these stipulations, all laypersons were obliged to attend church for Mass as well as on designated holydays. Thus, whilst the requirements of Lateran IV may seem meagre in some ways, they must be understood with regards to the cultural context into which they were received. To confess, repent and take Communion all demand a combination of knowledge of these sacraments as well as a degree of self-scrutiny. Indeed, concomitant to confession, argues Jeremy Catto, is the examination of conscience. In other words, Lateran IV reinforced the importance of active engagement with the liturgy by the laity. Simply “turning up to church” was insufficient. To codify participation at even this minimum standard was didactically productive and hierarchically reiterating because it conveyed to parishioners the spiritual importance of the sacraments and held priests accountable to their pastoral duties.

By the end of the thirteenth-century we begin to really see the dissemination of these ideas in England. Bishop Robert Grosseteste’s Lincoln Statute of c.1239, the first known of its kind in England, devised a comprehensive syllabus that Grosseteste required his parish priests to teach in his diocese. Archbishop John Pecham of Canterbury built upon this precedent on a far larger scale in the ninth canon of his De informaticione simplicium (better known by its opening words ‘Ignorantia sacerdotum’) that came about as a result of the Lambeth Council of 1281. Nicholas Watson suggests that the Ignorantia sacerdotum, ‘provided much of the impetus for the vernacular pastoralia of the fourteenth century by defining a minimum of religious knowledge that secular priests much teach their parishioners’. For instance, John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, modelled heavily his programme for lay instruction on the Ignorantia sacerdotum. This was first published in Latin in 1357. Its influential English translation is known as the Lay Folks’ Catechism.

The Ignorantia stipulated that every priest must offer an exposition – in English – of key aspects of the liturgy including the Creed, Pater, Ave, Ten Commandments, sacraments and the deadly sins ‘for some blind preachers do not always see the places which stand in greatest need of light’. This idiom appears in the Books of Matthew, Luke and Thomas. Matthew recounts how Christ reproves scribes from Jerusalem who are swayed by misguided teachings or, else, ‘honoureth me with their lips: but their heart is far from me’. Rather, Christ seeks for his listeners to both ‘Hear […] and understand’ (Matthew 15:8, 10). This focus on comprehension and attentiveness as well as outward complicity extends to the clergy; among the tools with which Grosseteste equipped the clergy was the Templum Dei, a collection of exempla (short moral stories) designed to help a priest ‘to make it through the sacraments’ by making their actions and their knowledge of the liturgy more comprehensible and memorable.

Archbishop Arundel preaching (British Library, Harley MS. 1319, f. 12)

The same concerns motivate the Augustinian Canon Regular John Mirk (c. 1380-1420) a century later, who composed a book of model sermons in the vernacular, known as the Festial, and two instruction manuals – one in English, one in Latin – for priests ‘defaute (lacking) of bokes’. His Instructions for Parish Priests opens by explaining that ‘Hyt is ofte sene þat lewed men […] aske prestis diuerse questions […] and gladly of such prestis cannot make a graythe awnswere, so for to put hom to shame’. It becomes clear that individuals on either side of the altar needed a doctrinal lodestar as each lacked the answers, here provided by Mirk, to questions such as, ‘why Schere Þursday (Maundy Thursday) is calde so’ and why a veil is placed over the altar during Lent.

The proliferation of works such as these in the late medieval period reflects a growing demand for accessible edificatory resources from the clergy and laity alike. As a result of this snowballing of materials, the Archbishop of Canterbury Arundel issued thirteen articles in 1409 (drafted 1407) known as the Constitutions. Although this legislation shows a clear descent from earlier pastoral syllabi, it reveals a real anxiety about who had access to religious information, consequently whether these people were able to interpret it correctly and the impact this could have upon ecclesiastical authority. Arundel sought to, among other things, more tightly control the dissemination of religious teaching. Preaching now required a license and all vernacular texts and translations had to have their content approved by the church before they could be circulated. The impact of the Constitutions persisted well into the sixteenth century. They are, for instance, cited by Thomas More.

Suggested further reading

John Mirk’s “Festial: Edited from BL MS Cotton Claudius A, ed. by Susan Powell, EETS, o.s. 334-35, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. by Gillis Kristensson (Lund: Gleerup, 1974).

Pastors and the Care of Souls in Medieval England, ed. by John Shinners and William J. Dohar (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998).

Beth Allison Barr, The Pastoral Care of Women in Late Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008).

Jeremy Catto, ‘1349-1412: Culture and History’, in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism, ed. by Samuel Fanous and Vincent Gillespie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 113-132

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, 2nd edn(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

Katherine L. French, The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 2001).

Andrew Reeves, ‘Teaching the Creed and Articles of the Faith: 1215-1281,’ in A Companion to Pastoral Care in the Late Middle Ages: 1200-1500 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishing, 2010), pp. 41-72.

Nicola R. Rice, Lay Piety and Religious Discipline in Middle English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Andre Vauchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices, ed. by Daniel Bornstein and trans. by Margery Schneider (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

Nicholas Watson, ‘Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409’, Speculum, 70.2 (1995), 824-864.

About the author

Katherine Dixon is a PhD student at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. Her Twitter handle is @ellen_katherine.

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