From: Religious Context 16th Century Bible Translation Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2016
The Religious and Social Context of
Sixteenth Century English Bible Translation
Roland H. Worth, Jr.
Richmond, Virginia 23223
Copyright © 2016 by author
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1. The English Church at the Time of the Reformation
The Church as an Institutional Structure
The “Religious” Clergy: The Monks
The “Secular” Clergy: From Parochial to State Service
Bishops and Archbishops
The Church as a Living Religion
Fast and Feast Days
Appeal of Mary and the Saints
Indulgences and Purgatory
Internal Criticism: Constructive or Schismatic?
2. Lighting the Fire of English Reformation: Underlying Causes, Forces, and
Moral Disintegration of Society at Large
Indignation at the Moral Decay of the Church
Indignation at the Economic Power of the Church
Lollards: Precedent and Continued Presence?
Renaissance/Humanist Impetus to Rethinking the Past and the Present
Shared Interests of Humanists and Reformers
Differences of Emphasis between Humanists and Reformers
Erasmus: The Man in the Middle
Humanist/Renaissance Input into English Education and Culture
3. Immediate Politico-religious Motivations for the English Schism
Lack of an Acceptable Solution to the Question of Henry's "Divorce"
Wealth of the Church as a Revenue Source for Government
4. Religious Revolution: Its Results and the Problems Left Unsolved
Societal Impact of the Seizure of the Monasteries
The On-Going Crosses of Mass Poverty and Disease
Religious Policy Reversals and the Impact on Popular Morale
Reformed Religion Fails to Solve the Problems
5. Bible Translation as a Focus for Conflict
The Anti-Vernacular Case
The Favoring of Native Language Translations by Heretics
Clerical Lack of Confidence in Their Exegetical Ability
Lack of Knowledge and Interpretive Skill in the Reading Public
Alleged Mistranslations in the Local Language Translations
Suspicion of Any Underlying Text than the Latin Vulgate
Fear that Vernacular Efforts Implied the Superiority of Scripture over Church Tradition
Non-Clerical Support for the Approach
The Pro-Vernacular Case
6. Traditional Catholicism
Motivations for Rejecting the New Regal Orthodoxy
Cultural Cleavage in Moral Expectations
“Class” Element in Maintaining and undermining Catholicism
Factors that Minimized the Suppression of Catholicism
Catholics as a Perceived Security Threat
Catholic Plots against Elizabeth
Catholic Plots against James
7. Anglicanism: The Middle-of-the-Road Official Orthodoxy
Protestantization of Independent Anglican Catholicism
Anglicanism Defines Itself through Conflict with Puritanism
The Anglican Mentality
8. Struggle of the Puritan-Calvinist Lobby for Control of Anglicanism
Independent Calvinism (“Separatists”)
The Puritan Mentality
Sources of Lutheran Impact upon England
Luther: Agreement and Disagreement with the Broad Reform Consensus
Henry as Defender of Catholicism against Luther's Criticisms
Rejection of Luther as an Irresponsible Social Radical
Luther Seeks an Accommodation (1525)
Henry Repeatedly Seeks a Religious Accommodation with Lutheranism
10. Zwingli, Anabaptists, and the Radical Fringe
The Reformer’s Life
His Religious Convictions
Impact upon England
Anabaptists and the Radicals
For some five years I was a full time minister and for about two additional decades a part time and occasional one. Hence my own personal background makes me intensely interested in the subject of what people believe and why they believe it.
Hence when I decided to produce a study on sixteenth century Bible translation (see Introduction), it seemed highly desirable to also help modern readers understand the religious currents that existed in that era and how they had an impact on favoring or opposing vernacular renditions of the scriptures.
The face of western religion has changed immensely since then. In some ways it is remarkably better. In others, it seems to have lost the enthusiasm and dedication that made it societally and spiritually relevant in that earlier century.
Yet by understanding the religious currents of the sixteenth century we have a mirror against which to judge our society’s improvements, our failures, and our collective lack of concern on matters that would have once been defined as core to the very definition of civilized existence. We also gain a better appreciation of the spiritual commitments that encouraged the various men who undertook scripture translation at a time when it was bitterly controversial and even dangerous.
In some ways, it was a better age than ours; in others a much worse one. But that is the nature of the past--a “mixed bag,” neither to be lionized above reality nor to be dismissed as irrelevant since the same patterns of excess and timidity occur in every generation.
As in my other writings on Bible translation, the vast resources of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, contributed deeply to this volume. The richness of its resources never cease to amaze me. The Boatwright Library at the University of Richmond provided useful supplemental data. The surprisingly large resources of the City Library of Richmond, Virginia, also proved itself useful during the long period the research was undertaken.
Roland H. Worth, Jr.
In Church, Monarch, and Bible in Sixteenth Century England: The Political Context of Biblical Translation (McFarland & Company, 2000), we studied Bible translation against a backdrop of the political events of the period. An undercurrent throughout were the religious changes and controversies of the era which either encouraged or discouraged the translation efforts.
In this volume we examine the “flip side” of the coin: from the standpoint of the organized religions of the period we examine the attitudes, beliefs, and evolution of each during the first century of vernacular English Bible translation. In doing this, the political aspects retreat to the background, as does the bulk of the overt examination of Bible translations themselves. (One chapter on why people took opposing stances on vernacular renditions is an obvious--and major--exception.) While religion and societal change were the “backdrop” to politics and scholarship in the earlier volume, in this one those factors take the “back seat” and we place the religious and societal aspects front and center.
The reason for this is that to fully appreciate Bible translation in the sixteenth century, we also must place it within the broader religious environment of the era. We need to understand what traditional religion of the period looked like in England, as well as the varied factors that encouraged--and then justified (rationalized, if you were a critic)--a break with papal power.
We also need to grasp the variety of religious options that existed in the era and how they evolved during the period. These contradictory belief systems formed the theological backdrop that either encouraged or discouraged translation--and affected the wording of them when undertaken. There was an inevitable and unavoidable linkage of these with contemporary politics since the two were so deeply intertwined.
Why did individuals remain orthodox Catholics when the King insisted upon going in a very semi-orthodox direction? What were the means whereby they intellectually and emotionally reconciled loyalty to religion and king?
Looking at it from the Puritan side of the question, what were the emotional, intellectual, and political reasons that their theology stayed repugnant not merely to a traditionalist Mary but even to Elizabeth and James? For it was not one thing alone that produced this state of affairs, but the combination and interaction of several.
Here we attempt to understand the contradictory currents at work in that day and age and how they helped and hindered not merely the cause of Bible translation itself, but political, social, and religious reforms as well. For the individual who took a position on any of these inevitably had to take a position on the others as well. Hence an understanding of these various currents of change better enable an individual to understand why what was only one option among many, became the official religio-political English “standard” and, therefore, part of accomplished history.
Along with the religious aspects of the era we also move front and center the cultural/social ones as well. Here we are especially concerned with such matters as literacy and attitudes toward organized religion. All of these also had an impact upon whether individuals felt encouraged (or discouraged) from undertaking Bible translations. As with overt spiritual concerns, these also played a pivotal role in creating the assumptions and attitudes that Bible translators, clerics, and even kings had to take into consideration as they plotted their future.
Hence we weave together a representative sampling of data as to theology, attitudes, and culture--some important in themselves while others are less significant but highly relevant in reflecting the mentality, mind frame, and behavior of those living in that century. What is included are those facts and data that allow us to paint the picture of the era and how the people, attitudes, and controversies worked together to produce the results that ultimately entered the history books.
By this catholic (small "c") approach we stress the currents, personalities, issues as part of the broad scope of existence rather than in isolation. This creates a different treatment of Bible translation than is normally found, but one (we believe) with great potential for making the period "alive" to the contemporary reader. It also permits us to examine Bible translation not as a narrow academic study of interest only to specialists but as part of "real world" happenings that produced modern society.
2016 Note: The footnote styles were those in usage at the time I wrote and researched this volume in the late 1990s. Originally intended to be part of a much larger version of Church, Monarch, and Bible in Sixteenth Century England, the publisher—properly—wished to “zero in” on that aspect and this material, interesting though it is, was extraneous to that goal.
The English Church
at the Time of the Reformation
The Church as an Institutional Structure
The “Religious” Clergy: The Monks
In this era there were two types of clerics: the “secular” and the “religious.” When the term "the religious" was used it referred not to those taking a serious interest in such matters or those observant of the expected customs and rituals of the day, but those who were nuns and monks, i.e., were members of religious institutions and whose activities were centered within that context. When "matters appertaining to religion" were discussed, the subject matter, therefore, concerned monasteries and nunneries. The “secular,” in contrast, were the priests, who typically worked in and among the population at large.
In the first decade of the sixteenth century there may have been as many as 12,000 monks scattered throughout the country, located in over 500 monasteries. In addition there were some 2,000 or more nuns as well.
In most monastic institutions the number of monks and servants was probably about equal. Some of the wealthier institutions were a far different situation, thereby inflating the over-all total for the nation of England. This results in some estimating the overall number of monastic servants as high as 50,000 individuals.
Individual monasteries were not huge institutions. Christchurch monastery at Canterbury had the largest number of residents--and that was only seventy. Indeed there were only 115 locations that exceeded ten monks and 37 that exceeded twenty. Looked at from the other side of the coin, at the time of the dissolution (1536), the 357 smallest averaged under four individuals each.
The bulk of the monasteries were open to attack and closure on the grounds of canon law itself. According to those ecclesiastical regulations, each had to be staffed by a minimum of six monks. Hence, in 1528 and 1529, bulls were issued by the Pope to permit the closure and merger of smaller institutions. Those with fewer than six religious could be closed; those with fewer than twelve could be merged with others. These and earlier papal bulls were the authority Thomas Wolsey invoked for his initial closures. Whether he was properly using these documents is, perhaps, not so significant as the fact that even the papacy recognized that England had an unrealistic surplus of minor monastic facilities.
Whatever the varying intensity of the religious commitment at specific locations, what was conspicuously absent during the dissolution movement against them was any fervent commitment in favor of institutional loyalty to Rome. Like the bishops and clergy in general, they sought the protection of their own established rights, but felt no particular obligation to fight to the bitter end for those of the far away Pontiff.
Their lack of vigorous opposition was encouraged by a government policy that promised to protect the former residents’ long-term economic interests. Hence at least 90% of the monks received pensions after their institutions were closed. Like with many modern day pensions, the value of such promises was eroded during periods of inflation and changing national religious policies may have compromised their faithful execution as well.
Only a minority opposed the closures. Two factors sometimes enabled such monks to enjoy at least temporary success. One was the expressed desire of the monks to retain their monastery as a functioning institution. This by itself might well have been inadequate. When the residents had powerful and influential friends in the outside world, this was usually enough to at least temporarily delay their closure.
The “Secular” Clergy:
From Parochial to State Service
In contrast to the monks, the "secular clergy" were the priests. Only the priests had the right to perform the Mass, receive confession, forgive sins, and decree appropriate penances. Of course it was not impossible for a monk to be ordained to the priesthood and be able to perform these functions for his fellow members, but such a double role was very much the exception rather than the rule.
The unique powers of priests normally gave them a psychological preeminence over all parishioners: after all, they possessed powers and rights denied all laypeople. Without them forgiveness of sin itself was beyond their reach. Even the most discreditable conduct could not strip them of these prerogatives. The authority came from the position they held as priest and in no way required exemplary or even socially acceptable behavior.
The secular clergy might be divided, conceptually, into two types. The first might be called the state clerics, those actively involved in major political activities for the King. Their functions could involve virtually any aspect of the nation: administration, ambassadorships, and whatever else their individual talents and regal respect produced for them. Even a number of those marginally or not actively involved in such activities deserve inclusion in this category by virtue of serving in an administrative fashion for the regime. On a much higher level, all bishops are included by virtue of the fact that their post carried automatic membership in the House of Lords.
The other group were “parochial priests” by virtue of their service on a more local stage. Their duties would also often involve the purely secular, but as secretaries and agents of the major landowners and merchants. The drawing up of wills was a typical function that would often come their way.
The degree of explicitly religious endeavor would vary immensely, with those in explicit state service being, typically, the least and those on a local level being much more envolved. Some of the secular distractions were done out of good will while others were survival mechanisms (to gain sufficient funds to make ends meet). In other cases they were tools for self-advancement either in prestige or church office. Many of these secular “distractions” were inevitable because the clergy represented an essential intellectual reservoir for the nation.
Between the religious and the secular clerics, the "clergy" were virtually identical with the entire body of educated and semi-educated individuals within the kingdom. (One notable exception to this was the field of medicine.) This was unavoidable in an age when almost all formal education was conveyed through institutions controlled by the Church and in which the Church's liturgical language (Latin) was the universally accepted language of international learned discourse. Having obtained what the church could provide, the least overtly religious (in the modern sense--and even a goodly number of them as well) used that background to obtain secular postings that brought them greater income, status, and independence.
Even those who immersed themselves totally in secular affairs, normally retained at least the token commitment to their official religious profession. There were both advantages and disadvantages to this. To the modern mind perhaps the greatest disadvantage was the requirement of celibacy. But since abstinence is not synonymous with celibacy, the intent behind the regulation was routinely ignored by a large proportion of the clerics of the day. In periods of intensely religious fervor, this inconsistency could do nothing but demean the collective reputation of the clergy.
On the other hand, an advantage attached to the clerical status was that of protection from secular law. Whatever one's real or alleged crime against others or the state, the government could neither try, imprison, nor execute such an individual. The most that could be done was to hand him over to the bishop for his choice of punishment. Invariably this was less stringent than that which secular law would have imposed. Throughout the early part of this period, this "benefit of clergy" continued to be a sore point between church and state.
Substantial income rarely was assured except for the holder of multiple benefices--and not always even them. Benefices tended to be worth more in urban centers than in rural communities. In the early decades of the sixteenth century, an estimated three-quarters of clerics earned less than 15 pounds annually from their benefice “living.” In contrast, in London over two-thirds had a “living” that large or above.
In addition to a urban/rural cleavage in income, there was also a regional one as well. Certain areas of the country were, simply, poorer than others. This obviously had an impact upon beneficed clergy, but even more so on unbeneficed clerics. If one served, for example, in the northern part of England, one had a far higher probability of being among the lowest paid than if one worked anywhere else in the kingdom.
On the secular clergy totem pole, the lowest positions were held by those who lacked benefices; this was in the area of a half of all priests. Economically, they were the most exposed of all. If fortunate, they might have the position of chaplain to some wealthy family or social fraternity.
More often, they held such low-paying positions as a chantry professional sayer of masses for the dead. In other cases they functioned as replacement clergy for benefice holders who occupied multi-parishes and needed a (much cheaper) replacement for themselves and who received only a part of the revenue due to the actual benefice holder. Even so many benefices went unstaffed (see Table 2-1 in the following chapter).
At high points in the church year (such as Christmas, Corpus Christi, and Easter), a major parish could easily be swamped with more people than the local priests could handle. In such cases, nonbeneficed clergy would be brought in for short-term service to the community.
Although the clergy had a certain minimum of learning, either predisposition against such matters or poverty often meant their actual skills were extremely modest. They could fulfill their assigned clerical function but little more. Even where there was the inclination, the common poverty of most of them provided little opportunity to develop their abilities to the fullest. What talents they may have possessed so far as penmanship and writing, made them of service to local merchants and noblemen but rarely gave them sufficient income to alter their basic circumstances. Unless, of course, they entered into their service on a full time basis, in which case they might easily become clerics more in name than reality.
Even non-clerical skills might be invoked to supplement the income. We read of such priests being paid to fix a church’s organ and clock. We even read of them being paid to wash the clerical garbs to be utilized by the local priests.
To adopt a modern economic concept to the sixteenth century religious situation, there were “too many priests chasing too little money” or, if one prefers the reverse formulation, “too little money for too many priests.” Sir Thomas More was convinced that at least half of the problem of priestly income would be solved by limiting the number of ordinations to the number of clerical positions that needed to be filled.
This theoretical solution was impractical in the “real” world. Since the status of cleric was held up as inherently superior to that of the population at large, to deny the opportunity of access would have inflamed anticlericalism even worse. If it was rampant in a society where any male could theoretically join its ranks, how much more so if strict regulations were adopted to prohibit them from doing so!
It is likely that only a minority of this clerical underclass eventually managed to obtain a benefice, but even when they were able to do so, the wait could easily involve a decade or two. Although the data is limited, those who were ordained after the Reformation began, had a better chance of obtaining such an advancement--and even they often had to wait ten or twenty years to do so.
A benefice (or "living" as it was also called) involved a place to live, a piece of land to farm for food, and the tithe (full or partial) of the local parishioners. We easily look upon the accumulation of church offices in one individual’s hands as evidence of blatant greed. One would be naive not to recognize a significant element of truth in this, but there were other factors involved as well.
On the practical level, the low income provided in many benefices meant a strictly local orientation for service was often not feasible. Economic necessity virtually required men to become "pluralists" (where possible) and hold down more than one appointment. Of course this, in turn, meant that they made token appearances, if any, at many of the locations and brought the entire ministry into disrepute.
On the psychological level, there was surely the profound recognition of the horrors that accompanied poverty in that pre-welfare state age. Furthermore, the higher one’s official rank in the church, the greater one’s expenses. The multiplication of benefices was also a practical means to alleviate this burden.
Nor did it help that the government demanded the “first fruits” of the income from the benefice as the cost of obtaining the posting, as well as coming up with various other schemes to maximize its revenue from this source. This assured that the government’s exchequer might increase no matter how much the individual priest’s might decrease.
Both beneficed and non-beneficed clergy were supposed to live up to a higher ideal of sexual restraint and self-control than the rest of the population. As with any large group of people, this did not always work out that way. The non-beneficed clergy might be tempted to either secular or sexual misconduct due to the special opportunities and temptations that came their way. Those who were blessed with a permanent place of spiritual employment (be it in a benefice or other situation) might be tempted into a more permanent sexual arrangement.
Monks and nuns took an oath of celibacy as part of the cost of admission. Priests, in the sixteenth century, however, were not bound by any personal oath but by the fact that celibacy was part of the church law imposed upon them. Hence a non-celibate monk was considered a far greater atrocity than a non-celibate priest, since the monk had pledged his personal honor by vow and the priest had not.
By the time of Henry VIII, "concubinage" was common among priests, though repeatedly condemned by the church and occasional efforts were made to suppress it. (The practice, however, does not appear to have been as common in England as in continental Europe.)
The populace at large was usually ambivalent toward the matter, recognizing that it was inappropriate and improper, but also acknowledging that it normally reflected more of individual weakness than any intentional perversity. Hence even though seduction and abuse of position to take advantage of women angered the average citizen, there was a more understanding attitude toward those involved in concubinage--a long term relationship that might differ from true marriage only in that it lacked the formal blessing of the church.
Commonly the woman lived in the priest’s own home under the guise of being his housekeeper. The implicit understanding was that he would support any children that resulted. Of course priests could rationalize their behavior in several ways. They had never given a personal vow (unlike the monks) to live celibate and, in the final analysis, there is a profound difference in meaning between "celibacy" (not marrying) and "abstinence" (not having sexual relations).
Even in our age of major breakthroughs in birth control, sex still produces children even when unexpected. In the sixteenth century human biology, of course, was the same, and a significant number of offspring the result. Regardless of one’s official office, one was expected to take care of them in some form or manner (not that all did--any more so than certain fathers in our own day and age). For a high ranking individual, this could mean major plums. For example, Cardinal Wolsey was generous in the use of his influence and wealth in help of his illegitimate offspring, Thomas Wynter. Contemporaries in both England and on the continent did the same.
“Concubinage” could, at least, represent a long-running relationship. In twentieth century terminology, it might even be regarded as virtual “common law marriage.” In other words, it represented the de facto desire to establish a permanent and abiding bond even though it did not have the de jure backing of state or church.
The philanderer was not looking for a permanent sexual partner, however. For such individuals, the privacy of the confessional could readily be abused to seduce women. This was a commonplace of anti-clerical propaganda. The exaggeration gained credence every time pregnancy occurred or when discovery by the husband or public brought a case to public attention--and there were many such cases.
Of course, the layperson might abuse the confessional as well. It would be hard, for example, to believe that all cases of seduction were initiated by the priest. More common was the nonsexual manipulation of the system by an unscrupulous layperson who desired a priest to require only token penance.
Bishops and Archbishops
Though the Church was a major doorway to secular success, it could not and did not guarantee such an achievement any more than a college degree in the late twentieth century guaranteed a well paying position and job security. The minority that went to greatest success gained great honor and respect but if they came from humble backgrounds the odds were, of course, stacked against them.
It was far easier for those of high secular status since they could bring their prestige with them into church office. In Europe it was common for leading nobles and even members of royal families to be inducted into such positions, thereby cementing the bonds between government and church. This pattern was far less common in England. To the English, education, governmental experience, and personal skill were far more often the cause of gaining high church office rather than one's family background. The most prestigious of religious posts were also the most remunerative. England had two archbishoprics; either earned a yearly income of about half of the nation's largest landowner. Using that comparison as a benchmark, the income of other leading clerics was also large.
There were seven bishoprics. The yearly income from these went from a modest twelve percent to over forty percent of the same landowner's yearly revenue. In short, by virtue of their position, the English bishops were among the largest landholders and income makers in the kingdom. And this is without factoring into their income additional revenues gained from other positions that were simultaneously held.
Religious reformers had long been protesting about how expensive the hierarchy had become and how little good it provided in exchange. What was overlooked was that the support of this religious bureaucracy also represented a huge hidden tax-load upon the population. The English kings arranged for the appointment of its important officials to these higher church offices to minimize or eliminate the wages they would otherwise have had to pay them.
In addition to diverting them from their religious functions, creating major spiritual unrest at having highly paid religious leaders not even functioning in their supposed religious homes, the government was able to hide many of its expenses by requiring the population to support its political representatives under the guise of supporting their religion.
When the time of the Reformation came, this church office as rewards policy bore handsome fruit for Henry VIII. Since all the bishops and archbishops were already functioning in their posts because of royal backing and were spending part of their time on the political affairs of Henry's kingdom, they were co-opted as major sources of opposition to the formalization of state control. Only the strongest and most dedicated individual could stand up to the pressure and charisma of Henry. Especially when his immediate "excesses" (against the monasteries) represented the suppression of a segment of the religious environment which functioned in independence of their own basic authority as well.
Church and state had already been administratively mixed at the highest levels into the distant past. Hence much as it repudiated the theoretical relationship of the ruler to the church, making the king officially head of that institution codified the reality that had long existed. This may be an exaggeration, but certainly not much of one. The Pope might do the actual appointing, but the king was usually able to obtain the appointment of the specific individual he desired. Hence, a powerful monarch normally had, at the minimum, effective co-control of church appointments. And if a king were wise and perceptive enough to have that degree of control, how could one gainsay his right to make the appointments without the formality of a confirmation of his decisions from faraway Italy?
If there was little theoretical difference between de facto control and de jure control over the English church, there was an immense difference in real life. It forced a choice between accepting a centralization of control under the Pontiff or under the King. By stripping away the rhetorical devices that permitted both sides to paper over the difference between theory and fact, the open break with Rome made individuals opt for either the ultimate power of the ruler or of the Pope.
Eventually--but not in the short term. In that time frame, the top clerical leadership in England was able to accept their official subordination to the monarch. Self-interest, nationalism, and precedent combined to make it possible. But when one shifted to alterations in religious doctrine and practice, a severe fault line appeared among those otherwise willing to labor on behalf of an Independent English Catholicism.
Of the 46 bishops between 1536 and 1551, all ultimately supported the structural break with Rome. On doctrinal matters it was a different story. Of the 40 whose views can be determined with reasonable clarity, 22 opposed any significant doctrinal change, while 18 were advocates of carrying the transition from merely external forms into the theoretical foundations on which Catholicism rested. Interestingly the 22 all had a background in the study of law; the 18 pushing the reform agenda all had degrees in "divinity."
We have already examined the nature of the clergy and the monastic institutions. Two areas of the church as an institution, however, deserve special comment and these are the cathedrals and the church courts.
England entered the reign of Henry VIII with nineteen cathedrals. Ten of these were run by monastic institutions and nine by a staff of secular clerics. One monastic cathedral (at Carlisle) was under the Augustinians; the other nine (including Canterbury and Coventry) were run by the Benedictines. Of the secular cathedrals one (St. Paul’s) was in London and the others scattered in various parts of the country.
By their largeness, the cathedrals tended to have the most impressive ritual systems in the country. It was, simply, expected of them. Even when “protestantized,” cathedrals tended to harbor a far higher proportion of committed traditionalists than among the clergy at large.
All churches were affected by the income versus inflation crunch that hit severely during the 1530s and reappeared at other times throughout the century. Over-all, basic costs were on an upward spiral. When declines occurred, prices and costs rarely seemed to go down to their old levels. This especially hurt cathedrals because of the size of the facilities and the staff required to maintain them.
It did not help that leases on church properties got longer. Those issued by Chichester and Hereford in the 1480s were sometimes for periods of thirteen years or under. Although such “low” numbers were abnormal, after 1520 none was issued for under eighteen years and from 1530 to 1547 the shortest lease span rose to twenty-one years. This was while the typical lease ran thirty to fifty years. This shift from shorter to longer terms, economically damaged the church and its institutions. To the renting land users, it locked in their costs but did nothing to protect the cathedrals from the increased expenses inflation generated.
As to the church courts, among other matters, these institutions handled subjects clearly religious in nature. These included the issuance of marriage licenses, questions of the payment (or non-payment) of obligatory tithes, and questions of heresy and malfeasance in church office. Broader moral and ethical questions were their concern as they processed disputes over alleged defamation of character and unpaid legacies. Secular areas they had jurisdiction over included the recognition of agreements between parties and the issuance of licenses for surgeons, schoolmasters and midwives.
Since some of these matters were also actionable before the king’s courts, it was far from unknown for the parties to attempt to secure jurisdiction from the type of court (church versus regal) more likely to render a favorable decision. Indeed, one could spin out the length of time in reaching a decision by making an issue of which court possessed the proper jurisdiction.
One of the heaviest areas of criticism lay in the fees they levied. In spite of abuses (both real and potential), as compared to the civil courts of the period, the church ones provided several procedural advantages to plaintiffs. Because of the recognition of this, they had an abiding appeal to many citizens in spite of their much denounced weaknesses.
Even though they had these advantages, their efficiency and respect in which they were held varied from location to location. Although some church courts stagnated, others underwent serious internal reform efforts. In the latter category would be the church courts in the diocese of Chichester during the 1520s. As a result of the Reformation, regardless of their success at adaptation, these institutions went into decline and ultimate abolishment. Secular lawyers came to dominate in legal areas that had previously been controlled by canon law specialists.
The Roman Catholic Church
as a Living Religion
How was Catholicism “lived” as a religion in the period when the Reformation began? What characterized the rituals and practices as everyday citizens attended worship and attempted to live out their lives in conformity with the teaching of the Church? To understand the traditional English faith of the period, requires a grasp not just of the church as an institution but of the expressions of that church’s official faith in its services and activities.
The heart of the service was the Mass--in which the priest, by virtue of his authority received from the church, transformed the bread and wine of the communion into Jesus’ literal body and blood. The ability to cause this to happen, had nothing at all to do with the character of the priest, but with his possessing the proper credentials from the church.
Ideally, ritual and faith went hand-in-hand, but it was not essential that it do so. It was ideal that the priest be a moral and virtuous individual and be fully convinced of the Divine approval for all the religious acts he practiced and all the spiritual rights he claimed to exercise. On the other hand, the supernatural imprimatur was bestowed upon these actions because of his clerical position rather than because of his character or faith. So long as the proper forms were carried out God’s blessing was upon him and the flock.
The same was true of the religious observances of the laypeople. Since acceptability in the sight of God did not require inner faith of the individual performing the deed, its correctness and church sanction were adequate in themselves. With this mind frame, rituals easily became an end in itself. Hence, Reformers characterized the system they criticized as one of ritualism, ceremonialism, and empty observances. This was not the way the established Church wanted it to be, but it was the minimum that it found acceptable. And the minimum easily became the maximum churchgoers demanded of themselves.
The Mass was, of course, in Latin and the average church attender did not necessarily even expect to hear the words being used, much less understand their meaning. In one of his letters, Stephen Gardiner went so far as to argue that “it was never meant that the people should indeed hear the mattins or hear the mass, but be present there and pray themselves in silence.”
Although the Mass was in Latin, what preaching was done was presented in English. Although the vast bulk of listeners were in no position to have an opinion on the quality of the Mass (since they did not speak Latin), they were in a position to venture an evaluation of the sermons. It was a common criticism (especially among the consciously reform minded) that they were woefully infrequent. Although the canons of the English church required at least occasional sermon-giving and even though books were available providing such sermons, in actual practice most clerics neglected giving them as much as they possibly could.
A large part of the responsibility lies in the fact that formal ritual dominated the pre-Reformation English church. Furthermore, though there were those capable of preaching, it was an art form that only a small minority felt comfortable with. Since it was not essential for the working of the church as it then existed, there was no systematic effort to encourage the development of the craft among clerics in training.
This uncomfortableness with preaching extended high up the hierarchy. John Fisher was one of the few bishops who, immediately before the Reformation, felt comfortable with regular pulpit work and he developed a considerable contemporary reputation for it.
Those who did venture into these waters were commonly criticized for their lack of effectiveness. This was a common theme of critiques coming from the “heretical” side and from the unquestioned orthodox as well.
In all fairness, if most clerics were inadequate sermon givers, most English were equally inept sermon listeners. John Bromyard (a Dominican) went so far as to call them the worst in the world. The parishioners often looked upon the sermon as something that had to be endured, as a burden rather than as a lesson that might yield them something of value. Nicole Bozen (a Franciscan) observed from his own experience that “many are more grieved by a short homily than by six week-days of labour and bodily affliction.”
When clerics discussed the issue they often spoke of how little the audience paid attention to them. That was distracting enough but there were others that would outright fall asleep or content themselves with a pleasant conversation with a seat mate rather than listen to the message of the day.
The blunt truth was that most of the English did not see all that pressing a need for sermons in the first place. Even as convinced a believer in the power of the pulpit as Hugh Latimer conceded in one of his sermons, “If a priest should have left mass undone on a Sunday within these ten years, all England should have wondered at it: but that they may have left off the sermon twenty Sundays, and never been blamed.”
It was technically canonical illegal to confess to any cleric other than one’s own parish priest--unless one had given specific permission for the substitution. When individuals were tried before the contemporary church courts for not making the required Easter confession, the common defense was that confession had been made before someone else. Although the court records leave the suspicion that many of these claims were empty assertions to get the defendant out of trouble, in other cases it appears genuine.
One reason that an individual might seek out a different confessor was the very human frailty called embarrassment. It was bad enough to have done something outrageous; it was even worse to have to admit it to a local resident, even if he were a priest. On the other hand, confession in a different place might be undertaken in order to hide one’s misconduct from the local clergyman so that it might be more easily continued in the future.
A priest with an established reputation for demanding only token acts of penance might well discover more attendees than one with a reputation for severity. On the other hand, those more spiritually concerned might well seek out someone with a reputation for greater purity or spiritual insight than the parish priest, not to slight the local cleric but in order to be most profited by the confession process.
The varied relationship between an individual priest and specific individuals also entered the picture. If they were especially friendly, the priest might well be “lighter” in the required acts of penance. On the other hand, if there were personal animosity, the priest might use his position to seek to undermine his layperson foes.
Husbands might be leery of their wives taking confession for two different reasons. One was the fear of it being utilized by unscrupulous priests as a way of sexual enticement. Probably a wider fear (assuming we are dealing with a husband who respected his spouse’s reticence), was the concern for “undue” influence in the broader sense. For example, some priests were known to recommend that wives abstain from sexual relations with their spouse during certain “holy” occasions during the year, especially Lent--a recommendation that did not go over well with most husbands.
Fast and Feast Days
Most obligatory fast days for adults were during Lent. When one added in additional days that were scattered throughout the calendar, there were nearly seventy altogether.
If fast days required restraint, feast days were occasions of celebration and enjoyment. These continued to increase in number in the two centuries immediately prior to the Reformation. Corpus Christi was added to the English church calendar in 1313. St. George, along with three others, were added to the nationwide celebratory calendar in 1415. When St. Osmund was canonized in 1456, his feast was added as well.
Appeal of Mary and the Saints
Paintings and images of Jesus carved in stone or wood were common in the churches of England of the period. Sometimes the heavenly Father (pictured as a patriarch, for example) and of the Holy Spirit (typically portrayed as a dove) were also represented. Numerous as these were, they were far outnumbered by the images of various revered saints of the past. A wide variety of classical medieval and more recent heroes of the faith could be found depicted as well. Even so the most numerous were those of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
As a sign of devotion and to seek their intercession, candles or tapers would be left burning before them. These were placed by pious individuals as well as by guilds on behalf of their membership. Gifts for the images would be given either in the form of money or possessions (beads, clothing, crucifixes, etc).
Alleged relics of the saints could be found scattered throughout the realm. Certain locations possessed more famous ones (such as the remains of Becket) and pilgrimages to such sites were common. These journeys were viewed as not only showing respect for the saintliness of the one whose body, possessions, or related objects were being exhibited, but also as securing a special blessing from God for making the effort. Difficult traveling conditions imposed by poor roads and a lack of personal income meant that sites closer to home were more likely to be visited than those further away.
“Super” shrines such as those of Becket overcame these obstacles due to their great reputation and they attracted a large number of visitants each year. Of course the difficulties of reaching such sites increased the blessing one anticipated receiving from God. Idealism and spiritual self-benefit walked hand-in-hand.
Prayer to the saints (and especially to Mary) appealed to the sense of hierarchy in the people. If one approached the king only through his nobles or key advisers, was not the same respect for an even more majestic majesty both appropriate and necessary? If the councilors would put one’s petition in a form the earthly king would be most likely to heed, would not the saints or Mary do the same for the heavenly king?
Indulgences and Purgatory
In the modern Western world, death is a reality that can be postponed for years or even decades. I myself have gone through at least two major health crises: except for the wonders of modern medicine (and the good fortune given by God) one would have killed me three years ago and the other a decade ago. Such cases are legion in our society.
Medieval mankind was not so fortunate. When death came knocking there was rarely an opportunity to escape it. Hence the Middle Ages was obsessed by death, though usually not in as morbid a sense as often assumed by modern interpreters. It was simply a certainty of life that could rarely be postponed and certainly never denied.
Part of dealing with the reality of death was preparing for the life that all assumed would follow after it. Indulgences played a vital role in that preparation. Since, except for the tiny minority of the most virtuous, purgatory was inevitable, much attention was devoted to the subject. The horrors were painted in vivid and terrifying language, not as an end in itself but to motivate the hearer or reader to moral reformation. Even so, during the early sixteenth century, the English picture of Purgatory was more intense and grimmer than usually found on the Continent.
Both indulgences and purgatory were based upon the assumption that sin has a certain amount of punishment due it, even if it has been forgiven. One’s own church approved acts of penance removed part of this punishment-debt. The rest could be received from the treasury of merits, which consisted of the collective merits of Jesus and His saints. Through the medium of indulgences the church could “transfer” these merits to benefit the requester.
The Protestant reformers, of course, questioned the entire theoretical underpinning of the system: whether forgiven sins had any punishment remaining, whether church officials had the power to grant forgiveness, and whether purgatory even existed. A person did not have to go that far to be uncomfortable and suspicious of the system.
For one thing there was an uncomfortable correlation between indulgences and money giving. Although an individual could gain indulgences (partial or even full remission of due punishment) by visiting certain pilgrimage sites, the public mind came to associate the practice far more with the power of the purse: one “purchased” an indulgence for a varying length of time. In theory these were for charitable or spiritual purposes, such as the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome. The excessive rhetoric of the sellers of indulgences, however, could and did easily reduce it from an act of faith to a merely mercenary transaction.
The same was true of the theoretical preconditions of granting an indulgence. One was supposed to have repented of one’s transgressions, confessed them, and been absolved of them by the priest or bishop. Then and only then was an indulgence of spiritual benefit. Even the clerics promoting them did not always make this distinction.
To the spiritually devout, these were excesses that needed to be curbed. To the Reformers of the sixteenth century, they were representative of the true inner essence of what the papal system had become.
It did not help the case for indulgences--at least to the reformed minded--that they could, in a very real sense, be obtained retroactively, after death. The most obvious means was by the endowment of masses to be said in one’s behalf after one’s passing. But there were other means as well.
It was common for wills to provide funds for relatives to complete pilgrimages that the deceased had not been able to perform during life. Additional indulgences and a lesser time in Purgatory would result. Charitable gifts to be given directly to the poor were another common provision of wills. The quid pro quo was that the poor were expected to pray for the soul of the deceased so the time in Purgatory might be shortened.
Although indulgences were first granted in the eleventh century, practice preceded theory. For about their first century no scholar or theologian attempted to systematize and explain the justifications and reasons for the evolving system.
During that earlier period, there was a profound difference as to who indulgences could benefit. All agreed the church possessed the inherent authority to grant them to the living, but did it possess similar authority to grant indulgences to those no longer within its ranks--to those who had died? Some totally denied the possibility. The Franciscan, Bonaventure, for example. Others thought the circumstances strictly limited, such as the great Thomas Aquinas. Others--the faction that became dominant--were convinced that the power of the church to absolve sin extended beyond the barrier of death itself.
Constructive or Schismatic?
No living institution is problem free. It develops excesses and extremes and--unless it is very careful--those deviations from moderation may themselves become the definition of true orthodoxy.
The most orthodox might defend the propriety of indulgences in the abstract and in modest amounts. Yet they were commonly purchased in all sizes. Some were for a year, others five hundred. In one case (at Salisbury) indulgences were issued for 32,755 years worth of release from the pains of purgatory. Of course by the time one reaches such staggering numbers, one was opening the door not merely to questioning but to mockery.
The very real problems of the church put the intellectually candid traditionalist in a difficult position. On the one hand, he or she opposed many or all of the “reckless” innovations and excesses in doctrine and practice; on the other hand, only the most sheltered or blind could deny that there were more than a few clerics who fell short of their proper moral status and more than a few church practices (especially in regard to indulgences) that encouraged easy misuse. Such individuals conceded the abuses, called for their correction, but simultaneously insisted that the “reform” antidotes were flat wrong.
The great Erasmus was branded as a heretic for the vigor of some of his attacks on pious excesses of his days. In response, he argued that the true purpose of his writings was far different. In defending his “A Journey for Religion’s Sake,” he wrote,
I reproach men who have wreaked havoc by removing the images of saints from churches, but also those who foolishly go on journeys, pretending that they are undertaken for religion’s sake. Indeed clubs are formed for this purpose, and whose who have been to Jerusalem are called “golden knights” and address one another as “brothers.” On Palm Sunday they solemnly act out a ridiculous scene, dragging a donkey by a rope (themselves being not much different from the wooden donkey they pull). Those who have been to Compostela act similarly. Let us by all means indulge their whims, but let us not allow them to claim holiness on account of these things, for this is intolerable. I also criticize those who display as genuine articles relics of a doubtful provenance, who attribute to them more importance than is proper, and who basely profit from them.
The more zealous the reformer, however, the more likely that this approach would be answered with the accusation that these were not truly “abuses,” but were the inevitable and inescapable consequences of the very religious system itself. To the cautious traditionalist, the cynicism of men like Erasmus was almost equally dangerous: it could easily prove the steppingstone from constructive criticism to schismatic division--especially when the “heretics” were blatantly making similar arguments.
Yet the paradox was: if the criticisms were not made, how could constructive change ever occur? Unless one were very careful, one was locked into the position that not only was drastic change wrong, but the more moderate changes necessary to avoid spiritual revolution could not be undertaken either--lest they lead to the “extremes” one was trying to avoid. Yet once locked into that cycle of “stand-patism” one guaranteed an eventual religious explosion and a greater reaction against traditionalism than would otherwise have occurred.
Throughout the first half of the sixteenth century one will find the absolute traditionalist who abhorred virtually any change, the reforming traditionalist who desired moderate to major change, and the rejectionist who saw no alternative but to fundamentally junk the entire existing religious order. To preserve at least the superficial unity of western religion required that some type of compromise be worked out between these approaches. The inability to work one out in the first few decades of the ecclesiastical breach, resulted in the division setting down deep, self-perpetuating roots that had no hope for removal within the lifetime of many generations.
 Penry Williams, Life in Tudor England (London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1964; 1969 printing). 149. A few decades later, at the time the dissolution of the monasteries, others place the number at about 7,000. See “The Dissolution of the Monasteries, 1535-1539” (http://www.cumbia1st.com/Histor/disso.htm), Magellan, September 1, 1997.
 The number is placed at 513 by Jasper Ridley, Statesman and Saint: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, and the Politics of Henry VIII (New York: Viking Press, 1982), 8, and at 550 by Williams, Life in Tudor England, 150.
 The estimate is for the time of the dissolution of the monastic institutions. See “The Dissolution of the Monasteries, 1535-1539” (http://www.cumbia1st.com/Histor/ disso.htm), Magellan, September 1, 1997.
 Anonymous, “The Dissolution of the Monasteries, 1535-1539” (http://www. cumbia1st.com/Histor/disso.htm) Magellan, September 1, 1997.
 A. G. Dickens, Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation (London: English Unviersities Press, Ltd., 1959), 35.
 James E. Oxley, The Reformation in Essex (Manchester [Great Britain]: Manchester University Press, 1965), 46.
 For the terminology of the period see Ridley, Statesman and Saint, 7-8.
 On the “unchallengeable power in the community” that the unique priestly prerogatives gave them, see R. N. Swanson, “Problems of the Priesthood in Pre-Reformation England,” English Historical Review 105 (October 1990): 858-859.
 David Matthew, The Couriers of Henry VIII (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970), 77, develops the functional two-fold division between state and parochial priests.
 Robert S. Gottfried, Doctors and Medicine in Medieval England, 1340-1530 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 258, provides a statistical study of 2,161 identifiable doctors (a category in which he includes physicians, surgeons, barbers, and apothecaries) who practiced between 1340 and 1530 and shows that 94.7% were nonclerics, 2.8 percent were priests, 2.0 percent deacons, and miniscule percentages from the monastic movements. Although the numbers naturally fluctuate over each of the 30 year divisions he studies, the over-all average was 5% for the entire period and between 1511-1530 it had descended to 3%. Both their numbers and prominence declined dramatically after the fourteenth century in England (258-259).
 Susan Brigden, “Tithe Controversy in Reformation London,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 32 (July 1981): 287.
 John Pound, “Clerical Poverty in Early Sixteenth-Century England: Some East Anglican Evidence,” Journal of Ecclesiastial History 37 (July 1986): 389; cf. 396.
 Christopher Haigh, “Anticlericalism and the English Reformation,” in The English Reformation Revised, edited by Christopher Haigh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
 On the various ways non-benefice holders managed to scratch out a living from their clerical status see Ibid., 71-72, and Peter Marshall, The Catholic Priesthood and the English Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 198-199.
 Seymour B. House, “Sir Thomas More as Church Patron,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 40 (April 1989): 209.
 See the discussion in Margaret Bowker, “The Henrician Reformation and the Parish Clergy,” in The English Reformation Revised, edited by Christopher Haigh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 93-94.
 Jo McMurtry, Understanding Shakespeare's England: A Companion for the American Reader (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1989), 55.
 A. G. Dickens, “Robert Holgate, Archbishop of York and President of the King’s Council of the North,” St. Anthony’s Hall Publications 8 (1955), as reprinted in A. G. Dickens, Reformation Studies (London: Hambledon Press, 1982), 336.
 For a detailed examination of the techniques the crown used to maximize the revenues from the taxation on first fruits and how these methods heavily burdened the clergy, see Margaret Bowker, The Henrician Reformation: The Diocese of Lincoln under John Longland, 1521-1547 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 132-137.
 Donald D. Smeeton, “Marriage, Motherhood and Ministry: Women in the Dispute between Thomas More and William Tyndale,” Churchman 108 (1994): 200-201.
 For a Catholic appraisal of the actual functioning of the confessional at the time the Reformation began, see Lawrence G. Duggan, “Fear and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation,” Archiv fur Reformationsgeschichte/Archive for Reformation History 75 (1984): 159-169.
 S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England ("The Pelican History of England," volume 5) (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1950; 1965 reprint), 80-81.
 R. N. Swanson. “Episcopal Income from Spiritualities in the Early Sixteenth Century.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 39 (October 1988): 520. For details of the bishops’ income from other sources see the discussion of the diocese of Exeter, 520-530.
 For an analysis and names see W. K. Jordan, Edward VI: The Young King--The Protectorship of the Duke of Somerset (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1968), 19-20.
 On location and differences between the cathedrals see Stanford E. Lehmberg, The Reformation of Cathedrals: Cathedrals in English Society, 1485-1603 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), 4.
 For a discussion of the various types of cases they handled see Ronald A. Marchant, The Church under the Law: Justice, Administration and Discipline in the Diocese of York, 1560-1640 (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1969, 19-28. For insults/defamation of character actions also see 71-72.
 Stephen Lander, Church Courts and the Reformation in the Diocese of Chichester, 1500-1558,” in The English Reformation Revised, edited by Christopher Haigh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 54. For a detailed study of the church courts in this diocese see 34-54.
 For an examination of medieval views as to the nature of the communion (is it literally the body and blood of Jesus and, even if so, in what sense has the bread and wine been altered?) see Gary Macy, “The Dogma of Transubstantiation in the Middle Ages,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 45 (January 1994): 11-41.
 For Archbishop Cranmer on this see Eamon Duffy, “Cranmer and Popular Religion,” in Thomas Cranmer: Churchman and Scholar, edited by Paul Ayris and David Selwyn (Woodbridge [England]: The Boydell Press, 1993), 199.
 For a discussion of his preaching style, see Brendan Bradshaw, “Bishop John Fisher, 1469-1535: The Man and His Work,” in Humanism, Reform and the Reformation: The Career of Bishop John Fisher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 4.
 Ibid., 14. For other indications that the practice of substitution was not uncommon, see 14-15.
 For a 1537 quotation from Bishop Lee in which he seems to have this motive in mind as a reason for the practice, see Ibid., 14.
 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c.1580 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1992), 41.
 For the types and proportions of images see Robert Whiting, The Blind Devotion of the People: Popular Religion and the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 48-50. For the popularity of images at the beginning of the Reformation, also see the same scholar’s article, “Abominable Idols: Images and Image-Breaking under Henry VIII,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 33 (January 1982): 31, 46.
 For a fine presentation of this line of reasoning, see David Loades, Revolution in Religion: The English Reformation, 1530-1570 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), 55. For contemporary explanations of the propriety of such veneration see Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, 169-170.
 Robert W. Shaffern, “Learned Discussions of Indulgences for the Dead in the Middle Ages,” Church History 61 (December 1992): 367-368.
 For a German example of this see Thomas Murner’s “Preface” to his “The Great Lutheran Fool,” in Scheming Papists and Lutheran Fools: Five Reformation Satires, selected and translated by Erika Rummel (New York: Fordham University Press, 1993), 73.
 As quoted from introductory matter to Desiderius Erasmus, A Journey for Religion’s Sake,” in Scheming Papists and Lutheran Fools, 89. For other examples of Erasmus dealing with the accusation of being a heretic, see the quotations found in H. C. Porter, “Fisher and Erasmus” in Humanism, Reform and the Reformation: The Career of Bishop John Fisher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 92-93.