The Last Generation of English Catholic Clergy: Parish Priests in the Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield in the Early Sixteenth Century.
For the last generation studies of British political history have become increasingly regional in character. Work in social history soon followed suit. Church history has been slower to embrace the trend, but increasingly new work on religious topics has also adopted a local focus. All of this has happened in part because so much work of national scope has already been done and historians have combed through most materials in the English national archives; it has become desirable for graduate students to immerse themselves in regional archives which have not been so widely used before. In addition, many historical debates can only be resolved by examination of a large number of individual cases, which can be studied most easily as part of a regional pattern.
The present monograph, a study of English clergy during the first three decades of the sixteenth century -- the last generation, as the title says, of clerics who were ordained before the break with Rome in 1533 -- is an excellent example of the new style of historical research. Originally a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Birmingham, it is limited to a single diocese, Coventry and Lichfield. This was the third largest of the medieval dioceses and included six counties in the Midlands and northwest. Its records are lodged at the Lichfield Joint Record Office. They form the principal source for Cooper's work.
Several of Cooper's conclusions are of considerable interest. Despite the common view that the church was in ill repute immediately prior to the Reformation and that relatively few young men wished to become clerics, Cooper shows that the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century saw an increasing number of ordinations. This he attributes to a growing recognition of the importance of the mass, increased belief in Purgatory and the value of intercessory prayer, and an expanding educational system which made the priesthood a possible goal for men from the entire social spectrum. Since the limited number of benefices -- permanent positions as rector or vicar of a parish -- could not provide employment for so many clergy, most never received a benefice, serving instead as curates (assistant clergy who received a minimal stipend rather than the right to collect tithes), schoolmasters, or chantry priests. Such men, Cooper believes, have earlier been ignored by historians; they were more important and better quali fied than has generally been thought, and their services were widely appreciated by their contemporaries. In order to be ordained men who passed the necessary qualifying examinations but had no benefice waiting for them were required to present what were called "titles," generally statements of support and responsibility issued by monastic houses. These too have been relatively unappreciated by earlier writers. Contrary to common later practice, many beneficed clergy did retire upon reaching middle or old age, thus freeing up their positions for younger men, but they often retained the right to receive a significant portion of the post's income, to the disadvantage of their successors.
Some of Cooper's most interesting writing discusses relations between clergy and ordinary men and women. He argues for sympathetic interaction and appreciation on both sides. In particular, lay people seemed willing to accept clerical irregularities, such as priests living with housekeepers or female servants and siring illegitimate children. Church courts did occasionally inquire into these matters, as well as the issue of unpaid tithes, but Cooper finds that their goal was usually to effect an amicable resolution rather than to inflict stern penalties. The wills of clerics generally included bequests to lay persons -- servants and the poor of the parish -- and phraseology often suggests personal affection for godchildren and other associates.
Perhaps the most significant general conclusion to emerge from this study relates to the ongoing debate about the extent of anti-clerical sentiment at the time of the Reformation. A number of older historians believed that it was widespread: lay people disliked the clergy, regarding them as arrogant and greedy, and welcomed reform and change. Revisionists have argued that the evidence for anti-clericalism is slight and that its role has been greatly exaggerated. Detailed studies like Cooper's, while not definitive, help illuminate the issues in positive new ways which strengthen the revisionist cause.
If one has reservations about Cooper's book, and other works like it, they lie in the area of generalizing from limited evidence. Even if one accepts the validity of Cooper's analysis for Coventry and Lichfield, the diocese may not be representative of others throughout the country. This was an area, for instance, without a large city, and life in urban areas, especially London, may have been quite different. But Cooper's work might be taken as a model. Once other students have produced similar studies of other areas, we may well have a new church history written from a fresh perspective.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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