Going to Church in Medieval England

Nicholas Orme

Yale University Press 2021
A book review by Danny Yee © 2024 https://dannyreviews.com/
Going to Church in Medieval England is a fairly comprehensive survey of church-going in medieval England — who was involved, what they did and when, and the broader context, social, institutional, architectural and liturgical. This could have been quite dry, but Orme gives his account an immediacy and liveliness by using short vignettes and small colour illustrations.

Orme begins with the origins of churches and the parish system, the church staff, the church building itself, and the parishioners.

"How then should we rate the importance of a congregation in the life and working of a medieval parish church? Notionally the Church gave orders to the laity to support their church, and sought to ensure that they did. Parishioners were expected to maintain much of the building and its furnishings, provide the books and materials needed for services, and attend church worship. Services were carried out by the clergy, and screens around chancels and altars kept most people at a distance. Such things can easily give rise to an assumption that the laity were largely spectators in church, or the passive recipients of spiritual benefits at masses, baptisms, marriages, visitations of the sick, and funerals."

He then turns to what happened in churches, structuring that around the daily and weekly cycles, the yearly cycle, and the life cycle, from baptism and confirmation and marriage through to death.

"The candles or torches were used at the baptism to give it more light and splendour. If resources allowed, four or even six men would stand with them around the font. A further refinement was to warm the water for the baby's comfort. This may have been poured in from cans, but at one christening a red-hot rod of iron was brought from a smithy for the purpose and at another in Somerset at Ashbrittle in 1368, a man had the duty of lighting a fire beneath the font, which seems a rather drastic remedy. When the baptism was over, the priest and the godparents washed their hands for the reason already explained, using a basin, ewer, and towel brought for the purpose by servants. After this, refreshments were handed round to the family, godparents, and guests. These consisted of bread and wine, and silver jugs and cups might be used to serve them. We hear of hot loaves, 'miller's cake', and various kinds of wine: bastard, claret, malmsey, osey, and rumney. On one occasion so much was drunk, it was later recalled, that people could hardly walk out of the church."

A final chapter looks at the Reformation, where actual practices changed relatively slowly, with much continuity: "Reformers remained attached to many aspects of the past: a Christian state and society, parish structures, church patronage, infant baptism, a set liturgy with traditional features, adult communion, and many calendar observances".

Orme wears his scholarship lightly in all of this, but he provides references for everything (in fifty pages of endnotes) and a dozen-page bibliography. He doesn't discuss sources generally, but keeps their limitations visible — most of our texts come from the end of the medieval period or even slightly later, for example, and cathedral practice did not always extend to parishes.

March 2024

Related reviews:
- books about Britain + British history
- books about Christianity + Christian history
- more medieval history
- books published by Yale University Press
%T Going to Church in Medieval England
%A Orme, Nicholas
%I Yale University Press
%D 2021
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780300266436
%P 483pp