The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome

Martin Heale applauds an engaging look at the strengths and weaknesses of the English church in the years before the Reformation 

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Reviewed by: Martin Heale
Author: George W Bernard
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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Having reshaped our understanding of the Henrician Reformation, George Bernard now turns his sights on the late medieval church. His intention is to unsettle the prevailing consensus that the pre-Reformation church was in good health by highlighting areas of weakness as well as vitality. This is a welcome undertaking. Much recent work has focused primarily on lay piety, often in isolation from the church and the clergy. It is therefore worth asking whether the church as an institution was as strong and popular as many facets of popular religion appear to have been.

In this highly readable study, Bernard identifies a number of potential shortcomings which he argues made the late medieval church vulnerable, including benefit of clergy, absentee bishops, pluralism, tithes and mortuaries, monastic worldliness, and the ‘semi-magical’ character of parts of lay religion. If this list might suggest a repackaging of traditional critiques of the pre-Reformation church, this is far from Bernard’s intention. He rejects notions of anticlericalism and (in an enjoyably combative chapter) depicts later Lollardy as a mirage. He also stresses many areas of vitality, and his approach works best – as in chapters on pilgrimage and monasticism – where he gives detailed attention to the popularity of religious practices alongside weaknesses.

Bernard contends that the late medieval church was vulnerable in two main ways. Firstly, it was vulnerable to the king. This was a ‘monarchical church’, staffed in its upper echelons by royal servants, and its dependence on the crown made it difficult for the church to withstand pressure from the king. There is much to commend this view, although (as Bernard agrees) it is difficult to see how the church could have anticipated the breakdown of its hitherto close alliance with the crown in the 1530s.

Bernard’s second form of vulnerability is less tangible: the late medieval church, he argues, was prone to criticism from idealistic reformers and satirists. In a sense this is hard to deny. It would be difficult to find an era of Christian history when this was not the case, and the early 16th-century church was of course subjected to impassioned critiques from humanists and Lutherans, for whom many of its practices were superstitious, unscriptural, or both. The key is how widely and deeply these views were held, at least among the people who mattered in early Tudor England: no easy question to settle.

Not all of Bernard’s blows find their target, and in ultimately accepting that there is also “abundant evidence” for vitality this book is perhaps not as “provocative” as advertised. But the late medieval church undoubtedly had its weaknesses, not least its aggressive response to criticism – which was too readily equated with the perceived threat of heresy, and which made even moderate reforms more difficult to achieve. Bernard therefore performs a valuable service by drawing our attention back to those areas in late medieval religious life that were subject to tension. These were not sufficient, he agrees, to have brought about the English Reformation by themselves, but they do help us to understand better the ways in which religious controversies of the 16th century unfolded.

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Dr Martin Heale is senior lecturer in late medieval history at the University of Liverpool and author of Monasticism in Late Medieval England, c. 1300-1535 (Manchester University Press, 2010)