Going to Church in Medieval England by Nicholas Orme

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Shortlisted for the 50th anniversary of the Wolfson History Prize, this hugely comprehensive work is by Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University, Nicholas Orme, who has published over thirty books on English religious and social history. 

Who went to church in medieval England, and what happened when they went? Reviewing these questions at the end of this study, it must be admitted that there are difficulties in providing answers. The kingdom of England contained some 9,500 parish churches by about 1300, and many more chapels. These were not uniform but differed in their locations, buildings, staffing, congregations, furnishings, and probably certain local customs.

The book feels like the culmination of a huge amount of work, pulling together the tiniest details from many different kinds of sources to weave together a picture of the structure, context, liturgies, architecture, celebrants and congregations of the English Medieval church up to the Reformation. While it isn’t able to provide all the answers, it does a very good job at providing a lot of answers, always noting where things aren’t clear or even available. 

We start with the origins of the English Catholic church, the various waves of Christianity that came and the setting up of parishes. Then we move through the church staff (ordained and lay people), the building itself, including both the layout and the furniture, and the make-up and behaviour of the congregation. Two very detailed chapters cover the liturgical day, week, seasons and year between them, dealing with ordinary days up to processions and festivals. Then we follow the life cycle of the congregation, taking in the sacraments of baptism, marriage, etc. and other important times, before looking at the Reformation and its effects (right through to Elizabeth I’s reign) and reflections on the study at the end. 

Covering from around AD 313 to 1559, there is a wealth of detail and a feeling of only slow change, normalisation and development. Even when the Reformation comes, it’s not maybe as sudden as we think, with many aspects of the Catholic Church in its everyday life flowing through into the Church of England. The slow taking over of control by the church and then the king are covered. There is no central argument, as Professor Orme makes clear in the Foreword: his aim is “to reconstruct how churches worked as religious centres: what happened inside them”. Who are the book’s audience? He says students of various disciplines as well as general readers, and I would agree with that; there is a depth of detail which would give value in a university library, but it’s readable and approachable and no prior knowledge is assumed, while it never talks down – a hard balance to strike. 

Wills, laws, church and parish records and maps, letters and diaries where they exist, circulated prayer and liturgical resources and their annotations and official documents are all used to weave the wealth of information in this study together. It’s geographically diverse, often with similarities pulled from very diverse areas; a triumph of organisation and synthesis. 

Professor Orme makes a valiant attempt to include women in his history – although of course all incumbents were men, he makes the point often that influential women held sway in many parishes as patrons of churches, and also talks about the guilds and companies of maidens and wives which raised money for the church. They also appear in the life cycle section and he mentions again at the end the lack of information and sources covering their lives and roles. Anticlerical activities, whether organised, like the Lollards, or individual, are covered, and there’s of necessity more information on bad behaviour than good, the former being recorded and sanctioned (interestingly, some sanctions were written down in instructional materials but with little record of them being carried out apart from metaphorically). 

The chapter on the Reformation is very useful and informative, explaining what had already started to change, what was dying out, what was forced or enforced and to an extent how people reacted to it (often with conservatism and an attempt to save relics and statuary from being removed, for example). The emphasis is more on what continued than on what traditions were broken, interestingly. It was useful to have information on how it was continued in Edward VI and then Elizabeth I’s reigns, with a gap around Mary as nothing was permanently undone, not slowed. I hadn’t realised that Elizabeth’s reforms actually dialled back some of the earlier ones to return to older practices. 

The illustrations are lovely – printed often in colour and in very high quality on the text pages, they range from photographs of church furniture through books of hours and the like to architectural plans. Referencing to them, as with referencing of sources, is very clear. 

The back matter of the book is superb. So rarely seen now, the notes are not only numbered in the sensible way but there’s also a running header explaining which pages particular notes cover. There’s a comprehensive bibliography and a good index.

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Liz Dexter likes to visit a church and is now keen to poke around in some to see if she can see the evidence and changes she’s read about in this superb book. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Nicholas Orme, Going to Church in Medieval England (Yale University Press, 2022) ‎ 978-0300256505, 483pp., hardback col. ill.

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