Essay, Research Paper
In the summer of 1381 a large group of peasants led by Wat Tyler stormed London. These peasants, unwilling to pay another poll tax to pay for an unpopular war against France and discontent with unfair labor wages, freed prisoners from London prisons, killed merchants, and razed the home of John of Gaunt, considered the creator of the poll tax. Perhaps more important, however, was the rebels attack on the Temple, a symbol of the British Church?s wealth and power. The rebels burned the charters, legal records of the Church?s vast land-holdings, stored within the Temple. This act – a religious building being targeted of in rebellion against a mismanaged, abusive government – shows an acknowledgement by the peasantry of the British Church?s political power. The Church?s involvement in politics, though making it more central in a person?s life, also left it more vulnerable to corruption and subsequent criticism.
The Church in Britain was a medieval ?cradle to grave? institution. People were born Christian, received Baptism shortly after, married under a Christian auspices, and were given their Christian last rites shortly before they died. This type of existence is talked of in literature of the time, such as in Langland?s Piers the Ploughman. During a chapter entitled ?The Teaching of the Holy Church,? Langland asks for the name of a woman who has quoted ?such wise words of Holy Scripture? (Langland, p. 34):
??I am the Holy Church,? She replied, ?You should recognize me, for I received you when you were a child and first taught you the Faith. You came to me with godparents, who pledged you to love and obey me for all your life.?? (Langland, p. 34)
This kind of comment demonstrates the deep central role that the Church played in a British person?s life.
The Church?s importance on a smaller, community level reinforced the Church?s centrality to a person?s life. Churches served a multitude of functions to communities, such as time keeper, boundary marker, and record keeper. People knew where they were in the calendar year from the announcement of holidays. The border of their parish was established by the annual tradition of beating the bounds. A record of a parish?s members, both alive and dead, was kept in the Bede Roll. Local churches also served as poor relief and even served as a marker of social standing, with more prominent individuals having pews closer to the front of the church. These are a just a few examples of how the Church played a central role and had a political importance on a more local level.
Because of this importance, the role of a local pastor was especially important. Many Church officials were also wealthy landowners, especially bishops, who sat in Parliament and were among the King?s counselors (The Oxford History of Britain, p. 241). In practice, it made no difference if a local priest was good or bad, they still worked on authority of the Church. In reality, however, many priests failed in this position of power. This is demonstrated by various instances in which a local community would riot against their pastor or steal a priest?s chalice until a compromise on a certain issue was worked out. This failure by religious officials to live up to their not only high moral, but also political position is mentioned in Langsford?s Piers the Ploughman:
??Many chaplains are chaste, but lack charity. There are no men more greedy, once they get preferment… they swallow up everything they are given, and cry out for more… And there are parish priests galore who keep their bodies pure, yet are so burdened with avarice that they cannot wrench it off.? (Langland, p. 37)
This kind of comment shows that corrupt behavior within the Church was an issue in medieval Britain.
The Church faced some of the greatest criticism during a tumultuous 14th century. When the Black Death reached Britain in 1348, the Church had to suddenly explain why its own people were dying, when the plague was supposed to be killing only heretics, infidels, and nonbelievers. The Church was hard pressed to find answers, especially when people began to die quickly, many of whom had not received their last rites and were doomed to spend millennia in purgatory. Priests, fearing they might catch the highly contagious pestilence, would not even perform last rites to the dying. The Church, like the rest of Britain, faced incredible strain during the plague?s passing.
The strain only became greater 30 years later, during the Great Schism when two – and later three – popes claimed legitimacy to the same position and began excommunicating each other?s supporters. The legitimacy of such actions was probably called into question by many of Britain?s people. Excommunication became blunted through overuse (Oxford History of Britain, p. 180). This blatant political act by the Church demonstrated to the British people that there was more to the Church?s actions than just the saving of souls.
The actions of rebels during the Peasant?s Revolt of 1381 capped off a century of political problems for the Church in Britain. When the rebels burned the charters held within the Temple in London, they made an extremely loud comment about the common person?s idea of the Church. This comment was further echoed when the rebel group put on trail and beheaded the archbishop of Canterbury, a leading religious figure. The rebel group acknowledged the Church?s deep involvement in the secular world. They also acknowledged that this involvement meant that the Church would sometimes fail to live up to its high moral standards, occasionally falling to the corrupt political level that might be expected of nobles but not of a religious institution.
The Black Death, Great Schism, and Peasant?s Revolt all contributed to the heretical movement of Lollardy. John Wycliffe, the founder of Lollardy, gained much of his support through his criticism of the Church?s wealth and the unworthiness of many in the clergy (Oxford History of Britain, p. 245). The movement did not die out after Wycliffe?s passing, and this shows a willingness of the British people to accept criticism of the Church.
The Church was a central part of a British person?s life, serving as not only a spiritual center but, in many cases, also a political center. While this political side of the Church increased the amount of influence it had on a person?s life, it also left it more open to corruption and criticism. Money and power can lead to corruption, and when religion is tied into money and power the corruption that occurs can be amplified, since it often creates hypocrisy. The British people recognized such problems and reacted on both local and national levels. On the local level they would steal chalices until priests better served their parish. On the national level they burnt charters and beheaded an archbishop in response to unpopular government policies. The Church emphasized a focus on the afterlife, that worldly wealth and sinful actions could play against a person during their judgment. When members of the Church itself did not practice what they preached – and given the Church?s vast wealth and power, it was a definite possibility – the people would react even more unfavorably than if such an action was performed by someone outside of the Church. Again, Langland provides relevance, when he pleads to ?rich men? at the end of a chapter entitled ?Piers the Ploughman?s Pardon?:
?So I warn all you rich men who trust in your wealth … not to be bolder before you break the Ten Commandments. And especially you men in authority … no doubt you are though wise, and possess enough of the world?s wealth to buy yourselves pardon and papal Bulls – but on that dreadful day when the dead shall rise and all men shall come before Christ to render up their accounts, then the sentence shall state openly how you led your lives, how well you kept God?s laws, and everything you have practiced day by day.? (Langland, p. 97)
The 14th Century put a great strain on British society, especially the Church. In a time when salvation was needed, the Church failed to provide it, but remained a wealthy landowner and a strong political player. The people?s reaction was heard loudly near the end of that century and would be heard even louder in the coming religious changes that loomed ahead.