One of the best books I’ve read so far in 2021—it will certainly appear on my end-of-year list—is Nicholas Orme’s Going to Church in Medieval England. Even before you open it, you will notice its heft; unlike so much that gets published today, this is a book made to last, printed on good paper in a stout binding. The gorgeous dust jacket prepares you for the generous selection of illustrations within. Everything here was done with care.
Orme is a distinguished historian with a long list of publications to his credit. My favorite among his previous books I’ve read is Medieval Children. Unlike many of his fellow historians, especially the younger ones, he is not chatty. (I hasten to add that I enjoy some chatty writers while deploring others.) Some readers will find his style a bit too austere; others, myself included, will not mind at all, and will savor his occasional shafts of dry wit all the more. (For example: “Reason dictates that rectors and vicars existed who were conscientious.”) He consistently emphasizes what the sources can tell us and what they cannot.
His book is both immensely pleasurable and quite sad. It’s impossible not to think of the current state of the church in England while reading, say, about early recorded instances of marriage vows in a form quite recognizable even today. But that’s not Orme’s explicit business here. What he gives us (allowing his readers to draw their own implications) is an extraordinarily rich and wide-ranging account of medieval English “churchgoing” and church life in all its dimensions: “Origins and the Parish”; “The Staff of the Church”; “The Church Building”; “The Congregation”; “The Day and the Week” (one of my favorite chapters); “The Seasons and the Year”; “The Life Cycle” (another favorite); “The Reformation”; and a concluding chapter of measured “Reflections.”
Within these broad categories, you’ll find many illuminating details. A subsection of the chapter on “The Staff of the Church,” for instance, is headed “Celibacy”; here you will learn that “At the time of the Norman Conquest many clergy were married both in minster churches and smaller parish ones.” Orme goes on to explain the evolution of insistence on clerical celibacy. In a subsection of the chapter on “The Life Cycle,” you’ll learn about “a sequel to baptism in the rite known by the Church as purification or, in popular speech by the mid fifteenth century, as ‘churching.’ This was the formal return of the mother to her parish church after giving birth.” A fascinating subsection of the chapter on “The Day and the Week” focuses on “Worship and Time,” while another subsection of this chapter takes up the subject of “Sermons.” I can’t resist quoting the beginning of this account:
A deficiency of medieval services to the Reformers of the sixteenth century was their failure to teach the Word of God and the duties of mankind. Medieval clergy would not all have agreed: did not the Mass teach one about praise to God, the sacrifice of Christ, the need to repent one’s sins, and the value of praying for others? . . . But the fact that most of the prayers, praise, and readings of the Mass were in Latin meant that specific teaching was lacking, and by the thirteenth century the Church authorities were urging that the general duty of priests to instruct their parishioners ought to include the exposition of particular topics.
Although, as I’ve already acknowledged, I felt stabs of melancholy while reading Orme’s book, that wasn’t at all my prevailing state of mind when I finished it. I wondered how a future historian of Orme’s caliber, seven hundred or eight hundred years from now, would write about going to church in “modern England” (as we think of it; who knows what our time will be called by future chroniclers). Contrary to many interested parties, Christian and “secular” alike, we don’t really know where we are in the unfolding of God’s great design. But like our medieval brothers and sisters, who couldn’t have foreseen our time, we do know where to place our ultimate hope and our trust.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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