Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Going To Church In Medieval England

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the fourth year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2022 shortlist hereThis year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Prize.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 22nd June 2022.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Nicholas Orme’s Going To Church In Medieval England. Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University. His book is an ‘account of parish churches and their role in medieval communities, demonstrating the presence of religion at every point in a human life, from birth to coming of age, from marriage to death’.

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When I was a history undergraduate studying both early modern religion and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious practice in Britain, I used to get horribly confused by the way English churches worked. What was the difference between a rector, a vicar and a curate? What was a glebe, a benefice or a prebend? In short, I needed this book. By exploring the history of the parish church from its earliest foundations, Orme clearly explains how the relationship between the church and its parishioners was structured, and how these older traditions survived the Reformation and the coming of Protestantism. Apart from one opening and one closing chapter, all the chapters of this book cover its full chronological span from the Anglo-Saxon period until the 1520s, focusing on themes like the staff of the church, the church building, and the liturgical day, week and year.

My favourite chapter in Going To Church In Medieval England was on ‘the congregation’. After the Religious Census of 1851, which showed that only 54% of the population of England and Wales attended any service on the day of the census, the Victorians were swept into a panic. Why had the working classes become so heathen? Orme demonstrates that, even in a period where you could be reported to a Church court for being persistently absent at church and be made to do public penance, many stayed away or attended only intermittently. Even when parishioners made it to church, they didn’t always behave well. People walked about the church, gossiped or quarrelled, or complained about the priest. Orme writes: ‘Resentment could be shown without words, as with one man who contemptuously washed his hands in the font and another who gave holy bread to his dog.’ Meanwhile, behaviours that we associate with attending a modern church service developed only gradually. Praying was done with the hands held up by the head with the palms open until the early thirteenth century, when people started to adopt the more familiar posture of joined palms by the breast. Standing up at certain points in the service only became meaningful when most worshippers were able to sit down, which was not possible in the early medieval church due to a lack of seating.

Orme writes simply and accessibly about a hugely complex historiography, and for that reason, this book works. Nevertheless, I think I’d expected something a bit different from Going To Church In Medieval England, which is ultimately a top-down, institutional history of the development of the English parish church. The title made me think it would have more to say about religious experience, which – bar the chapter on the congregation – is not the focus of this text. I was also surprised to see so little about doctrine or religious belief, a topic which I personally find fascinating. Orme hints at the development of English Catholicism across this period but largely chooses to steer clear of doctrinal arguments, which, for me, was disappointing.

I wasn’t convinced that Going to Church in Medieval England quite fulfilled the remit of the Wolfson Prize, as I’m not sure how attractive it would be to a general reader. Nevertheless, it will certainly be a useful reference text for those studying the history of the English parish church or exploring church buildings.

Be sure to check out the rest of the stops on the first week of this blog tour:

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2 thoughts on “Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Going To Church In Medieval England

  1. It’s very interesting to have the same book as you this tour; I enjoyed it greatly but I think I was expecting it to be as it was rather than looking for the doctrinal aspect, and I can see that that missing is a big gap for you. I can’t get over the breadth of sources he was able to include so brilliantly!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, I do think the title is misleading; perhaps fair enough to exclude doctrine, but ‘Going To Church In Medieval England’ does suggest to me more of a focus on religious experience. This was explored so well in the ‘congregation’ chapter but a bit lacking elsewhere for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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