Seminar CCVI: whose job was high medieval English pastoral care?

I have had to neglect this blog cruelly so far this year, I am keenly aware, and I hope–this sounds foolish but I mean it–to blog about at least one of the reasons why shortly. Meanwhile, however, I will unblock the head of the queue by reporting on a lecture I went to in Birmingham last June, before the backlog can get any worse…

Cover of Robert Swanson's Religion and Devotion in Europe c. 1215-c. 1515

Cover of Robert Swanson’s Religion and Devotion in Europe c. 1215-c. 1515

One of the people it’s been nice to meet while in Birmingham is Professor Robert Swanson. Very loyal readers might just remember my first encounter with his work, years ago when I had to read up on the twelfth-century Renaissance very quickly.1 I enjoyed that book and it was very helpful, but it turns out that this is not really what he does, which is much more late medieval Church organisation and spirituality. That is a subject that attracts all sorts, but having talked to Professor Swanson a bit I thought it would be fun to hear him do his stuff, and the opportunity came around on 3rd June 2014, when he was asked to give the Guest Lecture to the Early Medieval, Medieval, Renaissance, Reformation and Early Modern Forum in Birmingham. The title he chose was “Pastoral Care, Pastoral Cares, Pastoral Carers: the cura pastoralis in late medieval England”. This would have been too late and too Insular for me in normal circumstances, since more or less all the questions whose solutions intrigue me about the early and high medieval Church seem pretty much settled in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, but I had at this point just finished supervising an undergraduate dissertation on a text of this kind and era, onto the study of which Professor Swanson had put the relevant pupil, so I felt as if I might get something out of it, and so I did.2

Effigy of Archbishop John Pecham of Canterbury, responsible as you will read for making all this stuff a live issue in England. Canterburycathedraljohnpeckhamtombeffigy" by Ealdgyth - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Effigy of Archbishop John Pecham of Canterbury, responsible as you will read for making all this stuff a live issue in England. Canterburycathedraljohnpeckhamtombeffigy” by EaldgythOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It was in fact with Lateran IV that Professor Swanson began, because one of the very many things with which that Council was concerned was the standard of care for people’s souls which the Church was administering. Lots of how-tos and instructions ensued and by 1281 this had even reached England, when a Canterbury council also considered what needed to be done in this sphere (under the presidency of the dead guy above). Now, as Professor Swanson had it, this has up till now mainly been studied in terms of what it meant for priests and others who held ministry in the Church, who were enjoined to all kinds of education, guidance and policing of vice, that is, in terms of the cure of souls, in the most medicinal sense of that metaphor. These days, however, we think of pastoral responsibilities as a much wider field of operations, more like social work, and Professor Swanson wanted to look at that sense in a medieval context; how much of that kind of ministering to people was there, and who was supposed to do it?

Werken van Barmhartigheid, Meester van Alkmaar (1504)

A 1504 Dutch painting of the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy, “Werken van Barmhartigheid, Meester van Alkmaar (1504)” by Master of Alkmaar (fl. 1504) – : Home : Info : Pic. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This turned out to be quite easy for him to set up a framework for. There are already, in this mass of didactic literature, a whole variety of instructions for the layperson to live a suitably holy but active life, obviously including the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Seven Deadly Sins and so on, and also a set of recommendations called the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy, which could be broadly categorised as mutual assistance among neighbours and so forth. Now, they need the qualification as ‘corporal’ because there were also Seven Acts of Spiritual Mercy, rather less often discussed but nonetheless letting the laity through the gate somewhat, because of requiring one basically to watch out for the state of your neighbour’s soul, and warn them if they looked like endanngering it. Quite a lot of this sort of conduct can be found urged in sermons even without the Seven Acts mentioned, in fact, but in the more worked-out versions it was even considered pious behaviour to constrain such miscreants to stop them thus hurting their chances of Salvation, or even to denounce them to other authorities who might correct them, all for their own good of course. This could even be applied to the priesthood itself, who could be denounced to their archdeacon or bishop, mainly because of the danger to their congregation’s souls of course but also to their own, and at the very highest level it was in some sense the work of the king, who should bring his subjects to Heaven as far as possible, but also of every mother and father of a child who had to be taught to tell right from wrong, so a pretty all-encompassing theology once pieced together from these various expressions.

A fourteenth-century manuscript illustration of an archdeacon telling off some priests

A fourteenth-century manuscript illustration of an archdeacon telling off some priests for their flash duds, or something equally anachronistic

It’s hard, in fact, to see what interference this doctrine wouldn’t justify. It clearly overlaps considerably with the priestly ministry, and so in questions the issue naturally arose of whether people were actually attempting to carry this out, or even using it as a justification for what we might otherwise call nosiness, busy-bodying or, more generously, community policing. That was, in some ways, not the point of the lecture, which had been about whether there was room for a lay ministry in this period’s thinking at all, but with it fairly well-established that people could have found one if they wanted, one now rather wants to know if they ever did try to apply the theory!

1. Robert N. Swanson, The Twelfth-Century Renaissance (London 1999); his other work includes Church and Society in Late Medieval England (Oxford 1989) and Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215-c. 1515 (Cambridge 1995), pictured above.

2. The text was Dives et Pauper, which was mentioned in this lecture several times and is printed in Priscilla Heath Barnum (ed./transl.), Dives et Pauper, Early English Texts Society O. S. 275 (London 1976). I shan’t embarrass the student by naming them, but they did pretty well…

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