The British Church in the 14 Century Essay

This essay has a total of 1413 words and 6 pages.

The British Church in the 14 Century




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
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