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It is very generally asserted that on the eve of the Reformation the laity in England had no particular love or respect forcHufchmen. That there were grave difficulties and disagreements between the two estates is supposed to be certain. On the face of it, however, the reason and origin of what is frequently called "the grudge" of laymen against the ecclesiastics is obviously much misunderstood. Its extent is exaggerated, its origin put at an earlier date than should be assigned to it, and the whole meaning of the points at issue interpreted quite unnecessarily as evidence of a popular and deep-seated disbelief in the prevailing ecclesiastical system. To understand the temper of people and priest in those times, it is obviously necessary to examine into this question in some detail. We are not without abundant material in the literature of the period for forming a judgment as to the relations which then existed between the clerical and lay elements in the State. Fortunately, not only have we assertions on the one side and on the other as to the questions at issue, but the whole matter was debated at the time in a series of tracts by two eminent laymen. The discussion was carried on between an anonymous writer, now recognised as the lawyer, Christopher SaintGerman, and Sir Thomas More himself.
Christopher Saint-German, who is chiefly known as the writer of a Dyalogue in English between a Student of Law and a Doctor of Divinity, belonged to the Inner Temple, and was, it has already been said, a lawyer of considerable repute. About the year 1532, a tract from his pen called A treatise concerning the division between the spiritualtie and temporaltie appeared anonymously. To this Sir Thomas More, who had just resigned the office of Chancellor, replied in his celebrated Apology, published in 1533. SaintGerman rejoined in the same year with A Dyalogue between two Englishmen, whereof one is called Salem and the other Bizance, More immediately retorting with the Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance. In these four treatises the whole matter of the supposed feud between the clergy and laity is thrashed out, and the points at issue are clearly stated and discussed.
Christopher Saint-German's position is at first somewhat difficult to understand. By some of his contemporaries he was considered to have been tainted by " the new teaching " in doctrinal matters, which at the time he wrote was making some headway in England. He himself, however, professes to write as a loyal believer in the teaching of the Church, but takes exception to certain ecclesiastical laws and customs which in his opinion are no necessary part of the system at all. In these he thinks he detects the cause of the " division that had risen between the spiritualtie and the temporaltie." Sir Thomas More, it may be remarked, is always careful to treat the writer as if he believed him to be a sincere Catholic, though mistaken in both the extent of the existing disaffection to the Church and altogether impracticable in the remedies he suggested. In some things it must, however, be confessed, granting Saint-German's facts, that he shows weighty grounds for some grievance against the clergy on the part of the laity.
The treatise concerning the division begins by expressing regret at the unfortunate state of things which the author pre-supposes as existing in England when he wrote in 1532, contrasting it with what he remembered before. "Who may remember the state of this realm now in these days," he writes, "without great heaviness and sorrow of heart? For whereas, in times past, there has reigned charity, meekness, concord, and peace, there now reigns envy, pride, division, and strife, and that not only between laymen and churchmen, but also between religious and religious, and between priests and religious, and what is more to be lamented also between priests and priests. This division has been so universal that it has been a great (cause of) disquiet and a great breach of charity through all the realm."1
It must be confessed that if this passage is to be taken as it stands, the division would appear to have been very widely spread at the time. Sir Thomas More, whilst denying that the difficulty was so great as Saint-German would make out, admits that in late years the spirit had grown and was still growing apace. He holds, however, that Saint-German's reasons for its existence are not the true ones, and that his methods will only serve to increase the spirit of division. As regards the quarrels between religious, at which Saint-German expresses his indignation, he says: "Except this man means here by religious folk, either women and children with whose variances the temporality is not very much disturbed, or else the lay brethren, who are in some places of religion, and who are neither so many nor so much esteemed, that ever the temporality was much troubled at their strife, besides this there is no variance between religious and religious with which the temporality have been offended."1 Again: "Of some particular variance among divers persons of the clergy I have indeed heard, as sometimes one against another for his tithes, or a parson against a religious place for meddling with his parish, or one place of religion with another upon some such like occasions, or sometime some one religious (order) have had some question and dispute as to the antiquity or seniority of its institution, as (for instance) the Carmelites claim to derive their origin from Elias and Eliseus: and some question has arisen in the Order of Saint Francis between the Observants and the Conventuals (for of the third company, that is to say the Colettines, there are none in this realm). But of all these matters, as far as I have read or remember, there were never in this realm either so very great or so many such (variances) all at once, that it was ever at the time remarked through the realm and spoken of as a great and notable fault of the whole clergy." Particular faults and petty quarrels should not be considered the cause of any great grudge against the clergy at large. "And as it is not in reason that it should be, so in fact it is not so, as may be understood from this :" . . . "if it were the case, then must this grudge of ours against them have been a very old thing, whereas it is indeed neither so great as this man maketh out, nor grown to so great (a pass) as it is, but only even so late as Tyndale's books and Frith's and Friar Barnes' began to go abroad."1
1 A treatise concerning the division between the spiritualtie and temporaltie. London: Robert Redman, f. 2.
1 English Works, p. 871. In the quotations made from the works of Sir Thomas More and other old writings, for the sake of the general reader the modern form of spelling has been adopted, and at times the words transposed to ensure greater clearness.
Further, in several places Sir Thomas More emphatically asserts that the talking against the clergy, the hostile feeling towards them, and the dissensions said to exist between them and lay folk generally, were only of very recent origin, and were at worst not very serious. "I have, within these four or five years (for before I heard little talk of such things)," he writes, " been present at such discussions in divers good companies, never talking in earnest thereof (for as yet I thank God that I never heard such talk), but as a pass-time and in the way of familiar talking, I have heard at such times some in hand with prelates and secular priests and religious persons, and talk of their lives, and their learning, and of their livelihood too, and as to whether they were such, that it were better to have them or not to have them. Then touching their livelihood (it was debated), whether it might be lawfully taken away from them or no; and if it might, whether it were expedient for it to be taken, and if so for what use."1
1 Ibid., p. 875.
To this Saint-German replies at length in his Salem and Bizance, and says that Sir Thomas More must have known that the difficulties had their origin long before the rise of the new religious views, and were not in any sense founded upon the opinions of the modern heretics.8 More answers by reasserting his position that "the division is nothing such as this man makes it, and is grown as great as it is only since Tyndale's books and Frith's and Friar Barnes' began to be spread abroad." And in answer to SaintGerman's suggestion that he should look a little more closely into the matter, he says: "Indeed, with better looking thereon I find it somewhat otherwise. For I find the time of such increase as I speak of much shorter than I assigned, and that by a great deal. For it has grown greater" by reason of "the book upon the division," which Saint-German with the best of intentions had circulated among the people.'
Putting one book against the other, it would appear then tolerably certain that the rise of the anti-clerical spirit in England must be dated only just before the dawn of the Reformation, when the popular mind was being stirred up by the new teachers against the clergy. There seems, moreover, no reason to doubt the positive declaration of Sir Thomas More, who had every means of knowing, that the outcry was modern—so modern indeed that it was
1 Ibid., p. 882.
- Salem and Bizance. A dialogue betwixte two Englishmen, whereof one was called Salem and the other Bizance. London: Berthclet, I533» f.S.
• English Works, p. 934.