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To understand the attitude of men's minds to the ecclesi. astical system on the eve of the great religious changes of the sixteenth century, some knowledge of the parochial life of Catholic England is necessary. Under present conditions, when unity has given place to diversity, and three centuries of continuous wrangling “over secret truths which most profoundly affect the heart and mind” have done much to coarsen and deaden our spiritual sense ; when the religious mind of England manifests every shade of belief and unbelief without conscious reflection on the logical absurdity of the position, it is by no means easy to realise the influence of a state of affairs when all men, from the highest to the lowest, in every village and hamlet throughout the length and breadth of the land, had but one creed, worshipped their Maker in but one way, and were bound together with what most certainly were to them the real and practical ties of the Christian brotherhood. It is hardly possible to overestimate the effect of surroundings upon individual opinion, or the influence of a congenial atmosphere both on the growth and development of a spirit of religion and on the preservation of Christian morals and religious practices generally. When all, so far as religious faith is concerned, thought the same, and when all, so far as religious observance is concerned, did the same, the very atmosphere of unity was productive of that spirit of common brotherhood, which appears so plainly in the records of the period preceding the religious revolt of the sixteenth century. Those who will read below the surface and will examine for themselves into the social life of that time must admit, however much they feel bound to condemn the existing religious system, that it certainly maintained up to the very time of its overthrow a hold over the minds and hearts of the people at large, which nothing since has gained. Religion overflowed, as it were, into popular life, and helped to sanctify human interests, whilst the affection of the people was manifested in a thousand ways in regard to what we might now be inclined to consider the ecclesiastical domain. Whether for good or evil, religion in its highest and truest sense, at least as it was then understood, was to the English people as the bloom upon the choicest fruit. Whatever view may be taken as to advantage or disadvantage which came to the body politic, or to individuals, by the Reformation, it must be admitted that at least part of the price paid for the change was the destruction of the sense of corporate unity and common brotherhood, which was fostered by the religious unanimity of belief and practice in every village in the country, and which, as in the mainspring of its life, and the very central point of its being, centred in the Church with its rites and ceremonies.
A Venetian traveller at the beginning of the sixteenth century bears witness to the influence of religion upon the English people of that time. His opinion is all the more valuable, inasmuch as he appeals to the experience of his master, who was also the companion of his travels, to confirm his own impressions, and as he was fully alive to the weak points in the English character, of which he thus records his opinion: “ The English are great lovers of themselves and of everything belonging to them; they think that there are no other men but themselves and no other world but England. Whenever they see a handsome foreigner they say that he looks like an Englishman,' or that it is a great pity that he should not be an Englishman,' and when they partake of any delicacy with a foreigner they ask him whether such a thing is made in his country." In regard to the religious practices of the people, this intelligent foreigner says, “ They all attend mass every day, and say many Paternosters in public. The women carry long rosaries in their hands, and any who can read take the Office of Our Lady with them, and with some companion recite it in Church verse by verse, in a low voice, after the manner of churchmen. On Sundays they always hear Mass in their parish church and give liberal alms, because they may not offer less than a piece of money of which fourteen are equivalent to a golden ducat. Neither do they omit any form incumbent on good Christians.".
In these days perhaps the suggestion that the English people commonly in the early sixteenth century were present daily at morning Mass is likely to be received with caution, and classed among the strange tales proverbially told by travellers, then as now. It is, however, confirmed by another Venetian who visited England some few years later, and who asserts that every morning “at daybreak he went to Mass arm-in-arm with some English nobleman or other."And, indeed, the same desire of the people to be present daily at the Sacrifice of the Mass is attested by Archbishop Cranmer when, after the change had come, he holds up to ridicule the traditional observ. ances previously in vogue. What he specially objected to was the common practice of those who run, as he says, “ from altar to altar, and from sacring, as they call it, to sacring, peeping, tooting and gazing at that thing which the priest held up in his hands .. and saying, 'this day have I seen my Maker,' and 'I cannot be quiet except I see my Maker once a day.'”.
' A Relation of the Island of England (Camden Society), p. 20.
2 Ibid., p. 23. 3 Venetian Calendar, ii. p. 91.
* Works on the Supper (Parker Society), p. 229.
If there were no other evidence of the affection of the English people on the eve of the Reformation for their religion, that of the stone walls of the churches would be sufficient to prove the sincerity of their love. In the whole history of English architecture nothing is more remarkable than the activity in church building manifested during the later half of the fifteenth and the early part of the sixteenth centuries. From one end of England to the other in the church walls are to be seen the evidences of thought and skill, labour and wealth, spent freely upon the sacred buildings during a period when it might not unnaturally have been thought that the civil dissensions of the Wars of the Roses, and the consequent destruction of life and property, would have been fatal to enterprise in the field of church building and church decoration and enrichment. It is not in any way an exaggeration to say that well-nigh every village church in England can show signs of this marvellous activity, whilst in many cases there is unmistakeable evidence of personal care and thought in the smallest details.
No less remarkable than the extent of this movement is the source from which the money necessary for all the work upon the cathedrals and parish churches of the country came. In previous centuries, to a great extent churches and monastic buildings owed their existence and embellishment mainly to the individual enterprise of the powerful nobles or rich ecclesiastics; but from the middle of the fifteenth century the numerous, and in many cases, even vast operations, undertaken in regard to ecclesiastical buildings and ornamentation, were the work of the people at large, and were mainly directed by their chosen representatives. At the close of the fifteenth century, church work was in every sense of the word a popular work, and the wills, inventories, and churchwardens' accounts prove beyond question that the people generally contributed generously according to their means, and that theirs was the initiative, and theirs the energetic administration by which the whole was accomplished. Gifts of money and valuables, bequests of all kinds, systematic collections by parish officials, or by directors of guilds, often extending over considerable periods, and the proceeds of parish plays and parish feasts, were the ordinary means by which the sums necessary to carry out these works of building and embellishment were provided. Those who had no money to give brought articles of jewellery, such as rings, brooches, buckles, and the like, or articles of dress or of domestic utility, to be converted into vestments, banners, and altar hangings to adorn the images and shrines, to make the sacred vessels of God's house, or to be sold for like purposes. For the same end, and to secure the perpetuity of lamps before the Blessed Sacrament, or lights before the altars of saints, people gave houses and lands into the care of the parish officials, or made over to them cattle and sheep to be held in trust, which, when let out at a rent, formed a permanent endowment for the furtherance of these sacred purposes.
Undoubtedly, the period with which we are concerned was not merely an age of building, but an age of decoration, and of decoration which may almost be described as “ lavish.” The very architecture of the time is proof of the wealth of ornament with which men sought to give expression to their enthusiastic love of the Houses of God, which they had come to regard as the centre of their social no less than of their religious life. Flowing lines in
* To take one instance: the church of St. Neots possessed many stained glass windows placed in their present positions between the years 1480 and 1530. Almost all of them were put in by individuals, as the inscriptions below testify. In the case of three of the lights it appears that groups of people joined together to beautify their parish church. Thus below one of the windows in the north aisle is the following : “ Ex suriptibus juvenum hujus parochiæ Sancti Neoti qui istam fenestram fecerunt anno domini millessimo quingentessimo vicessimo octavo.” Another window states that it was made in 1529, “ Ex sumptibus sororum hujus parochie"; and a third in 1530, “ Ex sumptibus uxorum."