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Details such as these, which might be multiplied to any extent, make it abundantly clear that the church was the centre and soul of village life in pre-Reformation times, and that up to the very eve of the religious revolution it had not lost its place in the hearts of the people. In this connection it is useful to bear in mind, though some. what difficult to realise, inasmuch as it is now too foreign to our modern experience, that in the period about which we are concerned the “parish ” meant the whole community of a well-defined area “ organised for church purposes and subject to church authority.” In such a district, writes Bishop Hobhouse, “every resident was a parishioner, and, as such, owed his duty of confession and submission to the official guidance of a stated pastor. There was no choice allowed. The community was completely organised with a constitution which recognised the rights of the whole and of every adult member to a voice of self-government when assembled for consultation under " their parish priest. In this way the church was the centre of all parish life, in a way now almost inconceivable. “From the font to the grave," says an authority on village life at this time, “the greater number of the people lived within the sound of its bells. It provided them with all the consolations of religion, and linked itself with such amusements as it did not directly supply." 2
The writer of the above words was specially interested in the accounts of the parish of St. Dunstan in the city of Canterbury, and some few notes on those accounts founded upon his preface may usefully be added to what has already been said. The parochial authorities evidently were possessed of considerable power either by custom or consent over the inhabitants. In St. Dunstan's, for
| Somerset Record Soc., preface, p. xi.
? J. W. Cowper, Accounts of the Churchwardens of St. Dunstan's, Canterbury (Archæologia Cantiana, 1885).
example, somewhere about 1485, there was some disagreement between a man named Baker and the parish, and an item of 2 d. appears in the accounts as spent on the arbitration that settled it. Later on, two families fell out, and the vicar and a jury of four parishioners met in council to put an end to what was considered a scandal. A parish so managed had necessarily some place in which the inhabitants of the district could meet, and this in St. Dunstan's is called the church house, and sometimes the parish house. It is frequently mentioned in the matters of repairs, &c., and two dozen trenchers and spoons, the property of the parish, were placed there for use at the common feasts, and for preparation of food distributed to the poor. The annual dinner is named in the accounts, and there is no doubt the young people too had dancing, bowling, and other games, while “the ancients sat gravely by.”
The money needed for the repairs of the fabric and for parish work generally was here collected by the various brotherhoods connected with the church. Some wore “scutchons," or badges to show that they were authorised to beg. These brotherhoods were possessed of more than money; malt, wheat, barley, besides parish sheep and parish cows let out to the highest bidder, are mentioned in the accounts as belonging to them. One Nicholas Reugge, for example, left four cows to the people of the parish to free them for ever from the cost of supplying the “paschal," or great Easter candle. These four cows were valued by the churchwardens at ios. apiece, and were each let at a rent of 25. a year. In 1521, one John Richardson rented five-and-twenty of the parish sheep, and the wardens received rent of lambs, wool, &c. The chief of the brotherhoods connected with St. Dunstan's was that named the “ Schaft," and it had the principal voice in the ultimate management of parochial affairs. Besides this, however, there were many other associations, such as that of St. Anne for women and that
These pplying theish to free
of St. John for youths, and various wardens were appointed to collect the money necessary to keep the various lights, such as St. Anne's light, St. John's light, St. Katherine's light, and the light of the Holy Rood. “These things,” writes the editor of these interesting accounts, “all go to show what life and activity there was in this little parish, which never wanted willing men to devote their time and influence to the management of their own affairs."
The parish was small, numbering perhaps hardly more than 400 souls. “But if small,” says the same authority, “ it was thoroughly efficient, and the religious and intellectual work was as actively carried on as the social.” At the close of the reign of Henry VIII. the church possessed a library of some fifty volumes. Of these about a dozen were religious plays, part, no doubt, of the Corpus Christi mystery plays, which were carried out at St. Dunstan's with undiminished splendour till the advent of the new ideas in the reign of Edward VI.
These parish accounts prove that many cases of dis. agreement and misunderstanding, which in modern times would most likely lead to long and protracted cases in the Law Courts, were not infrequently settled by arbitration, or by means of a parish meeting or a jury of neighbours. Sometimes, undoubtedly, the law had to be invoked in defence of parochial rights. A case in point is afforded in the accounts of St. Dunstan's, Canterbury. Nicholas Reugge, as we have said above, had left money to purchase four cows as an endowment for the Paschal candle and the Font taper. Things went well, apparently, till 1486, when William Belser, who rented the stock, died, and his executors either could not or would not, or, at any rate, did not pay. To recover the common property, the churchwardens, as trustees for the parish, had to commence a suit at law. Chief Justice Fineux and Mr. Attorney-General John Roper were two of the parishioners, and the parish had their advice, it may be presumed gratuitously. The case, however, seems to
endants, on the whole third of that amounts they
have dragged on for five years, as it was finally settled only in 1491, when the parish scored a pyrrhic victory, for although they recovered 30s., the value of three of the Cows, their costs had mounted up to 355. 2d., and as they never could get more than a third of that amount from the defendants, on the whole they were out of pocket by their adventure with the law.
For the most part, however, the parish settled its own difficulties in its own way. Documents preserved almost by chance clearly show that a vast number of small cases --police cases we should call them-were in pre-Reformation days arranged by the ecclesiastical authority. Disputes, brawls, libels, minor immoralities, and the like, which nowadays would have to be dealt with by the local justices of the peace or by the magistrates at quarter sessions, or even by the judges at assizes, were disposed of by the parson and the parish. It may not have been an ideal system, but it was patriarchal and expeditious. The Sunday pulpit was used not only for religious instruction, properly so called, and for the “ bedes-bidding,” but for the publication of an endless variety of notices of common interest. The church was, as we have said, the centre of popular life, and it was under these circumstances the natural place for the proclamation of the commencement of some inquiry into a local suit, or one in which local people were concerned. It was here, in the house of God, and at the Sunday service at which all were bound to be present, that witnesses were cited and accused persons warned of proceedings against them. Here was made the declaration of the probate of wills of deceased persons, and warning given to claimants against the estate to come forward and substantiate their demands. Here, too, were issued proclamations against such as did not pay their just debts or detained the goods of others; here those who had been guilty of defamation of character were ordered to restore the good name of those they had calumniated; and those who, having been joined in
wedlock, had separated without just and approved cause, were warned of the obligations of Christian marriage. The transactions of business of this kind in the parish church by the parish officials made God's house a practical reality and God's law a practical code in the ordinary affairs of life, and gave religion a living importance in the daily lives of every member of every parish throughout the country.