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PRE-REFORMATION GUILD LIFE.
It would be impossible fully to understand the conditions of life on the eve of the Reformation without some knowledge of the working and purposes of mediæval guilds. These societies or brotherhoods were so common, formed such a real bond of union between people of all ranks and conditions of life, and fulfilled so many useful and even necessary purposes before their suppression under Edward VI., that a study of their principles of organisation and of their practical working cannot but throw considerable light on the popular social life of the period. To appreciate the position, it is necessary to bear in mind the very real hold the Gospel principles of the Christian brotherhood had over the minds of all in pre-Reformation days, the extinction of the general sense that man did not stand alone being distinctly traceable to the tendencies in regard to social matters evolved during the period of turmoil initiated by the religious teachings of the Reformers. What M. Siméon Luce says about the spirit of common life existing in the villages of Normandy in the fourteenth century might be adopted as a picture of English life in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. "Nobles, priests, religious clerks, sons of the soil who laboured at various manual works,” he writes, “ lived then, so to say, in common, and they are found continually together in all their daily occupations. So far from this community of occupations, this familiar daily intercourse, being incompatible with the great inequality of conditions which then
existed, in reality it resulted from it. It was where no strict line of demarcation divided the various classes that they ordinarily affected to keep at a distance one from the other."
There can be no doubt as to the nature of the teaching of the English Church in regard to the relation which, according to true Christian principles, should exist between all classes of society. In particular is this seen in all that pertained to the care of the poorer members of the Christian family. The evidence appears clear and unmistakeable enough in pre-Reformation popular sermons and instructions, in formal pronouncements of Bishops and Synods, and in books intended for the particular teaching of clergy and laity in the necessary duties of the Christian man. Whilst fully recognising as a fact that in the very nature of things there must ever be the class of those who “ have,” and the class of those who “have not,” our Catholic forefathers in pre-Reformation days knew no such division and distinction between the rich man and the poor man as obtained later on, when pauperism, as distinct from poverty, had come to be recognised as an inevitable consequence of the new era. To the Christian moralist, and even to the bulk of Catholic Englishmen, whether secular or lay, in the fifteenth century, those who had been blessed by God's providence with worldly wealth were regarded not so much as the fortunate possessors of personal riches, their own to do with what they listed, and upon which none but they had right or claim, as in the light of stewards of God's good gifts to mankind at large, for the right use and ministration of which they were accountable to Him who gave them.
Thus, to take one instance: the proceeds of ecclesiastical benefices were recognised in the Constitutions of Legates and Archbishops as being in fact as well as in theory the eleemosyna et spes pauperum—the alms and the hope
Siméon Luce, Histoire de Bertrand du Guesclin, p. 19.
ecclesiastical revforum." which is seria Provinciale, is
early and formes et Pauper.ch," writes
of the poor. Those ecclesiastics who consumed the revenues of their cures on other than necessary and fitting purposes were declared to be “ defrauders of the rights of God's poor,” and “thieves of Christian alms intended for them ; " whilst the English canonists and legal professors who glossed these provisions of the Church law gravely discussed the ways in which the poor of a parish could vindicate their right to their share in the ecclesiastical revenues of the Church.
This “jus pauperum,” which is set forth in such a textbook of English Law as Lyndwood's Provinciale, is naturally put forth more clearly and forcibly in a work intended for popular instruction such as Dives et Pauper. “ To them that have the benefices and goods of Holy Church," writes the author, “ it belonged principally to give alms and to have the cure of poor people." To him who squanders the alms of the altar on luxury and useless show, the poor may justly point and say: “ It is ours that you so spend in pomp and vanity! ... That thou keepest for thyself of the altar passing the honest needful living, it is raveny, it is theft, it is sacrilege." From the earliest days of English Christianity the care of the helpless poor was regarded as an obligation incumbent on all; and in 1342, Archbishop Stratford, dealing with appropriations, or the assignment of ecclesiastical revenues to the support of some religious house or college, ordered that a portion of the tithe should always be set apart for the relief of the poor, because, as Bishop Stubbs has pointed out, in England, from the days of King Ethelred, “ a third part of the tithe" which belonged to the Church was the acknowledged birthright of the poorer members of Christ's flock. · That there was social inequality is as certain as it was inevitable, for that is in the very constitution of human society. But this, as M. Luce has pointed out in regard to France, and Professor Janssens in regard to Germany, in no way detracted from the frank and full acknowledg
tly point and on luxury and to him who
ment of the Christian brotherhood. Again and again in the sermons of the fifteenth century this truth, with all its practical applications, was enforced by the priest at the altar, where both poor and rich alike met on a common footing—"all, poor and rich, high and low, noble and simple, have sprung from a common stock and are children of a common father, Adam:" " God did not create a golden Adam from whom the nobles are descended, nor a silver Adam from whom have come the rich, and another, a clay Adam, from whom are the poor ; but all, nobles, rich and poor, have one common father, made out of the dust of the earth.” These and similar lessons were constantly repeated by the religious teachers of the pre-Reformation English Church.
Equally definite is the author of the book of popular instruction, Dives et Pauper, above referred to. The sympathy of the writer is with the poor, as indeed is that of every ecclesiastical writer of the period. In fact, it is abundantly clear that the Church of England in Catholic days, as a pia mater, was ever ready to open wide her heart to aid and protect the poorer members of Christ's mystical body. This is how Pauper in the tract in question states the true Christian teaching as to the duties of riches, and impresses upon his readers the view that the owners of worldly wealth are but stewards of the Lord : “All that the rich man hath, passing his honest living after the degree of his dispensation, it is other men’s, not his, and he shall give full hard reckoning thereof at the day of doom, when God shall say to him, · Yield account of your bailywick,' For rich men and lords in this world are God's bailiffs and God's reeves, to ordain for the poor folk and to sustain them.” Most strongly does the same writer insist that no property gives any one the right to say " this is mine " and that is “thine," for pro. perty, so far as it is of God, is of the nature of governance and dispensation, by which those who, by God's Provi.
dence “have," act as His stewards and the dispensers of His gifts to such as “have not.” ;
It would, of course, be affectation to suggest that poverty and great hardness of life were not to be found in pre-Reformation days, but what did not exist was pauperism, which, as distinguished from poverty, cer. tainly sprung up plentifully amid the ruins of Catholic institutions, overthrown as a consequence--perhaps as a necessary and useful consequence of the religious changes in the sixteenth century. Bishop Stubbs, speaking of the condition of the poor in the Middle Ages, declares that "there is very little evidence to show that our forefathers in the middle ranks of life desired to set any impassable boundary between class and class. ... Even the villein, by learning a craft, might set his foot on the ladder of promotion. The most certain way to rise was furnished by education, and by the law of the land, every man or woman, of what state or condition that he be, shall be free to set their son or daughter to take learning at any school that pleaseth him within the realm.'” Mr. Thorold Rogers, than whom na
The words of Pope Leo XIII. as to the Catholic teaching, most accurately describe the practical doctrine of the English pre-Reformation Church on this matter : “ The chiefest and most excellent rule for the right use of money," he says, “ rests on the principle that it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have the right to use money as one pleases..If the question be asked, Ilow must one's possessions be used ? the Church replies, without hesitation, in the words of the same holy doctor (St. Thomas), Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without difficulty when others are in need. When necessity has been sup. plied and one's position fairly considered, it is a duty to give to the indigent out of that which is over. It is a duty, not of justice (except in extreme cases) but of Christian charity ... (and) to sum up what has been said, Whoever has received from the Divine bounty a large share of blessings ... has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ thein, as the minister of God's Providence, for the benefit of others.”