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Not choosing the cloister

05 June 2015

Nicholas Orme on the clerical 'Marthas' of the Middle Ages


Gift: initial A with Judith, Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 1, fol. 70r, in a Bible given by Nicholas, Archdeacon of Huntingdon. From the book

Gift: initial A with Judith, Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 1, fol. 70r, in a Bible given by Nicholas, Archdeacon of Huntingdon. From the book

The Secular Clergy in England, 1066-1216
Hugh M. Thomas

Oxford University Press £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50


VISUALLY, at least, 12th-century England was monastic England. Abbey and priory churches and cloisters rose across the kingdom. Their estates spread out beyond them. This prominence reflected the favour in which they were held by the leaders of society. The monastic life seemed purer and more spiritual than that of the "secular clergy", whose name means that they lived individually in the everyday world, serving some of the cathedrals, the minsters, and the parish churches.

In an often used simile, monks identified themselves with Mary who sat at her Master's feet, while they represented the seculars as Martha, distracted with tasks elsewhere. In truth, the seculars were always more numerous than the monks and probably influenced more people, but they were scattered and less good at proclaiming their value. They have now found a persuasive advocate in Professor Hugh Thomas.

His book describes and analyses their history across the "long 12th century" from the Norman Conquest to Magna Carta. It discusses the social status of the secular clergy (especially those at the higher end), explains how they gained their benefices, and estimates the wealth that they possessed. It examines their education and learning, and their involvement with books, architecture, art, and music.

There is an excellent chapter on clerical marriage. Here, the period formed a reverse counterpart to the Reformation in starting with clerical families and ending by enforcing celibacy. The enforcement was both high-minded and materialistic. It aimed to make the clergy more godly and to stop church wealth being diverted to their families. At the same time, it allowed monasteries to evict rectors of churches and appropriate the tithes of their parishioners.

The author's interests incline towards elite and cultural history. He tells us most about the upper clergy - cathedral canons, wealthy rectors, and leading scholars - and makes a very good case for their importance. They included some memorable writers, such as Gerald of Wales and Walter Map, as well as many administrators who brought their literacy and knowledge of the world to the service of the king, the bishops, and the baronage.

This reflects in part the surviving evidence, or at least that which is most easily accessed. But it is not the whole of the story, and the author is awry in saying that little study has been made of the secular clergy before the late 15th century. There has been a good deal, much of it in the sphere of local history, which figures rather less in this book.

As soon as I opened it, I looked for maps. There is none. The book does not have a concern with space like its chronological predecessor, John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, or much of the work on the later Middle Ages. So we do not learn of the complex pattern of parishes, large, small, and convoluted, in which the clergy lived and did their work. We hear nothing of the towns where there were many parish churches: 60 in Norwich, 40 in York, and handfuls even in tiny Ilchester and Thetford. Here were communities of clergy and clergy guilds: in Bristol and Exeter, for example.

As a result, although this is an admirable book, deeply researched, clearly expounded, and filling much of a large gap, it is by no means the complete guide to the subject. I could not discover (the index does not indicate) an attempt to estimate the numbers of secular clergy. There surely must have been 20,000 or even 30,000, far in excess of the monks, and the total can, to some extent, be broken down locally, as in the towns. From documents and topography, it should and will be possible to learn more of the history of this huge body of people, even those at the bottom of the social ladder.


Professor Nicholas Orme has written widely on medieval English church history, including the history of the secular clergy.

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