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Church Building and Society in the Later Middle Ages, by Gabriel Byng

01 June 2018

Nicholas Orme on the medieval brass tacks

OUR ancient parish churches still fascinate historians, rightly so. Studies regularly appear about their architecture, patrons, liturgy, furnishings, tombs, or those who attended them. Now Dr Gabriel Byng explores a less familiar aspect: how new building schemes were financed, and how the process of building was supervised.

The book is about the “how” rather than the “why”. It says a little about the ambitions of wealthy patrons and parish communities, but the emphasis is on the process by which, when a building project was conceived, the cash for the work was raised, handled, and used. Building here means the construction of the fabric, not its furnishings or the purposes that it was built for.

Money came from wealthy nobility, gentry, and clergy, fund-raising by parishioners and donations. At Bodmin in the 1470s, nearly every adult seems to have contributed. More rarely, a levy was made on the local inhabitants. Indulgences (this could be emphasised more) were elicited from popes and bishops to encourage giving. The sums collected were managed and disbursed by churchwardens or ad hoc officers and groups appointed by the parishioners. Then the author traces the delivery of the money to the contractors and the payment of wages to the workers.

This is a valuable study of a side of the subject which has not received such broad attention. Its principal conclusion is to show the ambitious scope of building plans, often in small communities, and yet how — in so many cases — these plans were ingeniously and doggedly carried through. The conclusion is based on large numbers of individual projects, varying in their sources of finance and the details of their administration. It therefore shows the range of what went on, instead of establishing a single model.

I miss one important strand of the topic: the canon law of church maintenance, which is only briefly alluded to. From the 13th century, the maintenance of the chancel was laid on the rector, and the nave on the parishioners, although there were variations in this respect. From that century, too, archdeacons or their deputies made regular visitations of parish churches. These sometimes gave an impetus to build, as well as a structure and standard of regulation which merits more attention.

The author has also tried, to some extent, to relate church-building to society more widely. This produces some interesting suggestions, such as a decline of prosperity and, therefore, building in the middle of the 15th century. We need, however, a more nuanced picture of social structure, especially in the countryside, than we are given in occasional references to peasants. Rural society also encompassed yeomen farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, and labourers with different levels of prosperity and parish involvement. Readers of this book must go elsewhere for such analysis, but its core concern with the business of funding and managing church-building is to be warmly welcomed.


Dr Nicholas Orme is an Emeritus Professor at Exeter University. His latest book is The History of England’s Cathedrals.


Church Building and Society in the Later Middle Ages
Gabriel Byng
Cambridge University Press £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50

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