The Medieval Church

There were three principal kinds of church in the Middle Ages

Either a monastery or collegiate church might serve as a cathedral

Key to medieval churchs are Reciting the liturgy and Medieval vicars

Parish church

A parish church was the local church for a given geographical area. It served the needs of the people in that area. The parish clergy were required to recite the daily round of services of the Office and to celebrate Mass, and also to conduct the rites of baptism, marriage and burial, to hear confession, and to minister to the sick and dying.

The parish system was developed in England mostly in the century after the Norman Conquest. Parish churches were the most numerous kind of church: there were around 10,000 in England and Wales by around 1500. In densely populated cities a parish might be as small as 1,000 square yards (800 square metres); in a rural area it might be as much as 25 square miles (40 square kilometres) or more.

The size of the parish church building and its resources varied enormously. Take, for instance, the county of Somerset in south-west England: at one end of the county, the tiny parish church of Culbone is just 35 feet long (11 metres); at the other end (and now part of Bristol) is St Mary, Redcliffe, 240 feet long (73 metres) – a church larger than some cathedrals.

A parish church was staffed by at least one priest, known as the rector (literally, ruler). Often in the Middle Ages the parish rector was not resident, and the role of the parish priest was taken by the rector’s vicar (= substitute) or curate (priest with care of souls). Additional priests were funded either directly by members of the congregation to say additional Masses, or through bequests and endowments. Such additional priests had duties to say additional Masses at a specific altar often in a designated chapel within the church, but they also enlarged the body of clergy reciting the daily Office and celebrating the principal Mass in the chancel.

The lay people of the parish had considerable responsibility and influence in a parish church, particularly the aristocracy and gentry in rural parishes, and the merchants and guild members in urban churches, especially in the late Middle Ages. They were generally the source of funds to enrich and enlarge the church building, to support additional clergy, and in some instances to provide education. Particularly important figures were the church wardens (who oversaw parish finance) and the parish clerk (who assisted the parish priest).

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Monastery or conventual church

By the end of the Middle Ages there were over 1,000 conventual churches in England and Wales. Convents were places where monks, nuns, regular canons (i.e. canons living under a rule), and friars lived and worshipped together. In all but a few cases a convent consisted of only men or only women. There was a very small number of double monasteries, with nuns on one side, and monks on the other, sharing the same church. All monks, nuns, regular canons and friars shared a common life governed by a rule within the monastery or convent, shared ownership of all things, and were celibate. There were a variety of monastic and religious Orders, but those that were most numerous and dominant in the later Middle Ages were the Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinian Canons, Franciscans and Dominicans.

Monasteries and convents formed a coherent community committed to a life of prayer, dominated by the recitation of the daily Office and Mass. The balance of their other work depended on the Order to which they belonged and their location. Benedictines balanced prayer with study and manual work; Cistercians chose rural sites where they farmed and worked minerals; Franciscans and Dominicans preached and taught. Each of these Orders had their own variants of liturgical practice within the Western tradition which reflected their spiritual and theological outlook. Augustinian Canons, on the other hand, more often adopted practices from the diocese in which they were located, and therefore a number followed a pattern close to the Use of Sarum.

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Collegiate churches

In their formative stages, colleges of priests who worshipped in a collegiate church were little different from monks. They lived a common, shared life under rules (canons), were funded by a common fund, and were celibate. However, by the twelfth century this was changing. Increasingly, each canon within the collegiate foundation had his own income (prebend) and his own household, but shared responsibility for the college now more often governed by statutes agreed in chapter (the meeting place of the collegiate body), and worshipped together in the collegiate church. Including academic colleges (which retained the pattern of common funding and living) there were some 200 collegiate foundations at the end of the Middle Ages.

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Each bishop needed a church from which he presided over his diocese – literally, a cathedra, the bishop’s seat. A cathedral church was therefore a church where the bishop kept his seat – the cathedra. The cathedral church itself might be a monastic church (staffed by monks or regular canons) or a collegiate church (with a dean and college of canons). Both kinds of cathedral existed in England and Wales after the Norman Conquest (1066) until the last stage of the dissolution of the monasteries (1539).

The monastic cathedrals were Bath, Canterbury, Coventry, Durham, Ely, Norwich, Rochester, Winchester, Worcester; and at Carlisle the cathedral was staffed by regular canons.

The collegiate cathedrals (often referred to as the ‘secular cathedrals’, where secular means non-monastic) were Chichester, Exeter, Lichfield, Lincoln, London, Salisbury, Wells, York, and all four Welsh cathedrals – Bangor, Llandaff, St Davids and St Asaph.

Two bishops had two cathedral seats in their diocese, one monastic, the other collegiate: Bath and Wells, Coventry and Lichfield.

Thirteen monasteries were refounded as secular collegiate churches in the 1540s: eight of the monastic cathedrals, and five new cathedrals at Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough and (briefly) Westminster. (This did not apply to all the monastic cathedrals: Bath became a parish church, and Coventry was demolished.)

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Reciting the liturgy

In the Middle Ages, all clergy and all religious were committed to the daily recitation of the full Office; those of the clergy who were priests also celebrated Mass. In parish churches, this might be a solitary commitment if there were no other clergy in the parish; in a collegiate or conventual foundation, the whole community was properly expected to gather in church for all the Office services and the principal Mass each day, a total of about six or seven hours even on a weekday when the liturgy was relatively straightforward. In practice, cathedrals and larger collegiate foundations, the administration and oversight of the institution were demanding; furthermore, a number of canons had other duties either in the diocese or further afield. Far from all could be present to sustain the substantial daily round of worship.

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Medieval vicars

Collegiate churches and monasteries drew some of their income from parish churches. At such parish churches they were the rector and therefore had responsibility for the people of the parish. A monk was expected to be in his monastery, a canon had duties in his collegiate church. They could not be present in both places. Furthermore, some canons either held several other posts (in another cathedral or elsewhere), or had duties in the wider church or state. In some cases a canon was not resident in England or Wales at all. There was therefore need for clergy to care for a parish church on behalf of a monastery or a canon of a collegiate church. There was also need for a canon to make provision for someone to fulfil his duties in the collegiate church when he was absent.

In both parish churches and collegiate churches (including those cathedrals staffed by a college of canons) there was need for clergy to fulfil the duties of a rector or canon as substitute. This was the role of the vicar (= substitute). There was considerable difference between these two roles. In a parish the vicar had care of the people of the parish, undertaking a wide range of pastoral duties as well as his personal duty to recite the Office and celebrate the Mass. In a collegiate church (including cathedrals) the vicar’s principal duties were ritual and musical: to join with the rest of the collegiate or cathedral clergy in sustaining the daily worship. These were duties mostly undertaken in the choir (or quire) of the church – hence the designation of such substitutes as vicars choral.

Vicars, supported by other minor clergy (e.g. chaplains, curates), were the people who sustained the day-to-day worship and ministry of the medieval church as vicars in local parish churches, and as vicars choral in collegiate churches and non-monastic cathedrals.

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