A newly published book by Nicholas Orme – Going to Church in Medieval England (Yale, 2021) – has received widespread coverage in the media for what several reviewers have described as an ‘eye-opening’ account of the less-than-godly behaviour of churchgoers and clergy in medieval England. MailOnline, in particular, took delight in picking out all the juiciest plums of scandal in the book, under a banner that promised ‘sex in cemeteries, a brawl over a hunting hawk, and clergymen groped at the altar’. It all sounded reminiscent of the notorious (but actually very good) Ken Russell film The Devils (1971), based on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 work, The Devils of Loudun, about Cardinal Richelieu’s ruthless suppression of religious dissent in 17th-century France.
Among the heinous crimes attributed to medieval churchgoers was their habit of walking around the church during Mass to show off their fashionable clothes. Gossiping was commonplace, making the service difficult to hear, as was quarrelling, especially over who was entitled to sit in ‘the best’ pews. Clergy complained about being assaulted: one Kentish aristocrat took his hawk to church in 1514 and punched the vicar in the face when chastised for doing so. Worse still, thieves molested the vicar of Winchelsea, East Sussex, during Mass, before stealing the Bible and the proceeds of that day’s collection plate.
The clergy were not always as saintly as they should be. Thirty-nine priests were reported for adultery or for fornication with unmarried women between 1391 and 1394 in Berkshire, Dorset, and Wiltshire; while 54 were named in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, and Shropshire as involved in illicit relationships.
Sexual behaviour in sacred areas seems to have been common enough for Geoffroy de la Tour Landry to warn his daughters against it in a book of instructions that he wrote in 1372 on proper behaviour for aristocratic young women. ‘Do not have intercourse in church,’ he said, before recounting the Dante-esque story of a couple who became literally inseparable – welded together for eternity – after having sex beneath an altar.
Late medieval wall paintings warn against breaking the Sabbath by working on a Sunday or by lying in bed and ignoring the call to Mass. Clearly this was a problem, as church courts were repeatedly faced with absenteeism, especially among the young. One poor youth in Essex in 1512 was candid enough to admit that the reason for not attending church was that ‘I was asleep’. On the other hand, efforts were made to stop those deemed unworthy from receiving Communion, including drunkards, those suffering from leprosy, and ‘women with yellow wimples’ – perhaps a covert reference to prostitutes.
Further evidence of shenanigans in the past comes in the form of a book by Levi Roach on Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton University Press, 2021). The author shows that religious houses across Europe began falsifying documentary records on an unprecedented scale in the 10th and 11th centuries. They did so with a variety of motives: to claim a more ancient origin (Glastonbury Abbey, for example, was determined to prove that it was the oldest monastic foundation in Britain), or to lay claim to disputed property, or to demonstrate that one or other institution had authority over another (or the opposite – the right to determine its own affairs).
The upshot is that charters are far from reliable sources of information for dating purposes. But this does not mean that they are entirely useless for historical research. Scholars are increasingly able to distinguish later medieval forgery by the perpetrators’ generally unsuccessful attempts to imitate earlier handwriting and their misunderstanding of ancient legal formulae. This enables them to extract what is genuinely early and reliable.
The game seems ultimately to have been pointless, because every forgery by one institution was met by a counter-forgery by a rival establishment. Levi Roach argues, however, that a favourable legal outcome was not the primary motive for interfering with earlier charters: the purpose was ‘first and foremost social’ – they were creating a foundation history for the benefit of the institution’s own members, so that they could hold their head high and claim ancient ancestry and prestigious founders – just as Glastonbury did when asserting that its abbey was established by Joseph of Arimathea in AD 43 and favoured as the burial place of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.
Rosemary Hill’s new book Time’s Witness (Allen Lane, 2021) is genuinely eye-opening; until reading this book, Sherds had not previously encountered the Sobieski Stuarts, handsome young sons of a Royal Navy Lieutenant who succeeded in persuading any number of establishment figures that they were grandsons of the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Rosemary tells their story with relish, along with her account of their lasting legacy: the invention of the Scottish national dress. In 1841, the brothers published a work called the Vestiarium Scoticum (‘Costume of the Scots’), which they claimed was based on an 18th-century copy of a lost 16th-century manuscript containing the designs of 66 Highland and Lowland clan tartan designs. Their book sparked an international craze for clan tartan and revived the Scottish weaving industry at a critical moment when it was facing decline.
It was for that reason that the antiquary John Francis Campbell decided against publishing an article that he wrote in 1872 exposing the Vestiarium Scoticum as a forgery. Though well aware that its claims of clan tartan were a sham and that ‘most of the people who wear kilts wear fancy dress’, he decided against doing anything that would ‘disturb Scotch manufacturers’. Queen Victoria was delighted to receive a copy of the book for the royal library (ignoring the fact that its authors claimed the right to her throne). She and her husband got themselves kitted out with Victoria and Albert tartans and, in Rosemary’s delicious phrase, the ‘age of Balmorality was born’.
One in the eye
Like Campbell, Rosemary is reluctant to condemn the many examples of ‘creativity’ that she charts in her book as outright fraud, even when it led to such dubious practices as the retrospective painting of Waterloo medals on portraits of military figures who were probably not present at the battle (poor George IV even believed in later life that he had led the army into battle, despite never having left the shores of England in his life).
Instead, she quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), whose lecture on ‘the historian’s task’, given in 1821, stated that ‘facts are necessary but not sufficient’; he maintained that ‘the more freely a historian gives rein to his humanity the more completely will he solve the problems of his profession’. Audiences for history in the Romantic era were hungry for the human story, the exercise of imagination, in preference to dry material fact. Hence the alacrity with which everyone swallowed the myth that Harold I died at the Battle of Hastings when an arrow pierced his eye (the result of Charles Stothard’s inaccurate reconstruction of some stitch marks in the Bayeux Tapestry in the records he made for the Society of Antiquaries in 1823).
Nobody was more adept at the imaginative use of historical evidence than the highly influential Sir Walter Scott, and nowhere was more damage done by the exercise of imagination than in the realm of church and cathedral restoration, where genuine medieval buildings were demolished or gutted in the name of ‘improvement’ by those who felt they had a better grasp of the spirit of Gothic architecture than the original builders.
Equally, the desire to own a piece of the past led to the invention of a new word in the 1830s: ‘Elginism’ referred to the ‘salvage’ of carved wood, stained glass, and architectural fragments from Continental churches and abbeys that had been looted or destroyed during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic decades. Shiploads of medieval material flooded into Britain, where Soho’s Wardour Street was the centre of the trade.
Nobody was immune to Elginism or the related phenomenon of Gothic fever: not content simply to draw antiquities, Augustus Pugin and his pupils sawed off and removed an entire capital from the ruined abbey at Jumièges, Normandy, in 1824, while the 12-year-old Edward Welby Pugin, travelling with his father, noted excitedly in his journal that he had brought back to England some medieval encaustic tiles from the Ducal Palace in Caen – fortunately these ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum.