Jenifer Sutherland

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The Profession of Pardoners in the Middle Ages

by Francis Williams

A Pardoner is the English name for what the Church called a Questor. In the Middle Ages, the work of a Questor was to collect money by appealing to the charity of Christian people. He was forbidden to preach and had no power to pardon the sins of anyone. All he might do was to read out certain documents which were signed and sealed by the Pope or some other Bishop, appealing to the charity of the congregation, for a particular purpose. Following that, he was expected to take up a collection and hand it over to the authorities that had appointed him. The Church used such monies collected for the building and maintenance of churches and hospitals, the care of the sick and poor and the repair of roads and bridges and other such deserving causes.

A genuine Questor then, was appointed by some religious House or Warden of a Hospital. The Blessed Mary of Rouncivalle, in London, is such a hospital which was founded in 1229 by the Earl of Pembroke. It was this Hospital that Chaucer’s Pardoner was supposed to serve.

Until 1562 when the Council of Trent under Pope Pius IV swept the pardoners’ trade away, England was over-run by hordes of Pardoners who wielded petty power and lined their pockets with the money or goods that they collected from gullible people. The Pardoner cashed in on their love of God and fear of Hell. The Church did try to control the abuses of the practice but did not succeed in doing so.

The Questors profession was founded on Catholic teaching. Christian thought and practice included the theory and practice of Confession. The person who wished to avail himself of the benefit of Confession had to fulfill 3 conditions –
. The person had to be fully repentant.

The person had to confess fully by word of mouth to a consecrated priest.
The person had to perform or fully intend to perform whatever penance the priest requested.

When all 3 conditions were fulfilled, the priest awards a punishment and pronounces Absolution. It is not the priest who forgives the sinner-forgiveness comes from God.

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The punishments meted out were sometimes harsh –many months and sometimes years fasting on bread and water, hundreds of lashes on the palm of the hand, to name but a couple. From the early Middle Ages, the practice of substituting money payment for severe punishments, was recognized. This was an advantage to both the penitent (if he had the money), and the Church (who needed it), to be punished not in the person, but in the purse. Such an "indulgence" was not a forgiveness of sin but an easier way of paying down a punishment –a commutation of penance.

In addition to the theory and practice of Confession, by the thirteenth century the theory of The Treasury of Grace developed. The Church believed that there was a great treasury of merit which had been acquired by Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints which was available for distribution among the penitents who requested it in faith. By tapping in to this abundant source, a remission of the penance was readily available. If the penitent played his role and showed his willingness by offering a portion of his worldly goods for charitable purposes, the church would play its role by mediating and obtaining the merit.

A third doctrine was also connected with the practice of Indulgences. This was the doctrine concerning the state of souls in Purgatory. Purgatory was the state/place where one’s soul went to if one was not good enough to go directly to Heaven, or evil enough to descend straight to Hell. The Church held that the vast majority existed in this in-between state where they underwent some kind of purgation/punishment, until they had paid their debt of penance. No-one knew what the duration of the stay would be but the relatives of the dead person had a chance at this stage to perform some charitable act or prayer and procure the dead some indulgences in order to shorten their stay in Purgatory and send them soon to Heaven. So, the system of Indulgences which was already in place for the commutation of penance on earth, was now being extended to the shortening of penance in Purgatory –all in return for a charitable act.
Where does the Questor come in to this? It was his business to read the Indulgences aloud to assembled congregations. A Questor was usually a simple monk or priest but there were also professional Questors, like Chaucer’s Pardoner who were laymen hired by religious foundations to raise money, with the permission of the archdeacon, for a fee.

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Of course, abuses flourished. The Pardoners preached, gave pardon and forgave sins. They performed both a poena (remission of punishment) and a culpa (forgiveness of sin) which was really in God’s hands. They absolved murderers and sent others straight to Heaven. Many were drunkards. They were deceitful and lied about miracles. They openly exhibited the bones of beasts and pretended that they were the relics of Saints. By feeding on the fears of mankind, the Pardoners, by hypocritical means and blackmail and cajolery amassed a fortune from the poor and superstitious.

Langland in Piers Plowman describes a pardoner in this manner -" Simple folk believed in him and came up, kneeling, to kiss his bulls: and with his rigmarole he reached for their rings and brooches; and so they gave their gold to keep the gluttons going, and believed in these blackguards that haunted lechery."


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by Mariann Szekely

As we already know, religion played a very important role in the lives of the people during the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the 13th century the church had done little to adjust itself to intellectual and economic changes influencing the thoughts and the lives of the people. Rowlands (1999), whose book called Friars I used to gather most of the information for this presentation, explains that lay people came to believe that true faith could only exist within the walls of the monasteries and they were happy to go through only the motions of the church services. Throughout Western Europe there was widespread criticism and calls for reform from within the church. Records indicate that blasphemous jokes freely circulated in the taverns of the time (Rowlands 1999). This was a period when the church had a strong need for teachers and preachers and, according to Rowlands (1999), a "wave of enthusiasm swept across Europe for a new form of religious vocation which identified the service of God with service to man" (48).

This was the era in which the friars’ movements came into being. Friars, meaning brothers as in the French "frère", belonged to orders each of which had their own objectives, customs, dress codes and rules. The first of these orders emerged from the zeal of two very different but equally enthusiastic individuals, namely St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic. They saw that the spiritual needs of the people were not being met by the monastic or secular clergy and sought to create groups that would help the situation. There were at one time nine different orders in Europe but some of these never reached England. The four most influential ones in England were: the Dominicans (established in England in 1216), the Franciscans (1223), the Carmelites (1226) and the Austins (1256). Other known European orders include: the Mercenaries (1235), the Crutched Cross (1248), the Sack (1251), Servites (1256) and the Pied (1257).

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The friars appealed to both the intellect and the emotions of the church and its people and brought a new perspective to religion (Rowlands 1999). The mendicants, or beggars as they were often called, aimed to enlighten people’s understanding of the Gospel by proclaiming the Christian doctrines through education.

These mendicant friars were a radical breakaway from the monastic traditions of the past. Most importantly, they broke from one of the basic principles of traditional monasticism by abandoning the seclusion of the enclosed cloisters in order to engage in an active pastoral mission to society (Rowlands 1999). They brought a new vitality to the faith as they took their message and enthusiasm to the rich and the poor at universities, castles, villages and towns. In their early years they lived out the Christian message that they were preaching and teaching.

To us the best-known friar is Friar Tuck, the jovial cleric of Robin Hood:

Many of the Robin Hood stories are based on historical fact and
the stories are centered around Robin Hood’s struggles with the
Sheriff of Nottingham and king John (. . .) King John died in
1216. However, the first Dominican friars did not arrive in
England until 1221 and the first Franciscans in 1224. (. . .)
If Friar Tuck was one of the band of outlaws, they could not
have been engaged in struggle with King John. Legend (also)
tells us that Robin hood died in 1246. It appears that the King
John part of the story was added to give the tales a better storyline.
(Rollings 1999, 194)

Friars, at the time, were much more well known then today in the towns and villages they frequently traveled to preach, to work with the sick and needy, and to carry out their function as confessors. Only a few men adopted the friars’ way of life, which asked them to be partly priest and partly monk (Rowlands 1999). They took the vow of poverty, chastity, service and obedience, which they upheld by being out with the public and promoting the church and God’s way of life. They were versatile Christians who were at ease with the wealthy and influential but could also work with merchants and the poorest or the sickest (leprosy victims) of society (Rowlands 1999).

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Men who wanted to become friars had to be devoted to the Christian faith without thought of self-advancement. Interestingly, many gifted and well to do men became friars. Dominican Friars were stereotyped as learned and serious brethren who had shown by their manner that they considered themselves to be the best-trained and most competent preachers (Rowlands 1999). The Franciscans, on the other hand, were seen as jolly friars who lived by their wits and tongue and even earned the nickname of God’s Jesters (Rowlands 1999). Individual friars of the order advocated that cheerfulness was a sign of a clean heart and a great defense against the devil. Since they went out most among the ordinary and poor people, they were much more popular and had a closer affinity with them then the Dominicans did. Thus the Franciscans became the trusted confidants and friends of the communities and the Dominicans came to be seen as great teachers and intellectuals.

Friars were incorrigible chatterers, for without their ability to converse they would not have been very successful in their calling. In fact, prospective Dominican preachers were expected to be fluent and have a ready flow of anecdotes for use in their sermons (Rowlands 1999). It was thought to be of benefit too if they had a sonorous voice capable of producing a good, clear sound. They were taught to fit their sermons to their audience, since there was no one kind of sermon suitable for everyone.

Chaucer, in the General Prologue, describes his Friar as a man who knows "fair langage" (211) and is much concerned about the content of speech and its delivery. We are told that he has a special system of signs by which he knows the true intention of penitents who confess to him. Huberd, the friar, through his own rhetorical abilities in preaching is able to produce the signs of true contrition, which, in his opinion is giving money, from even the poorest of his audience (Williams 1987).

This preoccupation of some friars with money and personal gain is what brought about their bad name. Although most friars were diligent and conscientious, by the fifteenth century many of them fell short of the high standards of holy life. In their constant struggle to maintain the financial viability of their houses, friars resorted to various means of financial support. The ongoing plying for alms was an important part of their money making activities but they also took money from elderly individuals and provided room for them in their houses for their remaining years. They made every effort to collect moneys if left to them by a deceased individual. There are a number of references of the friars going to court to enforce the payment of legacies (Rowlands 1999).

Rowlands (1999) believes, that as in all organizations, there were many good and honest brethren, but the inadequate and slothful gave the mendicants a bad name. Despite their good work in their communities they were tarnished by the way they solicited funds. Yet without sufficient funds, they could not have survived. They were caught in a vicious circle. The standards of friars in England continued to decline until it all came to an end in 1538-9 when Henry VIII dissolved all monastic houses, including friaries, in his realm.

Benson, L.D. The Riverside Chaucer Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, (1987).
Rowlands, Kenneth. The Friars: A History of the British Medieval Friars. The Book Guild Ltd.: Sussex, (1999).
Williams, David. The Canterbury Tales: A Literary Pilgrimage. Twayne Publishers: Boston, (1987).

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The Peasant's Revolt

by J. Graham Lee

The English Peasant’s Revolt took place in 1381 but many of its causes were in place years before. The Black Death swept the nation in the 1340s, killing anywhere between one third and one half of the population in just a few years. The resulting deficit in the labour market put peasant workers in high demand. Crops began to rot in the fields and cities began to fall apart because there was no one left to do the work. The peasants’ lives began to improve as the demand for their services increased. While some land owners switched from labour intensive agriculture to easier livestock raising (sheep took fewer people to raise than crops), many others dug in and stubbornly tried to control the peasants with harsher standards. There was a renewed emphasis on Villeinage (the system of tying the peasants to the land and forcing them to work their lord’s fields several days a week as "rent," this hereditary system was little better than slavery) which peasants had been complaining about for years. The government also contributed to the problem, enacting Statutes of Labourers in 1349 and then again in 1351, which were an unsuccessful attempt to freeze both prices and wages at pre-plague levels.

The plague also caused the people to question the capability of the church. There was widespread call for reform by people upset with the way in which the church had let them down. They blamed much of the misery of the plague on the ineptness of the church. One such dissident, John Wycliffe, expressed much displeasure with the way the church was run, and even began translating the bible into English so all could read and interpret it. His followers eventually became known as Lollards. The Lollards preached to the sympathetic ear of the common people and some of their more reactionary members even advocated taking from the rich and giving back to the poor. One of these, John Ball, eventually became closely associated with the organization of the Kentish branch of the Peasant’s Revolt.

To compound problems, England, then under the rule of a fourteen year old Richard II, was still engaged in the 100 years war with France. While England had originally won vast tracks of land from the French, they were now suffering heavy losses, and were being forced to retreat. To subsidize this losing war several new taxes were levied in 1377, 1379 and 1380. The last of these taxes, the Poll Tax, was a one-shilling tax on every citizen over the age of fifteen. The unpopularity of this tax led to widespread evasion. People hid from the collectors and lied about the age of their children. The government received much less money than it expected and so in the spring of 1381 appointed commissions to find the missing money. This was what instigated the revolt.

In May of 1381, the people of Essex attacked and drove out the commissioners who were investigating tax evasion in their county. They also beheaded the members of a jury set up to punish their acts of disobedience. There were several other attacks, including one against the sheriff of Essex, on June 6. After this they began to advance on London.

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Simultaneous to this, in Kent, a man named Wat Tyler led another uprising. The rebels stormed Rochester Castle, opened Marshalon prison, and also began marching on London. On June 13 the two different rebel factions met at Mile End just outside of London. They numbered approximately 100,000. Sympathizers within the city opened a gate and allowed them to enter. They were surprisingly wellbehaved, avoiding raping and looting, and even beheading several of their own members for stealing.

At this point the chronology becomes confused, but Richard II did meet with the rebels. The rebels never had any disloyal thoughts towards the king; their hate was focused on the nobility. Richard conceded to their demands of an abolition of the Villein system, fair terms of employment and fixed land prices, and the Essex faction departed satisfied with the king’s promise. Tyler, however, was not to be stopped so easily. His men became drunk and violent, and they attacked and murdered the local people, each other, and any foreigners they could find. They also sacked and burned to the ground John of Gaunt’s house, the Palace of Savoy, because they blamed him in part for the Poll tax. They stormed the Tower of London, captured the Archbishop of Canterbury and decapitated him. They attacked and mocked all the nobles they encountered, and also attacked the dwellings of lawyers (one of Tyler’s later demands was rumoured to be the decapitation of all lawyers).<to top>

Richard again met the rebels with only a small escort, but this time during some confusion, the mayor of London, Walworth, stabbed Tyler. When Tyler died the rebels prepared to attack but quick thinking Richard prevented catastrophe by throwing himself in front of them and asking if they would really kill their king. He exploited the feelings of the rebels, who had no desire to commit regicide. Their quarrel was with the nobles, clergy and legal system, all of which they believed were in collusion to exploit them, not their king. More bargaining ensued, Richard made more concessions, and eventually the rebels went home placated. All the concessions were revoked at a later date, however, and many of those involved were captured and punished. While the revolt itself accomplished very little, it did frighten the nobility into at least making an attempt at cleaning up a very corrupt justice system. Villeinage was eventually made financially unfeasible by the laws of supply and demand and disappeared on its own. The Peasant’s Revolt did very little to further the cause of a class of people who were already living under much improved conditions, but it did show where many of the problems of society lay. The revolt was very focused, showing the people’s extreme anger with the exploitive hurch, legal system and land owning class.

A Couple of good sources on the Peasant’s Revolt:
Turner, Sharon, The History Of England During the Middle Ages vol. II, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1853.
Price, Mary, A Portrait of Britain in the Middle Ages 1066-1485, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.

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Saints’ Lives

Albert Lacey

Descriptive narratives about saints, termed hagiography, were a popular genre of literature in the Middle Ages. Along with classical antecedents they laid the foundation for the modern genre of biography (Abrams 22). Saints’ Lives had their origins in the official trial transcripts and witness accounts of a Christian martyr’s death. The martyrs in their willingness to die for their faith, by giving themselves "to God heroically" (Attwater 10), became role models of selflessness and commitment. The brief descriptions of their deaths, called acts or passions, were read as part of a commemorative ceremony, or feast, on the anniversary of a martyr’s death (King 65).

In 313 CE, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. As the chances for martyrdom became less frequent, some writers turned to the nascent monastic movement for a new ideal of Christian conduct. The first monks, because of their lives of self-denial, were considered spiritual martyrs. The Church called these ascetic men and women confessores and also commemorated their deaths.

The first saint’s Life proper, meaning an extended biographical narrative of a "holy person", was an account of a spiritual martyr, the Life of St. Antony, written in Greek by St. Athanasius, a bishop of Alexandria, around 357 CE. Antony was one of the first monks, who went to live by himself in the Egyptian desert. Athanasius by drawing on various sources -- including the Gospels, the apocryphal acts of the apostles, accounts of the trials of martyrs, and biographies of non-Christian holy men -- created a new genre of literature. His goal was to "tell the story of an ordinary Christian who, through the hard work of ascetic discipline, achieves such holiness that he can do miraculous deeds and provide spiritual guidance to others" (Brakke 3). His depiction of Antony, dwelling in an isolated cave battling with devils and curing those who sought him out, captured the early Christian’s imagination, and it remained the most influential saint’s Life to the end of the Middle Ages.

After the Life of St. Antony the most significant saint’s Life was the Life of St. Martin written by Sulpicius Severus, a lay person, at the end of the fourth century. Martin was a bishop of Tours in Roman Gaul. Like Antony he led a pious ascetic life but rather than seeking solitude in the desert he took an active role in society as a bishop caring for his community of believers. By writing about Martin, Sulpicius Severus expanded the notion of saintliness to include ecclesiastics. The Life of St. Martin was greatly imitated by later hagiographers. Just as Antony became the archetype for the saintly monk, so Martin became the archetype of the saintly bishop (King 66).

Other early influential saints’ Lives were written by St. Jerome, St. Gregory of Tours, and St. Gregory the Great. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate Bible, in the fourth century wrote three Lives: those of Paul the Hermit, St. Hilarion, and St. Malchus. Gregory of Tours, a sixth-century bishop, wrote Vitae patrum, De gloria confessorum, and De gloria martyrorum. Gregory the Great, a sixth-century pope, wrote the Dialogues (King 66, 67). Altogether, these authors set the template of a saint’s Life that was imitated thereafter. By the eleventh century saints’ Lives were being written in the vernacular in order to satisfy a growing lay piety. By the thirteenth century saints’ Lives were being collected into manuscript volumes. These collections of Lives were meant to aid the new mendicant orders, the Dominican and Franciscan Friars, by providing exempla for use in their preaching. The most famous collection was the Legenda aurea (Golden Legend) written in Latin in 1258 CE by Jacopo da Voragine, an Italian Dominican friar (King 69). It was translated soon after into every European vernacular.

In structure a saint’s Life was usually divided into two parts: a description of the subject’s life and miracles -- Vita et Miracula (Goodich 65). While saints’ Lives originated as factual records of a martyr’s death, increasingly in later centuries "style was emphasized over content" with a tendency towards "a delight in the miraculous and the fabulous for their own sakes" (King 67, 68). Modern historians have lamented the medieval hagiographer’s indifference to historical fact: "[H]agiographers do just as poets do: they affect complete independence of, sometimes a lordly contempt for, historical facts; for real persons they substitute strongly-marked types; they borrow from anywhere in order to give colour to their narratives and sustain interest" (Delehaye xviii). In addition, many Lives were written long after the saint’s true story was forgotten, and are partly or wholly fictitious -- incorporating elements of "myth, folklore, legend, romantic and edifying fiction" (Attwater 12). An example of this is found in Chaucer’s "Second Nun’s Tale" about St. Cecilia. Supposedly a third-century martyr, little is known about St. Cecilia except that she founded a church in Rome. The details of her life come from a Legend written at the end of the fifth century. However, her story "is unsupported by any near-contemporary evidence" (Farmer 91), and her martyrdom "may be regarded as a fabrication" (Attwater 81).

The ahistorical nature of saints’ Lives is better understood when we consider that their ultimate purpose was didactic. Their function was "to perpetuate [a saint’s] memory among the faithful, thereby inspiring others to emulate that particular saint’s behavior" (King 65). Many saints’ Lives are similar to one another. They emphasize the saint’s virtues and the miracles that show God’s favour. In addition, the trials a saint undergoes are often unrealistic and repetitive: "Lists have been made of saints who overcame a dragon" (Delehaye 21). Yet, this similarity is understandable if one considers that "the aim of all Christian living is the imitation of Christ": "The more saintly a person is, the more that person resembles Christ, in whom there is no change or diversity" (King 65). In the words of a thirteenth-century hagiographer named James of Vitry, the purpose of a saint’s Life was "to strengthen the faith of the weak, to instruct the unlettered, to excite the wavering, to provoke the devout to imitation, and to confute the rebels and infidels" (qtd. in Goodich 65). Works

Works Cited
Abrams, M. H. "Biography." A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. 1999.
Attwater, Donald. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 2nd ed. London:
Penguin, 1983.
Brakke, David. "Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of St. Antony of
Egypt." Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology. Ed. Thomas Head. New
York: Garland, 2000. 1-30.
Delehaye, Hippolyte. The Legends of the Saints. Trans. Donald
Attwater. New York: Fordham UP, 1962.
Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. 3rd ed. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 1992.
Goodich, Michael. Vita Perfecta: The Ideal of Sainthood in the
Thirteenth Century.
Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters.
25. Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1982.
King, Margot H. "Hagiography, Western European." Dictionary of the
Middle Ages.
Ed. Joseph R. Strayer. 12 vols. New York:
Scribner’s, 1982-89.

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