“Who went to church in medieval England, and what happened when they went? Reviewing these questions at the end of this study, it must be admitted that there are difficulties in providing answers. The kingdom of England contained some 9,500 parish churches by about 1300, and many more chapels. These were not uniform but differed in their locations, buildings, staffing, congregations, furnishings, and probably certain local customs.” (p. 400)

Shortlisted for the 50th anniversary iteration of the Wolfson History Prize, this hugely comprehensive work is by Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University, Nicholas Orme, who has published many works on English religious and social history. It is obviously the culmination of a huge amount of work, pulling together the tiniest details from many different kinds of sources to weave together a picture of the structure, context, liturgies, architecture, celebrants and congregations of the English Medieval church up to the Reformation. While it isn’t able to provide all the answers, it does a very good job at providing a lot of answers, always noting where things aren’t clear or even available.

We start with the origins of the English Catholic church, the various waves of Christianity that came and the setting up of parishes. Then we move through the church staff, the building itself and the congregation. Two very detailed chapters cover the liturgical day, week, seasons and year, dealing with ordinary days up to processions and festivals. Then we follow the life cycle of the congregation, taking in the sacraments of baptism, marriage, etc. and other important times, before looking at the Reformation and its effects.

Covering from around AD 313 to 1559, there is a wealth of detail and a feeling of only slow change, normalisation and development. There is no central argument, as Professor Orme makes clear in the Foreword: his aim is “to reconstruct how churches worked as religious centres: what happened inside them” (p. 3). Who are the book’s audience? He says students of various disciplines as well as general readers, and I would agree with that; there is a depth of detail which would give value in a university library, but it’s readable and approachable and no prior knowledge is assumed, while it never talks down – a hard balance to strike.

Wills, laws, church and parish records and maps, letters and diaries where they exist, circulated prayer and liturgical resources and their annotations and official documents are all used to weave the wealth of information in this study together. It’s geographically diverse, often with similarities pulled from very diverse areas; a triumph of organisation and synthesis.

Professor Orme makes a valiant attempt to include women in his history – although of course all incumbents were men, he makes the point often that influential women held sway in many parishes as patrons of churches, and also talks about the guilds and companies of maidens and wives which raised money for the church. They also appear in the life cycle section and he mentions again at the end the lack of information and sources covering their lives and roles. Anticlerical activities, whether organised, like the Lollards, or individual, are covered, and there’s of necessity more information on bad behaviour than good, the former being recorded and sanctioned (interestingly, some sanctions were written down in instructional materials but with little record of them being carried out apart from metaphorically).

The chapter on the Reformation is very useful and informative, explaining what had already started to change, what was dying out, what was forced or enforced and to an extent how people reacted to it. The emphasis is more on what continued than on what traditions were broken, interestingly. It was useful to have information on how it was continued in Edward VI and then Elizabeth I’s reigns.

The illustrations are lovely – printed often in colour and in very high quality on the text pages, they range from photographs of church furniture through books of hours and the like to architectural plans.

A superb book which will be of huge value to students of the period and of church history, architecture and social history, as well as the general reader.

Thank you to Midas PR for asking me to take part in the Wolfson History Prize blog tour once again. Details of the other blogs taking part in the first part are below, along with a list of the books on the shortlist.

“The Wolfson History Prize, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is the UK’s most prestigious historical writing prize, and was created to champion the best and most accessible historical writing, and to highlight the importance of history to modern life. Previous winners have included Mary Beard, Antony Beevor, Antonia Frasier, Sudhir Hazareesingh, Amanda Vickery and many more. 

A number of the six titles in the running for the £50,000 prize (making it the UK’s most valuable non-fiction writing prize) prove that current social divisions are nothing new, exploring times of discord and crisis throughout history, including accusations of witchcraft in a small New England town, the shock of Britain’s European neighbours during the turbulent Stuart dynasty, and the topical question of fallen statues and what they tell us about historical legacy. 

Other titles on the shortlist showcase the impact faith has had on our lives over the centuries, tackling subjects such as the role of religious tolerance within the Ottoman Empire, the surprising realities of Medieval churchgoing, and the ways in which the anatomical concept of God has changed across time.” 

The books shortlisted for the 2022 Wolfson History Prize are:

  • The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs by Marc David Baer (Basic Books)
  • The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill (Allen Lane)
  • Devil-Land: England Under Siege, 1588-1688 by Clare Jackson (Allen Lane)
  • Going to Church in Medieval England by Nicholas Orme (Yale University Press)
  • God: An Anatomy by Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Picador)
  • Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann (Headline)