Polluting the Sacred. Violence, Faith and the 'Civilizing' of Parishioners in Late Medieval England.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Gibbs, Gary
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: Polluting the Sacred: Violence, Faith, and the "Civilizing" of Parishioners in Late Medieval England (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Thiery, Daniel E.
Accession Number: 254405170
Full Text: Polluting the Sacred. Violence, Faith and the 'Civilizing' of Parishioners in Late Medieval England. By Daniel E. Thiery (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009. x plus 196 pp. $147.00).

This book revises Daniel Thiery's dissertation submitted to the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto in 2003. It is clever, learned, and current with the literature. For a book that is partly intellectual, theological, cultural, and social history, the author certainly had numerous decisions to make concerning coverage of topics and issues. Given the ambitious subject matter, his overall analytical framework coheres nicely. Thiery advances a thesis concerning the role of medieval religion and the parish in English culture and society that should find many who respond with sympathy. He contends that "late medieval Christianity, through manifold media available to and often supported by parishioners, prompted society to at the very least question and, at times, abstain from the use of violence." English society also questioned "the influence of religion on peacemaking," while promoting new religious and social concepts of harmony (178).

Thiery reconstructs numerous arguments, mostly ecclesiastical, on appropriate Christian behavior toward violence in general, but especially within holy spaces. In part 1, "Lessons on the Value of Violence," Thiery argues that churchmen promoted lessons that encouraged worshippers to control their behavior in churches (and at shrines?) since violence polluted sacred space (49), and reminded the hearer that the parish represented an idealized community defined by peace and charity (75, 89). Part 2, "Parishioners' Praxis," moves from the ideal to the real or what may be measured about the social situation in extant records. There, struggles frequently occurred or threats were made as parishioners feuded and fought their way toward conflict resolution. Yet with time, conflict resolution changed as culture and society internalized these new attitudes toward violence.

Thiery judiciously situates the complex dialogues that occurred between various secular and ecclesiastical authorities concerning the appropriate uses of violence in the late medieval world and the laity's increasingly focused expectations on the topic (124). Given that violence had an important place in a culture that promoted crusade and holy war--a society dominated by aristocratic and masculine concepts of honor--some approved role for violence necessitated recognition. Conversely, the holy spaces of Europe, and this included its parish churches, required respectful behavior. Parishioners and clerics were expected to refrain from violence in these places, and if possible, local relationships with neighbors were to be peaceful throughout the wider orthodox community. Theiry documents the transformation of a culture that had recourse to judicial institutions. Ironically, perceived threats to the peace of the community could be solved with state sanctioned violence, legitimated by the proper authorities.

Thiery employs complex categories of analysis. Status is identified as a variable factor, as are other social markers, but, oddly, not gender in any cogent way. Thiery mentions the occasional woman (66) and cites some appropriate gender studies, and yet the final result seems overwhelmingly and uniformly masculine. When social variation is acknowledged in the parish, it is focused upon Holy Orders and social status, even though other divisions surely existed. Thiery provides close analysis of the role status played in the priesthood, where some had upper-class values to maintain (along with retainers who could be sent to teach a neighbor a lesson [158-59]), and others were decidedly from the lower orders.

This is a very theoretical book, and yet the author offers only a brief, name-dropping introduction, "Religion and the 'Civilizing Process,'" to frame the study. Some names appear once with little discussion, while others, such as Norbert Elias and Jean Delumeau, receive more attention. After summarizing the theory, the judgment seems to be that "The 'civilizing process' involves a complete change of mentality toward ones daily composure and thus it is most important to look at the commonplace (albeit commonplace acts of violence!) for inklings of such change (10)." One might have expected a more astute conclusion from a historiographic essay on the history of manners and the process of civilization.

The main body of the book is well-written and the arguments convincing. The sources tend to be derived from ecclesiastical and judicial sources: statements from councils and synods; libri pontificales, visitation records, and other collections from various diocese; Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests and Festiai, and, of course, the ubiquitous Margery Kempe. In other words, for a study that is interested in the parish and parishioners one might be surprised at the lack of sources tied to them such as wills, churchwardens' accounts, parish images, and architectural studies. This might be both a plus and a minus. One does not miss plowing through the citations from parish accounts as Thiery admirably supports his arguments from the sources he did consult. Yet there is evidence--admittedly scattered--in the parish sources that could have augmented and confirmed his points. For example, in chapter 7 where Thiery discusses the complexity of cultural codes faced by priests, the request in numerous wills for a chantry priest to be of good character and to possess a good reputation and to be honest would have only bolstered the argument of a culture-wide movement toward standards of civility.

The concept of late medieval English society as possessing an honor and shame culture, struggling to be Christianized, is undoubtedly correct. Thiery argues that it was the church and ecclesiastical culture that pushed these violent people to be something better--or at least more law abiding. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between those who might jettison all place for religiously justified violence in a civilized world and ignore this topic (1), and the claim that the church and the religious tradition should be acknowledged the best civilizing force in the late medieval era (175).

Thiery has produced an innovative and sophisticated book that draws from many important sources for people doing late medieval English religious and social history. Some chapters are probably a bit ambitious for undergraduate assignments, but given the current situation in the world, this study of a religious culture debating the proper use of violence is something we should take seriously. Historians may find the study's best contribution in Thiery's analytical structure that goes beyond monolithic parishes, which abandons discussions of uniform "strife" over various issues (such as tithe collection, for example). For Thiery looks to variations in personalities and localities as he maps transformational language and behavior that indicate parishioners conceptualized violence as best exercised in specific ways. There is one reservation: Tudor and Stuart England still seem so violent.

Gary Gibbs

Roanoke College
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