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Village Gilds of
of Norfolk in the fifteenth century.
CATHERINE B. FIRTH, M.A.
ABBREVIATIONS USED IN REFERENCES. Bk. I., II., etc.
Gild Account Books, Wymondham Church Chest. Bl.
Blomefield's History of Norfolk. Certifs.
Gild Certificates, Public Record Office. Hist. MSS. Comm. Rep. . Historical Manuscripts Commissioners' Report. N.A.
Norfolk Archæology. Published by the Norfolk
and Norwich Archæological Society. P.L.
Paston Letters. Edited by J. Gairdner, 1908. Proc. Arch. Inst.
Proceedings of the Archæological Institute. T. Smith
L. Toulmin Smith, English Gilds. Early English
The Churches of Norfolk, conspicuous in every village, suggest to the most casual observer historical problems which are not easily solved. They show that the beauty of religious buildings was a matter of moment to the people of the county at many different periods, and especially do they raise questions with regard to the men of the fifteenth century, of whose devotion much Perpendicular work remains as witness. What did their religion mean to those who generously gave time and money to the construction and decoration of such outward
and visible signs of their faith? In what ways did it influence their conduct and modify the common round of their daily life? Answers to such questions may be sought in various directions, but perhaps no single line of study will prove more fruitful than an enquiry into the religious gilds in which the men and women of the time delighted to bind themselves together by voluntary association. Such an enquiry, moreover, is of value to students other than those who are specially interested in Norfolk. To gain a clear idea of the gilds means the ability to form a vivid picture of one aspect of common-place life in the Middle Ages, the ability to reconstruct a fragment of the mosaic of the past with a sureness of touch not often to be obtained; the colours are distinct, and a few square inches of the pattern become clearly visible.
The fifteenth century, with its party strife and bloodshed, with its lack of governance and its sense of national humiliation, the time of "many laws and little right," when “mayntenys be made justys, and lewde men rewle the lawe of kynde," was hardly a time in which the signs of much religious devotion would be expected. There were, however, in Norfolk, certain conditions which probably favoured the popularity of the gilds. The county lay outside the area of actual warfare, and was saved from the pillage and devastation which too often accompanied the march of hostile forces. Yet within its boundaries the "world was right wild",1 the Paston Letters afford ample evidence of the insecurity of life and property which resulted from the numerous feuds. When a dastardly attack such as that on Thomas Denys? might suddenly put an end to the term of a man's life in this world, he may well have felt it prudent to prepare for his entry into some other. The performance of religious deeds such as those to which he would bind himself by membership of a gild was, in one aspect, a spiritual insurance investment, and doubtless such a consideration helped to keep up the numbers in the village fraternities. Further, the sense of danger and of the uncertainty of life, expressed again and again by Margaret Paston1 and her correspondents, would tend to turn 'men's attention to the promises of calm and of stability held out by religion. Again, this sense of danger must undoubtedly have encouraged the spirit of combination. As different lords would try to bind to themselves those who would support them in their quarrels, so poor men who desired to retain their independence would realise the truism that unity is strength. And yet again, the conditions of the political and social world would be reflected in religious matters; it is quite possible that men sought “good lordship” in heaven, and by candles and offerings pleaded for the protection of some particular saint to whom a gild was dedicated, much as they attached themselves to some powerful individual on earth. There is suggestiveness both as to religious and as to secular thought and custom in the common proverb quoted by a correspondent of John Paston: “A man must sumtyme set a candel before the Devyle."3 Some such reasons as these may partly explain the undoubted popularity of the village gilds of Norfolk in the fifteenth century.
1 P.L., vol. ii., p. 24. 2 P.L., vol. ii., pp. 20, 27, 32.
e.g., P.L., vol. ii., pp. 82 f, 262. 2 cf., Sir John Fortescue's Dialogue between Understanding and Faith. The troubles of the times rouse Understanding to a statement of the old problem of the prosperity of the wicked. Faith finds consolation in the thought of justice in a spiritual world : "the rewardes of honest folkes is not to be getyn in this worlde." 3 P.L., vol. ii., p, 73.
There seem's little doubt that these gilds were primarily religious. There is a real distinction between them and the merchant and craft societies of the towns, with which this paper is not concerned. The great Trinity Gild of Lynn, for example, had its religious ceremonies and conducted its business under the protection of religion, but such a statement merely says that it was thoroughly 'medieval in character, and gives no information as to its purpose. The place which it held in the political and commercial life of the town was such as to prevent the designation of the gild by the specific adjective religious but the case is far otherwise with the numerous fraternities in the villages. These were indeed the "benefit societies and provident associations of the Middle Ages" ;3 their effects and their importance were social; nevertheless, their origin and their dominant characteristics were religious. Within the boundaries of Norwich, Lynn, and Great Yarmouth, there existed, besides trading corporations of varying importance, many smaller associations which might also truly be called religious, but it is with the village4 gilds alone that this paper will attempt to deal, except in so far as conditions in the large towns may throw light upon those in other parts of the county. Its aim is to make clearer one aspect of the ordinary life of ordinary people whose names are for the most part unknown, and whose contribution to the making of England has passed unnoticed into oblivion. Happily, enough sources exist to make such a purpose not wholly impossible of attainment.
1 Too little importance seems to be attached to the distinction by Gasquet in his Eve of the Reformation, p. 318.
2 Hist. MSS. Comm. Rep., vol. xi., app. iii., p. 226 ff. cf., Harrod's History of Lynn.
3 Gasquet, Eve of Reformation, p. 320.
Every student of Norfolk's history turns first to the laborious work of the county historian, Blomefield, and his continuator, Parkin. The references made by them to village gilds are very numerous ; their notices of the great majority of churches end with the statement that certain gilds were held within them, followed often by extracts from wills in which legacies to the fraternities are mentioned. Among Blomefield's sources were the Norwich Cathedral Domesday, and a volume known as Tanner's MS., both of which are kept in the Diocesan Registry at Norwich, while the wills were invaluable to him as they have been to later enquirers. Many of these wills are quoted at length in the Visitation of Norfolk in 1563, edited by G. H. Dashwood, others have been printed at different times in the Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Archæological Society, and in the Norfolk Antiquarian Miscellany, while Mr. Walter Rye has in his possession several volumes of transcripts made by the late Mr. J. L'Estrange. The wills attest the great popularity of the gilds, and other sources are available which supply details. The Liber Gilde Beute Marie, containing aldermen's accounts for a gild at Little Walsingham in the early years of the sixteenth century was, in 1847, discovered among the public records at the Chapter House, Westminster, and extracts from it were printed in the proceedings of the Archæological Institute. At Wymondham, a market town about ten miles south-west of Norwich, there remain a number of local MSS., kept in a chest standing in the parvise of the church. Among the most valuable of these are five large paper books which belonged to various gilds in the fifteenth and early sixteenth
i These are here quoted by the numbers which have been written on them, viz., Bks. I., II., III., IV., and VII.