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The development of Bristol’s economy in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries had made it increasingly difficult for the old festivals to mark the community’s separation from the wider world and to reinforce its internal order. Mervyn James has sought to explain a similar transition by referring to the ways that the sixteenth century “progressively upset” the “social and political balance” of the late medieval urban community. “The degree of impoverishment of gild organizations,” he says,

the pauperization of town populations, the changing character and role of town societies, increasing government support of urban oligarchies were all factors tending toward urban authoritarianism. As a result urban ritual…no longer served a useful purpose; and [was] indeed increasingly seen as potentially disruptive of the kind of civil order which the magistracy existed to impose.[63]

This interpretation suggests that the members of a strident, secularized urban elite in the end forced their new views of the social world on their social inferiors. But it seems clear that in Bristol the ruled as well as the rulers no longer found the ancient ceremonies acceptable or efficacious, with the former perhaps preceding the latter to this conclusion.

Late medieval Bristol was one of England’s great centers of Lollardy, which anticipated many of the ideas of early Protestantism. Indeed, the presence of Lollards there in the early fifteenth century was sufficiently important that Robert Londe, schoolmaster at New Gate in Bristol, made them the subject of one of his vulgaria, designed to teach his young charges the finer points of Latin grammar and syntax through the use of socially and culturally relevant materials.[64] In its early years the movement in Bristol had a large clerical leadership headed by John Purvey, Wycliffe’s companion during his last days. The city even supplied six chaplains to Sir Thomas Oldcastle’s army on St. Giles Field in 1414. But from the outset the movement also enjoyed significant lay support in Bristol. Along with the six chaplains at St. Giles Field, for example, came forty other townsmen, the largest contingent of supporters from a single community in the Lollard army in this rebellion. Most of these men were weavers from the three southern parishes of the town. Moreover, despite the persecution of this group and of other Bristol Lollards in the fifteenth century, Lollardy had too strong a hold in the city to be eliminated. Throughout this century and into the next, ecclesiastical authorities continued to uncover groups of heretics professing Lollard beliefs. Like those who went to join Oldcastle, these men and women came primarily from the cloth industry, and from the city’s southern parishes; most were weavers.[65]

The connection between the cloth industry and Lollardy in Bristol draws us again into the world of the cloth gilds. In late medieval Bristol, these bodies were not only fraternities of craftsmen, organized in a fellowship of common interests for the protection and regulation of their mystery, but brotherhoods of the faithful, united in the name of their patron saint for prayer and for honoring the dead. Moreover, their seemingly distinct functions were inextricably intertwined. Gildsmen were expected to come to the general processions of their fellowship on Corpus Christi and on feast days, to support the gild’s chapel if it had one, and even to make payment of fines for violating the economic regulations of their craft in wax, for the maintenance of their saint’s candle.[66]

Under these conditions, resistance to the economic policies reinforced by the gilds could hardly help taking a religious form among many of the disaffected. Here the doctrines of Wycliffe and the Lollards offered an especially potent weapon. Wycliffe’s emphasis on the authority of the Bible, his rejection of transubstantiation, his stress on predestination, and his criticism of the doctrine of penance and its liturgy all were important elements in the beliefs of his followers.[67] But among the laity, especially after Oldcastle’s defeat, particular attention was paid to his rejection of the Real Presence and of the veneration of saints. In Bristol this focus was especially strong. Again and again its Lollards crudely attacked the main beliefs and practices of late medieval Catholic piety. They complained against worship in Latin, and they argued that “the sacrament of thalter is not the very body of our lorde but material brede.” But most of all they professed hostility to the saints, claiming that prayer should be made directly to God, not through holy intercessors, offerings to whose images were damnable.[68] But if religious observance was but the obverse of economic regulation in the life of the gilds, an attack on prayers for the dead, the veneration of saints, and the honoring of holy images such as the Bristol Lollards had mounted became at the same time an attack on the governing institutions of the domestic economy, the gild leadership, and the city government that supported it. Many of these Bristolians must have found Wycliffe’s harsh criticisms of the craft gilds congenial to their views.[69]

A series of ordinances of 1419 exemplify this combination of religion and economics. In that year, coming at the height of official reaction to Bristol Lollardy, the four Masters of the weavers’ gild petitioned the mayor and the Common Council for new ordinances. They complained that their own authority “had been greatly and grievously vexed” by violators of the weavers’ ordinances, “because they had not the same ordinances” under the common seal of the town. They desired, therefore, to have the old ordinances, with their mix of economic and religious precepts, confirmed under the city’s seal, a request to which the city government readily agreed.[70] Clearly a strong challenge to gild rule had been mounted. At the same time, two other ordinances, even more revealing in their nature, were also passed. These required, first, that all the masters and servants of the craft “come to the general processions and to the other precepts of the Mayor” and, second, that they “shall be contributors to all kinds of costs and expenses which shall be incurred…on their light and torches against the feasts of Corpus Christi” and the midsummer vigils.[71] The breakdown of gild authority in this period thus affected both its secular and its spiritual aspects.

Lollard rejection of gild practices was the most extreme form of opposition to the system of gild regulation in force in late medieval Bristol. However, because gild ordinances often advanced some economic interests against others, there were also many other reasons for criticism and resistance to them. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing for certain when we should attribute such troubles within the gilds primarily to the Lollards, although we know the names and beliefs of many of Wycliffe’s adherents in the city. But there can be no doubt that resistance to gild governance based on many of the same grievances the Lollards complained about persisted among the weavers until well into the fifteenth century. In 1463, for example, the “pore artificers” of the gild complained that the four Masters annually elected by the livery put the “poure Craftymen daily to grete iniuries wronges and importable fynes the which fynes…is not hadd to the sokour and Comyne weele of the seide crafte but only to a synguler avayle of the seid Maisters and their owne Purs.” The fines in question, of course, went not into the Masters’ own pockets but to the support of the gild’s activities: the hall, the chapel, the processions, the gild dinner on St. Katherine’s Eve, and the like. To resist the fines was to leave these gild traditions, spiritual as well as temporal, without proper enforcement, or possibly even to reject them outright. The main remedy the commons requested from the Bristol Corporation is also revealing, for they argued that the Masters were chosen “yerely notte by the will and assent of the hoole crafte but by the xii men” of the livery “sucche as they wolle call thayme self whereof we byseeke yow that they may be choszen by the hoole body of the crafte.”[72] They desired a restoration of the gild’s old constitution, under which all had united in common effort. A gulf had opened between the views of the gild elite and its commoners, a gulf characterized by the view that the elite no longer ruled for the common good but only for their own benefit.

These difficulties among the weavers are evidence of disaffection in their ranks in the mid-fifteenth century, not of heresy. They were not necessarily caused by the Lollards, although Lollard activity persisted among weavers and other clothworkers during this period and after.[73] Nevertheless, signs of resistance to gild practices reveal a general cultural or moral malaise in the cloth industry, a sense that the old ways no longer had significance for current problems. This mood may have resulted, in part at least, from the shifting nature of woolen manufacture in later fourteenth and early fifteenth-century Bristol. As country clothmaking grew, more and more of the cloth woven within the city seems to have been of much cheaper quality than had been the case a century before.[74] Probably the number of Bristol weavers also declined, though, judging from the frequent mention of weavers among the sixteenth-century burgesses, they seem to have declined more in wealth than in total numbers.[75] These changes would have made it increasingly difficult for the weavers to maintain their former gild practices, either in the vigorous supervision of ordinances or in the dutiful performance of rituals. But economic distress by itself cannot explain the weavers’ apparent indifference to or rejection of their gild’s traditional religious practices. One might expect that, if the gildsmen’s faith in their traditions had remained strong, under these troubled economic conditions they would seek solace, protection, and guidance from their processions, their vigils, and their lights. However, many of the weavers chose a different course. Rather than drawing together under the name and effigy of their patron saint, they strayed from the community and the discipline of their gild.

Thus, about the same time that St. Katherine’s festival had acquired the form that Ricart describes, or soon thereafter, a significant group of weavers, her earthly clients, not themselves a part of the gild leadership, had tired of its religious foundations. Some had even rejected them outright, though their masters and social betters still supported them. Similarly the town’s leaders remained faithful in the fifteenth century to the celebration of Corpus Christi, when lesser men not only among the weavers but in other gilds such as the shoemakers had lost their enthusiasm for it. Already in the 1420s punitive ordinances existed requiring participation in the great procession which once had been so overwhelmingly popular.[76]

By the 1530s this rejection of the cult of the saints was very general in Bristol. The theme was struck almost at the very outset of the Reformation by Hugh Latimer, who won the support of large numbers of leading townsmen, both in the Common Council and out, when he preached in Lent 1533. In these extremely popular sermons he lashed out particularly against the old Lollard target, the idolatrous worship of saints, which Latimer saw all around him:

I said this word “saints” is diversely taken of the vulgar people: images of saints are called saints and inhabitors of heaven are called saints. Now by honouring of saints is meant praying to saints. Take honouring so, and images so, saints are not to be honoured: that is to say, dead images are not to be prayed unto, for they have neither ears to hear withal, nor tongues to speak withal, nor heart to think withal &c. They can neither help me nor mine ox, neither my head nor my tooth, nor work any miracles for me more than another.[77]

Such views carry with them large social and political as well as philosophical and religious implications. Although they do not necessarily preclude adherence to some principles of Catholic belief or lead directly to radical Protestantism, they reject a regime as well as a liturgy. They show that many Bristolians, like the disaffected weavers of the fifteenth century, no longer found meaning in some of the most important rituals around which they had organized their public and private lives.

Within a few short years, moreover, these reformist views were put into action all over the city. “[A]t the dissolucion of Monasteries and of Freers houses,” we are told by Roger Edgeworth,

many Images haue bene caryed abrode, and gyuen to children to play wyth all. And when the chyldren haue theym in theyre handes, dauncynge theim after their childyshe maner, commeth the father or the mother and saythe: What nasse, what haste thou there? the child aunsweareth (as she is taught) I haue here myne ydoll, the father laugheth and maketh a gaye game at it. So saithe the mother to an other, Iugge, or Thommye, where haddest thou that pretye Idoll? John our parishe clarke gaue it me, saith the childe, and for that the clarke muste haue thankes, and shall lacke no good chere.[78]

Although Edgeworth greatly lamented this desecration of images and fought desperately against it, he could do little to restore the faith many Bristolians once had in them. The most solemn devotions had taken on the character of childish things.[79]


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