Wednesday, 9 September 2015

peculium and pittance

Prior to the early decades of the fourteenth century, the civil and spiritual landscape of Britain and the whole of Europe looked very different than it does today, and it is inexorably difficult for modern minds, I think, to grasp how very alien that proximity was. No one was more than an hour’s walk separated from a monastery or covenant—comparable to the fact that settlements were more or less paced out, before sprawl took hold, a day’s distance on foot from one another, and if one was not directly under the employee of the institution as a farmer, physician or teacher, one still benefited from the round the clock prayers that the members engaged in for the whole of humanity.

These traditions, unimaginable to the grand majority as the pre-Dissolution state of affairs is to us, untraveled, who only knew their individual sheltered realities that had been constant companions as far as living memory ran. For varied motives which included annulling yet another marriage that failed to produce an acceptable heir and to raise state funds to engage the French in battle (another constant and as a relic of the Norman Invasion, many reported to French mother churches), however, King Henry VIII split with papal authority and went on to found the Church of England, and appointed head minister Thomas Cromwell (ancestor of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell who abolished the monarchy for a time) vice-regent in Spirituals and charged him with the the task of dismantling those anchor institutions of community and appropriating their holdings—mainly through extortion and defamation, which was undoubtedly valid in a few cases but not in the main. The roles that monastic houses had served as schools—especially giving girls an alternative to the expected medieval drudgery—hospitals, hostels, welfare for the poor, sanctuary for the accused, brewery and kitchen garden went unfilled for centuries afterwards, if ever fully replaced by government and private organisations.
Overnight, monks, nuns and friars (embedded monks that went out into the community) found themselves evicted and their treasuries raided with anything of apparent value taken for the Crown and much of their libraries lost to history, and their relics—another major economic component as it attracted pilgrims—dissected and subjected to the burgeoning scientific method, and when there was no divine intervention forthcoming to stop this destruction and desecration, peoples’ doubts were reinforced. Seeing what was happening in England in terms of tempering religious authority, where one third of all property belonged to the Church, other European powers began to follow suit, buffeted by the emergent discontent of Martin Luther, albeit that the threat against vulnerable, smaller monasteries encouraged the sale of indulgences to raise the requisite hush-money against being shut-down, and adopted their own national confessions. For Henry, the resulting security-theatre saw few gains—although one positive legacy was the endowment to great universities that still represent the heights of learning, and although the change must have been great, the actions prosecuted in Prussian, Bohemian and Low-Lands was a measure less disruptive and immediately replaced by foundations meant to care for those less fortunate and co-opting an essential service once performed by a suppressed Church, seamlessly and solidifying later commitments and general characterisations of secular assistance. The past is not so simple.