Does this caricature sound familiar? The Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation was desperately corrupt, riddled with superstition, and imposed terrible burdens on ordinary people through its beliefs and practices, while keeping them from accessing scripture. People were desperate to see an end to all of it, and were relieved that the Protestant movement arose to cleanse the church, make the Bible accessible to all, and strip away the oppressive list of requirements to try to ‘earn’ salvation…
While there’s some truth within this summary, Roman Catholic church historians in particular have long been challenging us to revisit this way of presenting the narrative. For example, people most certainly did want to see an end to the very obvious corruption in the church, and to the moral laxity of the clergy. There had long been calls for reform along these and other lines. But many ordinary people seemed to be well content with the beliefs and practices that shaped their lives, as individuals and communities, from the cradle to the grave and beyond. The evidence suggests that popular piety was exactly that—popular, and by all accounts, flourishing.
Windows to the Past
One way to get a window into the beliefs and practices of relatively ordinary people on the eve of the Reformation is to look at wills. Just like now, sixteenth-century wills have a formulaic quality. Most of us don’t compose our wills from scratch. We use templates. These can tell us a good deal about a particular society and culture, and then the individual touches we put on them—to whom and for what we bequeath money and goods—also tell us a good deal about our priorities as individuals. Sixteenth-century wills are no different.
An extract from the will of Ann Spensar, a maid (unmarried woman) of some means in Cambridge, England, reminds us of the kinds of issues that raised the ire of our Protestant forebears, and helps us to reflect on how the Reformation threw an entire way of being Christian into turmoil, leaving many bewildered and distressed. Spensar’s will was drawn up in 1508.
… I Ann Spensar, maid, of the parish of St Clement, Cambridge, being of whole mind and good memory, make this my testament and last will in the manner following. Firstly I bequeath my soul to Almighty God, Our Blessed Lady and all the company of heaven, [and] my body to be buried in the churchyard of St Clement’s. Also, I will there be 30 masses for my soul done in St Clement’s church the day of my burial…Also I will that Nicholas Clynt, my scholar, have a year’s service to sing for my soul [and] my father and mother as soon as he is priest. Also I give to the Fraternity of Jesus to be prayed for in the beadroll by the priest 3s 4d. Also I bequeath towards the glazing of a pane in a window 3s 4d…
The Will: Ann's Assumptions
First, Ann bequeaths her soul not only to God, but also to the Virgin Mary and the saints in heaven. Behind this is a lifetime of knowing which saints could be called upon to help out with particular life circumstances, and the assurance that the Virgin Mary was always on hand to mediate between Ann and her Son. It is not at all surprising that, just as Ann will have turned to the Virgin Mary and the saints for aid throughout her life, she expects that they will continue to help her in death.
She then provides money for 30 masses to be said for her on her burial day, and also for Nicholas Clynt, her ‘scholar,’ (she had been paying his way through seminary, in effect) to spend an entire year offering masses for her, and for her deceased parents, as soon as he is ordained a priest. Behind this lies the expectation that when she dies, Ann will go to purgatory, and also that her parents are still there. As the name implies, purgatory is a place where sins that remained unexpiated in life would be purged. It was expected that purgatory would be a decidedly unpleasant place—vivid tales of the pains and punishments of purgatory abounded—but it was also a one-way ticket. All those in purgatory would eventually enter heaven. In the meanwhile, though, you would take any opportunity you could afford to lessen your time there (and the time spent there by your family members). Ann shows us one way to do this here: to pay to have masses said for yourself and for your dead loved ones. Another, of course, was to purchase indulgences - the issue that provoked Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, the anniversary of which we are marking this year.
These provisions in Ann’s will also presuppose an understanding of the Mass as a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, making it intrinsically pleasing to God and beneficial to the believer simply by being performed. Priests regularly recited masses whether or not anyone else was there to hear them, because these masses were for the dead, to help to expiate the guilt of the sins that kept them in purgatory. To borrow the language of the Council of Trent many decades later, which crystallized this approach to the sacrament in response to Reformation debates: the Mass is a ‘divine sacrifice’ in which Christ is offered anew to the Father in propitiation, and, ‘appeased by this sacrifice, the Lord grants grace and…pardons even the gravest of crimes and sins.’ (Council of Trent, ‘Doctrine Concerning the Sacrifice of the Mass’, Chapter II - The Sacrifice of the Mass is Propitiatory Both For the Living and the Dead).
Next, Ann gives money to be prayed for in the beadroll (prayer-list) of the Fraternity of Jesus. Almost certainly, she will have been paying money to this fraternity for as long as she could afford it all of her adult life. Just as we might pay house or car insurance premiums, as many as could afford it paid money to fraternities (or to guilds, if their occupation had one) so that on their death, more prayers would be said for them to hasten them out of purgatory. In this part of her will, Ann is topping up her heavenly insurance policy, so to speak.
Finally, Ann provides some money towards a stained-glass window for St Clement’s Church. She would have considered that beautifying the house of God was an intrinsically worthy thing, and also that it would have counted as a ‘good work’ before the Lord. The prevailing theology of the time, at least in its more sophisticated forms, did not assume that any ‘works’ were actually ‘good enough’ to earn one’s way to heaven. Rather, as the analogy went, just as a monarch could decree that lead coins had the value of gold coins, so God has graciously decreed to count the otherwise worthless lead of our attempts at ‘good works’ as if they were gold enough for heaven.
The Way of Reflection
These few sentences from one woman’s will have given us a glimpse into a considerable number of beliefs and practices that shaped Christian life in the lead-up to the Protestant Reformation. Only a decade or so after this document was drawn up, the Protestant movement began to take a scriptural hammer to much of the theological structure presupposed in Ann’s will—and along with that, the basis of her discipleship during her life, and her understanding of her eternal hope.
Reflecting on what her will simply takes for granted serves to highlight the extent of the changes that came to many ordinary people as the Protestant movements spread. The subsequent upheavals in doctrine, worship, and life, while welcomed by many, brought to others the destruction of an entire way of life that had been passed down to them for generations, and that, presumably like Ann Spensar, they had always assumed was right and true. Especially for those of us (like me, and probably most of you reading this) whose theological convictions lie unequivocally with Protestantism, we sometimes need to be reminded that we can hold to those convictions, while also listening sympathetically and generously those who thought and felt—and still think and feel—very differently about what we are commemorating this year.
Contributor: Suzanne McDonald
The Distillery, Season 1
Suzanne McDonald is ordained in the Christian Reformed Church and is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland MI. She has theology degrees from the universities of Cambridge and St. Andrews in the UK, and has written books and essays on a range of theological and historical topics.