Sixth Warwick Symposium on Parish Research: 17 May 2008
Brodie Waddell, University of Warwick
In recognition of the parish’s prominent place in the religious, political and cultural
history of premodern Europe, the Warwick Network for Parish Research organizes an
annual Symposium on Parish Research. This year, it brought together a diverse group
of scholars and students on Saturday 17th May 2008 to address the theme of ‘Parish
Pieties’. The three papers, and the expansive conversations they sparked among the
thirty-five participants, considered several different locales and stretched across three
centuries of European history. There were about thirty participants, including both
academics and postgraduate researchers. Beat Kümin opened the symposium by
welcoming everyone and inviting delegates to introduce themselves and their fields of
The first paper of the day was presented by Gary Gibbs (Roanoke College, Virginia)
on ‘Four Coats for Our Lady: Gender and Saintly Devotion in the Parish of St
Stephen, Coleman Street, London, 1466-1542’. The focus of his presentation was an
inventory from 1542, specifically an intriguing listing which suggested parishioners
ritually veiled an image of the Virgin. Gibbs showed how this record raises a number
of questions about the practice of Marian devotion and parish piety more generally.
He hypothesised that the colours of the four coats may have indicated their role in
annual festivals, and noted that women were ‘very likely’ involved in providing these
vestments for the image. Because this entry indicated four coats (rather than just one)
of various colours, he also suggested that this parish may have been exceptionally
intent to prove its devotion, which might in turn be explained by its demographic
instability and social anxiety. Local records indicate that the core population of this
parish may have felt under siege by the large number of poor migrants who lived
temporarily in its side streets. Indeed, Gibbs argued that this parish’s devotion may
have prefigured its enthusiasm for ‘puritanism’ in the seventeenth century. He
finished by noting that, whatever the particular function these coats played in 1542,
they were conspicuously absent from the inventory drawn up ten years later: this
ought to remind us that continuities across the Reformation must not blind us to the
‘phenomenal’ changes that could happen over the course of just a few years.
The discussion afterwards ranged widely. It began with a focus on various ways one
might be able to reach further conclusions about the meanings of the coats. No
churchwardens’ accounts survive from the period, but illustrations in Books of Hours
might help to make sense of the colours. In response to suggestions about the
possibility of interdisciplinary analysis, Gibbs acknowledged the help he had received
from historians of textiles, art historians, anthropologists and other specialist scholars.
The discussion then moved to the possibility of this image being used in processions.
Its impact may have been heightened by the conjunction of ritually processing with
the Virgin while simultaneously transforming her by adding a jacket, varying in
colour depending on the feast day. It was also remarked that the veiling of images
may have been seen in Protestant propaganda as part of the supposed ‘popish’
tendency to hide or conceal. Lastly, the discussion returned to the issue of gender.
Asked if this type of worship suggested a feminised type of late medieval piety,
Gibbs remarked that the evidence made firm conclusions impossible, but that the he
suspected that gender was an important part of this particular manifestation of Marian
The second paper was by Christine Peters (Queen's College, Oxford) who discussed
‘Christocentric Piety and the Parish’. She noted that the growth of Christocentric
devotion in late medieval England was potentially ‘a bridge to the Reformation’ as it
de-emphasised the saints while highlighting the individual’s personal link to Jesus. It
also had important implications for the role of Mary and ultimately involved a ‘redefinition of the economy of salvation’. In addition, it appeared to gain more appeal
amongst the laity than amongst the clergy. However, Peters focused much of the
paper on highlighting the ambiguities in ‘Christocentricism’. She noted, for example,
that this type of piety was available to both Lollards and orthodox Catholics, and
other scholars have remarked that this piety may have even ‘bolstered’ religious
conservatism. Likewise, the devotions of the Five Wounds of Christ and those of the
Holy Name, whilst both Christocentric, had very different trajectories. For instance,
the literature associated with the Five Wounds tended to teach about sin and salvation
through correct conduct, whereas prayers linked to the Holy Name had more
‘talismanic’ functions. The speaker also noted that devotions of the Five Wounds
could potentially be translated into chivalric, even romantic, idioms portraying Christ
the Knight. In spite of their many ambiguities, Peters finished by noting that these
types of worship still seemed ‘not too distant’ from Protestant pieties that emerged
during the Reformation.
The discussion which followed this paper revolved mostly around various other
meanings that might have been associated with the imagery of Christ’s Wounds. It
was noted, for example, that the Five Wounds had a prominent place in the
religiously conservative English rebellions of 1536 and 1549. This led the speaker to
remark on the way the Wounds were connected to larger themes of ‘sanctification
through suffering’, which might explain their appearance in the context of the
Pilgrimage of Grace. Possible relationships between the Wounds and perceptions of
Christ’s gender were also raised, which promoted Peters to remark that this may have
been important in late medieval mysticism, but that it was probably not as relevant in
ordinary parish-level worship and devotion. Peters went on to reiterate one of her key
points: the problem with a historiographical interpretation of Christocentric piety
which regards it as simply one thing. In fact, she observed, it was a multivalent
phenomenon that could be both ‘a bridge’ to Protestantism and a buttress for
medieval Catholicism. The discussion then moved to the possible origins of
Christocentric devotional practices. Contributors agreed that there were many
possible explanations, including the influence of Lollardy and the Black Death were
mentioned as probable influences. Lastly, the delegates discussed if the spatial
reordering of the parish church in the sixteenth century might have meant that the
figure of Christ actually became less present in the post-Reformation church.
The final paper was presented by Andrew Spicer (Oxford Brookes) on the topic of
‘Piety and the Parish in early modern Orléans’. He focused on the cult of Notre Dame
des Miracles in the parish of St. Paul during and after the Huguenot occupations of
the city in the 1560s. He described how this cult’s image had been publicly burned by
the Protestant soldiers, but that local devotion remained undiminished. Indeed,
parishioners continued to leave money to the destroyed image in their wills and soon
commissioned a new stone statue had been. Spicer noted how the original statue had
been associated with protection in times of war and crisis, giving it possible links to
the cult of Joan of Arc (who had resided in the area during her defence of the city).
This parish was also important, he argued, because it had a very strong tradition of
confraternities, nineteen in all, and was known for its Corpus Christi procession. The
remarkable continuities in parish pieties despite the destruction of this important
image, when considered alongside the enthusiasm of its confraternities (which were
involved in the flagilation movement and later political radicalism), seem to suggest
that this parish was perhaps ‘exceptional’ in its devotional energy.
The discussion afterward focused mostly on the issue of destruction and rebuilding.
The paper was praised as effort to look at Catholic reactions to iconoclasm, rather
than just examining the deed itself or its possible motives. It was suggested that the
post-occupation history of the parish might be part of a larger process wherein the
Catholic League revived ‘archaic’ forms of piety. Hence, the rebuilding efforts and
the new devotions of the 1580s might be local manifestations of national concerns
and thus ‘politicised’. Spicer agreed that this may have been the case and noted that
the king later took part in the parish’s procession. The destruction of Orléans’s
cathedral also resulted in Crown involvement as its rebuilding was largely funded
from royal coffers. Continuities in devotion to Notre Dame des Miracles probably
depended mostly (or entirely) on lay piety, given the fact that many local priests seem
to have fled the city during the Huguenot occupations. Similarly, Spicer
acknowledged that the rapid revival of the cult may have been partly due to its
importance to parish finance, although the scarcity of surviving records prevents firm
conclusions. Lastly, the discussion returned to the issue of iconoclasm. Although it is
often assumed that successful iconoclasm undermines the respective cult, destroyed
icons could also become symbols of martyrdom and collective suffering, thus causing
a shift in devotional focus from miraculous protection to righteous affliction (and
perhaps healing).
The papers were followed by a commentary from Bill Sheils (York). He remarked on
the way the papers raised the perennial historiographical issues of causation, change
and continuity. However, he felt that one important implicit theme in the day’s
discussion had been the problem of ‘choice’ and its effect on parish pieties. Whilst
‘choice’ is always limited, it can be very important in some contexts, especially in the
case of the urban parishes examined by Gary Gibbs and Andrew Spicer, and in the
devotional literature analysed by Christine Peters. Sheils argued that we ought to
discuss the implications of ‘choice’ and how this created differences not only between
parishes but also within parishes. For example, some the pieties discussed at the
symposium – such as the Wounds and saints – might be based in the parish or might
‘transcend’ the parish by becoming civic, regional or national symbols. Shiels also
stressed the importance of picking apart terms like Christocentrism (which, after all,
is always part of Christianity) and evangelism. In addition, he mentioned that one of
the advantages of parish research was its ability to be comparative, and that the parish
inventories examined by Gary Gibbs would make a potentially fruitful base for a
larger project, comparing those of parishes across various parts of Europe.
The floor was then opened for a general discussion, chaired by Steve Hindle, of the
issues raised in both the papers and the closing commentary. This discussion began
with the question of whether there was an inevitable tension between piety and the
parish, especially given the possibility that the former can both transcend and subvert
the latter. This led to the issue of religious ‘volunteerism’. If parish piety is communal
and compulsory, do voluntary forms of piety undermine the parish? In response,
several discussants argued that ‘choice’ and voluntary piety were often seen as
complementing (rather than threatening) parochial religion, especially prior to the
Reformation. ‘Choice’ suggests fragmentation, but voluntary devotional practices can
also be seen as part of a larger unified project. Indeed, certain practices that are
usually characterised as ‘voluntary’ (e.g. confraternities) are often dictated by one’s
gender or age, rather than ‘choice’. It was posited that ‘choice’ may have only
become sinister after the Reformation, when religious ‘dissent’ took on new
meanings. The second issue raised in the discussion was the complex relationship
between ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ forms of piety. Beat Kümin made the self-declaredly
‘heretical’ assertion that perhaps interior forms of piety are irrelevant to historians
who can only work from outward expressions of worship. This provoked a lively
dialogue and, although there was little sympathy for this position, it was admitted that
religious ‘sincerity’ is particularly difficult to study. Lastly, the discussion returned to
question of what made parish-based piety important. It was noted that sometimes
‘parish piety’ is simply a product of the sources available to historians due to the
volume of parochial records, and that the parish church might be the site of certain
devotional practices without being their focus. Several discussants highlighted the
changing importance of the parish over time, particularly the possibility that the early
modern period may have begun with the high point of parish piety and ended with its
overwhelming marginalisation. The discussion thus finished with a troublesome
question: How useful is the parish as a unit for studying past pieties?
Abstracts of the papers and podcast interviews with organizers and participants are
available on the symposium website:

Sixth Warwick Symposium on Parish Research: 17 May 2008