“My men should use their swords and bucklers…but if John Stanshaw is in one alehouse then I will be in another.”
To historians of medieval and Reformation England, these lines should not be all that surprising. Throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the heyday of livery and maintenance, ritualized effrontery was in vogue among the affluent and they often employed large retinues of armed servants as signs of potency and prestige. However, it may surprise some to learn that the above statement was uttered by a priest, Geoffrey Elys, vicar of Thatcham (Berks.), around the beginning of the sixteenth century. Though the medieval Church tirelessly struggled to convince its flock of the wickedness of interpersonal aggression, its own servants were not immune to bouts of conflict and strife. As R. N. Swanson cautions in his study of parish priests, the clergy “can be considered as a group; but they were also individuals who created their own careers and had their own personal relations with their parishioners.” Indeed, the conduct of clerics in their parish communities, especially their violent conduct, can be quite baffling if one only evaluates it by the criteria of ecclesiastical proscription and fails to recognize that such proscription was just one thick strand of an intricate web of relations and expectations. In his examination of thirteenth-century parish priesthood, J. Goering has traced the transition of pastors from merely members of the village to semi-detached individuals who were compelled to abide by both village customs and the values of a more unified and doctrinally authoritative Church.