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6 - Locality and Ecclesiastical Polity: The Late Medieval Church between Duality and Integration

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 June 2021

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Summary

Introduction

Both the title and the monumental nature of Locality and Polity, built as it was on a mass of local detail, might suggest that its essential contribution was to demonstrate, more fully and satisfactorily than before or since, how study of the localities underpinned understanding of English politics at the centre. Certainly it did that; but there was another axis, perhaps less well advertised, which informed Christine Carpenter's work at its most fundamental level, that between the material and cultural. Again, the vast scale of her card index might suggest that the material was to the fore, in a project begun in the economic-and-social-history milieu of the later twentieth century; but at least equally important to her were mentalities, the underlying assumptions and cultures that informed social and political action. When as her student I applied her approach to the medieval church, I was naturally drawn to these prevailing cultures and ideologies, in part because they were sometimes more explicitly articulated than in the secular sphere.

Turning Carpenter's methodology on its head, therefore, the starting-point for this act of homage is ideology, and specifically the conceptual duality of the distinction between body and soul. This gave the church its raison d’être through the ideal of a separate spiritual power dedicated to maximising salvation, and thus established the fundamental duality of clergy and laity; and it underpinned medieval understanding of the world through further conceptual pairs such as temporal and eternal, secular and spiritual. The most striking feature of the latemedieval church, however, is not its separation from society, but its thorough integration into it, required by the clergy's mission to be ‘in the world’. In my second, social, section a range of examples explores this endemic immersion and its implications, including the subjection of the clergy to lay control. As a result, even the conceptual dualities were threatened with dissolution, or at least ambiguity. But this raises a central problem: what is the relationship between duality and integration? Further scrutiny in the final part shows that dualities persisted, ideologically and institutionally; and they continued to structure social action. Yet just as the conceptual interaction of different pairs of opposites produced plurality, so the social deployment of dualities proved complex. It was these complexities which, I conclude in a brief reascent to high politics, informed relationships between crown and church at the centre.

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Political Society in Later Medieval England
A Festschrift for Christine Carpenter
, pp. 113 - 145
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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