The community of the parish in late medieval Kent

Judy Ann Ford, Fordham University


Throughout medieval England, the parish held a central place in the religion of the laity. In their parish churches, lay people not only followed the calendar through sequenced liturgies, but they also celebrated those rituals which marked the important events in their lives, such as birth and death. Parochial clergy served as the primary communicators of orthodox doctrine and practice. The fabric of the parish church, which contained altars, statues and stained glass, in many places was the only edifice to display public art, and in almost all places was the foremost structure devoted to pious uses. The lay members of medieval parishes not only shared a great deal, they also constituted a distinctive type of community. The basis of community action was the joint responsibility lay parishioners held for the maintenance of the nave and ornaments of their church. A wide variety of practices were developed to raise funds to support this duty. Supervision of these activities was undertaken by officers chosen by the lay community, of which the most important were churchwardens. This study of parishes in four settlements in the county of Kent finds both similarities and differences in the way their communities functioned. The parishes shared a social conservatism, tending to mirror the composition of the secular community in which they were located. For example, women and the poor, who were almost universally excluded from civic office, found their participation in the parish circumscribed as well. Nonetheless, the late-medieval parishioners who formed the core of these communities appear to have viewed service to the parish as possessing genuine religious merit. The settlements under study differed in the strength of their community spirit. Some conditions seemed to have generally weakened attachment to the parish, including difficulty in traveling to the church, a small or frequently absent clerical staff and a relatively poor population. Parochial affiliation appears to have been strong in areas with a relatively high population density, a small ratio of clergy to laity, and a generally prosperous population. Furthermore, strength of the parish community was an important factor influencing the transition through the English Reformation.

Subject Area

Middle Ages|Religious history

Recommended Citation

Ford, Judy Ann, "The community of the parish in late medieval Kent" (1994). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9509748.