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The Tithe-Heresy of Friar William Russell

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Abstract

The growth of subjectivity in the religious life of the later Middle Ages, in discipline and worship as well as doctrine, both without and within the corporation of the clergy, was an important motif in the history of the Church in England. A more personal interpretation of religious obligations affected even matters of bedrock importance to the life of the organized church, such as the duty of tithing. Of particular interest in this connection in England was the cause célèbre created in London in the 1420's by a maverick Franciscan, William Russell, who preached that under certain conditions lay persons might devote their personal tithes at will to any pious or charitable use. Russell's sermon led to his condemnation as a heretic. But the reasons for the extraordinary controversy that he stirred up become clear only when one recognizes the place of his sermon in a long dispute between the parish clergy of London and their parishoners about the precise obligation of personal tithes in the city. The prosecution of William Russell before Archbishop Henry Chichele and the Convocation of Canterbury was an odd affair and, in spite of their prolixity, its records leave unsolvable riddles for medievalists. The process against Russell comprises the longest trial in Archbishop Chichele's register—perhaps in that of any medieval Archbishop of Canterbury. Minutes of the prosecution and wordy ancillary documents fill all or parts of twenty-six folio pages of the register (fifty-two printed pages in the splendid printed edition of E.F. Jacob). Yet in reading this material one gathers hardly more than a crabbed impression of the learned proofs and literary citations that Russell mustered in defense of this teaching on personal tithes. What is most striking to a reader of this transcript is the vehemence with which Archbishop Chichele and his clergy in the Convocation prosecuted this errant friar, in whose sermon they saw a clear and present danger to the endowment of London parish churches.

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Article
The system of compulsory tithes in the Middle Ages has long been used by protestant and liberal historians as a stick with which to beat the medieval Church. ‘This most harassing and oppressive form of taxation’, wrote H. C. Lea in his well-known History of the Inquisition, ‘had long been the cause of incurable trouble, aggravated by the rapacity with which it was enforced, even to the pitiful collections of the gleaner’. Von Inama-Sternegg remarked on the growing hatred of tithes in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, especially among the small free landholders, ‘upon whom the burden of tithes must have fallen most heavily’. Gioacchino Volpe said that tithes were ‘the more hated because they oppressed the rich less than the poor, the dependents on seigneurial estates less than the small free proprietors to whose ruin they contributed…. At that time tithes were both an ecclesiastical and secular oppression, a double offence against religious sentiment and popular misery’. G. G. Coulton, writing before the introduction in England of an income tax at a rate of over ten per cent., proclaimed that before the Reformation tithes ‘constituted a land tax, income tax and death duty far more onerous than any known to modern times, and proportionately unpopular’.
Article
Among the legislators of the medieval English Church John Pecham, archbishop of Canterbury, 1279–92, is remembered chiefly on account of canons published in two councils early in his pontificate, at Reading in July-August 1279 and at Lambeth in October 1281. His successor, Robert Winchelsey (1294–1313), less celebrated for his laws, none-the-less is assigned by Lyndwood, the fifteenth-century canonist, nine chapters of the Provinciale. The ‘Winchelsey’ documents and some others described in medieval manuscripts as ‘Statuta’ or ‘Constitutiones’ or ‘Decreta’ of one or other of the two archbishops cannot be immediately or surely connected with any known provincial council. They include texts on questions of almost daily occurrence to medieval archdeacons and parochial clergy: about the calculation of tithe, the duties of stipendiary priests, the obligations of the laity for church repairs. Lyndwood glossed many of them. Modern students of history and canon law commonly cite them. It is, therefore, of some importance to establish the degree of credit which may be allowed to the ascriptions. This study will consider the evidence of the manuscripts and will aim at sorting the genuine statutes from the spurious and the dubious. Some of each kind will be found. The enquiry may not only help to determine the nature of these particular documents, but also may reflect light on other doubtful legislation and illustrate the ways in which laws were framed and customs established in the English Church in the later Middle Ages.
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