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.