Secular or Lay Clergy

The following extract from "ENGLISH SOCIAL HISTORY" by G.M. Trevelyan, Penguin 2000 reprint (Chapter on Chaucer's England) paint a delightful (if disturbing) scene of life in Oxford in the 14th century, and explains also something about the oxymoron-sounding term "secular clergy", "clerics" or "clerks" as the term later became known.

The section of the medieval Church that was under least discipline and had only too little 'corporate sense' was the army of unbeneficed priests, deacons, and clerks in holy orders who were scattered about the country, in every variety of employment, often under no control beyond that of their lay employers. In most cases they fulfilled functions performed in the modern world by laymen. They were the 'clerks' (in both senses of the word) who wrote papers and kept accounts for men of affairs, whether merchants, landowners, or officials. Others fulfilled sacred functions, as private chaplains in castle or manor house, or as ' chantry priests', paid by laymen to say masses for the souls of departed relations. Many drifted about from one job to another, forming lazy and criminal habits that made them in the end 'unemployable' for any good purpose.

The 'clerks' in business houses and legal or State offices were performing functions necessary for society, and were neither better nor worse men than their neighbours. But in view of the fact that they were under such slight ecclesiastical discipline it was perhaps unfortunate that they were 'clergy' at all. Except those in minor orders, clerks were expected not to marry1, and many of them would have been better with a wife and a settled home. In the literature of the time the 'clerk' is often the hero of an amorous intrigue. Moreover, when they committed crimes of theft or murder they could plead benefit of clergy and so escape from the severe justice of the King to the lighter penances of the Spiritual Court. No wonder that 'criminous clerks' often earned an ill name for themselves and for the Church to which they were so loosely attached.

There was already -considerable provision for the education of clerks in reading, writing, and Latin. Three or four hundred grammar schools, most of them indeed very small establishments, were scattered through the length of England. They were usually under the control of monasteries or cathedrals, hospitals, guilds, or chantries; the masters whom these authorities appointed were secular clergy. Clever boys of humble origin rose through such schools to be clerks and priests, for the Church was still the career of ambition most easily open to the poor. But no attempt was made to teach reading and writing to the mass of the people until the eighteenth century brought the charity schools.

In 1382 William of Wykeham, desiring better education for the secular clergy, founded at Winchester a grammar school on a scale of unexampled magnificence, which became the model for later foundations of equal splendour, like Eton. A certain proportion of the scholars were to be sons of noble and powerful (valentium) persons', a provision which the historian of our medieval schools has called the 'germ of the public school system'.

The two ancient universities of England already existed; but scarcely yet as rivals, for Cambridge only rose to national importance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In Chaucer's day, Oxford was the intellectual centre of England and Wyclif's influence was the chief fact in Oxford, -until he and his followers were driven out or silenced by the Interference of bishops and King with the independent life of the University (1382). If Oxford had been united, the invasion of her liberties would have been more difficult. But there had long been two academic parties, the secular and the regular clergy; the former took Wyclif's side, while the latter turned against him.

The `regulars' were the monks and friars who had several great convents of their orders attached to the University. In the previous century the friars had been the leaders of academic thought, with their Grossetete, Roger Bacon, and Duns Scotus, and they were still a great power in Oxford.

The `seculars', who regarded themselves as the University proper, consisted of secular clergy, priests like Wyclif, or deacons and clerks in lower orders. These men were academicians first and churchmen second. They were as jealous for the `liberties' of their University as a burgher for those of his town. They were always on guard against papal and episcopal interference, royal mandates, and the claims and privileges of the town. Their rights were defended against all aggression by the hosts of turbulent undergraduates herding in the squalid lodging-houses of Oxford, who, when occasion called, poured forth to threaten the life of the Bishop's messenger, to hoot the King's officials, or to bludgeon and stab the mob that maintained the Mayor against the Chancellor.

Town and gown used daggers, swords, and even bows and arrows in their pitched battles in High Street. In 1355 the townsmen made a regular massacre of clerks and students: the survivors fled in terror from Oxford, and the University closed down until the King intervened to protect and avenge the scholars. At Cambridge, in the riots of 1381, the town destroyed the University charters and records.

The medieval student, before the development of the college system had done its work, was riotous, lawless, and licentious.

He was miserably poor; he often learnt very little for want of books and tutoring, and left without taking a degree. Yet many were enthusiastically eager for learning or at least for controversy. Some were only fourteen years old, but most were of an age rather more nearly resembling that of modern undergraduates. Many were still laymen, but nearly all intended to become clerks if not also priests. There can be little doubt that the habits contracted at Oxford and Cambridge account for the violent and scandalous character of so many of the clergy in later life. The authorities of the universities, imitating the folly of authorities in Church and State elsewhere, forbade athletic exercises among the youth in their jurisdiction, but made no great effort to keep them out of the tavern and the brothel; some of them roamed the countryside in robber bands.

But England found a remedy for these evils. The college system, though it had originated in Paris, became in the end the unique characteristic of the two English universities. In the late thirteenth century several colleges had been founded at Oxford, and Peterhouse at Cambridge. But college life was still the exception, and in the early part of Wyclif's career it may be doubted whether more than a hundred of the three thousand Oxonians were under any such discipline - except the monks and friars in their convents. But before Wyclif died, William of Wykeham had already founded his magnificent New College, with its quadrangular buildings and its `hundred clerks'. With such a pattern to copy, the English college system grew apace with ever-new foundations during the next two centuries.

The demand for colleges and the readiness of founders to supply the need were stimulated by religious controversy. The orthodox desired to place the boys, who were to be the clergy of the next generation, in the safe keeping of such institutions and masters as would preserve them from the Wyclif heresy, which raged in the lodging-houses and inns where the students lived crowded together, discussing all things in heaven and earth with the freedom of irresponsible and ardent youth. And, apart from all questions of divinity, parents and practical-men saw the advantage of academic homes to shelter the young from material and moral dangers possibly as bad as the intellectual errors of Wyclif. The college system struck root in England and flourished as nowhere else. The business management of the liege revenues at this period seems to have been more often efficient than the management of monastic finance.

And so, in the fifteenth century, while the forcible suppression of debate on religious and ecclesiastical questions crippled r a hundred years the intellectual vigour of the English Diversities, the rapid growth of the college system brought bout an improvement in morals and discipline, and a civilizing academic life, for which later generations of Englishmen stand deeply in debt to the Oxford and Cambridge of the late medieval period.

One very important branch of learning had found for itself a home that was neither Oxford nor Cambridge. The lay lawyers, ho were building up the common law administered in the King's Courts, had formed for themselves the Inns of Court between London and Westminster, where legal education, other than that of the ecclesiastical courts, was carried on. Maitland has thus described them:

They were associations of lawyers which had about them a good deal of the club, something of the College, something of the trade union. They acquired the inns or hospices - that is, the town houses - which had belonged to great noblemen: for example, the Earl of Lincoln's inn. The house and church of the Knights of the Temple came into their hands.... The serjeants and apprentices who composed the inns of court enjoyed an exclusive right of pleading in court.'

These common lawyers were, as a class, the first learned laymen, and as such were of great importance to the growth of the nation.

Note 1: In fact a number of clergymen, including parsons of parishes, were married. Such marriages were irregular and voidable, but not void until challenged. Others lived in concubinage of a more or less permanent kind. Many English clergy had always resented the rule of clerical celibacy, gradually forced on the island after the Norman Conquest. The struggle against it continued till the Reformation gave victory to the rebels.

Created 5th Feb 2003