Master John

The thousands of ordinary parish priests who ministered to their flocks in fourteenth-century England have left scarcely a trace of their lives in surviving records. Their names, dates of appointment, and deaths or resignations can usually be found noted in diocesan registers by the officials of the presiding bishops, but little else can be discovered about them. However, Master John, who is the central character in this book, has had to be entirely invented because the priests of Walsham were appointed by Ixworth priory rather than the bishop of Norwich, and not even their names have survived.

Yet if direct evidence of individual parish priests is lacking, except for a few odd notices of their agricultural and economic activities in manor court rolls, there is an abundance of rich material that throws welcome light on their duties in the fourteenth century and the manner in which they were, or should have been, performed. Manuals for the guidance of priests and rules for their moral, spiritual, and liturgical conduct are perhaps the most informative, but together with sermons and commentaries, as well as a host of literary works and administrative proceedings, they comprise just a part of the rich material from which the vocation of a priest at the time of the Black Death can be reconstructed. It is from these sources that I have created the life and work of Master John. Having chosen to make him especially devout, diligent, and learned, I have drawn further details of his character from Geoffrey Chaucer’s portrait of a poor parson, a man who was “rich of holy thought and work” (see figure 2). The narrator throughout this book has a similar voice and character to Master John, and is conceived as writing his history within a decade or two of the Black Death. He may well have been one of Master John’s successors as parish vicar.


Master John, who had the cure of souls in Walsham, was a blessing to his parishioners. For many years before his arrival they had suffered sorely from the neglect of their parish priest, Robert Shepherd, a man who was more interested in accumulating earthly riches for himself than helping his flock to gain the spiritual rewards that await the righteous in Heaven.

Although Robert Shepherd drew only a modest stipend from the priory of Ixworth, which had long since appropriated the tithes and revenues of the parish for its own purposes, he was never troubled by a lack of income. This was not because he shunned worldly goods but because he was so skilled at making money. His surname was most inappropriate, for Shepherd’s gifts lay more in the acquisition of wealth than in the curing of souls. In his many years at Walsham, he had grown steadily more wise in worldly things while neglecting the spiritual. He speculated in land and used his wealth prudently. Shepherd made many loans to villagers who were short of ready money but not out of charity, for he did not lend to the indigent. In fact he deemed it unwise to advance money unless it could be well secured against assets, and, in shameful disregard of his church’s prohibition of usury, he always managed to take much more in repayment at the end of the term than he had lent at the beginning. If borrowers failed to repay the sum agreed in full at the specified date, he was not slow to sue them for debt in the manor court, claiming onerous damages on top. And if the bailiffs of the court could not seize enough cash or movable property to cover the poor debtor’s obligations, Shepherd invariably found it necessary to speedily foreclose on the land put up as security.

By conducting his affairs in this manner, Shepherd had built up substantial landholdings, which, being at heart a lazy man, he chose to lease out at high rents rather than cultivate. His annual rent roll alone amounted to more than 40s. He allowed few opportunities for gain to pass him by, even if this sometimes meant bending the rules, and on more than one occasion he found himself in difficulties with the lord of Walsham. In 1336, for example, he was called to account by the manor court for illegally cutting down and selling trees growing on land that he was renting from the lord. His action was clearly wrong, since the law in Walsham decreed that trees belonged to the landlord and not to the tenant. Yet so great was Shepherd’s reluctance to be parted from his money that he tried to avoid paying the 5s fine levied on him by claiming he had been forced out of great necessity to cut down the trees. However, since everyone knew the priest was a rich man, Shepherd’s enemies heaped scorn on his head and disclosed to the lord that he had used the cash from the sale of the timber to buy a piece of freehold land in nearby Debenham.

Robert Shepherd might not have been blessed with a pure heart, but he was blessed with cunning. And it was soon after this humiliation, when the income he was receiving from his various speculations was at its highest, and the respect in which he was held in the parish at its lowest, that he began to consider appointing a deputy to perform the spiritual duties he had so lamentably neglected. Eventually, so loud and so persistent did the complaints from the parishioners become, that the prior of Ixworth was moved to express his concern and Shepherd made up his mind. Despite the miserable stipend that he offered, the throng of surplus clerics seeking employment in the region was so great that a host of well-qualified applicants pressed for the post. From among them Shepherd preferred John Bradfield, a mature and experienced man. He chose wisely, and after many years of neglect Walsham at last had a good man of religion who led his flock by noble example. With the willing complicity of Robert Shepherd and to the great benefit of the parishioners, John Bradfield soon assumed all the duties, responsibilities, and authority that should have been exercised by the parish priest.

Although John Bradfield had not been to university and had never run his own parish, he soon became known to his parishioners as Master John. This title was bestowed on him because he was such a learned and respected priest, as well as an excellent preacher. The lack of preferment that John had hitherto suffered in the Church had been due to an excess of holiness rather than a lack, and also to his plain speaking and daunting austerity. Time and again John had disappointed his friends and sponsors by refusing to offer flattering words or a bribe to gain promotion, or by turning down some toilsome office that did not directly serve God. His principles had brought him a harsh life with few comforts, but as he often said, using the words of the gospel, “If gold rust, what shall iron do?” This, he patiently explained, meant that the clergy had to be above reproach in order to provide a shining example to others: “If the priest, on whom we trust and who ought to be like gold, should instead be foul and corrupt, it is no wonder that ordinary men would rust.” And he was very fond of telling his chaplains the cautionary parable of the “shiten shepherd and the clean sheep,” in order to instruct them on the purity of the lives they must lead.

Master John dispensed an abundance of piety and wisdom to his parishioners and assiduously ministered to their spiritual needs. He would visit them regardless of the weather and often on foot, even in the most far-flung parts of the parish, with a staff in his hand and a bag containing essential ecclesiastical equipment across his shoulder. Despite imposing the harshest standards on himself and his colleagues, Master John did not lack mercy toward sinners. He was mindful of their constant temptations as well as their failings, and through considerate and kindly words he sought to draw them to Heaven. In his sermons, which he gave more frequently than was common among priests in neighboring parishes, he was fond of recounting how when a man went to a cobbler to buy a pair of shoes neither the cobbler nor the customer was able to open his mouth without uttering some falsehood, while at the same time swearing by all Christ’s limbs that he was telling the truth. Yet, for all his understanding, Master John could be severe with transgressors who obstinately failed to reform. It made no difference to him whether his parishioners were of high or low estate, for he treated all sinners the same. In his behavior he set a splendid and often unmatchable example, not only to his parishioners but also to his junior clergy who assisted him in the large parish.

There were many more than a thousand souls to cure in Walsham, but there was no shortage of clerics seeking to labor with Master John and live off the fees they could earn by conducting services, administering rites, and saying Masses (see figure 3). Most of these clerics, in Walsham and elsewhere, had grown up in modest circumstances. Many were the presentable sons of peasant farmers, who in youth had shown a particular promise in learning and had caught the eye of their local priest, who enrolled them into his band of helpers as choristers. As they continued to develop academically and display appropriate qualities of character, these boys were selected for reading and writing lessons in small village schools, where they also acquired some Latin. Then, if they were deemed potentially worthy of eventual ordination into holy orders, they were moved on to more structured instruction in schools run by monks. One of Master John’s assistants had even studied at the University of Cambridge. Having qualified as priests but lacking a benefice to support them, these junior clergy struggled to earn a modest living as chaplains. Master John was particularly pleased when John Beck and John Kebbil, two of his favorite protégés born in Walsham to well-established local families, returned to serve their native village.

Master John himself had been born of humble peasant stock in the nearby village of Bradfield. From an early age he had shown himself to be exceptionally bright, and when he was only seven he became renowned in his village for his ability to recite long prayers and passages from the Bible in Latin as well as English. A few years later, when his parish priest brought him to the attention of the monks of Bury, John made a great impression with his wide vocabulary and ability to grasp the subtleties of scholarly discourse, and he was sent to be educated in the almonry school at the abbey. There he spent many happy years studying and training for the monastic life, showing himself to be both an excellent scholar and an exemplary Christian. But when he reached eighteen years of age and was set to be professed into the community as a novice, doubts began to gather. It seemed to his favorite tutor, and then to John himself, that he was not best suited to the solitary life of a monk. For John thrived in company and was never happier than when he mixed with the common folk, advising them and persuading them to be better Christians. After much agonizing and many long discussions between his tutor and the abbot, it was decided that John should become a member of the secular clergy, devoted to the pastoral care of parishioners and the cure of their souls, rather than a monk sequestered in a cloister.

As a parting gift from his tutor, John had been given a precious book that thenceforth scarcely ever left his side. It was a leather-bound volume entitled Oculus Sacerdotis, a manual written in Latin for the guidance of parish clergy by William of Pagula, a most learned doctor of canon law. His tutor had painstakingly made this book for him in the abbey scriptorium by copying, in an elegant and clear hand onto new folios of vellum, the words contained in a manuscript that had recently been brought to Bury by a monk from a northern monastery. That was more than twenty-five years ago, but ever since the stoutly bound book had been John’s most treasured possession, not merely because of its sentimental value or even for the profusion of detailed instructions it contained on how a good priest should carry out his varied duties, but because it spoke to him in a familiar and welcome voice and put his own deeply held beliefs into fine words.

Master John, like William Pagula, saw that administering confession was one of his most important tasks. Not for him was the annual hearing of confession of each of his flock a hurried matter of granting easy absolution. Following his precious manual, he learned how to use the confessional as an essential means of teaching and correcting. He did not merely encourage confession but always made time to inquire of penitents what lay behind their sins, so that they might not be repeated. If the sin was drunkenness, John asked the inebriate how he got drunk; if the sin was anger or caused by anger, he asked whether he was accustomed to curse men or innocent animals, and whether he believed that cursing was a sin. John had his own special questions designed to expose the potential weaknesses of all who came to him: the rich, the hirer of workmen, the manorial official, the brewer of ale, the baker of bread. And he required all men and women who labored with their hands to do an honest day’s toil for an honest day’s pay, and never to work on Sundays or holy days.

When deciding appropriate penances for the sins of his flock, Master John found it helpful to refer to the long lists contained in his manual, which told him the penances prescribed by canon law and the sins which were so serious that absolution was reserved to a bishop or even the pope. But as time passed and he gained more experience, Master John increasingly chose to follow his own instincts, and to do so with flexibility and humanity. He hesitated to use excommunication, which cast offenders beyond the cloak of protection offered by the Church, but was reluctant to grant absolution in return simply for the payment of money. He preferred always to make the penance fit the sinner as much as the sin.

Master John had faithfully learned how best to interrogate penitents on their religious knowledge, and he used this private meeting, as well as others during the course of each year, to test and teach his parishioners. He expected his flock to know by heart at least two prayers, including the Our Father and the Hail Mary, as well as the rudiments of the fourteen articles of faith, the seven sacraments, the seven works of mercy, the seven virtues, the ten commandments of the law and the two of the gospel, and the seven sins. And finally, he made sure they were aware of the chief joys of Heaven and the chief pains of Hell.

Master John also strove to give good practical advice to his flock. He told expectant mothers to avoid heavy work and new mothers to suckle their newborn children, and he instructed parents to be careful when taking infants into their beds, so that they might not be suffocated. He warned how easily an infant might be killed when left on its own, and how it could be smothered if its mouth were covered by a cloth for even a brief time. Nor did Master John lack the courage to remind those he felt were in temptation, either through poverty or cruelty, that infanticide was a dreadful sin, even if it should occur through neglect rather than a deliberate act.

Master John was quick to reprove his flock for sexual laxity. Although he hesitated to send adulterers and fornicators to be judged in the archdeacon’s church court, he did so not out of leniency but because he believed he could deal with them better himself. He held tightly the secrets he learned in the confessional, but if the misdeeds were repeated and became public knowledge, Master John approved of public shaming, which most often took the form of a ritualized whipping of the offenders, barefooted, bareheaded, and stripped to their undergarments, through St. Mary’s churchyard and the surrounding roads. He held strongly to Church teachings on the desirability of marriage and was never happier than when his parishioners married. In the autumn of 1345 in St. Mary’s he took particular pleasure in blessing the marriages of members of a number of Walsham’s leading families, including those of Hilary, the daughter of Robert Tailor, to John Patel, and Agnes, the daughter of Alice Helewys, to Nicholas Goche. Although Master John was generous in dispensing charity to unmarried mothers and their children, he did all he could to discourage such pregnancies, on moral grounds and because he agreed with village notables that there were already more than enough poor people in the parish. Yet, as in so many areas of his life, Master John frequently allowed kindness to overcome severity, and often it became known that he had begged the lords of the manors of Walsham and High Hall to moderate the fines for “childwyte” that they imposed on unwed mothers. In the face of considerable criticism he provided a full Christian burial in consecrated ground for Catherine Cook when she died soon after giving birth to a bastard.

Master John did not confine his instruction to strictly religious matters, but saw it as an important part of his ministry to try to settle the differences that arose between the residents of Walsham. In addition to exhorting his parishioners to live their lives in a manner that would give rise to fewer quarrels, and to be conciliatory when disputes did flare up, he was often called on to act as a mediator. By judging with great wisdom and fairness, he brought many disagreements to an end before they escalated into conflicts that had to be taken to the manorial court. On many occasions he assessed the compensation that might be due to purchasers who were unhappy with what they had bought, or to farmers when their crops were damaged by straying animals, or to the victims of violence when they had been attacked. And he was often successful in persuading the lenders of money to grant some extra time for their debtors to repay what they owed, though Robert Shepherd had rarely relented. Yet Master John was forever being disappointed that, in spite of his best efforts at mediation, arguments continued to bubble up everywhere in very much the same fashion as they had for decades before his arrival and would continue to do for decades after his departure. It brought him particular sadness that he was sorely rebuffed in his attempts to calm the bitter feud which flared up between the children of William Wodebite soon after their father’s death in the late summer of 1345 (see figure 4).

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