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1. Reconstructing early-modern religious lives: the exemplary and the mundane
IV/ Charity, work and care

Charitable acts and lived religion in the funeral sermons of early seventeenth-century women

Emily VINE


À travers l’analyse d’écrits biographiques et de sermons funèbres imprimés, cet article étudie la façon dont les pratiques religieuses des Anglaises du début du dix-septième siècle étaient présentées et commémorées. L’étude de londoniennes catholiques et protestantes entre 1600 et 1660 suggère que leurs activités charitables, et particulièrement celles qui impliquent un travail physique comme l’assistance aux pauvres, aux malades et aux parturientes, étaient présentées comme un aspect essentiel de leur façon de vivre leur religion. Dans ce chapitre, le terme « religion vécue » se rapporte aux activités que ces femmes ont mises en œuvre pour devenir agents de leur propre pratique religieuse. Ces sources montrent qu’elles prenaient l’initiative d’actions charitables qu’elles mettaient en œuvre en sus de leur routine de prières et de contemplation, et qu’elles percevaient comme une expression de la singularité de leur piété et de leur expérience religieuse. Ces textes mettent en évidence les attributs uniques de chacune de ces femmes ; ils soulignent leurs compétences en médecine ou leurs savoir-faire de couturières, ainsi que leur hospitalité quand elles ouvrent leurs propres foyers aux plus démunis. Ces bonnes œuvres sont donc présentées comme des formes importantes de piété active : elles sont essentielles à la manifestation de la foi.

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1“Some things there were, wherein she was exceeding exemplary” asserts the funeral sermon for Mistres Jane Blackwel, the wife of the pastor of St Andrews Undershaft, who died in 1656 (Manton 33). In this description, the religious conduct of Blackwel, as is commonplace within the funeral sermon genre, is presented as “exemplary”; she as an individual had lived out her faith in such a way that was deemed worthy of emulation. Equally, the 1619 funeral sermon for Elizabeth Juxon contains a preface to the “Courteous Reader”, which establishes the preacher Stephen Denison’s intentions in publishing it, setting out the desire to make the sermon “publike for the common good”. Denison feels that examples of Juxon’s personal religious conduct could act as a model for others. He writes:

Here therefore I offer them to thy Christian consideration; reade them with a single eye: weigh them well; and if thou reape any benefit, give the whole glorie to God, and remember the unworthy writer in thy prayers. (Denison A5v)

2Such sermons, commissioned initially to be performed at the funeral service, were designed to memorialise the lives and pious behaviour of the deceased, but equally to offer tangible examples which the listener or reader could emulate and incorporate into their own religious lives.

3This essay examines how the lived religious practices of early seventeenth-century English women were presented and memorialised, through an analysis of printed funeral sermons. Focusing on both Catholic and Protestant women who lived and died in London between 1600 and 1660, it takes a twofold approach which examines both the descriptions of lived religious practices within the sermons themselves, and evidence of how these descriptions were intended to shape and influence the religious practices of the readers of these sermons. It responds to the assertion of Jussi Hanska that in the early modern period “preaching was an essential factor in shaping what lived religion was actually like” (Hanska 132). By making use of biographical narratives (generally commissioned or written by family, and composed after an individual’s death), including those found within funeral sermons, it examines sources which often provide the only glimpse we have into women’s religious lives. In recent years funeral sermons have been investigated in detail by numerous scholars including Ralph Houlbrooke, Eric Josef Carlson, and Femke Molekamp. Some scholars, such as Patrick Collinson, have suggested that funeral sermons are too formulaic to provide any meaningful indication of an individual’s religious life (Carlson 567; Collinson 523-4). Carlson has challenged this by examining descriptions which were clearly unique to the life of a specific individual, suggesting that there was little point in fabricating details of the character of an individual known to the sermon’s audience, and asserting that such texts can be good sources for women’s religious lives (Carlson 582). More recently Femke Molekamp has considered funeral sermons as sources which provide an insight into female devotional practice, particularly reading, and gendered sites of devotional practice, such as the home and the closet (Molekamp 43-63). In turn this chapter suggests that while the descriptions discussed adhere to the conventions of the funeral sermon, they are specific to the life and behaviour of the deceased, with a focus on the individuality, active piety, and often agency of the woman being memorialised.

4This essay makes use of sources which often contain the only information we have about a given woman’s religious life. David Hall’s 1997 assertion that “we know next-to-nothing about religion as practised and precious little about the everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women” is now, thankfully, largely obsolete after twenty-five years of extensive research into the “popular” and “social” history of religion (Hall vii). Yet the discourse surrounding this scholarship has tended to define the ‘popular’ religion of the laity as detached from, and occasionally in opposition to, the prescriptions of the Church or ministers. Hall demonstrates that “lived religion” as a category of analysis moves beyond clear-cut distinctions between popular religion and other forms (Hall ix). This essay responds to this perspective, as well as following the lead of Katajala-Peltomaa and Toivo et al, in their assertion that the religious experiences of ordinary people cannot and should not be so neatly detached from the religious practices of “elites” or high-level theology (Katajala-Peltomaa and Toivo, 1). The examples I consider are the practices of the laity, yet these are experiences that have been shaped by and filtered through an institutional lens: that of the preacher, composing a sermon that would originally have been preached in a church or meeting house.

5In addition to the focus on the laity as well as the clergy, Hall called for an approach which focused upon practice as well as solely belief (Winner 135). Accordingly this essay focuses on the practices that these women were described as actively performing, rather than discussions of their faith alone. In approaching the concept of “lived religion”, this essay considers examples of religious practice which were presented as individual, and as instigated by or performed according to the agency of the women themselves. In its examination of how religion was experienced and acted out, it also responds to Kuuliala, Peake and Räisänen-Schröder’s assertion that lived religion “links individual experience to a larger communal and societal framework” (Kuuliala, Peake and Räisänen-Schröder 1). The examples I consider are of women acting out their religious lives within a community. I place emphasis on descriptions of women’s charity work, particularly that which involved active labours such as feeding the poor, tending the sick, and assisting with childbirth – I consider these to be forms of ‘active piety’. By focusing on London I also seek to emphasise the local, parish-centred, and civic-duty focus of these women’s lived religious practice. I analyse a sample of funeral sermons and biographies pertaining to women who lived and/or died in London, and which emphasise the laudatory conduct of city women who actively assisted the parish poor (Boulton 139). In providing charitable assistance to the poor and hungry of their neighbourhood, these women are presented as enacting their personal faith in a tangible and visible way within their community. While in keeping with the rest of the country, most women who were given a printed eulogy were the wives or daughters of notable men (in London largely clergymen or politicians) we also see greater evidence of women’s independent lives. Due to the commonplace remarrying of London widows, the women in these sermons often had strong connections to both commercial and religious networks in the city, and were frequently owners of significant land and property holdings in their own right. Many of these women, with their substantial houses and visible charitable work, had parish standing which predated or existed independently of their husbands. While these accounts are centred on the lives of city women, the memorialisation of these lives and their charitable endeavours within funeral sermons transmits these practices to a broader community of believers. Within a genre where most women are presented as being devout in their prayer and bible reading, discussing specific and identifiable acts of charity is a means of differentiating between lives, and presenting individual women as unique and particularly exemplary.

6This essay accordingly focuses upon ways in which women were perceived to voice or exert their own religious agency or active piety, and the ways in which this active piety was understood and documented. Crucially, it focuses upon religious practice which took place away from the formal (and often male) environments of churches or chapels and considers lived religion in terms of both female experiences and female spaces. Yet this focus upon female spaces is not restricted to the home or closet, the setting of religious practice predominantly discussed by Molekamp. By examining charitable works, I consider lived religious practices which were acted out upon the streets, upon visiting the home of others, and works which took place within the wider neighbourhood, parish or community.

Assisting the poor

7Charitable acts, such as visiting and tending the sick, are presented as a supplement to daily routines of prayer and contemplation in Protestant and Catholic prescriptive literature alike. The authoritative Protestant devotional guide, Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety (1611), sets out distinct religious acts to be undertaken on the sabbath, setting out appropriate forms of prayer, and noting “If any neighbour be sick, or in any heaviness, go to visit him”, citing Matthew 25:36 (Bayly 478). Equally, in the Catholic Primer, or Office of the Blessed Virgin Marie, a widely available guide to devotional life, the “Corporall woorkes of mercie” include “To feede the hungrie”, “to harbor the stranger”, and “to visit the sick” (Primer A4). While Protestant and Catholic women alike were encouraged to perform such acts, the theological underpinning differed. Catholics were encouraged to perform works of mercy as a means of shortening time spent in purgatory. For Protestants, good works could not be used as a means of being saved, but such charitable acts were still tangible signs that they were good Christians (Hanska 131-2). There is clear prescription for Catholics and Protestants to perform charitable acts, but in funeral sermons the performance of such tasks is viewed as evidence of exceptional piety. For an individual to perform charitable acts, they are required to be active in directing their own faith, to engage in tasks in addition to their daily routines of prayer and catechising, to seek out, visit and assist those in need. Accordingly, charitable works are presented as acts instigated by individual women themselves, and as a conscious way in which women could display ownership over their lived religious practice.

8The biographical material within funeral sermons trod a middle ground between including expected and somewhat formulaic references to the deceased’s piety – including standard phrasings about their church attendance and in-depth knowledge of scripture – and asserting that the deceased’s conduct was particularly noteworthy (Molekamp 54; Anselment 203). The preacher who wrote the sermon for Lady Honor Vyner acknowledges his distaste for “long panegyrick” within sermons, but admitted he did not think it “wholy unlawful to give a due testimony to the dead, in mentioning such things of their life and conversation, as may be useful patterns to the living for their imitation” (Spurstowe 45). The funeral sermon for Elizabeth Gouge, the wife of prominent Presbyterian preacher William Gouge, which was published in 1626, set out its intention that “her graces may remained fresh among us for the greater consolation of her friends, and imitation of us all” (Guy 38). William, the author of the widely read conduct book on household and family life Of Domesticall Duties (1622) would have had a particular stake in presenting his late wife as the exemplar of the pious wife and mother. The practices that were presented as “useful patterns for the living” or worthy of “imitation” often went beyond standard descriptions of routines of prayer and bible reading, and emphasised specific practices that these women performed as a means of expressing their faith.

9One of the key ways in which women were depicted as exerting agency over their lived religious practices was their active decision to assist the poor, by providing food or clothing. Charity towards the poor is presented as instigated by the women themselves, a devotional act performed in addition to daily routines of prayer, and in response to the condition of poor or hungry neighbours (Shen 6). The 1622 funeral sermon for Elizabeth Juxon noted:

What mony she had of her owne in the time of her health, she distributed it freely, partly to poore Preachers about this Citie, partly also to poore Christians. She was like unto Dorcas, she made garments, and that both woollen and linnen, and gave them to poore Christians, and to their children (Denison 114).

10Juxon is presented as making active decisions about who she will give charitable assistance to, “freely” distributing her money, and dedicating time to making clothes to dress the poor. These are elective acts of charity; she has chosen to act out her Christian faith not only through routines of prayer and church attendance, but also through the decision to dedicate time and money to assisting other Christians. This description also conforms to Kuuliala et al’s assertion that lived religious practice connects individual experience to communal frameworks; by acting out her faith, Juxon is located at the centre of a local religious community within her parish (Kuuliala, Peake and Räisänen-Schröder 2).

11The funeral sermon for Jane Ferrers, published in 1625, also focuses on how her charitable work made her an important part of the local religious community of Bromley, noting that to “all the poore of this parish” she was “a most liberall, bountifull, and releeving friend.” It also emphasises that the community would testify to how she had acted out her faith by helping others: “For her charity, and works of mercy towards the poore, and those in distresses, let Bromley speake”. The sermon contains specific details about Ferrers’ religious practice that go far beyond simply formulaic or general comments about her piety. It notes that “She was … most bountifull in giving food constantly; and weekly relieving at her house, at a certain time, with meat and drink, at least twelve households.” (Cole A3-A3v) Ferrers’ acts of charity include feeding the hungry and poor; she is depicted as specifically inviting the poor into her own home, and distributing sustenance to them. The identification of ‘at least twelve households’ testifies to the extent of Ferrers’ generosity, but also suggests that she had personally identified and invited those families that she perceived to be in need.

12The funeral sermon for Elizabeth Gouge recounts her careful judgement and observance of the plight of the poor. The sermon recalls “her poore Neighbours also, as shee had notice of their need, tasted of her charity”, suggesting that Elizabeth had noted and actively responded to the destitution of those who lived in their parish of St Ann Blackfriars (Guy 46). While Elizabeth’s husband was a prominent preacher, she is here given credit for having agency over her own faith, and for directly choosing to assist their poorer neighbours. Once again Elizabeth is presented as acting out her faith through the way she interacts with her local community. The 1638 funeral sermon for Joice Featly, wife of religious controversialist Daniel Featly, emphasised that her charity was broadly and generously distributed to her neighbours:

the streames of [charity] issued out & dispersed themselves abroad to poore neighbours of all sorts, on every side of her. Divers pensioners she had, that in a constant course received the fruits of her bountie. (Gataker 26)

13In such descriptions charity is given to ‘neighbours’; it is suggested that these women perform their faith by engaging and assisting with the community around them (Chojnacka 83). Joice fitted the archetype of the prominent, pious metropolitan woman involved in both the commercial and religious networks of the city, and had been firmly established within her local community of Kennington for some years (Hubbard 3). The daughter of a mason and citizen of London, Joice married three times: she was widowed by two London merchants before marrying Daniel, the author of the widely used collection of private prayers, Ancilla pietatis, or, The Handmaid to Private Devotion (1626) (Hunt, ODNB). With the wealth accumulated from outliving two husbands, it is notable that Joice owned her own substantial house, and had been providing charitable assistance to the neighbourhood around her house some years before Daniel published his devotional guide to pious living. Featly’s active piety and local charitable provision is accordingly presented as independent of the influence of her clergyman husband. While the local and parish-based charity of notable city women like Featly is presented as widely acknowledged, acting charitably for the sake of their actions being celebrated was discouraged (a sentiment which echoes Matthew 6:2). The sermon at the funeral of Lady Honor Vyner in 1656 stated that she made “Religion the work of her closet” and that “in works of mercy she had an open hand and a tender heart, but yet her charity run with a still and silent stream… What she did in this kind was not to get her self a name but to do the poor good” (Spurtowe, 47). Her daily devotions are described in the same passage as her charity work. While the very act of publishing the funeral sermon would be to cement Lady Vyner’s “good name”, charity work which was performed with humility was particularly lauded.

14Throughout these descriptions, local and parish-based charitable works are presented as a means of women acting out their faith, as a tangible way in which they could express and perform their devout nature. The sermon for Mrs Ellen Hartcourt, who died in the parish of St Andrew Holborn in 1661, recalled “her Charity, her Piety, her Compassion to the Poor, and her Devotion to her God”, stressing that her piety and her charity were closely intertwined. Hartcourt used her final act of charity to provide both for the vulnerable, and the men of the Church, who resided within the boundaries of the parishes in which she had lived and in which she would be buried: she left “five pounds to the Poor of this Parish, wherein she is to be interred, and to the Ministers in these three Places, twenty Shillings a piece.” (Henchman 41). The importance of neighbourliness, and attending to the poor housed within the local parish or a cluster of streets within the City is a key aspect of many narratives of women’s charitable work. The 1658 funeral sermon of Elizabeth Scott noted:

she would not walk London streets long but one of other would come to her begging for an almes…. In cold seasons when it was hard with poor people she would be alwaies a speaking of the sufferings of the poor, that had no fire, or scarce any bread (Case 126).

15It is upon Scott’s walking through the streets of London that she is approached for charitable assistance, and is recorded as stopping to speak with them. These descriptions are specific in nature and suggestive of the desire to move beyond generalised comments on the deceased’s church attendance or knowledge of scripture, with tangible examples of the ways in which these women acted out their faith. They present the desire to leave money to the poor, or to assist in feeding and clothing them, making the clothes themselves or inviting families into their home, as an active decision on the part of the individual woman. By also stressing that these specific occasions are closely interrelated to an individual’s faith, these descriptions present charitable acts such as assisting the poor as a central aspect of women’s active piety and lived religious practice (Allison Barr 315).

Visiting and tending the sick

16As well as assisting the poor by providing money, food, and clothes, women’s piety was expressed through visiting and tending the sick (Rublack 37). When Margaret St John, wife of Sir Alexander St John, died in 1656 her funeral sermon noted “the ministry have lost a judicious Favorer; the Poor a Physician” (Raworth 57). This work is rooted within St John’s local parish of St Leonard’s Shoreditch; her work in visiting and attending the sick (or the sick-poor) was such that she was widely known in the local community as a physician. Alexander was Margaret’s second husband: in similar circumstances to Joice Featly, Margaret already held considerable lands in St Leonard’s and was firmly established within the parish and local neighbourhood before her second marriage. The biographer of the Catholic Countess of Arundel and Surrey stated that she frequently took the sick and dying into her home to care for them at the end of their lives. As part of her charitable endeavours for the “good of souls”, it is stated that she relieved:

many of her poor neighbours in the time especially of their sickness, and of her visiting others in the like occasion. That likewise was the reason of taking in some poor aged people to her hoyse, and there keeping and maintaining them with all things necessary till their death (Fitzalan-Howard, 311-12).

17This likely refers to the Countess’s substantial London home at Arundel House, located between the Strand and the river. Much like Joice Featley’s considerable house in Kennington, and Margaret St John’s house in St Leonard’s Shoreditch, certain houses and individuals within a neighbourhood would have been known for housing the sick and dying, whether their motives for doing so were “for the good of souls”, or as part of parish employment. The funeral sermon of Elizabeth Juxon noted “the sicke had cause to blesse God for her in her health, for she visited them with meate, with bodily presences, with necessarie helpe both by her selfe, and by her maides” (Denison 115). This depiction creates a close connection between Juxon’s charity work and the performance of God’s work. The assistance offered by Juxon involved bringing food to the sick, as well as, along with her servants, providing some form of nursing care to them. The funeral sermon of Elizabeth Gouge noted “for very ready shee was and forward to visite the sicke, and to send them succour” (Guy 46). Mistress Jane Ferrers “was pitifull to the distressed… daily relieving them in all their sicknesse” (Cole A3-A3v). Visiting the sick is an act that would have required devotion and a conscious engagement with the local community. These women would have to know who among their neighbours were sick, and subsequently source and bring appropriate food or medicines, and actively participate in nursing or assisting in that medical care.

18The sermon written for Joice Featly 1638 recorded in some detail the centrality of medical care to her charity work:

And whereas she had pretie skill in matter of Physick and Chirurgerie (as indeed what was she not skilfull in?) in this kind she was exceeding helpful, by Waters and Medicines, as well as advice, to such poore soules as were not able to entertaine Physician, or go to the cost of procuring Physick, being not only as Physician, but as Apothecarie also to them. In regard of which her charitable both disposition and practise, as I doubt not, but that she had the prayers of the poore. (Gataker 27)

19Providing medical care as a charitable act exemplifies Featly’s ownership of her own religious expression (McHugh 434). It is the active decision to use her unique skill in medicine in a charitable way that is used as evidence of her piety (Crawford 275). It is descriptions of these specific acts which demonstrate that funeral sermons were not constrained to generic depictions of the woman’s piety, and sought to draw out recognisable aspects of individuality that the deceased had expressed as part of their religious life. They sought to pick out and focus upon evidence of what that individual woman had done to have ownership over her own religious life, to emphasise what it was about her lived religious practice that was worthy of imitation by others.

20One of the most specifically female expressions of lived religious practice was the assistance given to poor women during childbirth. Three prominent Catholic women in the early seventeenth century: Anne Dacre Lady Howard, the Spanish missionary Luisa de Carvajal, and the celebrated Venetia Digby, are recorded assisting poor women who were in labour on the streets of London. Adulatory accounts of these three women’s lives record that they sought out poor women giving birth in difficult circumstances, in the streets, and even in fields on the outskirts of the city. The biographer of Anne Dacre, who likely recorded Dacre’s life in cooperation with her, called upon ordinary people to “imitate her virtues here” (Fitzalan-Howard 317; White 60). Her biographer sets out a range of her charitable activities as evidence of her piety recording that she was frequently known to “go out of her own house to sick persons who desir’d comfort from her”. Her biographer records one memorable incident in which she walked three miles to the “common open cage of Hammersmith” in order to assist “a poor woman who being in labour… had great need of help”. She reportedly did “stay all the time which was necessary for the relief of that poor woman’s misery… her charitable deeds more commendable at least in the sight of God” (Fitzalan-Howard 309). A vagrancy cage is far removed from the prepared space of the lying-in room (the usual setting for childbirth). As a pious Catholic, Dacre would have performed this “good work” as a means of securing her soul; visiting and assisting this woman can be equated with the corporal works of mercy of visiting the imprisoned or sheltering the homeless (Primer A4).

21When Dacre lived at “Spittle Without Bishopsgate” a similar event is recorded as having taken place. Her biographer recalls that “a poor beggar woman was brought to bed under her garden wall, whom she desir’d after the relief of her pains to be carefull about the Christening of her child”. This suggests that the mother may have gravitated to what would have been a substantial house in search of assistance. Dacre accordingly paid “ten shillings at least, for the christening and burying the beggar’s child… yet she was as willing to pay it as ye Minister receive it, greatly rejoiceing that by her means that innocent soul was safely got to heaven” (Fitzalan-Howard 312-13). Anne assisted women who gave birth in the street, in vagrancy cages, and outside the wall of her own home, and these acts were presented by her biographer as works of mercy and as evidence of her faith. Assisting these women was an important act of charity, yet securing the souls of these infants, and bringing them into the Catholic faith, was presented as an equally important motivation. It is these identifiable and specific acts which Dacre’s biographer has chosen to include as encapsulating her active religious life, and her involvement in assisting the poor of her parish in Bishopsgate.

22The biographer of Luisa de Carvajal, a missionary in London from 1605 until her death in 1614, recorded “She was always on the watch to secure newborn children the benefit of an undoubted admission into God’s Church” (Cruz 241). A later translation of her letters recalls:

[She] used to look out for lying-in women, and offer to pay the expence of the christening, and thus smuggle the child into the kingdom of heaven… she used to go into the fields where poor women were wandering about, just ready to be delivered there, (a common thing in that country) and sometimes she succeeded in converting them, as well as securing the children. (Southey 286)

23Luisa thus would actively seek out and remain with women in labour, with the hope of offering spiritual comfort, but also with the intention of baptising the infant shortly after birth, and thus expanding both the London Catholic community and the “kingdom of heaven”. Seeking out and baptising newborn children was a significant expression of Luisa’s lived religious practice; she saw the performance of “good works” as central to her devotion, but also placed great emphasis upon converting others and bringing them into the Catholic faith.

24In the 1620s, Venetia Digby would, according to her husband, assist women in labour or those who had recently given birth in the streets or at somebody’s door, and bring them into her own house to baptise them. The act of bringing the mother and child into her home was both a charitable act, a corporal work of mercy, and one which was indicative of the need to mark childbirth as a significant religious event. Her husband Kenelm recorded:

[when] any poor unfortunate woman have bin assaulted wth the panges of childbirth as they have gone in the streete, and have bin forced to be delivered at some bodies dore, if it happened to be neere hers… she would not onely send plentifull reliefe to ye distressed mother, but under colour of having the child into her house to warm and dress it, she would have a priest privately christen it, and, in a little time her charity came to be so noted, that my dore was seldom free from such guests.(Gabrieli 126)

25The act of assisting the woman and covertly baptising the child took place within Venetia’s home, to the extent to which that her house became known as a place where women in labour could be assisted, and where Catholic baptism would be performed. Venetia’s door becomes a known focal point for expectant or new mothers, her house becomes a site of charitable assistance, and the rituals that take place within make it similar to a substitute church. These specifically female works of corporal mercy form the central point of descriptions of lives presented as exemplary to the rest of the Catholic community (Bowden 18).

26All three Catholic women are described as either assisting and praying with the mothers, or physically bringing them into the safety of the home, a space that these poor or homeless women would not normally have access to. This assistance, along with the subsequent baptism, acts to ensure that these children are brought into the world in appropriate circumstances. Accordingly both mother and child, at the point of this critical lifecycle event, are, in the eyes of their helpers, brought into the fold of the Catholic Church. For a congregation whose existence was threatened, and for whom access to priests was restricted, every new child born, and each one baptised, would be important. These acts, which took place in the city streets or in the fields outside the city of London, were also highly visible acts of charitable assistance, and highly visible expressions of the lived religious practice of these individual women. Experiencing and assisting with childbirth was a significant display of piety which was focused upon the home and the ordinary streets of London, and the lives, agency, and spirituality of individual women. The biographers of each of these women view assistance in childbirth as a corporal work of mercy particularly worthy of emulation, and perfectly encapsulating their active piety and devotion to the Catholic church.


27This analysis of biographies and funeral sermons of women who lived and died in London between 1600-1660 shows that charitable works, such as feeding and clothing the poor, visiting and tending the sick, and assisting in childbirth, were viewed as particularly pious acts, and as ways in which women exerted ownership over their religious practice. It is these acts, which are portrayed as being performed in addition to routines of church attendance and prayer, which I suggest are important examples of active piety or lived religious practice. They are presented as acts which are instigated by women in response to a specific set of circumstances such as the awareness of neighbours experiencing sickness or hardship, or upon seeking out or being asked to assist women in labour. The descriptions in biographies are also moulded to the unique attributes of these individual women; they emphasise the deployment of proficiency in medicine or skill in garment making, they accentuate the hospitality of these women and dramatise occasions where the poor or hungry were invited into the home.

28While acts of charity were encouraged in Catholic and Protestant prescriptive literature alike, it was the resolve to implement this charity, and to decide who was worthy and how they should be assisted, which is depicted as left to the agency of the women themselves. For the Catholic women discussed, acts such as visiting the sick or sheltering the homeless were viewed as important corporal works of mercy, acts for which plenary indulgences could be granted. While baptising, or facilitating baptism, was not a recognised work of mercy, it was a means of increasing the numbers of and strengthening the London Catholic congregation. These individual women are depicted as going beyond the expected works of mercy; they act out their Catholic faith not just by practically assisting others, but also by saving their souls. Protestant women did not have the same theological impetus to perform such works, but they were nonetheless encouraged to show “Christian Love and Charity towards all Neighbours” (Bayly, 576). It was the personal interpretation of this “Christian Love and Charity” which formed a central part of this lived religious practice. Charitable assistance was an active and visible manifestation of an individual woman’s piety, and was played out in settings that were separate from more official or male-dominated sites of religious practices: not the churches or chapels, but the home, and the streets. These elective charitable works are consequently presented as central to and as an important means of having ownership over one’s faith.

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Emily VINE, « Charitable acts and lived religion in the funeral sermons of early seventeenth-century women »E-rea [En ligne], 18.1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2020, consulté le 06 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Emily VINE
Emily Vine is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of Leeds, currently working on pastoral care and religious dissent in the early modern British Atlantic. In 2019 she was awarded her PhD from Queen Mary University of London, for a thesis which examined domestic religion in early modern London. In the academic year 2018/19 she was a Junior Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.

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