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Popular Ecclesiology in the Pre-Reformation : Reading the Pattern of Recourse to Church Courts

Tyler Lange


Étudier le recours aux tribunaux ecclésiastiques éclaire comment les chrétiens tardo-médiévaux pensaient l’Église. Le choix de défendeurs, de crimes et de sanctions leur a permis de définir les critères d’appartenance à la communauté. Dans le cas de l’excommunication pour dettes, le recours à des excommunications procédurales annoncées du jubé pendant le prône facilitait l’exclusion des débiteurs des communautés sacramentelle et économique. Ne pas payer les dettes était un acte contre charité parce qu’on a eu de la peine à distinguer les deux communautés – au moins jusque vers 1500.

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1When using the law as an approach to studying religion, the temptation is to turn to legal doctrine, relatively easily accessible in authoritative texts and commentaries, rather than to legal practice. Late medieval legal doctrine can tell us something about late medieval religious culture, but late medieval legal practice – above all in church courts – can tell us a good deal more about late medieval religious culture, specifically about how late medieval believers imagined the Church. The following article will propose some hypotheses about popular ecclesiology on the basis of liturgical experience and on patterns of recourse to ecclesiastical tribunals.

2To modern eyes, the late medieval rood screens that demarcate the choirs of cathedrals and parish churches with various degrees of opacity seem designed to exclude believers from participation in or even clear view of the religious services conducted largely within the enclosure. What we tend to forget, looking at these screens with Tridentine or post-Vatican II eyes, is that they could in fact bring believers closer to the Eucharist in at least two ways, closer in fact than to a distant, baroque altar screened by an iron grille rather than by a stone or wooden wall. It is not just that « squints » or peep-holes frequently permitted believers to glimpse the elevation through a screen or chancel wall. Depending on the number and alignment of openings, rood screens could host one, two, or more altars. These altars, often later removed (whether or not the screen itself was preserved), were immediate to those gathered outside the choir enclosure. Jacqueline Jung has demonstrated that choir screens were less barriers than « bridges » and « frames » that could channel the gaze of believers towards the high altar [Jung 2013]. Of course, although the clergy could bodily pass through screens while the laity remained outside, « people on each side of this social divide knew that they needed each other » : layfolk supported the Church materially and clergy made available the means of salvation [Jung 2013, p. 7]. If screens were intended to « not only to control laypeople but also to more fully integrate them into the life of Mater ecclesia », their use reflected « communication rather than conflict » and « community rather than hierarchy » [Jung 2013, p.6]. It is, however, necessary to qualify Jung’s essentially positive appraisal of choir screens as engines of integration, for they could also be engines of exclusion. Screens facilitated not just ocular communion but judicial pronouncements.

3The connection between choir and nave was not only visual but aural, and that not only through the congregation’s overhearing the Latin of the mass or Office. The prayers following the Gospel and preceding the offertory known as the Bidding of Bedes in English and as the prône in French are understudied [e.g. in Fogel 1989], given their importance in lay experience of the mass. For when the priest came to the screen and turned to the people following the Gospel reading, he spoke primarily in the vernacular. Sources collected by participants in the twentieth century Catholic Liturgical Movement clarify the content of the bidding prayers or prône [Jungmann 1951-1955, p. 486-490 ; Molin and Maertens 1961]. For instance, the « commandemens pour les dimenches » or « preces que dicuntur in die dominica ad populum post offertorium » following a formula of general confession attributed to Jean Gerson in the Manuale parisiense published in 1497 [f. N iv c vo-O ii ro] are strikingly similar to the « Prosne pour les jours des saints dimanches » followed by the formula of general confession prescribed by the Cardinal de Retz’s Rituale parisiense of 1646 [p. 452-497]. The Parisian forms strongly resemble the bidding prayers of the Sarum-rite Processional printed at Rouen in 1555 or those from the province of York given in the nineteenth-century edition of the Lay-Folks’ Mass-Book [The Psalms 1852, p. 9-11 ; Simmons 1879, p. 62-80]. Each Sunday the priest therefore offered not just prayers for rulers and benefactors and perhaps some catechization but vernacular pronouncements of a more legal tenor : he announced all feasts and fasts in the coming week, read out synodal statutes and banns of marriage and ordination, cited believers before decanal, archdiaconal, or diocesan officialities, denounced excommunicates, and warned parishioners to pay their debts or to denounce what they knew of a particular crime on pain of excommunication. Bidding prayers permit us to discern how ecclesiastical jurisdiction operated through the parish priest.

4Although secular laws, such as tax edicts, were publicized from choir screens, I would like to focus on the pronouncements of ecclesiastical courts for the good reason that these had everything to do with believers’ participation in the sacraments. The judges or officials to whom prelates wielding powers of jurisdiction had delegated the day-to-day administration of their judicial functions acted as gatekeepers to the sacraments and therefore to membership in the Body of Christ. Pierrette Paravy has claimed that the Eucharist was less a sacrament of community than a privilege granted by a legal authority because so many late medieval residents of the Dauphiné had been excommunicated for their debts [Paravy 1983, p. 751]. In her view, the « tight imbrication of spiritual and temporal matters » through the practice of excommunication for debt « forced the Church to make itself the guarantor of social order by mortgaging the conditions of eternal salvation of those whom it was called to save » [Paravy 1983, p. 484]. Perhaps the line between the spiritual and the temporal was drawn differently, as I shall argue below ? In any case, while it is not exactly original to speak of the juridicization of the late medieval Christian experience – turning a believer into a legal subject and transforming sins into offenses, as Laurent Mayali has described it [2008, p. 165], is not so far from Martin Luther’s critique – the way in which legal categories and procedures influenced religious practice in profound and wide-ranging ways is evident even in the liturgical arena, where the only vernacular portion of the mass could be spent reading out judicial documents. So in 1446 the curé of Varces in the Dauphiné declared to the bishop « that he spent most of his time at mass reading sentences [of excommunication] » [Paravy 1983, p. 463]. In this way, the liturgy could be experienced as being oriented towards the practice of the church courts. The sacrifice of the mass that began after the bidding prayers or prône was certainly offered for the dead and the living mentioned named in the priest’s petitions but also, in some sense, for the damnation of the excommunicates denounced by name.

5The choir screen therefore certainly served as a bridge between clergy and laity, between choir and nave, but also between liturgy and the judicial forum. Indeed, choir screens and officialities are nearly coeval : both spread across Europe from c. 1200 and reflected the initiatives to control and to integrate the laity of the Fourth Lateran Council. Both also responded to popular demand, in the case of officialities initially for the ratification of written contracts and later for the posterior ratification of unwritten contracts [Guyotjeannin 1991 ; Bourlet and Claustre 2011]. But we would be mistaken to attribute the juridicization of religious life solely to the initiatives of the clergy and in particular to those of the upper clergy. Nor did juridicization necessarily deaden religious life. Just as pastoral imperatives drove the « Gregorian » reformers, so did they drive the elaboration of classical canon law. If the result of earlier reforms was to institutionalize and to juridicize the Church, perhaps that was a precondition for the radical experiments of the friars and others. As Robert Brentano has suggested, institutionalization allowed for « the freedom to live a life of imaginative Christ-like charity » [Brentano 1994, p. 312]. Institutionalization offered layfolk a new method of defining the Church. Accordingly, how layfolk chose to avail themselves of the procedures of church courts manifests popular ecclesiology.

6The practice of church courts bears the imprint of the popular conception of the Church because there was no forum internum in the modern sense, that is, no secret confessional sphere entirely divorced from the practice of ecclesiastical courts. Instead, as Wolfgang Müller has argued, prior to the Council of Trent : « [t]he division between the two formats of ecclesiastical jurisdiction was not yet characterized by the criteria of private versus public scrutiny, and the penitential forum still processed information about canonical defects that did not have to be scrupulously guarded by confessors, but could be addressed alternatively in collective cleansing rituals, or constitute common lore among the faithful » [2015, p. 908]. The criterion was in fact one of proof : « late medieval penitential jurisdiction included public as well as secret allegations and was occult in the sense of providing inadequate evidence for ecclesiastical judges in the judicial sphere » [Müller 2015, p. 908 ; see too Fossier 2018]. As Shannon McSheffrey and Tiffany Vann Sprecher have also shown, fama, communal repute often enunciated by elite males, determined which sins were public and which sins were private [McSheffrey 2006; Sprecher 2016]. « Pastoral handbooks », Müller writes, « regularly speak of cases as ‘occult’ when a minimum of two or three knowing witnesses was not to be had » [2015, p. 909]. Such considerations suggest why certain cases appear, primarily in England, to be presentments of canonical juries and others appear, more often on the continent, to be ex officio prosecutions [Helmholz 2003 ; Poos 2001, p. lx-lxi ; Baumgartner 1965, p. 153-154] : they may have represented accusations that did not cross the probative threshold from the forum poenitentiae to the forum contentiosum.

7Too often, historians who read the records of church courts fail to consider who initiated cases and why. Perhaps the business of ecclesiastical tribunals reflected demand as much as the initiatives of various ecclesiastical authorities ? Breaking with this tendency, Sara McDougall has examined how prosecutions for bigamy reflected sincere lay demand to partake of sacramental marriage, a wish at odds with the economic realities of daily life for many [McDougall 2012]. Similarly, Tiffany Vann Sprecher has shown how layfolk used the archidiaconal officiality of Paris to enforce clerical celibacy [Sprecher 2016; also McSheffrey 2007]. Patterns of recourse to church courts convey something of lay conceptions of the Church and its ministers, including the conviction that priests should live continently : « [t]he charge of scandal and injunctions against priests allowing women in their homes placed a great deal of power in the hands of local communities. Any domestic contact between a priest and a woman made both vulnerable to the judgement of parishioners, who were empowered by the ecclesiastical bureaucracy – at least tacitly – to employ extreme measures to regulate the behaviour of alleged offenders » [Sprecher 2016, p. 17]. Indeed, priests themselves had recourse to church courts – at times against themselves ! Jean-Georges Vondrus-Reissner has calculated that half of priests prosecuted for crimes or negligence concerning the Eucharist before the archdiaconal officiality of Paris in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century had turned themselves in [1988, p. 46]. The profound reverence for the Eucharist – linked without a doubt to an equally profound sense of the necessity of valid, reverently performed sacraments for salvation – demonstrated by this appears to have been shared equally among clergy and laity.

8Vondrus-Reissner consequently advises that we need not see « the Inquisition » behind every criminal prosecution : « on the contrary it is the passive role of the officiality that explains the large proportion of assaults, slander, and even partly with respect to court business concerning women, the plaintiff reclaiming her dowry, the custody of a child, etc., that brought the prosecutor (promoteur) to initiate a criminal case » [1988, p. 45]. Demand drove the functioning of church courts. As described by Sprecher, because « the archidiaconal court circumscribed parishioners’ actions by punishing those who broke into priests’ homes without justification or assaulted priests [but] offered fewer protections to the women involved », « the legal apparatus of the Church condoned and appropriated violent and humiliating actions directed largely against women as an instrument of surveillance and enforcement of its laws » [Sprecher 2016, p. 17]. This, together with such behavior as the prosecution of priests for failing to baptise an infant before its death or for admitting an excommunicated debtor to the Eucharist suggest that it was not pure utility or bloody-mindedness that drove litigants towards ecclesiastical justice but ideals of the ecclesial community. Patterns of recourse to church courts reflected how layfolk imagined the Church.

9Priests knew that and flouted mandates of excommunication in cases where they doubted the justice of the claim : « the admission of excommunicates to the Eucharist… was not rare », because « it constituted less a lack of respect for the Eucharist than a kick in the teeth to whomever had requested the excommunication » [Vondrus-Reissner 1988, p. 42]. Excommunication is particularly important here, as it connected access to the Eucharist with the mechanisms of ecclesiastical courts, thereby revealing how believers used procedural excommunications to define the sacramental community. This conception of the sacramental community was broader, richer than ours : the frequency of excommunication for debt confirms this. By choosing whom to excommunicate and for what, late medieval Christians chose how to define their communitites.

10Véronique Beaulande and others have demonstrated the frequency of procedural excommunications in the late Middle Ages [Beaulande 2006]. Excommunication was almost exclusively incurred for contumacy, for failure to respond to a summons or comply with a court order, than assigned as a punishment. Definitive judgments most commonly punished with fines. For instance, although the self-denouncing priests mentioned above were often imprisoned during trial, they were punished with stiff fines of 4 to 6 écus, the value of sixty masses or two months’ income for many of them [Vondrus-Reissner 1988, p. 48]. What this means is that i) priests often came to the choir screen to announce excommunications and that ii) the vast majority of these were procedural. My own study of excommunications for debt in late medieval France demonstrates that iii) the majority of excommunications, particularly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, probably came in cases of debt and that iv) this means that the majority of excommunications were requested by other believers. What are the records of such excommunications ? Here is one of 1525 from the parish of Harfleur in the exempt jurisdiction of the Abbess of Montivilliers : « Éliot Passilly is excommunicated for a judgment of the sum of 15 livres tournois in one instance and of 2 écus each worth 39 sous tournois in another at the request of Jean Canal on the third day of September (Heliotus passilly exc[ommunicatus] pro judicato somme xv #t ex una et duorum scutorum auri valoris pro pecia xxxix st in alia partibus contra johannem canal de die 3a mensis septembris) ». This is an unusually large sum, but otherwise typical.

11I have examined more than 11,000 such cases and elsewhere described the procedures that led to them [Lange 2016]. Passilly was one of 28 excommunications in Harfleur and one of 82 excommunicated in the exemption of Montivilliers that (Paschal) year. These figures are a decline from figures of 62 and 197, respectively, in 1500 – a significant point to which I will return. Harfleur was not particularly popular or prosperous in this period, but a declining center of cloth manufacture and trade depopulated by the silting up of its harbor and by the success of its newly-founded adjacent competitor, Le Havre [Mollat 1952 ; Arnoux and Bottin 2001]. The exemption of Montivilliers was not particularly populous either, covering thirteen mostly rural parishes. These excommunications would have been notable in a small population, but also because they would have been announced by the priest each Sunday during the prône before he began the canon of the mass, its most assiduously frequented portion.

12But why excommunicate one’s debtors ? It could be a question of the cheapness and efficacy of church courts or of their lighter standards of proof. This doubtless played a part in driving cases of debt toward ecclesiastical tribunals. Paying a summoner to mumble a citation into his sleeve or failing to pay a debt recorded by an ecclesiastical judge or notary would swiftly result in an excommunication by default, particularly since many contracts collapsed the first, second, third, and peremptory warning to pay on pain of excommunication into one warning, then and there, « ex nunc prout ex tunc ». Failure to pay resulted in a default judgment and excommunication : « excommunicatus pro judicato summe… ». Ecclesiastical courts could also be laxer about the proof needed to initiate a case, reflecting the principle (C. 22 q. 5 c. 12) : « the Lord wishes there to be no difference between our word and an oath (Dominus inter iuramentum et loquelam nostram nullam vult esse distantiam) », the history of which Peter Landau [2003] has traced. In contrast, the very few monetary cases that were fully litigated could involve months-long, drawn-out disputes over the probative value of quittances and accounts. As a result, each year in the early sixteenth century the officiality of Montivilliers issued three to five final judgments (sententiae diffinitivae) in debt cases and roughly two hundred excommunications, more than two thirds of which were in cases of debt. But perhaps there was something more, a more principled stance about the use of excommunication against debtors ? After all, the median amounts at issue were generally small : 10 sous tournois in the sub-decanal officiality of Chartres between 1380 and 1436, 4 sous parisis (5 sous tournois) in the archidiaconal officiality of Paris between 1426 and 1439, and 40 sous tournois between 1433 and 1463 and 30 sous tournois between 1499 and 1530 at the abbatial officiality of Montivilliers. These sums represent something like from 5 to 15 days’ wages at local rates for unskilled laborers in the periods concerned.

13Did excommunication for debt instead respond to creditors’ malice ? Perhaps in part, as elaborate liturgical curses accompanied the aggravation and reaggravation of excommunications but not the priest’s initial, dry pronouncement from the chancel. These ceremonies offered creditors a spectacular and gradated way to announce the end of a relationship. As Laurence Fontaine, Chris Briggs, and others have noted, debt signified that one belonged to a community bound up in multisided, repeated relations of lending and borrowing [Fontaine 2008 ; Briggs 2009]. To cease to lend or to borrow to someone, to cease to allow him to purchase or to sell on credit, was to exclude that person from that community. Given the dearth of hard cash, the difficulty of acquiring it in small denominations, and the consequent distrust of small change in the late Middle Ages [Sargent and Velde 2002 ; Smail 2016, p. 89-135], that exclusion was particularly perilous for one’s economic health. For this reason, one finds occasional cascades of excommunications for debt in registers of excommunications when creditors i) ceased to lend to a particular person and ii) called in outstanding debts so as to drive him to the cessio bonorum whereby he renounced his property to his creditors in hopes of the absolution that alone could restore a chance at salvation.

14It may seem disproportionate to us that unpaid small debts could lead to what one would imagine to be the worst of outcomes for a late medieval believer : exclusion from the sacraments and the consequently real possibility of eternal damnation. There were indeed common formulas for deathbed absolutions of excommunicates or for burying an excommunicate who had died unabsolved in consecrated ground. It must also be said that sacramental practice was uneven. The twenty-first canon of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215, included at X.5.38.12) provided that « Every believer of either sex, after he or she shall have reached the age of discretion, shall faithfully confess as his or her sins at least once per year to his or her parish priest and endeavor personally to carry out the prescribed penance, reverently receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist at least at Easter (Omnis utriusque sexus fidelis, postquam ad annos discretionis pervenerit, omnia sua solus peccata altem semel in anno fideliter confiteatur proprio sacerdoti : et iniunctam sibi poenitentiam propriis viribus studeat adimplere, suscipiens reverenter ad minus in Pascha Eucharistiae sacramentum) ». Temporary excommunication might be less terrifying outside of Lent (which nevertheless saw a spike in excommunications [Lange 2016, p. 174]), unless one planned to die. All one had to do for absolution was pay up or work out a new payment plan with the creditor, as the thirteenth-century canonist Guillaume Durand advised (reflecting Dig. : « satisfaction is whatever the creditor should wish (satisfacere enim est, sicut voluerit creditor) » [Durand 1574, bk. IV, pt. III, p. 361, n. 8].

15Recourse to so grave a sanction against defaulting debtors illuminates how late medieval believers conceived of the Church, of the proper function of its courts, and of the overlap between the economic and the religious community. It suggests that the latter distinction was relatively foreign to popular understandings of what we might call market behavior and religious practice. Because salvation was at issue every day in every action, credit activity and salvation were intimately related. Just as the much discussed issue of usury threatened creditors with damnation if they did not return their male ablata, so unpaid debts could threaten debtors with damnation if they did not somehow satisfy their creditors. As Gerson’s formula for general confession preceding the bidding prayers of the Paris Manuale advised : « Bonnes gens payez voz droictures » [1498, f. N iv c vo]. Why ? The prohibition of usury confirms that lending was in some sense seen as a charitable duty. Yes, lending created lines of dependency, but these could also strengthen debtors socially and economically. Having « credit » with someone was a form of social power. Those who could not borrow were weak. More importantly, given the dearth of small change (and distrust of it), most people were often debtors and creditors at the same time. Even if rich, one probably still bought bread on credit and reckoned up periodically, even as one disbursed coins, goods, services, or debts to one’s protégés. Although it is hard for us to image, excommunication for debt was just for the same reason that usury was unjust : both were sins against charity.

16Charity is a difficult word. How could excommunication for debt be considered charitable ? To us, charity means religiously or ethically motivated dispensations to the poor or disadvantaged, particularly to the « deserving poor ». It could mean this as well in the Middle Ages [Rubin 1987], although such activity was directed more at salvation than beneficence. For instance, the confraternities known as caritates or charités in Normandy combined charity-as-the Christians' communal banquet and charity-as-alms or charity-as-burial of the dead yet, in contrast to present-day Norman charités, which focus on burial, late medieval charités performed the charitable work of admonishing community members to pray for the dying and the dead – and to prepare themselves for their own end [Segalen 1975 ; Cosset 1999]. Good works were not the primary medieval meaning of caritas. Appropriately, Rainaldo da Piperno’s Supplement (q. xxi, art. iii) to St Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologiae asks « whether anyone should be excommunicated for inflicting temporal harm » ? The response is that, if at first it seems that such a punishment would exceed the fault, « the measure of fault is not measured by the extent of the damage someone does, but by the will with which someone does it, acting against charity. Wherefore, though the punishment of excommunication may exceed the harm done, it does not exceed the measure of fault (culpae quantitas non mensuratur ex nocumento quod quis facit, sed ex voluntate qua quis facit, contra caritatem agens. Et ideo quamvis poena excommunicationis excedat nocumentum, non tamen excedit quantitatem culpae) » [Aquinas 1906, vol. XII, p. 43]. What then did it mean to act « contra caritatem » ?

17Du Cange's Lexicon of Medieval Latin gives thirteen primary definitions or examples of caritas, all extensions of the first sense of the « Christians' love-banquet (agape Christianorum) » [Du Cange 1883-7, s.v. caritas]. Yet caritas/agape was not only (and metaphorically) the acts – the love-banquet, the kiss of peace, or the alms – that manifested « the love of God for man and of man for God » ; more properly, it was « the love of God and of each other binding the Christians » [Liddell and Scott 1996, p. 6, suppl. p. 2 ; Lampe 1972, p. 7-8]. That said, the fourth of Du Cange’s definitions most illuminates the Supplementum : « what is freely given, not because it is owed or because it is customary (Quod gratis conceditur, non vero ex debito, vel consuetudine) ». This could refer to putatively gratuitous gifts from subject to lord or prelate, as in some of Du Cange's examples. It could also refer rather to the interest-free loans that manifested the spirit of gratuitous exchange that was to animate transactions between Christians. Did not the Gospel advise : « freely ye have received, freely give (gratis accepistis, gratis date) » (Mt 10:8) ? Or : « lend, hoping for nothing again (mutuum date nihil inde sperantes) » (Lc 6:35) ? More strongly, because mutua were cash loans, one could instead render the Vulgate as « give interest-free cash loans » or even « sell readily on credit ». This permits us to re-read the passage from the Supplementum as justifying excommunication for debt. If we think of credit and debt less in terms of investment than in terms of sales credit, the sales credit necessarily and gratuitously – without interest – extended in an agrarian economy of notably discontinuous, even volatile income, we can understand how the failure to pay back a debt or somehow to satisfy the creditor might be considered a crime against charity, both by ecclesiastical judges and by the believers who sought the remedies of church courts. It was just to repay debts because they reflected a moral obligation originating in a putatively gratuitous issue of credit. Whatever the truth of this ideal, it reflected a world in which most if not all were simultaneously debtor and creditor. It reflected a world in which the community trading in the market and the sacramental community gathered in the church coincided. The frequency of excommunication for debt confirms that this broad interpretation of charity was widely shared – for a time.

18My own research reveals a rise and fall of the practice of excommunication for debt – a rise and fall that correspond to shifts in popular conceptions of the Church. Excommunications for debt were most frequent in the fifteenth century, in some places around the middle of the century and in others towards 1500. What is interesting is that the frequency of the procedure diminished from c. 1500, whether in France, in England [Helmholz 1987], more unevenly in the Empire [Baumgartner 1965 ; Elsener 1968 ; Hashagen 1916], and perhaps in Spain and Italy [Tejada y Ramiro 1855, vol. 5, p. 107 ; Le Plat 1781-7, vol. 4, p. 617, 759, 762]. In other words, from the end of the fifteenth century, creditors chose less and less frequently to avail themselves of ecclesiastical sanctions against lay debtors. They continued to use church courts against the clerics in major orders who alone could claim benefice of clergy where this remained available. They also, in a turn particularly pronounced in France, deployed warnings on pain of excommunication increasingly against thieves over the course of the sixteenth century. But why did they turn away from excommunication for debt? My claim is that the changing pattern of recourse to ecclesiastical sanctions represents a shift in popular ecclesiology. This shift was twofold, transforming ideas both of the proper competence of the Church’s courts and of the sacramental community, and occurred well before Martin Luther had his breakthrough or conceived of breaking with Rome. From c. 1500, creditors began to feel that debt should no longer be a matter for church courts. Notably, this shift does not correspond precisely to legislative initiatives, for it postdates the Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire in England and predates the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts (1539) in France. With respect to the community, the growing desuetude of excommunication for debt may signal a growing sense of the autonomy of economic behavior. This tentative change in outlook may reflect Johann Eck’s case for the contractus trinus at the time of the Fifth Lateran Council or the growing need to trade with unbelievers on account of Europe’s expansion into Africa, Asia, and America. Europe’s confessional splintering encouraged such an attitude that bracketed, if only tentatively, the economic from the religious. Likewise Protestant theologians’ arguments for lending at limited, “Christian” interest rates [e.g. Luther 1888, p. 58]. For Catholics, one finds fewer and fewer prosecutions of usurers – or debtors – as such questions retreated to a forum internum increasingly clearly demarcated after the Council of Trent [Decock 2013], a progenitor of business ethics [Prodi 2009].

19The eventual privatization of religious ethics did not come immediately. In the early Protestant Reformation, one finds attempts to redraw the boundaries of the community in a new manner by new authorities. For instance, in 1524 the Augsburg weaver Utz Richsner published a pamphlet that included a new view of Matthew 18, one of the major source texts for the power of the keys. Matthew 18 : 15-17 provides that « Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone : if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained they brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church (Si peccaverit in te frater tuus, vade, et corripe eum inter te, et ipsum solum : si te audierit, lucratus eris fratrum tuum. Si autem te non audierit, adhibe tecum adhuc unum, vel duos, ut in ore duorum, vel trium testium stet omne verbum. Quod si non audierit eos : dic ecclesiae. Si autem ecclesiam non audierit, sit tibi sicut ethnicus et publicanus) ». This passage traditionally justified the fraterna correctio and denunciatio evangelica by which ecclesiastical tribunals functioned : Nicholas of Lyra’s fourteenth-century gloss to Matthew 18 : 17 consequently explains the phrase « dic ecclesiae » : « that is, to the prelate through public denunciation (Id est, praelato per denunciationem publicam) » [Lyra 1603, vol. 5, col. 306, n.6]. Of « sit tibi sicut ethnicus », Lyra remarked : « that is, be he cast out from the other believers through excommunication and ecclesiastical censure (Id est, separetur ab aliis fidelibus per excommunicationem et censuram ecclesiasticam) » [Lyra 1603, vol. 5, col. 306, n. 8]. Matthew 18 : 18 continued « Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven : and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Amen dico vobis, quaecumque alligaveritis super terram, erunt ligata et in coelo : et quaecunque solveritis super terram, erunt soluta et in coelo) ». If one understood those future perfects as simple futures in accordance with late medieval popular Pelagianism, the passage seemed to suggest that ecclesiastical judges opened and closed the gates of heaven in response to the wishes of creditors.

20Protestant soteriology implied both a new ecclesiology and a new interpretation. Richsner consequently translated the passage : « If your brother sins, reprove him alone. If he will not accept it, take two others with you. If he still scorns you, accuse him before the congregation or the church (Sündiget deyn Bruoder / so straff in allain / nymt er es aber nit an nymm noch zwen zuo dir / verachtet ers abermals / so verklage jnen vor der gemain oder kirchen) » [Richsner 1524, sig. A iii vo, Robert Bast’s translation]. Robert Bast has pointed out that « from this simple system for the maintenance of personal relationships within a Christian congregation, Richsner builds something more : a platform on which the commons can call to account both their clerical and political overlords » [Bast 2015]. Richsner does this not just by suppressing the words « against thee (an dir) » but by playing upon the equivocacy of the verb strafen (to rebuke or to punish) and the nominalized adjective gemeine (congregation or commune, Gk. ekklesia). In Bast’s view, recasting a directive for personal relationships into a tool for policing sin, wherever it is seen, was revolutionary in the Augsburg of 1524 because it implied that the ungodly, i.e. unreformed, magistrates should be turned out along with the Fugger-funded friar preaching against the evangelicals. When the Augsburg Council expelled the evangelical friar Johann Schilling, this spirit exploded into revolt on August 6. Although mercenaries suppressed this uprising, the Peasants’ War, the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster, and the communal experiments of the Bohemian Brethren illustrate how popular understandings of the ecclesiastical community could shape practices of community. In the religious traditions descended from the Radical Reformation, the « Bann », excommunication as social shunning rather than as sacramental exclusion, remains important.

21How one excommunicated reflected how one conceived of the Church. What I have tried to demonstrate in this article is that late medieval Christians appear largely to have gotten the late medieval Church’s message until the last decade or so of the fifteeenth century. In what appears to be a Reformation before the Reformation, changing patterns of recourse to church courts imply a corresponding shift in popular visions of what the Church should be and what its courts should be doing. There was as yet no new soteriology : sacraments still defined the community and alone offered a path to salvation ; religious life was still defined by its juridical tenor. It has long been remarked that the psalm-singing of French Calvinists marked not just new beliefs about salvation but new ways of living the Church. We had better pay more attention to how late medieval Christians lived their Church, indeed how late medieval Christians litigated their Church. As an examination of just what was transmitted in the prône suggests, the mass was not only a force for social integration, as in the pioneering work of John Bossy [1983 and 1985]. It was also a force for exclusion. Alongside the pax there was the prône, with its announcements of those expelled from the community of salvation. Yet the liturgy was a force for exclusion only because of how believers chose to use the procedures of church courts. Examining the practice of late medieval church courts affords us a unique, precious insight into lived ecclesiology in the years immediately prior to the Reformation.

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Tyler Lange, « Popular Ecclesiology in the Pre-Reformation : Reading the Pattern of Recourse to Church Courts »ThéoRèmes [En ligne], 18 | 2022, mis en ligne le 30 novembre 2022, consulté le 24 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Tyler Lange

University of Washington

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