The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion After the Black Death

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There was immense social and economic upheaval between the Black Death and the English Reformation, and contemporary writers often blamed this upheaval on immorality, singling out women's behavior for particular censure. Late medieval moral treatises and sermons increasingly connected good behavior for women with Christianity, and their failure to conform to sin. Katherine L. French argues, however, that medieval laywomen both coped with the chaotic changes following the plague and justified their own changing behavior by participating in local religion. Through active engagement in the parish church, the basic unit of public worship, women promoted and validated their own interests and responsibilities.

Scholarship on medieval women's religious experiences has focused primarily on elite women, nuns, and mystics who either were literate enough to leave written records of their religious ideas and behavior or had access to literate men who did this for them. Most women, however, were not literate, were not members of religious orders, and did not have private confessors. As The Good Women of the Parish shows, the great majority of women practiced their religion in a parish church. By looking at women's contributions to parish maintenance, the ways they shaped the liturgy and church seating arrangements, and their increasing opportunities for collective action in all-women's groups, the book argues that gendered behavior was central to parish life and that women's parish activities gave them increasing visibility and even, on occasion, authority. In the face of demands for silence, modesty, and passivity, women of every social status used religious practices as an important source of self-expression, creativity, and agency.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Contains a wealth of interesting detail, much of it culled from those churchwardens' account that had begun to be kept in the fourteenth century. Women themselves might act as churchwardens, but as French makes abundantly clear throughout her book, such a role was only one among many that women in the late English medieval parish might exercise. French may not with to argue that the Reformation was 'bad' for women, but she does make it clear that thereafter women had to learn—the phrase is hers—quite a new 'vocabulary of piety.'"—Journal of British Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812240535
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/30/2007
  • Series: The Middle Ages Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Katherine L. French is Associate Professor of History, State University of New York, New Paltz. She is the author of The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese, also published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures     ix
Introduction     1
"My Wedding Gown to Make a Vestment": Housekeeping and Churchkeeping     17
Hatched, Matched, and Dispatched: Life Cycles and the Liturgy     50
"My Pew in the Middle Aisle": Women at Mass     85
Maidens' Lights and Wives' Stores: Women's Parish Groups     118
"To Save Them from Binding on Hock Tuesday": The Rise of a Women's Holiday     157
A Cross Out of Bread Crumbs: Women's Piety and Impiety     180
Epilogue: Women and the Reformation     223
All-Women's Groups     231
Hocktide Celebrations     233
List of Abbreviations     235
Notes     237
Bibliography     299
Index     323
Acknowledgments     335
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