Monday, February 3, 2014

Church activities and saving the harvest

Church activities and the harvest

Niall C.E.J. O'Brien

In a previous article on medieval church feast days we saw how many days in the year were set aside for church holidays in which no work was to be done. [article link = Feast days, church holidays and the market] But sometimes the church had to be flexible on its insistence that people observe the feast days and the dedication days for local churches. Saving the harvest was an especially common reason for moving the dedication dates for churches. 

On 15th June, 1439 the bishop of Exeter changed the date for the dedication of the chapel of St Giles in the Wood. It had originally set for 2nd September. But concerns and petitions were raised about the date. The harvest would still not be finished by the date and could well be lost if the parishioners had to leave the fields to attend church. Bishop Lacy acknowledged that the weather could delay the harvest and so changed the dedication to the Sunday after 15th September. He also granted a confessional indulgence for any parishioner who attended the church before it was dedicated. [G.R. Dunstan (ed.), The Register of Edmund Lacy, bishop of Exeter (Canterbury and York Society, 1966), vol. II, pp. 151-2]

Harvesting in medieval times

This was a wise move as only two years previously the weather was bad and the harvest was delayed. On 25th September, 1437 the bishop instructed the dean of Exeter, the four archdeacons and the bishop’s officials to command that masses be said for favourable weather. A grant of indulgences for forty days was given to anyone who assisted in the processions and for priests singing the mass. [G.R. Dunstan (ed.), The Register of Edmund Lacy, bishop of Exeter (Canterbury and York Society, 1966), vol. II, pp. 67-8]

A few years later on 10th September, 1445 Bishop Lacy directed that the proposed date of dedication for the church of St. Dominic in Cornwall be changed. The original date of 30th August was considered to be too near harvest time and could interfere with the work. The date was therefore brought forward to 9th May with a grant of forty days indulgence. [G.R. Dunstan (ed.), The Register of Edmund Lacy, bishop of Exeter (Canterbury and York Society, 1966), vol. II, p. 336]

It was important for the various parishioners mentioned above to move the dedication date of their local church. If the date was left stand then in every subsequent year the parishioners would have to stop work in the middle of the harvest. And knowing how the luck with weather came be, that day of no work would be the finest day of the year with buckets of rain before and after.

Saving the harvest was also an important consideration for the clergy. Their tithe income depended on a good harvest that was well saved. Even in areas of the country where the tithe had been converted to a cash payment, the farmer would not be in a good position to make that cash payment if the harvest was not saved.

After observing the above occasions when the dedication ceremony for a local church was changed we should not think it strange to see divine service been celebrated in an undedicated church. When the Bishop of Bath and Wells issued his directive in October 1351 to allow William power to celebrate divine service for a year in the chapel of Salty in Pedirtham notwithstanding that the chapel was not dedicated, the deferral of the dedication ceremony may have been due to the harvest time. Yet the deferral could also have been because people were too busy burying the dead during the Black Death. [Thomas Scott Holmes (ed.), The register of Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, 1329-1363 (Somerset Record Society, Vol. 9, 1896), No. 2598]

As with the chapel at Salty, so with many medieval documents, we only get part of the story. It is only by harvesting as many documents as possible and dedicating much writing to their publication do we gain a better understanding of medieval life and the history of those times.


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