Going to the Fraternity Feast: Commensality and Social Relations in Late Medieval England

by Gervase Rosser
Going to the Fraternity Feast: Commensality and Social Relations in Late Medieval England
Gervase Rosser
The Journal of British Studies
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Going to the Fraternity Feast: Commensality and Social Relations in Late Medieval England

Gervase Rosser

In the history of medieval ideas about community, a prominent place must be accorded to the fraternity, or guild. This type of volun- tary association, found throughout medieval Europe, frequently ap- plied to itself the name of cornmunitas. The community of the guild was not, however, a simple phenomenon; it invites closer analysis than it has yet received. As religious clubs of mostly lay men and (often) women, the fraternities of medieval Christendom have lately been a favored subject among students of spirituality.' Less interest, however, has recently been shown in the social aspects of the guild^.^ One reason for this neglect may be precisely the communitarian em- phasis in the normative records of these societies, which most late twentieth-century historians find unrealistic and, perhaps, faintly em- barrassing. But allowing, as it must be allowed, that medieval society was not the Edenic commune evoked in fraternity statutes, the social historian is left with some substantial questions concerning these orga- nizations, whose number alone commands attention: fifteenth-century

GERVASE is a fellow and tutor in history at St. Catherine's College, Oxford.

ROSSER For her helpful comments on the first draft of this essay the author is grateful to Jane Garnett.

' See notablv Le movement confraternel all Moven-Age. Collection de 1'Ecole fran-


~aise de Rome, vol. 97 (1987); G. G. Meersseman, Ordo Fraternitatis, 3 vols., Italia Sacra, xxiv-xxvi (Rome, 1977). The sole monograph on the English guilds (H. F. West- lake, Tlze Parish Gilds of Mediaeval England [London, 19191) gives priority to their "spiritual" aspect.

'See, however, E. Coornaert, "Les ghildes mkdikvales (Ve-XIVe sikcle). Dkfini- tion. Evolution," Revue historique 199 (1948): 22-25, 208-43; 0.G. Oexle, "Gilden als soziale Gruppen in der Karolingerzeit," in Das Handwerk in vor- und frulzgesclziclzt- lichen Zeit, vol. 1, ed. H. Jankuhn et al., Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaf- ten in Gottingen, Philologisch-Historische Klasse, Dritte Folge, nr. 122 (Gottingen, 1981), pp. 284-354; and S. Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Medievul Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford, 1984), pp. 67-78.

Journal of British Studies 33 (October 1994): 430-446 01994 by The North American Conference on British Studies. All rights reserved. 0021-937119413304-0005$01.00

England probably contained 30,000 guilds.' Why were so many people eager to pay subscriptions-which, though usually modest, were not insignificant-to be admitted as "brothers" and "sisters" of one or more fraternities? Who attended guild meetings, and what did they hope to achieve by doing so? What social realities gave rise to the common language of equal brotherhood? This essay is intended to shed some light on these questions by focusing on what for every guild was the event which above all gave it visible definition: the annual celebration of the patronal feast day. Within this theme the central object of concern will be, not the fraternity mass in the guild chapel (itself a rich subject for study), but the communal meal which, on a large or small scale, was generally held on the same occasion.

Feasting and drinking were in the Middle Ages regarded as defin- ing activities of the guilds. According to a phrase found in several places at the period, the members of such a society at Winchester in the twelfth century were said to gather at a certain place to "drink their g~ild."~

A clerical opponent of fraternities in the thirteenth century caustically remarked that, "if it were not for the feasting, few or none would comeH5-a remark which cut less deeply than intended, since it deliberately underestimated the significance, for the diners, of the meal itself. It does indeed appear that all fraternities, so far as possible, held annual dinners for their memberships. Some might settle for a communal drinking, but most contrived to lay on food in some guise, whether humble bread and cheese or a feast of many dishes after the fashion of the aristocracy. "Bread sharer" was an active meaning of the word "companion" (from cum pane) in late medieval England,6 and the common repast was a normal way to give tangible expression to the companionship of the guild. By its participants, the fraternity banquet was commonly described as being intended "for the promo- tion of love and charity among the members."' There is no reason not to accept such statements as expressing the perceived purpose of the

'This total would represent, on average, three associations in each of 8,000 or 9,000 parishes. The distribution of fraternities was in fact uneven, their concentration being greater in the more commercialized and urbanized areas, but the overall estimate of 30,000 remains realistic. See G. Rosser, "Medieval English Guilds, 900-1600" (Oxford University, Oxford, in preparation).

M. Biddle, ed., Winchester in the Early Middle A~es, Winchester Studies (Oxford, 1976), 1:34, 335. 'P. Michaud-Quantin, Universitas: Expressions du mouvenzent confraternel dans

le Moyen Axe (Paris, 1970), p. 188. oxford English ~ictionhr~, l(c);Middle

2d ed. (Oxford, 1989), s.v. "companion," English Dictionary (Oxford, 1956-), ss.vv. "compaignable" (a) and "compaignie," l(b).'For example, Public Record Office (PRO), C471421227: the guild of All Saints, Buxton (Norfolk), founded in 1384-85.

guild dinner: this waJ, for contemporaries, its most evident rationale. But at the same time, the historian may sense that more complex processes were also at work. The discussion of such processes calls for great care. In accordance with a fashionable tendency in historical writing, the formal dinner invites classification as a "ritual." However, the concept of ritual is less helpful here than it may at first appear, insofar as the term has come regularly to be used to describe events in which is allegedly enacted the resolution of social conflicts.' Particu- larly dangerous is the dissociation, in many descriptions of ritual, be- tween hypothesized spheres of (conscious or unconscious) thought and metaphorical-"ritual"-action, with an implied subordination of the second to the first. Ritual, in such accounts, is itself devoid of thought. To the extent that ritual has been defined, mythically, as a form of action designed to harmonize fundamental contradictions in society, it might be argued that the very concept contains too many presupposi- tions to be of real help to the historian. Certainly this is the case with respect to the subject presently under review. The fraternity feast, on the one hand, was demonstrably not a form of social magic worked to bring about a historically impossible harmony. But nor was it, on the other hand, a mere optimistic symbol of an idealized community. Rather than seeing the occasion as a means to achieve, or as an em- blem of, something else, it is here taken to be more helpful to view the feast as a historical process in its own right, in the course of which new ideological and social relations were negotiated. That process was consciously marked off by contemporaries from everyday social inter- course by an element of "ritualization"; this deliberate enhancement of the occasion, which was both calculated and open-ended, is to be distinguished from those modern conceptions of ritual which see it as something unreflective and static. The feast's defining rhetoric of honorable equality and commensality enabled new relationships to be legitimately forged, often between participants of markedly different background or economic status. Meanwhile, the element of formal- ity-which, while it varied greatly in degree, was vital to the event: this was a special dinner-invested the occasion, and its accompa- nying social exchanges, with a dignit~l and prestige which individual participants could carry out into the quotidian world.

In order to draw out these themes, two aspects of the fraternity feast will be discussed in turn below-even though contemporaries would not have recognized the conceptual distinction made here. First,

On this subject I have found particularly helpful C. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford, 1992).

attention will be drawn to ways in which the "ritualization" of the meal alluded, although with a distinctive emphasis, to the practices of the mass. It will be argued that this process enabled fraternity members of whatever degree to reclaim a moral authority officially denied to them by the canons of the church. Second, the feast will be considered as a forum in which political networks could be adjusted, and the individual's relationship to them redefined. It will be stressed that these negotiations would remain open-ended and could issue in conflict as well as harmony: again, the feast was not a panacea. Nevertheless, it will be suggested in conclusion that the ideology of fraternal har- mony, as it was realized in the proceedings of the communal dinner, was susceptible to appropriation by humbler members no less than by the elders of the society.

The fraternity meal invariably followed on the patronal mass, to which it was linked also in more profound ways. At an early date, it seems to have been common for guilds to remain inside the church for their dinner, a practice which (despite clerical censure) was still re- corded in certain areas as late as the sixteenth ~entury.~

These features suggest that contemporaries may have associated the guild feast with another rite, that of the distribution, at the end of the parish mass, of holy bread (the eulogia). This panis benedictus, sometimes accompa- nied by a cup of wine, was usually provided by the parish, blessed (though not consecrated) by the priest, and shared among the congre- gation at the church door. The practice was first recorded in the sixth century and gradually became widespread in Europe during the ensu- ing centuries.'' It seems reasonable to infer that its dissemination was particularly stimulated by the doctrinal debates on the eucharistic mir- acle which took place between the eleventh and the thirteenth centu- ries, whereby the bread of the mass was both elevated and at the same time removed from the sphere of normal lay participation." The associated enhancement of the role of the priest, together with the rarity of lay communion-which seems, having been relatively frequent in the early Christian centuries, to have become increasingly uncommon after the sixth century, and especially after about 1000; the Council of 1215 attempted to establish a minimal requirement of communion once a year-created conditions in which the distribution at the end of mass of holy bread may well have acquired for the laity

Instances cited in J. G. Davies, Tke Seculur Use of Church Buildings (London, 1968), p. 52. 'O P. Browe, Die Pflichtkommunion irn Mittelalter. (Miinster, 1940), pp. 188, 195.

P. Browe, Die hiiujge Kommunion im Mittelalter (Miinster, 1938), pp. 28-29, and chap. 1 passim.

an intensified significance. Popular devotion to the consecrated host grew significantly from the eleventh century onward, and a number of twelfth- and thirteenth-century texts indicate that it was reverence, not indifference, which discouraged frequent lay reception of the eu- charist. The eulogia, meanwhile, came to be regarded as, at least in a partial sense, a substitute for c~mmunion.'~

While churchmen were at pains to insist on the distinction between holy bread and the eucharist, parishioners, who were themselves undoubtedly capable of recogniz- ing the different and superior status of the mass, were nevertheless evidently glad to participate in a collective rite (householders took turns to provide the weekly loaf) which revived the commensality once enjoyed in the agape, or love feast, of the first Christians.13 Like the holy bread, the fraternity dinner after the festal mass provided a con- tinuing context for an older pattern of lay involvement in the Christian rite. Occasionally the distribution of the holy loaf itself was undertaken by fraternities. In the light of these circumstances, the guild feast, whether or not partaken at the church, would to its participants have borne obvious analogies to the sharing of holy bread. Both activities, although differentiated from the mass, in significant ways invited com- parison with the priestly miracle itself. Concern about just such a blur- ring of distinctions between the official mass and lay practice at the margins may explain the otherwise remarkable bitterness of clerical attacks on guild feasts from the ninth century onward.14

The grounds for such suspicions become clearer still when the characteristic observances of the fraternity meal are examined more closely. The guild members proceeded two by two from the church to the place of recreation-usually a member's house, a church house,

''G. Macy, The Theologies of the Eucharist in the Early Scholastic Period:A Study of the Salvific Function of the Sacrament according to the Theologians, c. 1080-c.1220 (Oxford, 1984), esp. pp. 86-93, 118-19 (the development of popular devotion to, and reverence for, the eucharist, and the rarity of lay reception), 93-94 (eulogia as a form of partial substitute).

l3 New Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. W. J. McDonald et al., 14 vols. (New York, 1967), S.V. "agape" (article by C. Bernas).

l4 The Carolingian ecclesiastical censures are cited in, e.g., Coornaert (n. 2 above). Those of English thirteenth-century bishops are instanced in F. M. Powicke and C. R. Cheney, Councils and Synods with Other Documents relating to the English Church, pt. 2, A.D. 1205-1313, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1964), 1:313 ("gildales inhonestas, et precipue mercatorum et peregrinorum, quas omnino prohibemus"). See also the bitter scorn of the twelfth-century English cleric, Walter Map, for "those drinking-houses, which in English are called gildhus" (Walter Map, De nugis curialium, ed. M. R. James et al. [Oxford, 19831, pp. 154-58). Counter-Reformation prelates would continue this tendency to opposition, which, however, pace M. Venard, they were far from originating. See

M. Venard, "La fraternite des banquets," in Pratiques et discours alimentaires a la Renaissance, ed. J.-C. Margolin and R. Sauzet (Paris, 1982), pp. 137-45, esp. 137-39.

or a guildhall-dressed in the common livery (hoods or complete gowns) of their society.ls Their ensuing celebrations were interwoven with rites which can only be described as paraliturgical. At the feast of Saint Peter's guild at Wisbech (Cambridgeshire) in the fourteenth century, for example, great candles were lit while prayers were said in the hall for the membership, living and dead.16 In the hall of the Boston guild of Our Lady, evidently with the same purpose in view, was kept a framed text of prayers to the Virgin." The likeness of the hall itself to a chapel was strengthened by decorations, such as a magnificent fifteenth-century tapestry of the Virgin Mary's Assump- tion and of the Holy Trinity which still hangs at the dais end of the hall for which it was made, that of the Holy Trinity guild of Coventry.I8 The dramatic structure of the feast could be relatively elaborate. A Lincoln fraternity of the Assumption, begun in 1373, opened three barrels of ale in the course of its drinking: at the breaking of the first, the guild's ordinances were read aloud; at the second, intercession was offered for the dead; and at the third, the Virgin was appealed to on behalf of the living members.I9 The members of the Corpus Christi guild of Grantham, founded early in the same century, closed their merrymaking with a hymn.20 The termination of the feast was the nor- mal time for the admission of new members, an event generally marked by the exchange amongst those present of a fraternal kiss of peace." At a certain point, wine was circulated in a common drinking vessel, either a horn or else a cup, whose resemblance to the eucharistic chalice did not pass unnoticed by clerical observers. It appears to have been an attempt to establish a degree of ecclesiastical control through authentication which led to the grant of episcopal indulgences to those guild members who drank "soberly" and "devoutly" from the "par- don mazer" of the York Corpus Christi guild, or from "Saint Julian's

'"ome of the details in this and the following paragraphs are taken from the returns made by the English fraternities to a royal enquiry in 1389 (cataloged at PRO, C47). Problems with this source, relating both to the purpose of the survey and to a formulaic element in some of the returns, do not affect the use made of it here.

l6 PRO, C47138141.

l7 Boston, Municipal Buildings, MS. 4lAl211B. In this inventory, under "hall," is listed "A table covered with parchment noted with anthems of Our Lady with three collects and covered with linen cloth."

l8 J. C. Lancaster, St. Mary's Hall, Co1,entry: A Guide to the Building, Its History

and Corzterzts, Coventry Papers no. 3 (Coventry, 1981), pp. 42-44.

l9 PRO, C471401140(b).

lo PRO, C471401109.

" For example, English Gilds, ed. J. T. Smith and L. T. Smith, Early English Text Society, o.s., 40 (1870): 9: the guild of Saint Fabian and Saint Sebastian in the Church of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, London, late fourteenth century.

horn", in the possession of the fraternity of Saint Giles and Saint Julian at Lynn.2' Implicit in these episcopal interventions is the recog- nition that the loving cup already possessed, in the eyes of those who shared it, a quasiliturgical aspect.

Equally significant of the moral potential of the feast was its chari- table aspect. In a striking number of instances the poor were physically present, being given a more or less formal role in the drama. Although in a rare instance every poor person was said to be welcome to the fraternity dinner,23 in general the practical scale of immediate relief offered in this way was evidently less important than the ritually en- hanced force of the example.24 In such guild charity there was a further unconscious echo of those early Christian ngnpae, in which a more or less open invitation had often been extended to the poor.25 At the level of consciousness, the collectivity of the guild in this way advertised its honor by behaving hospitably in the manner of a good lord.26 In one instance, the apostolic number of thirteen poor people were enter- tained at the feast; in another the total, equally symbolic, was thirty." On the model of Benedictine monasteries, or possibly on that of the aristocratic lay household, the door might be opened once the guild officers had finished eating, so that the poor could come in to dine on the leftover^.^' At Grantham in the late fourteenth century, every mar-

22 R. H. Skaife, ed., The Register of the Guild of Corpus Christi irz the City of York; with an Apperzdix of Illustrati~~e

Docllmerzts, Surtees Society, no. 57 (1872), pp. 291-92;

W. Richards, The History ofLynn, 2 vols. (Lynn, 1812), 2:436 (the horn of Saint Julian was commissioned for the Lynn guild in 1394-95: King's Lynn, Guildhall, MS. Gd.37, sub anno). The guild of Saint John the Baptist at Grantham possessed no fewer than three "horns from which the brothers and sisters are accustomed to drink on the day of the feast" (PRO, C471401113).

23 PRO, C471441321: the guild of Saint James at Sall (Norfolk), founded in 1358-59. Every poor person coming to the corzviviurn was to be fed there and to receive in addition '14d. from every member. PRO, C471451362: the guild of Saint Peter at Wiggen- hall (Norfolk): "Iwat godes man come to our fraternete he schal have mete and drynke iwyles it wil last and also a taper for to bren before sent petur of a pound of wex."

24 The limits to the material welfare offered by guilds to their own members have been underlined by B. R. McRee, "Charity and Gild Solidarity in Late Medieval En- gland," Journal qf British Studies 32 (1993): 195-225. Here, however, guild charity is being discussed in a wider context.

'5 New Catholic Encyclopedia (n. 13 above), s.v. "agape." l6 F. Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990), esp. pp. 320, 331-32.

l7 PRO, C471401106: the guild of Saint John the Baptist at Gedney (Lincolnshire); C47138123: the guild of Holy Trinity, Ely, founded in 1369. Another model was that of a guild of Saint Mary at Lincoln, which entertained at the feast as many poor people as there were brothers and sisters of the society present (C471401146).

Wisbech, Town Museum, Records of the Holy Trinity Guild, p. 63 (1506): "When the alderman and his brethren have dined we will that all the poor people then there present shall be set at a table in the said hall, and served with such meat as shall be left [by] the said alderman and his brethren." For the Benedictine example, see B. Harvey, Living and Dying irz England, 1100-1540 (Oxford, 1993), p. 13. For the lay aristocracy,

ried couple or single person in the Corpus Christi guild brought a pauper to the dinner.29 Likewise in Saint Lawrence's guild at Lincoln at the same period, as many of the poor as there were members were invited to join part of the feasting, for some good bread and ale and a dish of meat or fish." In other East Anglian cases, the place of a member unable to attend the feast might be filled by a poor guest of the society." Yet other fraternities simply made collections at their dinners, either of food or cash, for subsequent distribution to the poor or the sick.'2 Participation in such exemplary formal almsgiving en- abled fraternity members, most of whom were themselves endeavoring with limited resources to establish a position in society, to appropriate a morally respectable identity, at once honest and philanthropic.

While it thus demonstrated a number of close analogies with the liturgy of the mass, the guild feast was nevertheless a significantly different kind of occasion. The active and celebratory roles which it accorded to its lay participants were precisely the elements which had tended to be excluded from the Catholic liturgy by successive reforms between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries. The fraternity banquet was an occasion at which all present might recover some of the spiri- tual dignity and moral authority which had been officially arrogated to the prie~thood.'~

The enhanced confidence derived from that recovery, at the level both of the individual and of the fraternal group, could be carried out from the ritualized meal into the wider social world. This event therefore offered to members of the privileged fraternal commu- nity not merely a jovial party-though it certainly did this, too-but also an enhanced sense of spiritual worth.

The perceived benefits of the fraternity dinner in the spheres of personal standing and self-esteem were directly related to the way in

see Heal, chap. 2. The fraternity charities described here were also related to the medi- eval custom of holding ad hoc "ales" for immediate charitable purposes. See J. M. Bennett, "Conviviality and Charity in Medieval and Early Modern England," Past and Present, no. 134 (1992), pp. 19-41.

29 PRO, C471401109. 30 PRO, C471401142. For example, PRO, C471441337: the guild of the Purification at Upwell (Norfolk), refounded in 1327-28.

32 For example, PRO, C471441313: the guild of Corpus Christi at Oxborough (Nor- folk), founded in 1360 (the place is not named in the return, which, however, was evidently preserved with others from Oxborough and was consequently thus cataloged at the Public Record Office). At the feast each member gave a 'hd. loaf toward the alms of the fraternity.

33 Macy (n. 12 above). It would, however, be wrong to exaggerate the extent to which the mass was asocialized by the thirteenth century, especially when John Bossy has so clearly demonstrated the further moves in this direction which were taken in the 16th. See J. Bossy, "The Mass as a Social Institution, 1200-1700," Past and Present, no. 100 (1983), pp. 29-61.

which this ritualized occasion legitimized and articulated the formation of new social relationships. Fully to explore this process, it would be necessary to examine every guild in its particular context of time and place. Nevertheless, some general arguments may be proposed. It has been suggested elsewhere that the formation of guilds was usually a response to the experience of social change and an acknowledged need for an environment in which new links of solidarity and patronage could be forged.34 The fraternity feast appears, from the details of its description which have survived, to have played a crucial part in this process. In this sense, the common meal was social politics in action.

The first feature to emphasize is the significant degree of volunta- rism which attached both to fraternity membership and to attendance at the feast. Obviously, pressures operated in particular circumstances to impel subscription; nevertheless, personal commitment was a uni- versal element of guild ideology, and even when the options were to a degree limited, an individual member would retain a justifiable and saving sense that he or she was present by choice. Meanwhile, because guild ideology also placed a high value on solidarity among the mem- bership, fraternity statutes tended to insist on full attendance at the feast on the "general day." These rules were lent practical weight by officers of the companies, who went through the town or into the hinterland in advance of the event, in order to remind the brethren of their l~yalty.'~ But it was a very unusual guild which automatically expelled from the society one who failed to appear at the dinner." Far more common was the simple rccjuirement of a good excuse; absence from the region on business was often specified in the ordinances as being acceptable without q~estion.~'

The rules thus, even while they

34 G. Rosser, "Solidarites et changement social: Les fraternites urbaines anglaises 2i la fin du Moyen Age," Annales: Economies, soci&tis, civilisatiotzs 48 (1993): 1127-43, and "Communities of Parish and Guild in the Late Middle Ages," in Parish, Church and People: Local Studies in Lay Religion, 1350-1750, ed. S. J. Wright (London, 1988), pp. 29-55.

For example, in the accounts of the Holy Cross guild of Stratford-upon-Avon for 1388-89: "For the expenses of John Regnalt in going to Warwick to invit the broth- ers to the feast. 3d." (Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, MS. BRT 11314). And in those of the guild of Saint George at Nottingham for 1481, an agent was reimbursed the cost of shoeing his horse when he rode into the country to notify the brothers and sisters about the feast (The Guilds of St. George and of St. Mary of the Church of St. Peter, Nottingharn, Thoroton Society Record Series, extra ser., vol. 7 [1939], sub anno).

36 PRO, C471411193: the guild of Saint Augustine in the church of Saint Augustine by Paul's Gate, London, founded in 1387.

37 This provision was extremely common in fraternity statutes. Ill health, of course, was also an admissible excuse. Occasionally a sick absentee received some food or drink from the feast at home (e.g. PRO, C471431261: the guild of Saint Margaret, Lynn, founded in 1354; C471441325: the guild of All Saints, Stoke Ferry [Norfolk], founded in 1359).

fostered solidarity, explicitly acknowledged the personal and economic instability which are here taken to be among the prime causes of the formation of the guilds. Where figures of attendance at particular feasts can be obtained, the numbers fell short of a full complement but were still substantial; moreover, patterns of participation at the individual level suggest the operation of conscious strategies in the use of the occasion. A higher proportional attendance was undoubtedly charac- teristic of relatively smaller, more localized guilds." But even a me- dium-sized fraternity like that of Our Lady's Nativity at Wymondham in Norfolk, which probably comprised a little over a hundred members in the early sixteenth century, mustered no fewer than eighty-four of them in 1534.'9 The annual feast of the larger guild of the Holy Cross at Stratford-upon-Avon was attended in the early fifteenth century by between two and three fifths of its total membership: of a potential tally of around 250, the quantity of feasters, male and female, was 133 in 1409, 108 in 141 1, 160 in 1413.40 Still greater gatherings were evi- dently customary at the hall of the Luton guild of Holy Trinity in the early sixteenth century, for this society not only kept 156 pewter plates, a further 576 wooden plates and 360 spoons in stock, but addi- tionally hired on occasion a supplementary service of 240 pewter dishe~.~'

The store of the prestigious Coventry guild of the same dedi- cation in the late Middle Ages contained 264 "platters" and the same number of "dishes."42 The other principal Coventry guild, that of Cor- pus Christi, whose membership ran to several hundreds, was unusual in holding two (and at one stage no fewer than three) annual dinners. Around 1500 the "Lenten" and "Venison" feasts (held, respectively, on the Wednesday before Palm Sunday and in October or November) were each attended by about one hundred fifty to two hundred of the society. In this instance the fraternity records reveal the names of

38 The case cited in n. 36 above of expulsion for nonattendance certainly concerned a relatively small club.

39 This guild comprised eighty-four living members in 1475-76; its average annual recruitment over the following half-century was about five (Wymondham, parish church, MS. accounts of the guild of Saint Mary's Nativity [1475-15361, fols. 2-3, 31-31v). In 1529 it was determined that every brother and sister present at the dinner should contrib- ute Id. toward the alms of the guild; in 1534 7s., or 84d., were collected on this occasion (ibid., fols. 55v, 61v).

40 Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, MS. BRT 113123, 25, 27. In 1410-11, an annual payment from every member of 7d. in "light-silver" was discon- tinued, all the existing brothers and sisters being asked to compound for the levy with a single payment of 10d. Two hundred forty-five members were listed on this occasion (MS. BRT 113125); see BRT 113114 (1402-3) for the previous rate of the "light-silver."

41 Bedford, Bedfordshire County Record Office, MS. 248611, sub annis 1526-27, 1528-29. 42 G. Templeman, ed., The Records of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, St. Mary, St. John the Baptist and St. Katherine of Covefitry, Dugdale Society (1944), 19:151.

those present, and it is consequently possible to observe the choices made, often over a long period of membership of the Among a body marked by considerable social diversity, the most frequent attenders were local tradespeople. Robert Swyft, a draper, joined the Corpus Christi guild in 1488, and between that year and 1499, he at- tended nineteen of the annual Lent and Venison dinners, missing only five of these occasions. A humbler artisan, the cardmaker William Naydon, inscribed his name in 1490, and in the ensuing period of his membership was present at twenty-one of a possible total of thirty dinners. A baker, Thomas Gupshull, dined twenty-one times during three decades of involvement with the guild from 1495. Such examples could be multiplied ad infinitum. By contrast, nonlocal members such as London merchants and the social elite, including the regional gentry and aristocracy, were less frequent presences. Sir Morice and Lady Isabel Berkeley and Sir Ralph Shirley all joined the guild at the Lent dinner in 1514; having once graced the occasion, they never returned. However, they retained, and may have valued, the right to do so: another knight, Thomas Lucy, who was enrolled at the Venison feast in 1512, attended the dinner again nine years later, in 1521. While the Coventry guild of Corpus Christi was, like any fraternity, unique, these details nevertheless help to illuminate the wider picture. It is clear that the commensality of the fraternity dinner was not merely an enforced conformity. Nor was it the unthinking repetition of a timeless tradition (the "ritual" of some recent ritual studies). The pattern of attendance, in this one case, suggests that the feasts happened because they re- tained a perceived relevance to the evolving and particular circum- stances of their participants.

That relevance had frequently to do with the working out of new social relationships. Large or small, all late medieval English guilds comprised a diversity of members, distinguished by place of origin (recent migrants to towns may have made up the bulk of fraternity memberships), by trade, by sex, or by social status. Participants, who could see the mixed nature of these clubs into which they inscribed themselves, evidently viewed their assemblies as attractive opportuni- ties for the establishment of personal positions in the political network.

43 Coventry, City Record Office, MS. A6: register of the guild of Corpus Christi and Saint Nicholas of Coventry, 1488-1553. The third ("Goose") dinner, held in July, was less well attended than the other two, and was discontinued in 1495. The identifica- tion of individual careers within the guild, of which examples are cited here, has been made possible by the creation of a computer transcript of the guild register. This was done by my friend Anthony Divett, to whom I am most grateful for sharing his work with me.

Ideally, the language and gestures of mutual trust whereby the occa- sions were articulated were the basis for new and firmer footings in political and economic relations: a creditor reassured, a customer or an employer secured, a vote or a voice of support guaranteed. There need be no doubt that such were on occasion the successful achieve- ments of a fraternity banquet. Yet an element of risk was built into the process. The strenuous emphasis of fraternity statutes on the pres- ervation of peace at the dinner is itself a reminder of the potential for conflict inherent in the assembly. The ordinances of a guild at Watling- ton in Norfolk, composed in the 1380s, prescribed that conversation at the feast should be "all of peace and love," and that any quarrel which had arisen during the previous twelve months should there be settled.44 But countless rules allude ominously to the perils of drunken- ness and to the unacceptability of clamor or violence at the banquet.45 Such warnings acknowledged the moral ambivalence of the fraternity feast, poised between the opposed ideas of charity and discord. This characteristic is consonant with the view, advanced here, that the guild dinner was not a "symbolic ritual" (if such a thing exists) but, rather, a ritualized meal whose guests were engaged in the practical process of politics.

Many details of the social organization of the guilds illustrate this process in action. The social mix of an urban fraternity like that of Saint Thomas Becket at Oxford, which in the late Middle Ages brought together members of both "town" and "gown" communities, invested society dinners with a particular significance in a city conspicuously lacking in any transcendent institution which could otherwise foster dialogue between these mutually antagonistic groups.46 An equally sig- nificant strategy was the recruitment into the fraternity of a particular craft, for example, the Coventry weavers' guild of Saint Osburga, of a special category of "love brethren": members of other crafts, whose friendship was thus-for a variety of possible reasons-deliberately ~ultivated.~~

It was common, too, for associations of shopkeepers to solicit aristocratic or ,ecclesiastical patronage in the same way. Their

44.PR0, C471441348.

4' For example (to cite one of many), Smith and Smith, eds. (n. 21 above), p. 61: a guild of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Lynn, in which noisy disturbance of the other brothers and sisters during the drinking was punishable by a fine.

4h C. I. Hammer, "The Town-Gown Confraternity of St. Thomas the Martyr in Oxford," Mediaeval Studies 39 (1977): 466-76.

47 Coventry, City Record Office, MS. 10011711: Weavers 11 (weavers' account book, 1523-1635), fols. 2 ff. annual receipts from the "love brethren," many of whom are specifically described as practicing crafts other than weaving, are distinguished in these accounts from the quarterages of the professional members.

evident success in this endeavor suggests that such lords themselves perceived the fraternity gathering to be a potentially valuable entrCe to the world of urban politics. The advantage, in terms of clientage, could be mutual. The Ludlow guild of Palmers regularly invited partic- ular "outsiders and gentry" (extraneos et generosos) to its dinners, freely giving livery hoods of the society to these prestigious figures or to their retainer^.^' In the guild of the Holy Cross at Stratford-upon- Avon, extra harpists were laid on when gentry, such as Sir Thomas Burdet, lord of Arrow, were present.49 The Maidstone guild of the same dedication sent repeatedly to discover whether the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bourchier, would accept an invitation to its feasLsO In general, lords, like those already encountered in a Coventry instance, evidently did not feel it incumbent on them to attend in per- son on more than rare occasions. But even when absent, many per- ceived the guild networks to be so far worth cultivating as to dispatch gifts of venison for the dinner or else to loan their minstrels toward the provision of entertainment.s1 In the articulation of relations be- tween artisan and gentry groups, and between town and countryside, the fraternity feast played a significant role.

Another favored means to extend the social links of the guild was to allow members to bring personal guests. This was the practice, when resources permitted, of the Holy Trinity guild at Grimsby, on the characteristic condition that such companions should be regarded as respectable by the rest of the society.52 A more precisely defined forum for political discussion was the fraternity of journeymen of a particular craft, whose members might be at odds both with the mas- ters in the trade and with one another over work relations: it is clear that fraternal dinners provided occasions for debate on these issues. Once again, invitations may have been extended beyond the core body of the company; the fact that no fewer than four of the London guilds of journeymen around 1400 chose to meet on the same feast day sug- gests a degree of liaison with a view to facilitating the interchange of

48 Shrewsbury, Shropshire County Record Office, MS. 3561321 (accounts of the wardens of the palmers' guild, late fourteenth to early sixteenth century); MS. 3561323 (lists of new members of the guild, 1504-5).

4' Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, MS. BRT 113126. Fraternity hoods were distributed on this occasion, also, to "divers gentlemen," including a dozen given to Burdet and his wife.

j0 Maidstone, Kent Archives Office, MS. Md.lG1-2 (the invitation was issued in 1474; in the following year Bourchier was inscribed as a member of the guild). j1The Maidstone records cited in the previous note contain examples of this practice. 52 PRO, C471401116.

news at a time when large numbers of journeymen were gathering to drink together after their fraternity masses.53 Yet another way in which guild festivities enabled social contact, more or less free from suspi- cions of impropriety, was by the mutual introduction of single men and women. To the large number of unmarried people, among whom women were particularly numerous, who migrated to towns in the later Middle Ages, the fraternity dinner offered an irreproachable context within which to seek a future spouse. By an arrangement which seems to allude to this aspect of guild membership, a single woman who joined the Holy Cross guild of Stratford-upon-Avon paid only a re- duced rate for her admission, with the balance to settle whenever she married.54 In broad terms, every participant could identify some potential advantage in sealing friendships at the fraternity feast, whether this were a matter of marriage, employment, financial credit, tax assessment, or electoral influence. Of course, all of these matters could be pursued in other contexts. To a unique degree, however, the guild feast offered a setting in which the negotiation of new relation- ships across economic and social boundaries was both legitimized and validated by the language of moral fraternity.

It might appear, superficially, contradictory to the spirit of frater- nity that the organizations which convened these reunions were them- selves marked by pronounced elements of hierarchy. Officeholders in the guild tended to differentiate themselves by particularly splendid robes or garlandsSS and might receive more or better food than the rest of the company (at Stratford, while everyone else ate pullets, the mas- ter dined on a capon).s6 The arrangement of tables in the hall followed

"G. Rosser, "Workers' Associations in Medieval Engllsh Towns," in Les mCtier~ nu Moyen Age, ed. J.-P. Sosson (Louvain, in press). 54 J. H. Bloom, ed., The Register of the Gild of the Holy Cross, the Blessed Marti and St. John the Baptist . . . of Stratford-upon-Avon (London, 1907).

''For a resplendent example of a guild official's crown, see the inventory of the Boston guild of Saint Mary, drawn up in 1533 (Boston, Municipal Buildings, MS. 4lAl 211B): "One chaplet of red velvet for the alderman with one great ouch [brooch] in the front of the same of pure gold, and in the same be set 3 great pearls with 6 turquoises. Item upon the same chaplet 8 great ouches of pure gold with 8 balesers [rubies] set in the midst of every of them and garnished wlth 2 chases of pearl about every of them. Item 10 ouches of silver and gilt each containing 5 stones. Item 16 other ouches, but little ones, of pearl and stone. Likewise in the hindermore part of the said chaplet one great ouch of silver and gilt garnished with pearls in the circuit." There were also chaplets for the two chamberlains, of blue velvet powdered with stars of gold with the letter "Mu (for Mary) and lilies made of pearls.

56 Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, MS. BRT 113112. In other

cases where supplementary portions of drink were allocated to the officers, the expecta-

tion may have been that the latter were to distribute the surplus as exemplary alms for

the poor (see n. 28 above). For example, PRO, C471401116: the guild of the Holy Trinity,

Grimsby, founded in 1341.

the aristocratic model, with the "seniors" at the dais end.57 Fraternity statutes particularly insisted on respect for the elders during the meal: their word was law, and their departure from the hall marked the close of festivities." The situation was, however, no more than apparently paradoxical. The motifs of hierarchy and community were not in com- petition with one another. Rather, each was vital to the realization of a fraternity feast, whose occurrence depended on a formal institution which derived its public and ecclesiastical sanction from subscription to hierarchical values prevalent in the wider social world yet whose social encounters, as has been argued above, acquired both their legiti- macy and their prestige from the informing rhetoric of community. The reality of social inequality notwithstanding, the language of frater- nity was open to appropriation at every social level, thus helping to shape the lived reality of each.

For the myth of virtuous common purpose and distinctive moral worth was something in which all the diverse members of a guild, if for different reasons, might take pride. The feast itself brought that potent myth into sharp focus. It was virtually always on this occasion that the material subventions were collected from the members that were allocated (over and above the cost of the dinner) toward new collective and honorable projects: the celebration of a locally vener- ated patron saint and worker of miracles, the employment of a chaplain or the decoration of the church, the construction of bridges or dykes, the maintenance of a school, a hospital, or an almshouse. The cult of a saint-protector was, to a degree greater than is usually obvious in the surviving record, a means of evoking the history of the community as much as that of the holy patron. The Durham guild of Saint Cuthbert, in existence by 1300, honored at its feast a figure whom mythol- ogy bound up with the origins of the t~wn.~%t Ripon, Saint Wilfrid was invoked by a fourteenth-century fraternity which elected to focus its identity on an ancient chapel associated in popular tradition with that local hero.60 Saint Helen was especially feted at Beverley, in the county of her presumed birth, by a guild established in 1378 which on

57 Thus in the inventory of the guild of Saint John the Baptist at Swafferton (Nor- folk), compiled in 1505-6, are listed "1 tablecloth of 5 yards . . . [and] 2 other tablecloths for the side tables, each 6 yards long" (Norwich, Norfolk County Record Office, MS. PD521233, sub anno). For the architectural disposition cf a substantial extant medieval guildhall, see, e.g., Lancaster (n. 18 above).

58 For example, PRO, C471431252; C471431268: the guilds of Saint Anne and of Saint John the Baptist, Lynn. 59 M. Bonney, Lordship and the Urban Community: Durham and Its Overlords, 1250-1540 (Cambridge, 19901, pp. 9, 95. aPRO, C471461452(a).

the occasion of its feast selected the most beautiful boy available to be Helen for the day.61 Through the figure of its heavenly patron, a guild would thus recall events or themes in the history of the local community. In a fraternity chapel of Ludlow parish church, a stained- glass window of ca. 1450 shows the perpetual reenactment of such a heroic narrative at a festive gathering of the Palmers' guild. Depicted are two legendary Ludlow pilgrims to the Holy Land, believed to have been directed by Saint John the Baptist to return a ring to King Edward the Confessor, who, after their final return to their home town and to the fraternity hall, regale the brotherhood with their story.62 AS this image suggests, the relation of such civic legends, reflecting glory on the assembled society, may often have formed part of the entertain- ment at the fraternity feast. Just such a scene was probably enacted by the Abingdon guild of the Holy Cross, for which in the fifteenth century a member composed a celebratory poem. The fraternity feast is the most likely intended context for the recital of this verse, which survives in a contemporary copy now in the guild almshouse. The rhyme describes in detail, and with verve, the construction in 1416 of a bridge across the Thames at Abingdon: a project from which the community of the town stood greatly to benefit and for which the guild took overall re~ponsibility.~~

Such campanilismo doubtless gave the tone to many a guild dinner. The expression of communitarian pride held varied meanings for different individual participants in the frater- nity feast; the significant point is precisely that everyone present could appropriate something of the collective mythology to validate his or her own particular situation.

The organization of a guild banquet was always, in proportion to the size of the society, an economic event of considerable importance. The engagement of local labor could be extensive, and the consequent stimulus to production added to the prestige of the occasion. Splendid fare was not a sine qua non: it was the company, not the charge,

6' PRO, C471461446.

"Reproduced in D. Lloyd and P. Klein, Ludlow (Chichester, 1984), pp. 26-27. For a guild (one whose social composition linked the London merchant community and the royal court) in which the competitive composition and singing of songs was a particularly prominent feature of the feast, see A. F. Sutton, "Merchants, Music and Social Har- mony: The London Puy and Its French and London Contexts, circa 1300," London Journal 17 (1992): 1-17.

"The manuscript has been printed: F. Little, A Monument of Christian Mun$- cence, or an Account of the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross, and of the Hospital of Christ in Abingdon (Oxford, 1872), pp. 121-24; and L. T. Smith, ed., The Itinerary of John Leland, 5 vols. (reprint, London, 1964), 5:116-18. For the guild's role in the erection of the bridge, see also A. E. Preston, Christ's Hospital Abingdon (Oxford, 19301, pp. 13-14.

that made the fraternal feast. Nevertheless, even the smallest clubs consumed significant quantities of ale, the brewing of which was often allocated to female members, who thereby played a prominent role in the frat ern it^.^^ Grander societies had an effect on the economies of entire towns. At Maidstone, in 1487, no fewer than sixteen cooks were retained to prepare the banquet of the Corpus Christi guild, together with thirteen spit winders. The principal dish each year on this occa- sion was goose: some 120 of these birds were annually fattened and killed. Smaller amounts of fish, chickens, pigeons, rabbits, pork, lamb, beef, and veal, all garnished with spices, accompanied this center- piece.65 The ordering of these supplies would begin months ahead of the event, guild officers often journeying into the urban hinterland to hire individuals who would fatten the animals and poultry for the day.66 As an act of collective consumption on an exceptional scale, therefore, the fraternity dinner did not merely symbolize the prosperity of the community but also helped tangibly to promote it. Once again, this perception was not restricted to any particular social group within the membership. As has been stressed in the course of this essay, a feast was not an ideal "community." But, in economic and broadly political terms, going to feasts contributed significantly to the peaceful evolu- tion of the internally diverse communities of late medieval England.

64 For example, the guild of the Holy Cross at Stratford: see the accounts, cited above, passim.

65 Maidstone, Kent Archives Office, MSS Md.G.14 and Md. G.l-27, passim.

66 For example, again, the Stratford accounts, cited above.

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