Sunday, 6 November 2011

Fantasy Priests

A quick post for anyone writing anything vaguely medieval. Please get your priests right. Perhaps this is just something I notice, having written a comparative history of three medieval religious institutions as part of my PhD, but in a lot of historical fiction, historical fantasy and so forth, people don’t always seem to use their priests in ways that are remotely historically accurate. Here are just a few things to watch for:

Calling every religious figure a ‘priest’. Yes, I did it above, but there were canons and vicars, chantry priests and monks and friars and… you get the idea. Some will only be appropriate for particular time periods (no Dominican Friars in the early middle ages) while each one had a specialised and slightly different role to play in medieval life.

Not making your religious figures important enough. If you have a major lord, then why would he be hanging around with a very minor priest and treating him as an equal? For that, bring in a bishop, or even an archbishop. Remember too that for monasteries, the abbot often connected with the world much more than individual monks.

Remember that the landscape changed. Very broadly speaking Anglo Saxon England featured many more general purpose religious institutions than post-Conquest England. There was a focus on what are now termed minsters, and the system of parishes was not well defined for several hundred years. Post Conquest, we have the rise of new monastic orders, the birth of the friars, and enough other stuff to make it clear you can’t treat the whole thing as one big lump.

Remember that clerics had a role to play. They weren’t just shut up in churches. Noblemen retained minor clerics to do the medieval equivalent of desk jobs. Canons often found themselves seconded to their archbishops. Archdeacons had a constant job wandering around broad rural areas dispensing canon law. Don’t ignore them.

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