Ignorantia Sacerdotum: Spirituality and Christian knowledge, c. 1300

Posted: May 15, 2012 in Uncategorized
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In sorting out articles in the seemingly endless dissertation files this morning, I came across a copy I’d made of John Pecham’s Ignorantia sacerdotum of 1281, printed in Shinners and Dohar’s Pastors and the Care of Souls. It’s quite an amazing document, and I think would make an excellent short reading for a medieval survey, as it offers numerous insights into medieval spirituality, the knowledge and engagement of the congregation in matters of Christian doctrine, the desire for church reform and clerical education at the highest levels in the English Church, and a rather precise definition of medieval Christian belief as delineated by the highest church official in England. Certainly a top-down picture, but inasmuch as it is a reactive, prescriptive one, it retains considerable value.

And there are linguistic issues as well. The core of Archbishop Pecham’s order is that once every quarter the parish priest “should personally explain or have someone else explain to the people in their mother tongue [my italics], without any fancifully woven subtleties, the fourteen articles of faith, the Ten Commandments of the Decalogue, the two precepts of the Gospel (namely the twin laws of charity), the seven works of mercy, the seven capital sins and their fruits, the seven principal virtues, and the seven grace-giving sacraments.”  Pecham then goes on to give a summary of each of these sections.

The articles of faith reaffirm the Nicene Creed–very straightforward. Pecham’s application of the Ten Commandments, on the other hand, is extremely interesting, as the “laws of the first tablet” are all interpreted in a way to ensure the exclusive practice of the Christian religion–the old struggle against superstition and heresy. So, the first commandment “forbids all sorcery, incantations, and superstitious use of written letters or other types of images.” The second “forbids all heresy and secondarily forbids all blasphemy.”  The third, the Sabbath (remembering the ecclesiastic reordering of the commandments in regards to images), “orders the promotion of the Christian religion.” The first “law of the second tablet is similarly interpreted.” Honoring one’s parents also contains “an implicit and secondary meaning” that “anyone should be honored by virtue of his status.” The rest of the commandments are more-or-less interpreted as would occur to the average person today.

The two laws of charity–love of God and neighbor–are interesting as well. “So you should love your neighbor for that which you love in yourself (that is, for the good in him, not the bad),” etc.  The seven works of mercy are “to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to give shelter to strangers, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick…to comfort those in prison…to bury the dead.” The seven deadly sins are “pride, envy, wrath (or hate), sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust.” The seven virtues are faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude (in other words, a nifty combination of Paul and Marcus Aurelius). The seven sacraments are baptism, confirmation, penance, eucharist, last rites, holy orders, and matrimony.

In Pastors and the Care of Souls, Pecham’s tract is followed by a selection from Quinque verba, from BL Harley MS 52, which goes into greater details concerning explanations and actual procedure of the items enumerated in Ignorantia sacerdotum. The two would make great companion readings for class.

From my perspective and research interests, tracts such as these are important for what they can indicated concerning the general state of Christian knowledge and belief among medieval English folk. It is a salutary reminder of the spiritual and mental background of the people who went to war, or were otherwise affected by war, in the fourteenth century–it is easy to get carried away with grain quantities and recruitment patterns and tactics, and forget that there were other matters on which people spent a good deal of thought. Or on which the medieval church spent a lot of time encouraging them to think. The distinction is important, but I’m not sure it means that much in the great scheme of things–things spiritual often occupied medieval soldiers, even if they were not exactly orthodox according to Archbishop Pecham’s way of thinking.

Of course, it is worth noting that spiritual ignorance was hardly a medieval phenomenon. In fact, I’ve observed that, over the last decade, it has grown harder and harder for students to quickly and competently grasp aspects of the medieval mentality, as fewer and fewer of them are familiar with the biblical knowledge that would facilitate that kind of understanding.  Given the prevalence of things medieval in today’s society, it’s not a very encouraging situation…But that just makes medievalists that much more important, right?


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