"The Right Ordering of Souls"

The Parish of All Saints' Bristol on the Eve of the Reformation

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Clive Burgess
Studies in the History of Medieval Religion
  • Suffolk, England: 
    Boydell & Brewer Publishers
    , April
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Clive Burgess is the undisputed expert on the medieval history of All Saints’ parish in Bristol, England. He has spent decades studying the parish manuscripts and edited three volumes of parish records. The Right Ordering of Souls: The Parish of All Saints' Bristol on the Eve of the Reformation is the culmination of such intensive research. Burgess seeks to generate “an understanding of parishioners’ religious motivation and behavior” in 15th and 16th century England (xi). He argues that the goal of parishioners was to increase and improve the divine service. As Burgess notes, “All Saints’—like every other ecclesiastical community—existed primarily to increase the divine service” (383). There were a variety of ways to increase the divine service, from establishing chantries to intercessory prayers for the dead. Even improvements to the fabric of the church ultimately increased the divine service.

The book’s title is derived from a phrase found in the canon Omnis utriusque sexus, promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215: “the right ordering of souls is the art of arts” (6). The canon provided an authoritative statement for the pastoral care of all the faithful by mandating that the clergy instruct their parishioners in church doctrine and that the faithful follow Christian precepts, such as confessing their sins at least once a year. It established a new pastoral configuration that encouraged the laity to become involved in their parish. Burgess declares the canon was successful by the late Middle Ages in England, as evident in All Saints’ parish. The laity of All Saints’ occupied a central role in the administering the parish and ensured that parish life was vibrant.

In order to support the position that parish life was vibrant, Burgess heavily relies on bequests to the parish church. All Saints’ parish kept a “Church Book” to commemorate benefactors of the parish. Burgess mines this source, along with wills, to demonstrate that there was an ongoing tradition of wealthy benefactors donating money to increase divine service within the parish. Wealthy parishioners often left money to establish a service on the anniversary of their death or a chantry. For example, the Haddon family established a chantry for the repose of Richard Haddon’s parents. Even when Richard Haddon fell into debt, other parishioners were willing to step in with financial support to ensure that the chantry continued. They apparently believed that ensuring the continuation of the chantry was vital to the spiritual well-being of the parish.

Much of the work for maintaining a vibrant parish life lay with a small elite. Burgess is able to identify these individuals and families because they feature prominently in extant documents such as wills, bequests, and churchwarden accounts. Families such as the Halleways, Haddons, and Cestres dominated bequests and led initiatives to improve the church building. Burgess even sees a plan to increase divine service in the parish by rebuilding the church building in the 1430s and 1440s. These elites were, in Burgess’s opinion, not only motivated to increase the divine service in the parish, but also motivated by less altruistic concerns, such as ensuring intercessory prayers would be said for their souls after their deaths. Burgess is also able to identify a parish council known as the “masters” who seem to have been responsible for collecting money from parishioners on behalf of the parish and responsible for undertaking big projects. These “masters” were likely the wealthy and successful elites of the parish who could be trusted with the parish’s money. They were the real powers in the parish, overshadowing churchwardens who mainly oversaw maintenance of parish resources. Additionally, Burgess seems to prove that the masters were effective administrators. They ensured that the parish remained financially viable through effective management of parish endowments in an era largely characterized by economic despair.

The Right Ordering of Souls is ultimately an institutional history about lay elites administering a parish rather than a comprehensive history of religious life in the parish. Much of this is because the sources ultimately detail the parish elites since they were the ones making bequests and donations to the parish. One is left with an in-depth understanding of the religious experience of well-to-do parish elites while parishioners of lesser means are relegated to the shadows. While much modern scholarship attempts to focus on the religious experience of the average layperson, there is great value in understanding the religious experience of the parish elites and how they administered the parish.

A fair criticism of The Right Ordering of Souls is that it recapitulates some ideas already presented by Burgess. Perhaps it is inevitable considering the number of articles about All Saints’ published by Burgess throughout his lengthy career. For example, Burgess argued that the masters of All Saints’ were responsible for administering the parish rather than the churchwardens in an article published in 2002 (“Pre-Reformation Churchwardens' Accounts and Parish Government: Lessons from London and Bristol,” The English Historical Review 117, (2002): 306–332). Nevertheless, Burgess provides more evidence and discussion for his ideas in this book than in his previously published articles. Even if one is familiar with Burgess’s preexisting scholarship, they can still find new insights in The Right Ordering of Souls.

All Saints’ was an unusual parish in an unusual city. Even its quantity of extant documents is unusual. The comparatively large number of extant documents allows Burgess to paint a picture of All Saints’ parish in greater detail than is possible for other medieval parishes. Burgess successfully argues that elite parishioners sought to increase the divine service and receive commemoration for their largesse. He provides a rationale for understanding why so much effort and money placed in projects and institutions—like chantries—for the parish. His study also supports the view that the preformation Church was vibrant and important in the lives of people. The Right Ordering of Souls may not document a “typical” medieval parish, yet it still deepens our understanding of late medieval religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin S. Kirkland earned a PhD in history from the University of Iowa.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clive Burgess is Senior Lectureship in Late Medieval History at Royal Holloway, University of London.


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