The early 16th Century Church was an important authority in the lives of many, including ordinary people, but to some it was also seen as exploitative of people’s faith in order to gain additional revenue. Source 1, an extract from an anti-clerical pamphlet by Simon Fish, suggests that people were exploited with money going to the “greedy horde”, a wholly negative image. The idea that “priests are not shepherds” reiterates that the role of priests and other religious figures is to guide people especially those like ‘sheep’ who cannot help themselves; it is their role to bring people closer to God.
Instead, they are described as “ravenous wolves” with a strength that they may use to control or manipulate in an unfair way. Source 2 gives a view completely opposite to this, suggesting that the Church is a deserving authority, rather than one which exploits faith for monetary gain. While Source 1 describes priests and other religious figures as “idle, holy thieves” who are undeserving, Source 2 by Aske implies that the “great alms given to poor men” meant that the money given to the Church was well spent.
Both sources suggest that the poorest are most affected by the Church’s influence, whether in a positive or negative way. Source 1 declares that “poor wives must be accountable for every tenth egg or be taken as a heretic” which suggests exploitation of people’s beliefs, to be marked as a heretic would be extremely damaging to the religious with a fear of punishments, whether tangible or in the afterlife (purgatory etc). The Church was a great power which people felt that they wanted to or felt they had to obey, religion was extremely important to them.
On the other hand, source 2 focuses on the “poor and ignorant” who are reliant on the Church for “spiritual guidance by the example set” and also for charity in order to live their lives. The source by Aske gives the view that any money given to the Church is spent well, especially by the “Northern abbeys” perhaps. It is shown as a needed resource, one which is used for the benefit of those who need it and not for the priests or clergy themselves. This strong difference in opinion is largely due to the different origins of the sources, and their intended purposes.
Fish (author of Source 1) was a Protestant who would have wanted to persuade people that the Church was corrupt and abused the power it has been given by the belief of the people for monetary benefit. There was a focus especially in the source (published in 1529 prior to the full separation from Rome) on the “poor wives” and also on the authority of “the King”; the importance of those who are deserving of charity and Henry who Fish believed should be obeyed over religious power.
There is a possibility that the source would have been intended for the more influential to see and realise that the Church may be a problem if it can avoid “the laws”, it is a warning. On the other hand, Source 2 by Aske is evidence produced under oath, meaning that it should technically be what he believes to be the truth, but also that he was largely trying to protect himself as he was in a position where he was likely to be executed after being arrested in 1537.
He had to defend himself and also the Church, as a strong Catholic – he led a revolt to London and was against Henry and the Reformation and was trying to prevent the inevitable. The contexts of the sources are different, as are the beliefs of their authors, with completely different intentions and reasons for writing. However, the perhaps most useful source is Source 3 – the will of an ordinary woman (likely a servant, due to the use of “my Master Milard”), giving the details of how she wants her goods to be divided, namely all to the Church.
There are two ways that this source can be interpreted, depending on your individual viewpoint. It could be said that the source shows a strong belief in religion, and that religious faith was not exploited as people wanted to give their goods – “for my tithes negligently forgotten”, with ‘negligently’ showing some form of guilt rather than simply obligation. In her will she writes that she “bequeath my soul unto Almighty God”, this was her last opportunity to write her beliefs and the fact that her religion is so important to feature so prominently aside from the division of goods shows that her belief in religion was true.
Joan Brytten writes that “for the rest of my goods… I will that a priest shall sing for my soul”, for an avoidance of purgatory and as it is her choice to do so – from the Catholic viewpoint, that of Aske, would be that this belief is beneficial and that the “spiritual guidance” given to the poor is vital, helping them rather than a form of exploitation for the Church to increase it’s wealth.
After all, the goods of an ordinary woman would be worth little, suggesting that there must be some more moralistic reason for her local church to agree to this or for ‘singing for her soul’ to be something which could be done. An alternative viewpoint is that the “rest of my goods” is an incredibly high price, perhaps to the extent of being exploitation simply for prayers although obviously they had meaning to the woman – the fact that there was nothing to be left to her family etc may be seen as exploitation, taking all that the woman has left to give in return for this service.
The fact that someone was so willing to give up everything, even if it was when she had no use for it, simply in return for prayers and song shows that many people’s belief in religion was strong and real; to a greater extent than that of Source 2 – Aske also had some ulterior motive, to protect himself after a rebellion. The overall view though as presented by the sources, is that for many people religion was incredibly important and on the whole the Church was not overly exploitative to increase it’s wealth as people wanted the services the Church could give.