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The conscience of the community: the character and development of clerical complaint in early modern England

By Juliet Amy Ingram


This thesis considers the character and development of clerical social criticism in England between c.1540 and c.1640. It draws principally on a number of sermons and treatises that offered critiques of the prevailing structures of wealth and power or exhortations to the fulfilment of charitable obligation. The paradigm through which these texts were constructed was that of ‘complaint’, a genre that was particularly vibrant in medieval discourse and in the sermons and ‘commonwealth’ tracts of the 1540s. It will be argued that rather than eschewing this tradition, late sixteenth-century preachers appropriated and refashioned its structures, themes and authorial positioning in response to far reaching economic, social and religious change.\ud \ud Particular aspects of socio-economic change, and of their effects on the clergy in particular, are examined in the introduction. Among the themes that are particularly germane to this thesis are the history of the enclosure movement; increasing commercialisation; and changing attitudes towards the poor. The first chapter assembles a number of printed texts in order to re-examine the trajectory of clerical complaint literature in the context of these developments. The second chapter considers the potential for social and political criticism in sermons preached at the county assizes, a sub-genre of ‘occasional’ sermons that until recently has received little attention from literary scholars or historians. The latter half of the thesis offers three case studies of selected sermons by three different authors. The intention of these chapters is primarily to examine the interaction between a text and its particular local context, although attention is also paid to broader social, political and discursive developments that help shed light on the historical meaning of these sermons.\ud \ud It is thus hoped that this study will contribute particularly to the ongoing interdisciplinary work of ‘contextualising’ the early modern English sermon and of reconstructing the role and status of the parish minister. Rather than a ‘voice in the wilderness’, it is concluded, the clerical moralist was an active agent in the discursive interpretation of economic change, and in the fashioning and communication of the reputation of powerful individuals

Topics: BR, HN
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