Women’s Devotional Bequests of Textiles in the Late Medieval English Parish Church, c.1350-1550
Nicola A. Lowe
Gender & History: Vol.22, No.2 August 2010, pp. 407–429.
‘To the high altare of Stowe my best shete to be an altare cloth, and my best kyrchyff to be a corporax’
When Agnes Sygrave donated these personal possessions to her parish church in 1531, she was making an important statement. Her gift proclaimed both her gender and her spiritual intentions at a time when women had no public authority within the all-male hierarchy of the church. The Gregorian reforms of the eleventh century had excluded women from clerical and administrative roles. The prohibitions extended to female access to sacred space: with few exceptions, women were physically barred from the sanctuary where the Eucharist was celebrated. Scholars have identified these ‘reforms’ as leading to a radically reduced role for women in the church. However, Agnes Sygrave’s gifts show that the exclusion from significant aspects of devotion may not have been as complete as it sounds. Specifying that her personal effects, feminised through use and association, were to be used as altar cloths, Agnes circumvented some of the constraints laid upon female access to the Eucharist, gaining a symbolic presence at the geographical and spiritual heart of the liturgy, and a much-desired proximity to the flesh and blood of Christ. Her bequest is one of several similar recorded donations made by women from both rural and urban parishes during the later Middle Ages.
Much documentation for this period exists in the form of wills, churchwardens’ accounts, inventories and court records. However, these papers have survived unevenly both chronologically and geographically; many are incomplete and may be compiled according to differing local customs. It is not possible, therefore, to provide a comprehensive survey of this aspect of female religious patronage. Instead I offer a cautious interpretation of the available evidence, using individual examples to build up a general picture of female agency, one which appears relatively consistent over a period of about two hundred years, at least in the context of orthodox religious practice, despite the social and economic differences that existed between English regions.