Thursday, October 13, 2022

Felicity Hill's "Excommunication in Thirteenth-Century England"

Felicity Hill is a lecturer in medieval history at the University of St Andrews. She was previously a research fellow at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and a Scouloudi fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. She holds degrees from the University of Manchester (BA), University College London (MA), and the University of East Anglia (PhD).

Hill applied the Page 99 Test to her new book, Excommunication in Thirteenth-Century England: Communities, Politics, and Publicity, and reported the following:
The Page 99 Test works reasonably well for my book. Page 99 starts a couple of sentences into the conclusion to my second chapter, so summarises the arguments of the previous forty pages. Many of the ideas discussed in the first 99 pages of the book are dealt with on the page, including how excommunication’s effects on the soul were presented to the wider population by churchmen, how people responded to the hellish implications of this ecclesiastical sanction, and why.
reactions varied from fearful to indifferent to defiant. The indifferent, who were too little disturbed by deprivation of the sacraments and church, judged that they would benefit from delaying absolution. Nothing indicates that there was any widespread scepticism about excommunication’s effects. … Nor did the defiant reject the power of excommunication in toto. Clergy were fallible, so some simply rejected the validity of their own individual sentences, questioning such sentences’ ability to imperil their salvation. They disregarded the church’s unequivocal teaching that scorning an unjust sentence rendered it a just one, but could still believe in the spiritual perils of valid excommunication. Even the pious might refuse, at least temporarily, to accept a sentence pronounced against them by someone they believed was acting unjustly.

The issue was not that the spiritual terrors inflicted by excommunication were too weak, but rather that they took effect too slowly. These effects provided an important part of the sanction’s potency. Yet it is clear that only in certain circumstances were they enough to impel a swift absolution. The afterlife was something to worry about later. Spiritual effects provided an incentive to reconcile with the church or to avoid excommunication in the first place, but alongside social and other worldly and immediate repercussions. … As a means of quickly driving sinners to make satisfaction, fear of hell alone was not enough. In the case of deathbed absolutions, which are unfortunately difficult to quantify, excommunication might have been very effective. For the healthy, however, loss of salvation was of less immediate concern than temporal repercussions.
Page 99 gives a good indication of the type of book this is – a social history that analyses responses to excommunication and the tensions between ecclesiastical authorities and the laity. On the other hand, it terms of content, it is less representative. Page 99 comes only one third into the book, forming the culmination of Part I. Though important topics such as automatic excommunications and the sanction’s medicinal purpose are mentioned (the latter in the sentence that carries over onto page 100), most of the ideas discussed in Parts II and III necessarily don’t appear here. The importance of communities’ responses to sentences and the public nature of excommunication are two of the book’s main arguments, neither of which is mentioned on this page. A browser opening the book at page 99 would probably get a good sense of whether they would like to read more, but they would need to do so in order to learn what several of my key arguments are. I looked to see whether skipping forward another hundred pages to 199 would be better. Probably not, because it’s mid-chapter, but it does give an indication of the later parts’ discussions: ‘For an excommunicate, [public] denunciation was often the most harmful aspect of a sentence, and could be deemed by both victims and communities to be unjust or excessive’.
Learn more about Excommunication in Thirteenth-Century England at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue