Academic precarity in historical perspective: impoverished early modern clergy

‘The poor curate’ (1832) from the Collections of the British Museum

The recent UCU strike has put academic precarity – the insecure and unsatisfactory conditions in which many academics are employed by universities – in the news, although academics have of course been talking about it for years to anyone who would listen. When the past is invoked by those who draw attention to academic precarity it is usually the relatively recent past: the post-War era when academics generally enjoyed far better pay, conditions and job security than they do today. But delve a little further back into the historical record, and academics did not fare so well. Until the early nineteenth century the vast majority of academics in England were clergy; the Georgian and Victorian clergy are notorious for their use of clerical appointments to support academic studies that ranged well beyond the realm of theology, and many leading scientists of the period were Anglican priests. While this may shock contemporary sensibilities (we tend to think that the clergy should prioritise pastoral work) clerical appointments were an integral part of the academic economy of early modern England, right down to the nineteenth century.

Pursuing an academic career inside an early modern English university was something few people managed, not least because there were officially only two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) until 1837. There were also no research doctorates (only higher doctorates awarded later in life in recognition of a body of written work). An academic career required election to a college fellowship, but these were often time-limited (as today), and (as today) there were more qualified individuals than jobs available. Many colleges also required fellows to be celibate, a curious hangover of the pre-Reformation era but a rule that colleges deliberately enforced to ensure a regular turnover of fellows, as fellows would want to get married and therefore leave the college. At a time when a man getting married meant receiving a dowry from his wife, marriage was a financial as much as a romantic transaction. Some former fellows managed to retain their connection with the college by acquiring a living in the gift of the college, meaning that after ordination they went to serve a parish church where the right of presentation (advowson) belonged to their college, and where the income of the parish would sometimes allow them to employ a curate who would perform divine service while the incumbent pursued his academic studies.

But just as there were never enough college fellowships to go around, so there were not enough livings in the Church of England to support all of the men graduating from Oxford and Cambridge in expectation of receiving holy orders. Although, in theory, every ordinand had to be ordained to a ‘title’ (a specific post within the church), in practice many of these ‘titles’ were paper fictions, creating a body of impoverished clergy who had only a slender hope of getting a job in the church. To make matters worse, graduates had to wait until the age of 23 before they reached the canonical age for ordination to the diaconate – and since many men finished university before the age of 21, they had to find some way to support themselves in the meantime. Canon Law also specified a year between ordination to the diaconate and ordination to the priesthood; some clergy, who were unable to obtain patronage or a ‘title’ as priests, ended up in limbo as deacons for many years, or perhaps for life – they were clergy, but their lowly status debarred them from all but the lowest-ranking positions in the church (my 2015 book Inferior Office? was about this group of clergy in the Church of England).

The clerical ideal in the early modern Church of England – which was probably what many men were thinking of when they sought holy orders – was a lucrative living accompanied by the status of incumbent (rector or vicar), perhaps with a sufficient income to employ a curate who would take on the everyday duties of the parish while the incumbent pursued his own studies and researches. However, just as the dream of a tenured academic position so often proves elusive for many contemporary academics, so the reality of clerical life in early modern England usually fell far short of the ideal. With no hope of a living, newly ordained men were sometimes forced to become schoolmasters or perpetual curates employed to look after parishes for wealthier clergymen. The lucky ones might become private chaplains to the gentry, but many had to seek employment overseas in Britain’s colonies in North America and the Caribbean. Some found livings, but they were desperately poor ones that were insufficient to sustain an incumbent. A handful of clergy, who fell the furthest, made a pittance by solemnising fraudulent marriages – sometimes in league with criminal gangs. Many poor clergy had to supplement their incomes by teaching, tutoring and other additional duties.

The early modern clerical life – which was the most common destination of those who studied for a degree up to the early nineteenth century – can be portrayed as a comfortable one, but this was only true for those fortunate enough to enjoy patronage. For a large proportion of clergy their career was a precarious one where there was usually some sort of employment, but no guarantee of a liveable stipend. A vast gap existed between the wealthier clergy, with their secure livings, and the precarious lower end of the profession – in much the same way that the life of a tenured academic today differs significantly from the conditions experienced by early career researchers. And then as now, popular perception of the clergy often focussed on the better off: just as some people today dismiss the concerns of academics because their notion of academia is informed by the senior fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, so many in the eighteenth century were unsympathetic to a clergy whom they perceived as fat, lazy and overprivileged. Yet this was not the reality for most clergymen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.