Lay Agency in Religious Change: the Role of Communities and Landlords in Reform and Reformation
In this essay I seek to illuminate “from below” the process of growing lay agency in matters of religion within the frame of a case study. Although the expansion of lay control over church affairs is usually considered an urban phenomenon, I focus on the Hungarian countryside, on how peasants living in villages and towns under feudal authority participated in late medieval reform and sixteenth-century reformations. I contend that the late medieval observant reform of the mendicant friary of the market-town of Körmend was initiated by laymen, and the process of reform itself took place primarily in the interplay of the social and religious needs of the community and landlord. In order to assess on a more general level the role of lay participation in church affairs, I test my findings against village parish religion. I investigate negotiations between peasant communities and landlords over issues related to the election of the local parish incumbent, as well his livelihood and the maintenance of the parish church. I conclude that the high level of lay participation and investments in matters of local religion made it possible for Luther to speak about communal rights and transform locally diverse practices into a universal Christian norm.