John Mirk Essay - Critical Essays

Mirk, John


John Mirk fl. 1390-c. 1414

English religious writer.

Mirk was an influential Augustinian clergyman best known for providing religious guidance for parish priests through his three major works, The Festial (circa 1382), Instructions for Parish Priests (circa 1382), and Manuale sacerdotis (circa 1414). Though Mirk intended these works for the instruction of parish priests, The Festial, a collection of sermons, became a popular success among the laity. The Festial was likely the most widely read religious text of its day and therefore constitutes a landmark work in the emerging body of English literature.

Biographical Information

While little is known about Mirk's early life, much can be surmised through examination of his works. It is known that Mirk was an Augustinian canon of Lilleshall Abbey, located in the county of Shropshire; his writings contain references to his presence at the abbey, but accounts do not specifically refer to his contribution to the abbey's day-to-day activities. In addition, Mirk's dialect leads some critics to believe that he might have been raised in the north of England near Yorkshire, a region with a strong religious tradition. References in Mirk's work also testify that he was well-educated and took advantage of the abbey's library. A sermon in The Festial suggests to critics that Mirk served as a pastor at Saint Alkmund's Church in Shrewsbury. This experience in the active clergy may have provided Mirk with an understanding of the needs of parish priests and thus inspired him to provide materials for their use. After his service at Saint Alkmund's Church, Mirk is thought to have been appointed prior of Lilleshall. As a prior, Mirk was in a position of authority, removed from daily concerns, and therefore able to provide his fellow priests with knowledge needed to guide their parishioners.

Major Works

Mirk's most widely-read work, both among his contemporaries and among modern readers, is The Festial. The intent of this work is to provide a collection of sermons to parish priests, who could incorporate them into their church services. Mirk's use of accessible narrative and metaphor encourages parishioners to relate to the stories on a personal level and to apply the concepts inherent in the sermons to understanding personal spirituality. Although the intended readers of the text were priests, it spread to a larger audience by the late fifteenth century, becoming popular among the merchant classes and the aristocracy. Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests is thought to be a companion text to the Festial. However, Instructions for Parish Priests did not achieve the same fame as the Festial because it follows the standard format of an instructional manual for the clergy and does not provide the same relevance to laypersons as the Festial. Despite the lack of early popularity, the work has found a secular audience in the modern era because it provides a detailed glimpse of the life of the clergy in rural England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Manuale sacerdotis, the last of Mirk's major works, is a Latin handbook detailing the proper conduct for a priest. It was not intended for an audience outside of the clergy, but twentieth-century critics have examined the work's portrayal of priestly abuses and the threats produced by Lollardy.

Critical Reception

Some modern critics suggest that Mirk stands out from other religious writers of his day due to the accessibility of his works, his focus on the popular religious experience, and his use of the vernacular. Many scholars also assert that these elements of Mirk's writing grant him a place in the wider history of English literature, not just religious prose. Through the use of metaphors and easily understandable narratives in the sermons, Mirk sought to present the role of the church not as a controlling authority but as a supporting facilitator. Even though Mirk's views gave the lay person a more active role in his or her own salvation, Mirk did not minimize the importance of the role of the priest, but implied that both laity and clergy were necessary to the formation of a spiritual whole. Widely considered indispensible reference texts for priests as late as the fifteenth century, Mirk's writings are now chiefly studied for their historical significance.

Principal Works

Festial (sermons) circa 1382

Instructions for Parish Priests (philosophy) circa 1382

Manuale sacerdotis (philosophy) circa 1414


W. A. Pantin (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Pantin, W. A. “Manuals of Instruction for Parish Priests.” In The English Church in the Fourteenth Century, pp. 189-219. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1955, Pantin discusses how Mirk's work was significant in providing religious instruction for parish priests.]

In some respects, as in ecclesiastical politics, for instance, the fourteenth century, when viewed as the outcome of the thirteenth century, may seem disappointing, something of a misfit or an anticlimax; thus we may ask whether the episcopal appointments of the fourteenth century were what men like Innocent III had intended. But in the realm of religious literature we can see, in the clearest and most satisfactory way, the achievement of the fourteenth century as the logical outcome of forces at work in the thirteenth century and earlier.

There were three factors at work, which were closely interconnected. In the first place there was the disciplinary legislation of the Church; this was the product of the great movement for ecclesiastical reform, which had been going on from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, culminating in the Lateran Council of 1215 and in the synodal constitutions of the English bishops in the thirteenth century, which followed the lead of the Lateran Council.1 These constitutions provided, among other things, an elaborate programme of religious instruction for the laity; and this was all the more necessary because of the great social and economic phenomenon of the age, the revival of town life and the consequent rise of an educated laity. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the educated layman in late medieval ecclesiastical history.

Secondly, there was the development of a technical literature, especially through the compilation of various Summae, dealing with in the Regimen animarum, but with greater prolixity. The Pupilla oculi became popular; there are many manuscript copies, and it was printed at Rouen in 1510, the only one of these fourteenth-century treatises to be printed at that period. It is uncertain how far it superseded the earlier treatises like the Oculus sacerdotis or the Regimen animarum.

Finally, at the end of the century, there are several works composed by John Mirk, the Prior of the Augustinian Priory of Lilleshall, Salop, c. 1400.


This consists of 1934 lines of English verse, suitable, like Gaytrick's catechism, for learning by heart. On some manuscripts it is described as a translation of the Pars Oculi, i.e. of Part I of the Oculus sacerdotis, but it is in fact not a complete or literal translation of that work. Its structure is as follows. There is a short prologue dealing with the behaviour of the parish priest, his clothing, and so forth. The next section deals with what the parish priest should teach his parishioners (corresponding to Part II of the Oculus sacerdotis); this includes lay-baptism in case of necessity, the duties of midwives, the care of children, regulations concerning marriage, reverent behaviour in church and churchyard, tithe-paying, witchcraft and usury; there are English versions of the Lord's prayer, the Hail Mary and the Creed; the fourteen articles of faith and the seven sacraments are also included. The last section explains what the priest ought to do in the administration of the sacraments (cf. Part III of the Oculus sacerdotis). The section on confession (over 1000 lines, more than half the whole poem) includes instruction on how to hear confessions with interrogation of the penitent as to his religious knowledge and as to his sins under the headings of the ten commandments, the seven sins and the five senses (cf. Part I of the Oculus sacerdotis).


This treatise is written in Latin and is much more elaborate and learned than Mirk's Instructions; indeed, it is very interesting to see one man writing in two completely different styles, though both intended for parish priests. The Manuale is addressed to a certain ‘I. de S., vicar of A.’, a kinsman of Mirk. Mirk apologizes for his ‘rustic speech’, rather self-consciously, I think, or conventionally, because the work is obviously written in the ‘elegant’ style of the period. The Manuale is primarily a treatise on the responsibilities and duties of the priestly state. In some ways it may be regarded as the medieval equivalent of a book like George Herbert's Priest to the Temple, while from another point of view it perhaps has some affinities with medieval books of courtesy and instructions for household servants, with a great deal of moral advice and religious reflection thrown in.

The Manuale consists of five books. Book i is on the priestly state. The priest is reminded that ‘the Gospel is the rule of priests’; there is much about the evils of frivolity and ignorance among priests, but Mirk points out that an unlearned but humble priest is better than a learned but presumptuous one. There are two interesting sketches, not unlike the ‘characters’ of the seventeenth century, of the ‘life [conversacio] of the good priest’ and the ‘life of the bad priest’. It should be noted that both of these sketches, among other things, imply that the acting parish priest or ‘curate’ is normally not beneficed, but a salaried employee, working as an assistant or a substitute for an incumbent, or as chaplain to a lord. This...

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Alan J. Fletcher (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Fletcher, Alan J. “John Mirk and the Lollards.” Medium Aevum 56, no. 2 (1987): 217-24.

[In the essay below, Fletcher considers Mirk's intentions for writing the Festial, placing emphasis on its relation to the period in which it was composed.]


The Festial of John Mirk, Augustinian canon of Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire, is, in spite of everything its prologue avows, finally a work of undeclared intention. Certainly, although Mirk's prologue offers his work for general use, he could not have foreseen that it would become the most widely read vernacular sermon cycle of the fifteenth century, to judge both by the...

(The entire section is 4169 words.)

Alan Fletcher (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Fletcher, Alan. “The Manuscripts of John Mirk's Manuale Sacerdotis.Leeds Studies in English 19 (1988): 105-39.

[In the following essay, Fletcher examines the diversity of the manuscripts of Manuale Sacerdotis in an attempt to determine its audience and success.]

John Mirk, an Austin canon active in the late-fourteenth century and, as we know only from his Manuale Sacerdotis, a prior of the abbey of Lilleshall in Shropshire, has left three known works. Two of these are written in English; his sermon cycle generally known as the Festial and his Instructions for Parish Priests. His third work, in Latin, remains...

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Susan Powell (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Powell, Susan. “John Mirk's Festial and the Pastoral Programme.” Leeds Studies in English 22 (1991): 85-102.

[In the following essay, Powell contends that Mirk's motivation for his texts was as “teaching aids” for priests.]

Within a century of John Mirk's writing his sermon collection, the Festial, it had been copied in whole or part many times, it could be found in two separate versions as well as a major revision, and it had been printed by Caxton as his first sermon collection. Indeed, it was to remain in print until 1532 and to retain its popularity even later. This paper will demonstrate that Mirk's original aim, that the work should...

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Judy Ann Ford (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Ford, Judy Ann. “The Autonomy of Conscience: Images of Confession in Mirk's Festial.Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 23, no. 3 (summer 1999): 5-27.

[In the essay below, Ford provides an analysis of Mirk's descriptions of confession in the Festial, exploring what they reveal about the roles of parishioner and priest in the late medieval period.]

For þus I rede of a woman þat had done an horrybull synne, and myght neuer, for schame, schryue hyr þerof. And oft, when ho come to schryf, scho was yn purpos forto haue ben schryuen; but euer þe fend put such a schame yn hur hert, þat scho had neuer grace to...

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