Originally published in 1970, Richard W. Pfaff’s New Liturgical Feasts in Later Medieval England
fundamentally changed the way humanities scholars thought and wrote about English religious development in the long fifteenth century. Pfaff asked important questions about the
process by which the new devotions that focused on Christ and the Virgin entered the liturgy in England and how a liturgical feast was ‘promulgated — at all the levels to make it effective — or accepted’. Moreover, he emphasised the gradual pace of liturgical change and its different stages.
Pfaff explored the relationship between liturgical and extra-liturgical devotions; demonstrated the variation in the pace and extent of regional, local and institutional change; and promoted the idea of the push and pull of popular demand for change in place of the traditional notion of
official promulgation from above. Most importantly, even though he was a liturgical scholar with deep, specialised knowledge of the material evidence and an intense insight into the practice of the period, Pfaff opened study of the cultural impact of these devotions to scholars of many adjacent fields. It is in honour of this wide sowing that we now gather, fifty years
on, to reap and to share.
New Liturgical Feasts documented a process of increased elaboration and enhancement in
fifteenth-century English liturgy that would have profoundly impacted the experience of church-
going parishioners throughout the realm. Pfaff saw this as evidence of ‘liturgical vitality’ rather than of ‘an over-complicated and decadent system which was shortly to collapse through its own burdensomeness’ (p. 131). He called for scholars interested in ‘the whole of later medieval spirituality’ to consider both private devotion and ‘what goes on in the church’ (p. 132).
In the five decades since 1970, we have witnessed a very considerable flourishing of research —
conducted across many disciplines — on a wide range of aspects of late medieval religious life.
These include, among others, lay piety, the importance of gender in shaping religious belief and practice, religious observance in parish and cathedral churches, the religious orders, saints’ cults, mysticism, devotional reading, the material culture of religion, and heterodoxy and heresy. Pfaff’s pioneering study opened new pathways and provided a new impetus for scholars to explore religious culture as a whole in all its variety. As a result, fifty years after NLF’s publication, we have a much greater appreciation of the vitality, as well as the complexity, of late medieval religion.
‘Pfaff at Fifty’ will take place at the University of Nottingham, 2-3 July 2020. The conference aims to take stock of the enduring legacy of New Liturgical Feasts by reconsidering the important questions that this touchstone book raised. We invite abstracts that address the themes, questions, and implications of Pfaff’s book in the light of new research. We encourage submissions from scholars working in any relevant discipline or field, including history, theology, art history, literary studies, archaeology, gender studies, musicology, and manuscript studies.
Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words and a short biographical note to either of the email addresses listed below by 1 October 2019.