(Church) Life in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #9a)

In the medieval world, the influence of the Church was ubiquitous.

The average modern inhabitant of the western world, even a religious one, might struggle to conceive of how much this was the case.

According to John R.H. Moorman, author of Church Life in the Thirteenth Century,

[I]t is almost impossible to realise what the authority of the medieval Church actually meant.  Today a man’s duty to the secular power is regarded as inevitable and obligatory, while his duty to the Church is purely optional, a matter for his own conscience or his own taste. In the Middle Ages the allegiance demanded by the Church was just as great and just as indisputable as that required by the State.  Every man was subject to the secular power, which had certain rights over his property and his labour; but he was equally in the power of the Church, which not only deprived him of a considerable proportion of his living, but also claimed to control his life and to give him his final passport either to unending joy or to unspeakable and eternal anguish. (p. 2)

An important thing to keep in mind regarding this obligatory submission to the rule of the Church, however, is that very few people—if any— desired for anything different.

Everyone believed in God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell, and according to Moorman, “the assurance of an ultimate destiny of either perpetual bliss or eternal torment.” (p. 74).

The Church, in its position as the sole pathway to everlasting life alongside God, thus remained a force to be both loved and feared, and because of this, generally obeyed.

Services of the Church

Aside from regular Sunday service, which will be discussed in a subsequent post, the Church in the 13th century played a role in every major milestone of people’s lives, as well as some minor ones that in turn became important through divine involvement.

The first of these milestones was birth and Baptism.  So important was this sacrament that holy water was always kept at the ready in the church font so that newborns could be baptized the day they were born.  Moorman writes,

The babe who died unbaptised was indeed forlorn, for it had no hope of heaven’s bliss. (p. 83)

(For this reason, babies were often baptized while not yet fully emerged from the birth canal if it was feared the child wouldn’t survive being born.)

Marriage in the 13th century was similarly a religious affair, conducted outside the church door and officiated by a priest in the sight of God.

Finally, in death, the Church honoured people with a dignified service at their burial, as well as their remembrance during the Sunday worship of the living.

Even before one’s final breath, however, priests kept themselves ready to depart at a moment’s notice in order to administer Extreme Unction (anointing with holy oil) to the sick in preparation for death.

According to Moorman:

The visit to the sick man, moreover, was to be carried out with dignity and reverence, the priest travelling along the country lanes or across the open fields clad in a surplice and preceded by his clerk carrying the cross and a lantern, and ringing the ‘tintinabulum’[.] (p. 88)

The Church also played a role in each the following:

Work: Peasants owed free labour on church lands, as well as tithes of 10% of their annual earnings, the majority of which would have been rendered as agricultural products or livestock.

War: Priests and other members of the clergy accompanied armies into battle to offer blessings and absolution for lives taken, or even to take up arms themselves.

Education: In noble houses, any education children received, such as reading, languages, and of course religious instruction, came from a priest or chaplain.

Design of communities: In villages, according to Moorman, churches “stood majestically above the low huts of the people, a perpetual reminder to them of all things spiritual and eternal.” (p. 69).

Similarly in castles, according to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle, “An indispensable feature of the castle of a great lord was the chapel where the lord and his family heard morning mass.” (p. 70)

The passage of time: People organized their day around the ringing of the church bells, which marked the eight canonical hours of prayer.  As well, although counted numerically, each year was prefaced by the descriptor “the year of Our Lord”.

Pyramid schemes

The medieval church was structured much the same way as the feudal system of landholding that governed the lives of the laity.

In the lay system, the king sat at the top as the ruler of everything and everyone; great earls and barons were directly below him; lesser lords were below them; and peasants, both free and unfree, were at the bottom.

At the top of the Church hierarchy, as the ruler of all Christendom, sat the Pope.

Below him were the archbishops and bishops, who were usually wealthy, highly-educated, and from noble families.  They were responsible for a division of church land known as a diocese or bishopric, as well as for advising the king on matters of state.

Next came the parish priests, who were usually from humble families and had only a modest amount of education.  These men were responsible for their individual parish, which contained a single church.  Many parishes together comprised a diocese.

Village priests (presided in village churches) and chaplains (presided in castle chapels) were likewise usually of humble birth.  According to John T. Appleby, author of John, King of England, these men

…were in most cases poorly educated. They knew only enough Latin to be able to read the services; if they had had much more education they would have had a more lucrative and pleasant post in some nobleman’s household, in some bishop’s court, or in the employment of the king himself….  The village priests, however, were far removed from the intellectual stimulation of such a life and tended to sink to the level of the peasants among whom they spent their lives and from whose ranks they had often come. (p. 153)

At the bottom of the hierarchy, finally, came the worshippers.

Peasant and noble alike, the laity did much to sustain the very system that held so much sway over their lives, the former through their tithes and labour, and the latter through grants of land and by financing the establishment of religious houses.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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