Any Given Sunday in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #9b)

As discussed in the previous post on the medieval Church, church life in the Middle Ages was life.

The services it provided contributed to every key turning point in people’s existence.  According to John R.H. Moorman, author of Church Life in the Thirteenth Century,

It gave first, the regular worship of the Church on Sundays and weekdays.  It gave also the opportunities of Christian baptism, matrimony and burial, together with a little teaching and some spiritual direction mainly administered in the confessional.  Further, it offered to the sick and the dying spiritual comfort and perhaps, in some places, medical help as well. (p. 151)

Still, there existed an ongoing tension in the 13th century between the desire for salvation of one’s soul and the inability of the laity, for a number of reasons, to be active participants in their own redemption.
Moorman explains:

Apart from any offices which the priest might choose to say, there were, on Sundays, three services which the laity were bidden to attend….  Unfortunately, however, men do not always do their duty in the matter of worship.  Of the three services the one which was best attended was the Mass, which was held fairly early in the morning.  People were also encouraged to be present at Mattins, which preceded it, but it is clear that some of them were content to arrive only for Mass, and, even then, were often late.  The rich seem to have been the chief offenders….  As for Evensong, the evidence rather suggests that Sunday afternoons were more often given over to merry-making than to worship, so that the congregations at these services must have been rather thin. (pp. 68-9)

Sunday (no) fun days

Moorman states that the idea everyone when to church during the 13th century simply isn’t true.

Evidence for this comes from extant complaints by upper Church officials about poor attendance.  In these records, subordinate clergy are urged to convince more people to go to church, and to even levy fines for nonattendance.

For peasants in particular, the only break from the daily grind of manual labour were the holy-days (i.e. holidays) provided by the Church year.  Some of these were associated with feasting and festivities, but many were days of obligation.

As such, many people quite sensibly chose to use their Sundays for recreation and rest.

Even when people did attend Sunday service, it was often with an ostensible lack of reverence.  Men and women chattered and gossiped, flirted, lolled up against pillars (since medieval churches contained no seating), and generally paid little attention to what was being said.

The reason for this irreverence (aside from the fact the service was conducted in Latin, which few other than the priest understood) was that medieval church services offered little to capture the imagination of the worshippers.

The average parish church in England contained no costly vestments or ornaments through which to illicit awe and humility.  As well, there was little for worshippers to do other than be spectators: they sang no hymns, rarely heard sermons, and may well have observed Communion only once a year on Easter Sunday.

Combined with priests on average being, in the words of Moorman, “simple men without much education and perhaps with even less imagination or vision” (p. 155), 13th century Sunday service sounds like a fairly uninspiring experience indeed.

Life, interrupted

Still, according to Moorman, the church “had the opportunity of exercising in each parish a civilising and elevating influence to counteract the coarseness and tediousness of life.” (p. 151).

He goes on to say of priests that,

[W]ithout stopping to think too deeply of why they were there or what was the real object of their work, they carried on according to the traditions which they had inherited and were generally accepted by the people…. [F]or the most part they gave the people what they needed[.] (p. 153)

The most useful venue of teaching and moral counsel, according to Moorman, was not the pulpit on Sunday, but the confessional.  Confession generally occurred once a year in preparation for Easter Communion, and could be adapted to each person’s unique situation as needed.

In order to ensure a detailed confession that held nothing back from God, priests were trained to be searching and to ask probing questions, such as “Have you ever borrowed things and not returned them?”, “Have you taught your children the Lord’s Prayer?”, and “Have you ever ridden over growing corn?”

They also asked questions about people’s sexual habits, although without mentioning specific acts, lest they incite the penitent into the very behaviour they sought to eliminate.  In addition to his morals, the penitent’s faith and knowledge was also put to the test.

Ultimately, medieval church life offered people a comfort and consistency that would have been keenly felt if inexplicably taken away.

Which it was on March 23, 1208.  At the order of Pope Innocent III, all of England was lain under interdict—the result of an ongoing dispute between the Pope and King John over the king’s refusal to accept Rome’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury.

The interdict led to the forcible cessation of almost all religious services.  John T. Appleby, author of John, King of England, writes that,

Children were baptized in private; confessions were heard at the church door; and sermons were preached only in the courtyard.  The dying were shriven and given the Viaticum, but they could not be given Extreme Unction, for no bishop could consecrate the Holy Oils.  With these exceptions, all functions of the Church were suspended. (p. 152)

This further included the absence of Mass, Holy Communion, the inability to hold any sort of service in a church, the inability to ring the church bells, and the burial of the dead in unconsecrated ground.

According to Appleby,

This would be a crushing blow to any Catholic community; it was felt with a keenness we can hardly now imagine in the England of the time, where most of the people lived in small villages, almost wholly isolated from the rest of the world.  Their lives were hard; they lacked the comforts of life and counted themselves fortunate to have the bare necessities of food, clothing, and shelter.  In those limited lives the Church played a most important part and offered the people their only means of lifting their thoughts above the daily round. (pp. 152-3)

The Interdict lasted for six years, three months, and six days.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1 and #2)

3 thoughts on “Any Given Sunday in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #9b)

  1. Nicely researched Janna. Even then it seems people used to rock up to Mass and other services more out of a sense of obligation than from a positive desire. You might possibly be denounced by the priest from the altar, and certainly tongues would wag if your absence was noted.

    Until quite recently an Irish Sunday Mass was hilarious. The devout and those wishing to be seen got there early, others at the last minute. But it was the gang of men who dragged themselves there late, stood at the back or outside the door, chatting and smoking. No wish to be there but scared not to attend. And off to the pub the minute they could.

    I didn’t know about the Interdict. Similar to the later Penal Laws in Ireland that led to Masses being held in secret, in the countryside, with lookouts posted.


    • The more things change, the more they stay the same, hey Roy. Although in the medieval folks’ defence, it must have been mighty difficult to be engaged and inspired by a service they couldn’t even understand (and which many priests only sort of comprehended themselves).

      I love that image of the gang of men (probably hung over) gathered outside the door under extreme self-imposed duress. I might have to find a way to incorporate that in a subsequent novel.

      Yes, the Interdict was miserable chapter in medieval Church history in England, one that was largely preventable but for King John’s arrogance and stubbornness. They say that John was uncommonly irreligious for the time period. Even any of the above-mentioned gang of men wouldn’t have permit the sentence to go on for six whole years. The worst part of it for people must have been the requirement to bury their dead in unhallowed ground.

      Liked by 1 person

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