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Stefan's Florilegium


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pop-religion-art - 8/27/97

³Christianity and Popular Practice in the Middle Ages² by Nicolaa de Bracton of

NOTE: See also the files: religion-msg, monks-msg, fd-monks-msg, Islam-msg,
p-relig-tol-msg, pilgrimages-msg, saints-msg, rosaries-msg, burials-msg.


This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefan¹s Florilegium.

These files are available on the Internet at:

Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.

While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.

Thank you,
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous

Christianity and Popular Practice in the Middle Ages
--Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

The focus of this article is to attempt to understand popular religion
and its context in the Middle Ages. For the majority of Europeans in what one
might term the "central Middle Ages"--the period from 1000 or so to about 1450--
this means a discussion of Catholic Christianity; in this period, almost every
person in Western Europe, if asked, would describe him or herself as Christian,
with only a very tiny percentage (less than 1% overall) being Jewish. Even most
members of "heretical" sects believed that they, too, were Christians. This is
not to say, as we shall see, that every one of those people believed exactly the
same beliefs and followed the same practices; in fact, the monolithic Catholic
Church of the Middle Ages is largely a myth, although many Popes and numerous
church councils tried repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages to impose uniformity
in ritual and training upon the Church--often without success. At the local
level, religious practices were profoundly influenced by the surroundings (town
vs. countryside, herding vs. crop cultivation) and by the agricultural year.
Diversity in, for instance, which saints' feasts were major holidays, was not
only tolerated, it was tacitly encouraged.

The background
All of what was eventually to become Western Europe was once populated by
pagans of various sorts. Some of these pagan religions we know very little
about, while others are much better known. What is certainly true is that
"paganism" also showed variations depending on locale. Roman state paganism,
with its pantheon of gods and goddesses with different patronages and its cult
of emperor-worship, was primarily a religion of the cities and of the Roman
aristocracy in the countryside. Those lower-class country folk living within
the bounds of the Roman empire usually practiced a much more simple form of the
religion, often with local gods and goddesses with patronage over springs,
fields, woods, and general fertility, whose rites often bore no resemblance to
the rather solemn Roman rites and could vary widely from location to location.
So, to ensure the success of the crops or luck in childbearing, a person would
leave a token at a shrine, or go though a small ritual, asking for the
particular god or goddess for help, sometimes with the promise of a gift if the
help were granted. This was the general form pagan practices took outside the
Empire as well. For the average person, these rituals were a comfort--a way of
dealing with the unknown.

When Christianity was officially adopted as the religion of the Roman
Empire in the early fourth century, it is estimated that perhaps 10% of the
Empire was Christian. In the cities, where the percentage was higher, complete
conversion was aided by the fact that by the late fourth century, one had to be
Christian to advance one¹s political career. Thus, urban areas became
Christianized long before the countryside--thus, the original meaning of paganus
--something akin to "country bumpkin"--gradually came to apply to the
polytheistic practices of country folk. Gradually, however, over the years,
countrydwellers in Roman (or formerly Roman lands) became Christians, but often
unconsciously adapting the rites associated with the agricultural year and life
cycles into a Christian context. Rather than gods or goddesses, they now
propitiated patron saints. Likewise, when the various Germanic tribes began
converting (sometimes in great mass baptisms), perhaps only their leaders
understood even basic Christian doctrine. To make up for this, new churches
were often built on the sites of old temples; even if the new "Christian" did
not understand the new doctrine, he or she would at least understand that this
was a holy place in which one worshipped this new God and his saints. It is,
however, an overstatement to say that the Church "stole" various holidays and
practices from the pagans; it is far more likely that these former pagans
simply continued to do rituals they associated with worship and that gradually,
over the centuries, their former associations were forgotten.

The "second conversion" of Europe
By 1000, Western Europe was now wholly Christian, apart from a few Jews,
and some remaining pagans at the extreme edges. Up until this point,
Christianity had continued to be mostly an outwardly-directed religion, much as
most of the earlier pagan religions had been. The focus was on behavior, rather
than on its motivations; what was important was not what was in your heart, but
your actions. God (and Christ) were viewed in art as distant and all-powerful;
most early depictions of Christ, for instance, focus not on his suffering or
humanity, but on his awesome majesty and divinity. The concept of sin was only
in its infancy, and once again, confined to actions, not the internal state
which produced them. Penance was seen as a way of "making good" for
transgressions in front of the whole community. At the more intimate level,
people continued to do those rituals which ensured the success of the crops, but
seldom did the state of one's heart and internal piety enter into the equation.
Only in the silence of the monastery could one go further, focusing on the state
of one's soul beyond one's actions; but this was a path few followed.

All this began to change some time around the tenth century. Gradually,
starting amongst the educated churchmen, but spreading over time to educated lay
folk and finally, to the lower classes, the health of one's soul began to take
as much precedence as ritual and practice. This coincided with a period of
reform within the Church which began to encourage, then eventually required,
clerics--particularly parish priests--to be educated in the meaning of the
sacraments and to be familiar with basic doctrine. By the thirteenth century,
there had been an explosion of study not only of theology, but also in the
liberal arts and philosophy, culminating in the creation of universities. And
more and more, the Church emphasized that laypeople should contemplate and
understand Christian teachings in their hearts, carrying them with them always;
the ideal was not only to participate in rituals such as the Eucharist, but
understand what they meant. The sacraments, in particular, became "medicine for
the soul", working against the deadly sins. The heretofore public sacrament of
penance became a private matter between priest and parishioner; just as a
doctor cared for the body, the priest cared for the soul. What became more and
more important was not the performance of the ritual, but the accompanying state
of mind. Sermons began to become a regular part of the mass, which people were
encouraged to attend at least on major feast days, if not weekly. A whole order
of friars (the Dominicans, or Friars Preachers) were founded upon the premise
that an educated clergy who practiced poverty and preached widely and skillfully
would both serve as an example to the laity and combat ignorance and heresy.
This flies in the face of the persistent belief that the Church wished the laity
to remain a compliant flock of uneducated sheep; in fact, countless examples
exist of laypeople being encouraged to become educated, so that they might
better understand the teachings of the Church. At the universities, an
incredible amount of questioning of doctrine and inquiry into conflicting
sources occurred, especially as scholars tried to reconcile existing doctrine
with recently-rediscovered works of Aristotle. The twelfth, thirteenth, and
fourteenth centuries were an incredibly dynamic period of study and debate of
theology and philosophy; the conservative Church unwilling to bend in the face
of daring new theories is, in fact, a product of the Reformation and Counter-
reformation period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Physical Church
When one thinks of churches in the Middle Ages, the image that usually
springs to mind is one of the great Gothic cathedrals--Chartres, Notre-Dame,
Canterbury, or Westminster Abbey--soaring testaments in stone to the Church
ascendant which built them. However, most towns were not seats of bishoprics,
and cathedrals for most lay at the end of pilgrimage routes, hours or days away;
the parish church was the one they considered ³theirs². Parish churches shared
much of the same symbolism as their grander cousins, but on a smaller scale. For
most medieval people, the parish church lay at the spiritual centre of their
community, especially before the development of guilds and town councils; and
it would often be the parish church which gave rise to these institutions, as we
will see later in this article.

What does this phrase ³centre of the community² mean? How often did people go
to Mass in the Middle Ages? We in the twentieth century commonly measure piety-
-and devotion to the Church--in terms of how often one attends services. I
doubt whether a medieval person would have done likewise. The ideal of medieval
religious life was the monk, practitioner of the contemplative life, free to
meditate on higher things, set apart from the world and its temptations. And
there were also the realities of medieval life--backbreaking labour for the
majority of the population, who, even if they were exempted from manual labour
on Sunday, generally used the day to attend to their own homes and gardens.
Weekly attendance at Mass was likely a perquisite of the rich. There is no
indication in most of the practical theological manuals that it was expected,
although it was certainly encouraged at any time one felt a spiritual need.
The times when one was most likely to attend services, no matter what one¹s
class, was on the major festivals (or festa ferienda ), which the whole
community generally celebrated. And after 1215, all were expected to make
yearly confession, usually before Easter, when even the poorest and most lax
generally attended Mass. Regular attendance or not, we have ample evidence for
the spirituality of medieval Christians, both outside and inside the church
walls. And the money spent on these structures over the years points to both
great faith and civic pride amongst the populace.

From community to community all across Europe after the Christian
conversion and before the Reformation, medieval people could feel united by a
more-or-less common faith. And each church drew upon the same basic theology
and iconography, such that a Christian in England who traveled to Italy would
feel comfortable in a church there, surrounded by familiar symbols. To make a
blatantly modern parallel, it¹s like going to a McDonald¹s in a foreign country-
-even though those around you may be speaking in a foreign language, there is
something distinctive about McDonalds¹ architecture, Ronald McDonald is ever-
present, and you can always get a Big Mac. In the case of churches, you see
much similarity in their architecture and furnishings, Christ and his saints are
always represented, and the Mass was said daily in the same language--Latin--
that was used back home.

Architectural historians often divide Western church architecture into two
broad categories: Basilicas and cruciform churches. The basilica form evolved
out of Roman civic architecture, having formerly being used for public audience
places for magistrates. Generally, a basilica is rectangular in shape and has
no transepts. Columns, not piers divide off the side aisles and the side walls
are not reinforced. Finally, there is an apse at the far end, which contains
the high altar. This style of architecture marked most early Christian
churches, and continued to be used to some extent throughout the Middle Ages,
especially in Italy. With the development of the Romanesque and later, the
Gothic styles, cruciform churches came to dominate. As the name suggests, these
churches are generally shaped like a cross. In these churches, the high altar
is placed at the far end (or ³top²) of the cross, beyond the choir or chancel
(where the staff of the church sat during Mass) and the crossing of the
transepts (or ³arms² of the cross). In both styles of churches, there are
usually a number of side chapels--sometimes as little as a niche devoted to a
particular saint, sometimes a whole separate room. There is often an important
chapel beyond the high altar in major churches, and sometimes very large
separate chapels (usually to Our Lady) are a part of cathedral complexes.

This is all very grand when applied to cathedrals, but what about parish
churches? Many were simple: single or two-celled (nave and chancel)
structures, containing no side aisles at all and niches for side chapels--if
they existed at all. Such small churches need not provide extensive seating for
a church staff, although each church usually kept a special chair for the bishop
to use should he attend. As time passes, these simple churches often add ³arms²
and become cruciform churches of a more squat variety; sometimes towers for
bells or porches at the west end (the ³entrance²) are added. Parish churches
are especially likely to have sections dating from a number of periods,
resulting in interesting mixes of architectural styles.

What else would one find in a parish church? Church statutes set forth a
set of furnishings each church was expected to have: One chalice of silver or
silver-gilt, a cup (or ciborum) of silver or pewter to hold the Host during the
Eucharist, a pyx to display the consecrated Host and another for the
unconsecrated bread; a pewter chrismatory for holy oils, along with a censer
and an incense boat, three cruets, and a holy water vessel; one fixed stone
altar with cloths, canopy, and frontal; one stone font for baptisms; two
statues--one of the patron saint, the other of the Virgin Mary; candlesticks
(including one for the Paschal candle and processional candlesticks), two great
crosses (one portable, for processions), a nuptial veil for marriages, a pall
for coffins, bells (including handbells for processions), a lantern to carry
before the priest when he visited the sick or dying; at least two sets of
vestments; and books: a manual for the offices, an ordinal (for the offices
throughout the year), a missal (words and order of the Mass), a collect book for
prayers, books of saints¹ legends, a gradual for the music, a troper for other
services not covered in the other books, a venitary for the psalms said at
matins, an antiphoner for the canonical hours, a psalter, a hymnal, copies of
the statutes of the synods; ---and a big chest to hold everything! How
elaborate these basic furnishings were depended on the church; in the later
Middle Ages, guilds devoted to maintaining the church furnishings became very
common, each church vying with the next to outdo each other in the splendor of
the vessels and vestments, far outstripping the bare minimum listed here. The
care of these items was entrusted to church wardens (usually laymen), who along
with caring for the furnishings also administered money for memorial masses and
bought supplies for the church. As one might expect, by the 16th century these
wardens were very important and powerful members of the community, taking
responsibility for fundraising and poor relief, as well as encouraging folks to
leave the church money in their wills!

The iconography of church decoration also became to be fairly standard,
although, of course, great variation could be expected depending on the size of
the church and the period in question. Central, of course, was the high altar,
often elevated on a dais and adorned with a canopy, and the great cross
suspended above. Three oil lanterns, signifying the three persons of the
Trinity and their constant presence, were suspended above the altar and kept lit
at all times. In larger churches and cathedrals, this sanctum sanctorum would
be shielded from the chancel by a rood screen (³rood² being an archaic English
word for ³Cross²), often ornately decorated with scenes from the life of Christ
or the saints; the cross, however, was still visible above the screen. If at
all possible, churches were oriented so that the altar was in the eastern end of
the church-- the rising sun being equated with the resurrection. The entrance
at the west end of the church, conversely, was often decorated with scenes of
the Last Judgement. As was mentioned before, the patron saint of the church and
the Virgin Mary each rated a major statue placed in a niche at the front of the
church at the very least. Churches with transepts often dedicated the eastern,
or ³top² arm, to either the Virgin or the Patron, usually the former, unless the
Virgin rated her own separate chapel, often termed a ³Lady Chapel². Larger
churches would likely have a number of chapels in the east and west transepts
and the side aisles devoted to various saints. Most churches would also have
either stained glass windows or painted walls--or both--recounting the lives of
the saints, the life of Christ, or the stories of the Old Testament fathers.
In all cases, great effort was made not only to make churches places of beauty,
but also a pedagogical experience for those who came to them in an age where
Bibles were a luxury item, available only to the wealthy and literate. The
later acts of many Protestant churches to whitewash the walls and remove the
stained glass and statuary can only signify a new era; with the invention of
the printing press, the Bible became widely available for the first time, and
the Protestants wished to encourage their flocks to read it, rather than looking
at what they saw as ornamental frivolity while in church.

Popular Practices
What did this mean for the average medieval Christian, however? In what
ways did he or she practice his or her religion? I shall touch briefly upon a
number of ways, starting with perhaps the most important.

The Liturgial Year and the Agricultural Cycle
I will discuss mostly what are known as festa ferienda , or major feast
days, which excepted people at least partially from servile work, as observed in
England (an analysis of the yearly cycle for all of Europe would take far too
much time). Virtually every day on the calendar is the feast of some saint;
which ones were festa ferienda varied from place to place; most of those in
this article are common throughout Europe, although the celebrations associated
with them varied. Often included in the festae ferienda was the feast of the
patron of one's parish church.

Spring in England was considered to begin in February, when the ground
generally thawed enough for plowing; by the end of the month, farmers were
sowing peas, beans, and oats. On February 2 fell the Feast of the Purification
of Mary, more commonly called Candlemas after a tradition of holding candlelit
processions on this day. The parish priest would also bless candles on this day
to be taken away by the people, which were believed to be especially helpful in
times of sickness. This is approximately the halfway mark between the Winter
Solstice and the Vernal Equinox; while we now look to the groundhog on the same
date to tell us whether we shall have six more weeks of winter, medieval
Englishmen and women undoubtably saw Candlemas as heralding the approach of

Spring was also equated with Lent, the forty day fast which precedes
Easter. Since Easter is a movable feast, Ash Wednesday--the first day of Lent--
fell anywhere between February 4 and March 9. The day before was called in
England Shrove Tuesday or Shrovetide; in France, of course, it is known as
Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday", a reference to the customs of wild revelry and
overindulgence that preceded the beginning of the Church's most solemn fast the
next day. In England, as in many places, the customary food for Shrovetide was

Lent began the next day. This forty-day period of fasting (no meat other
than fish was to be eaten, and the faithful were encouraged to go even further
in their devotion) was by far the most important period in the medieval church--
a time for introspection and acts of piety. Traditionally, palms left over from
the last Palm Sunday were burnt to produce the ash which the priest used to mark
each parishioner with the sign of the cross. Once yearly confession became
mandatory for all Christians, they were encouraged to do it during Lent. No
marriages could take place during this period without special dispensation.

In England, the calendar year began anew at Lady Day (the Feast of the
Annunciation--nine months before Christmas Day) on March 25, at least until the
latter part of the sixteenth century). Easter Week began on Palm Sunday, when
the faithful would bring "palm leaves" (usually willow, box or yew) or rushes
into the church in honour of Christ's procession into Jerusalem. In the later
Middle Ages, this evolved into an occasion of great pageantry, with costumed
parishioners representing the Prophets processing around the churchyard along
with the church's relics and a consecrated Host in an elaborate container,
carried under a canopy. Great acts of charity were often done on Maundy
Thursday, and a special Mass was held where all the candles were symbolically
extinguished one by one during the liturgy to symbolize the coming darkness of
the Crucifixion. The priest prepared for the coming days by consecrating three
Hosts during Mass (as there would be no Mass on Good Friday, a day of mourning)
and stripping the altars afterwards, washing them with water and wine
symbolizing Christ's passion. In cathedral churches, the washing of the
disciples' feet by Christ was reenacted by the bishop with the cathedral clergy.
On Good Friday, the people of the parish followed the custom of "creeping to the
cross"--approaching a special cross barefoot or on one's knees to kiss its base.
One of the Hosts consecrated the night before was then placed, along with this
cross, in a special sepulchre in the north side of the church, and a guard was
placed on it until Easter morning. The week culminated in Easter, the greatest
feast day of the medieval calendar (it fell between March 22 and April 25), when
the Host and cross were taken out of the sepulchre and carried in procession
into the church, led by the great Paschal Candle, which symbolized the reentry
of light into the world. By Easter, dairy work had usually commenced in England.

The weeks following Easter were a time of great merriment--Lent was past,
and the hard work of planting crops was over, except perhaps the planting of
flax and hemp for spinning and weeding of the fields. On Hock Monday, the young
women of the parish would capture passing men on the streets, only releasing
them after a small ransom was paid into the parish funds. The men got their
revenge the following day, Hock Tuesday, when the custom was reversed. May Day
(or the Festival of Sts. Philip and Jacob the Apostles), of course, has a
history long preceding the Christianization of Europe, and the celebrations
reflect a general theme of fertility appropriate to what was considered to be
the first day of summer. Besides the maypoles, gathering of flowers and forays
into the woods (even by town-dwellers), there were diversions of a less innocent

On Rogation Sunday (which fell five weeks after Easter), the parish
priest, along with the people, would "beat the bounds"--walking around the
boundaries of the parish, accompanied by handbells,offering up prayers to insure
the success of the crops; a large session of communal drinking often ensued.
Along with May Day, Ascension Day (the Thursday after Rogation Sunday) and
Whitsunday (Pentecost; ten days after Ascension Day) were popular days for
"ales" or festivals; attending these was called going a-maying. While the
parish church sold ale to raise funds, plays (often of Robin Hood or St. George)
would take place, dancing (including, late in our period, Morris Dancing) would
occur, and perhaps a tournament, presided over by an elected King and Queen.

Somewhere between May 21 and June 23, depending on the date of Easter,
fell the Corpus Christi festival, with its focus on the consecrated Host of the
Mass; in England, this became the traditional time for the presentation of
pageants and plays commemorating the life of Christ, often sponsored by the town
guilds. As with many feast days, this day became the focus of religious guilds--
usually the most prestigious--which sponsored processions similar to those
described for Palm Sunday. June was also the month for sheepshearing, and
festivals often marked this event. The festival of St. John the Baptist (June
24), or Midsummer, was the culmination of this festive season, whose
celebrations once again contained pre-Christian echoes. Popular were huge
bonfires, staying up the whole night on Midsummer's Eve, parades and military
displays, and civic processions. After Midsummer was the time to mow the fields
and prepare for haymaking, which usually occurred in July, although the
Translation of St. Thomas of Canterbury, England's most preeminent saint, on
July 7 provided yet another chance for revelry.

In August, the main crops would be harvested, and all other work ceased in
rural areas as there was much work to do in a very short time. August's major
feast was the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, which because of its date
(August 15) often became a harvest festival as well. This provided a break in
the heavy toil to attend diversions such as morality and mystery plays. Sometime
in September, the harvest came to an end with the bringing in of the last sheaf
of grain; the celebration of "harvest home" marked this occasion, where seed
cakes were the traditional meal. As the grain was threshed and the fields
winnowed, orchards were also harvested, and on Holy Rood Day (September 14) it
was traditional to go nutting. By the end of the month, the winter fields had
been plowed and sowed with rye, and by Michaelmas (the Festival of St. Michael
the Archangel, on September 29) the harvest was over. Rents were usually due on
this day, the beginning of a new agricultural year, and accounts were reckoned
as farmers now had the means to pay debts. University terms commonly began
about this time.

October marked the sowing of wheat, the brewing of ales for winter, and
the preparations for the winter season. All Hallows' Eve (October 31, the
evening before All Hallows' or All Saints' Day), as it is today, was considered
to be a time when the ghosts of the dead walked amongst the living. In November,
animals were brought in from pasture and stalled in barns, and some were
slaughtered to provide meat for the winter, traditionally on St. Martin's Day
(November 12), and any final cleaning was done before it became too cold to work
outdoors. St. Catherine's Day (November 25) was also very popular, and the
traditional time for young women to perform various rituals ( such as noting
whether the shape of an apple peel allowed to fall to the floor resembled any
initial) which were believed to help foretell the name of their future husband.

On the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day (November 30), the fast of
Advent began. Although technically as solemn as Lent, observations of this fast
were generally not as strict. With little to do outdoors except for
woodcutting, it was (as it is today) a season of good cheer. St. Nicholas' Day,
on December 6, was a time for role reversal in the schools, where one of the
boys would be elected as Bishop for the day, presiding over a court of misrule.
The truly festive portion of the season began on Christmas Eve and lasted
through to Twelfth Night, the evening before Epiphany (January 6), the feast
celebrating the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts for the infant Christ. While
gifts were exchanged particularly on this night, they were also common at any
time during the twelve days, particularly on Christmas and New Year's (or the
Feast of the Circumcision--although the date did not change until Lady Day on
March 25, this was still remembered as the first day of the Roman year). Homes
were decorated with evergreens, bay, holly, ivy, and mistletoe, and special
foods--pies, nuts, fruits (particularly oranges), the Boar's Head, and the
Wassail, a spiced ale served in a brown bowl with great ceremony--marked the
occasion. The emphasis on light and warmth (embodied in the Yule Log) dates
back to the pre-Christian period. The people enjoyed games and dancing, and
plays of a more secular nature and mumming were popular customs, as was the
appointment of a King and Queen of Misrule. On the day after Christmas (St.
Stephen's Day), lords and servants might reverse roles, and those in service
received their yearly gift of a set of clothes or livery. After Twelfth Night,
the people got back down to business, and the yearly cycle began anew as farmers
began to plan for spring by performing maintenance work around the homestead.

Other than of Advent and Lent, I have not mentioned fast days. One was
expected to fast on the Ember Days (the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday
following St. Lucy's Day (December 13), Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday, and Holy Rood
Day), as well as on the vigils (evening before) of all the feasts of the
Apostles except for Philip, James, and John, and on the vigils of Christmas Day,
Whitsunday, Assumption Day, St. Lawrence's Day (August 10), St. John the
Baptist's Day, and All Saints' Day.

Patron Saints
The practice of assigning specific patronages to particular saints
probably reached its fruition during the period under discussion. The earlier
practice of praying to a particular saint to intercede with God or Christ for
the supplicant in a specific manner was now supplemented by a growing focus on
using the lives of the saints as models for Christian behavior. These stories
circulated in a number of ways--in collections of anecdotes for use in sermons,
in visual form (such as paintings or windows in churches), or in popular
literary collections, such as the Golden Legend (often called the second most
popular book in the Middle Ages, after the Bible). Churches, of course, had
always had their patron saints--the patron of the church occupied one of two
niches or chapels at the front of the church; the Virgin Mary occupying the
other--increasingly, that saint's day became a significant day in the life of
the parish community, being marked by processions and other celebrations. Craft
guilds also had their patron saints; their feasts being marked by guild
banquets and almsgiving. On the personal level, virtually every occupation or
stage in life had a patron saint--a friend in Heaven to call upon, if you will,
and to serve as a role model.

The Cult of the Virgin Mary
Nowhere is the growing focus on the human side of Jesus more apparent than
in the burgeoning cult of the Virgin Mary, which added a more intimate, maternal
side to the Church heretofore unrealized. It was the Blessed Virgin's special
role to intercede for humanity in Heaven; she was everyone's Patron Saint and
Heavenly Mother, sure to show mercy in time of need.

The Rosary and other Devotions
Along with the Our Father (Pater Noster), the Ave Maria was one of the
two things in Latin almost everyone knew; these two prayers were eventually
combined together (starting in the late 13th century) in the Rosary, a special
devotion practiced by laypeople and clergy alike, often with the assistance of a
set of beads. The rise of Marian devotion meant that the Ave Maria became
popular (the faithful believed that each time it was said, Mary relived the joy
of the Annunciation). These were often said in fifties, each fifty being termed
a chaplet. This was combined with the earlier tradition of saying 150 Our
Fathers in place of the 150 psalms--known as the "poor man's breviary", as a
poor cleric or layperson might not know the Psalter. By the sixteenth century,
the Rosary was a series of 150 Aves, followed by a Pater after each ten. The
faithful contemplated fifteen mysteries of the Virgin as they said the prayers,
in three sets of five: The Joyful mysteries (The Annunciation, Mary¹s visit to
Elizabeth, the birth of Christ, his presentation in the temple, and his being
found in the temple); Sorrowful (the agony of Christ in the garden,his
scourging,his crowning with thorns, his carrying of the cross, and his
crucifixion) and Glorious (his resurrection, his ascension, the sending of the
Holy Spirit, the assumption of Mary, and her coronation as queen of Heaven).

Production of books to assist lay people in their devotions became more
and more common throughout the period, and exploded after the invention of
movable type and the advent of the printed book. These included the Book of
Hours --set devotions centred on the liturgical year--essentially a private
liturgy for lay people, allowing them to meditate privately, away from the
confines of a church. These ranged from the highly decorated to the simple, and
were often passed down in families, much like the family Bibles of today. Also
available for devotion and edification were collections of saints' lives or
moralistic tales and Mass books for the laity (containing prayers and points to
ponder during the various parts of the Mass).

Confraternities and Guilds
In the earlier Middle Ages, lay involvement in churches had been limited
to attending services in them, with the exception of the rich, who could found
or endow monasteries or chantries. As lay education increased and the growth of
towns led to more and more wealth in the hands of the merchants and craftsmen,
they, too, sought ways in which to leave their mark upon the Church.
Confraternities and guilds were one of the most popular ways in which to not
only get together with friends or associates, but also to do good works for the
community. As I mentioned above, there was usually a parish guild devoted to
the patron saint of the church, which became responsible for planning the
festivities and procession on the feast day, for upkeep of the statues of the
patron (and other such stuff) in the church. In larger towns, merchant guilds
would often found chapels devoted to their own particular patron saint in the
side aisles, competing with each other in a game of one-upmanship in regards to
the finery of the banners and statuary in their particular chapel. Not all
guilds were based around crafts or occupations--quite a large number of them
were purely philanthropic in nature, providing for hospitals for the sick, alms
for the poor, endowments to poor scholars, and funds for widows of their own
members. The more intense of these societies were sometimes directly affiliated
with one of the orders of monks or friars--a good example of this is the
Dominican Third Order, a lay organization devoted to works of charity and piety
which was directly associated with the Dominicans. These organizations allowed
members to pursue piety without retiring from the world or joining the clergy.

One of the most prevalent expressions of popular religion in this period
was the pilgrimage. The faithful undertook pilgrimages for a variety of
reasons: for penance, in search of a cure for an ailment, or out of simple
piety. Not to be overlooked, however, was the simple novelty of traveling
outside of one¹s home community. A look at the pilgrims to the shrine of St.
Thomas in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales demonstrates the wide spectrum of social
classes who took part in such journeys (from knights to craftsmen, laypeople and
clerics alike)--as well as illustrating that pilgrimages were both occasions for
community with fellow pilgrims and expressions of piety.
The destination of such a journey was the shrine of a particular saint, usually
to be found in a church or cathedral. One need not necessarily journey more
than a few days from home--shrines were plentiful in most parts of Europe--but
anyone who could afford it, of course, longed to make one of the great
pilgrimages: to St. Thomas Becket's shrine at Canterbury, or along the famous
route of Sant'Iago de Compostella in Spain, or the Big Pilgrimage--to the Holy
Land (when possible). Of course, after such a journey, one would want to bring
home souvenirs; pilgrim's tokens of pewter were the t-shirts of the Middle ages
in this respect.

Shrines, by definition, contained relics. Relics came in three forms:
First, an actual bodily remnant of a saint (body, finger, hair); second, an
item which a saint wore or touched, or a miraculous image of the saint
(clothing, staff, chair, icon), and third, miscellaneous items associated with
either type of physical relic (for instance, dust from a tomb, oil exuded from
an icon, holy water). All of these were often thought to have positive effects
on health or well-being; in fact, it is a relic's ability to aid in miracles
that is its proof of legitimacy. Thus, each of the several churches claiming to
have the head of St. John the Baptist could claim to have a legitimate relic--as
they had all performed miracles. A medieval person would have explained away
the incongruity to the mystery of God, who had obviously decided to bestow
sanctity on all the heads, rather than wondering which one was "real". Relics
of the first two types were rarely readily available, but were instead contained
in elaborate reliquaries or tombs and prized by churches, cathedrals, and the
odd king. Pilgrims, however, often were able to obtain the third type, and
medieval shrines are often in bad condition as a result of years of pilgrims
scraping off paint or dust, as well as from having folks spend days or even
weeks camped out in close proximity to the shrine in hopes of cures or luck.
Occasionally, pilgrims would even take up a monastic or reclusive life at the
shrine, never leaving again.

This article barely scratches the surface of understanding the medieval
mindset vis-a-vis religion, but it's a start. I would highly recommend the
books in the bibliography if you would like further information. I have barely
touched on the issue of "superstition", although a number of the practices I
have described have a reputation these days of being products of it. I am not
thoroughly convinced the medieval mind is any more superstitious than the
average modern mind; almost everyone I know has a "lucky number", and the
various superstitions of sports teams during the playoffs defy anything I've
ever encountered in the Middle Ages. Humans are always coming up with rituals
of various sorts to deal with the unknown; I doubt that will ever change.

Brooke, R. and C. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages. London: Thames and
Hudson, 1984. An excellent overview of the topic.

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars. New Haven: Yale University Press,
1992. One of the best discussions of late medieval popular religion and the
subsequent impact of the Reformation on religious practices available.

McLean, W. and Singman, J. Daily Life in Chaucer¹s England. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1995. An excellent overview of all aspects of life in late
14th century England, including a calendar of the agricultural and liturgical

Sumption, Jonathan. Pilgrimage: An Image of Medieval Religion . London: Faber
and Faber, 1975. While its scope is much larger than the title would indicate,
this book is particularly useful as a starting point for study of pilgrimage.

Swanson, R.N. Religion and Devotion in Europe, c.1215-c.1515. Cambridge, 1995.
A brand-new book which looks at the topic in light of recent research into
literacy, the role of women, pastoral care, and the line between popular and
elite religion; it is more concerned with discovering the deeper meanings
behind most of the practices than with simply discussing them.

Copyright 1996 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.

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