Part Two: Introduction to Sara’s Lectures by Ian Irvine

‘Writing Lectures Week After Week is Good Training for Novelists’


When I first met Sara in 1993 she’d been a History lecturer at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus for a year. As an honors student I was working hard to make some sort of career in academia and/or the literary and music worlds. Sara, on the other-hand, was busy writing and researching collections of 2,000 word (50 minute) lectures for her Medieval and Early Modern history subjects (30-40 lectures per subject). From early on she acquired a reputation as an interesting, highly competent but no-nonsense lecturer given to dead-pan asides about some of the more weird, wonderful and ghoulish details of Medieval history. Her knowledge of both the overview and the detail of her subject matter – i.e. 1,700 years of European history – was encyclopedic and she routinely did her own translations of texts from the Old English.

I got to know her better in early 1994, when I was offered a job tutoring in two of the subjects she ran. I remember feeling completely out of my depth for the first few months. Although there was a Medieval dimension to my PhD research I was mostly looking at literary and philosophical texts. It was a massive task for me to become re-acquainted with European history from Rome to the French Revolution. Luckily, Sara was always available with an encouraging word, copies of her lecture notes, or copies of key essays or historic documents that she wanted discussed in the tutorials. Across the three years I tutored for her I learnt to augment the performative aspect to teaching (which other Humanities lecturers had also taught me – all-be-it informally) with effective and interesting ways of structuring lecture content. Some of those structuring skills also went into my PhD work.sara-douglass-2000

Sara’s motto was to make classes entertaining to students: ‘bring the historical material to life by telling vivid stories’; ‘insert interesting quotes by historic personages’; ‘take time to describe setting’; ‘pose rhetorical questions frequently, i.e. the kind of questions students might be thinking’; ‘introduce poems and popular sayings from the era being covered’ and so on. She also taught me to illustrate abstract concepts with well-chosen details and to use humor, irony, absurdity and occasionally various shock tactics to maintain interest – techniques, it must be said, also used by novelists. To Sara, academic lectures should be written incorporating techniques used by what we these days call ‘creative non-fiction’ writers – delivering a history lecture was not the same, to her, as writing an academic essay on history.

I learnt these things gradually, during twice-weekly meetings in her office – an office packed wall to wall (and right up to the ceiling) with hundreds of books on Medieval society, history, culture etc. However, it was not for another six years – when she started doing occasional talks for my Novel students enrolled at Bendigo TAFE – that I understood how the discipline of writing 50 minute lectures (approx 2,000 words a piece) week after week for entertainment hungry undergrads also taught her the work habits of the novelist.

‘I’ve realised that unconsciously my typical chapter length is around 2,000-2,500 words – the same word count as a typical 50 minute lecture,’ she told the students of our 2005 Novel Writing class.



Introduction to Sara The Historian and Academic 

Hello everyone. I have something new and wonderful to share with you. But before I do, let me provide you with a bit of background.

Apart from re-releases of Sara’s existing books or new reviews, I often wondered what I might be able to share with you that Sara would also have been willing to do so and which would add a fresh dimension to the Sara Douglass we all knew and loved. Many of you will be aware that Sara was a person with so many different talents and aspects to her personality and self – from academic, popular historian, writer, blogger, devoted cat lover, gardener and sustainable living advocate as well as a keen collector of many things from old maps to books and more – some of which she allowed various people access to while others she kept very, very private. IMG_0310

The one part of her life that’s probably least explored online and yet was integral to the person and writer she was, is her role as an academic and excellent historian. Beloved as a writer, before that she was also a much loved and respected lecturer at La Trobe University, Bendigo. It was in this role that I first met Sara. New to the university, she was one of my lecturers (medieval history) during my Honours year in 1992. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s because of Sara I became an academic – she encouraged and inspired me into what has been my career for over twenty years. I was among the first students she taught there, but of course she went on to teach for many years, introducing  students to the wonder and horrors of the past, igniting a passion for history within them, and influencing men and women in numerous ways in the process. One such person is Dr Ian Irvine.

Ian was one of Sara’s students as well, one who went on to teach beside her and, after she left La Trobe to pursue writing full-time, in her stead. I’ve known Ian for many years and recall him as a wide-eyed student, much like I was, yet to embark on the hell-year that was Honours. Imagine my utter delight then when, out of the blue late last year, Ian contacted me with an amazing story and offer. Turns out, when cleaning his shed, he found the boxes containing all the notes Sara had bestowed upon him when she left the university – all the lectures and jottings from her years of teaching history at tertiary level. Ian asked if I would like them. Yes, he really did. To say I jumped at his offer is an understatement. Generously, and with such goodwill, Ian sent me electronic and hard copy of all Sara’s notes. They are now in my desktop and safely stowed in a cupboard in my study – but only after they were pored over.

What a treasure trove they are! But it seemed such a pity to keep them under metaphorical lock and key when they not only reveal so much about history, but give us an insight into Sara Warneke, the brilliant historian and teacher.

Then I had the idea to share them with you.

Talking to Gina (my website guru) and Ian, cemented this notion – they were both so enthusiastic about it. Gina began uploading them for me to edit (I have just moved around some of the material – no words are changed) and I asked Ian if he could write an introduction.

Picture of fourteenth-century nobles from Paul Lacroix, Manners, Customs and Dress During the Middle Ages (London, 1874).

Picture of fourteenth-century nobles from Paul Lacroix, Manners, Customs and Dress During the Middle Ages (London, 1874).

Being a writer himself – a lovely one – Ian has written a simply wonderful, lively and fascinating introduction that’s also quite long. I have broken it into three parts (to draw out the delight as well) The first three of her lectures are ready for you to peruse, enjoy and, hopefully, gain more insight into Sara the historian. The second and third parts of Ian’s introduction I will release over the following months along with further of Sara’s lectures.

Whether you are a history buff yourself, a fellow writer or teacher, or simply a fan of Sara and her works, I really believe these lectures give you an insight into the depth and breadth of not only her knowledge, but the ways in which she imparted it to others, making the discovery of history simultaneously entertaining and educational. Just like her books!

So, over the next few months, I will be releasing more of Sara’s lectures on medieval history, starting with her introduction to the medieval world. Before I do that, however, I will let Ian set the context.

I hope you enjoy exploring this world and aspect of Sara as much as I did both in the past and again in the present, and as much as you have through her fantasy novels and non-fiction.

Warmest wishes,


Background to Some of Sara’s Many Worlds by Dr Ian Irvine

Rusty Implements Buried in the Fields of Medieval History


It was a typical Bendigo winter’s day – cool but sunny – when our band of stressed BA Honours students trundled into class to attend a session on Medieval social history. We were about midway through the year (being 1993) and the relentless Honours reading schedule was starting to wear down many of us. For the Medieval unit alone we’d read, analysed and delivered or listened to seminars on works by Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, More, Erasmus, and others. The full-time students had also been reading a dozen other literary, philosophical and historical texts for a subject on the Roman world. At the same time we were all struggling to find time to research and write the thesis component to the qualification – due in November.

‘Anyone like to guess what these were used for back in the Middle Ages?’ asked our guest lecturer, a recently employed Medieval historian. She proceeded to run through a dozen or so slides of rusty looking cutting, chopping and pulverising implements dug up from all over Western Europe.

‘Farming tools … used in the fields …’ said one brave student.

‘Good guess, but nope …’ said the lecturer, her name was Sara – Sara Warneke, as it as written up there on the board.

‘Torture instruments,’ said a wag, and everybody laughed – a little hysterically it must be said.

‘Nope …’STM3D00Z-1

‘Carpentry!’ said someone else.

‘Nope …’

‘Tools used by butchers …’ I ventured.

‘Close …’ said Sara, ‘… doctors and surgeons in those days were ranked only slightly above butchers … Not many people survived “hospital”’. She paused thoughtfully. ‘These tools were used by surgeons … This vice-like clamp gadget, for example, was used to extract babies from their dead or dying mothers – probably had rust on it back then too …’ she mused. ‘They had no concept of infection in those days.’

Gasps of horror from the ten or so students present – all of us traumatised, it must be said, by months of reified analysis of classic Medieval texts.

Next up were images of strange metal gadgets – sometimes with locks, sometimes chains. Many seemed oddly ornate. As with the medical implements they were all somewhat rusty. They turned out to be chastity belts imposed on ‘ladies’ whilst their ‘lords’ were away fighting in the crusades.

‘The lord would take the key with him,’ said Sara. With this detail the class erupted into ghoulish laughter for a good quarter of an hour. The dam of stress that had been filling relentlessly across the semester suddenly gave way and we had a kind of group catharsis. By the end of this outburst a number of students were in tears. Sara watched it all unfold for a while, then began to joke along with us. At one point each student began adding bizarre story developments to a ridiculous scenario about a ‘lady’ in a castle who wished to set her chastity belt aside whilst hubby was away crusading. For the first time all year we felt relaxed about our Honours studies.

Boxes of Lectures Buried in a Shed

I’ve been asked by Karen to write this introduction to an aspect of Sara’s life – that is, her academic work and how, from my perspective as a student and, later tutor, it impacted upon her fiction. The collection of lectures that will be uploaded over time were all written and delivered by her between 1992 and 1998. She gave them to me – along with other course materials – when she resignsaras-notes-2ed from her position at La Trobe University in May 1999. She had decided to pursue her writing career full time and had recommended to the Head of School that I take over her Medieval World unit for the 2nd semester. I was eventually employed to deliver the unit across three campuses. For me the resources were a life saver since I hadn’t previously tutored in that particular Medieval history unit. Sara’s gift was but one example of her amazing generosity of spirit. The material – print and digital – was handed to me in a couple of large boxes just before she left the university. At the time I thought the boxes only contained resources for the unit I was about to teach. I remember at the time asking her whether she had digital back-ups and print copies.

I must have looked concerned because she added, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll do great! … Besides, there’s other stuff in those boxes – notes for the first year Early European History and Early Modern units. Actually, most of what I’ve taught here is in those boxes – that’s why they’re a bit heavy!’

I thanked her and pretended confidence but in my head I was thinking, ‘The students are expecting a celebrity author – this will be a really tough gig!’

When I too left La Trobe for an ongoing teaching position elsewhere at the end of 1999 I put the boxes aside. Interestingly, I was never quite able to throw them out, despite never teaching Medieval history again. After a while I moved the boxes out to our shed where they were slowly buried under building materials, garden tools and webs populated by red-back spiders. In short, they were all but forgotten until through Gina, Karen contacted me about an interview I’d done with Sara for The Animist in 1999. With my memory jolted I did a bit of suburban archaeology and set about recovering the boxes.

A Note on the Lectures

The various lectures featured at this website should be viewed much as theatre goers might view the printed script of a play. They were primarily written to be ‘performed’ for students and fall into sets related to at least three subjects Sara taught at La Trobe University between 1992 and 1999. The subjects are as follows: a first year general Early European History unit (the Fall of Rome to the period preceding the Reformation); a general Early Modern History unit (Reformation to Revolution) and a 2nd and 3rd year Medieval World unit based around the book Montaillou (a first-hand investigation of the Cathar heresies but also a wonderful description of little known aspects of Medieval social life). I suspect there are also one off lectures/presentations for Honors level subjects that were primarily taught by others in this collection, as well as material concerning some of Sara’s favourite Medieval literary texts – she loved the Arthurian tradition, for example, and wrote a book on it in the late 1990s. The lectures are exactly as Sara left them prior to her departure in 1999.

To best imagine attending a series of her Medieval lectures readers should try to imagine the print/oral content of the lectures being augmented by: a) dozens of black and white images projected onto a white overhead screen; b) Sara’s numerous asides detailing humorous, gossipy or strange stories concerning historic personages or events – sometimes she would quote historic figures directly (sometimes in character); c) discussion of essays or chapters from set-texts related to the topic (which students had supposedly read prior to class); d) quotes from favourite Medieval literary or pop culture texts that illustrated historic issues; and e) sessions involving colour slides related to Medieval life, landscape, architecture or art. Occasionally, students were also treated to a relevant video – e.g. The Devils of Loudun. The last ten minutes of classes were usually reserved for student questions, since on the whole Sara preferred not to be interrupted whilst delivering the primary content of her classes.

On the whole, the lectures give us but a glimpse of the vast materials she researched and, eventually, taught between 1982 and 1999. The process of absorbing that immense body of material, then synthesising it with her marvellous imagination was complete by 1994. Thereafter, the Medieval World became the essential back-drop to her life as a fiction writer.

Medieval Europe – An Overview by Dr Sara Warneke

This lecture will present a broad background to the everyday lives of the medieval peasantry. Don’t be perturbed if you haven’t studied medieval history previously, or forgotten most of that you have studied. An understanding of the daily lives of the ordinary folk largely does not require a vast knowledge of the workings and developments of the High Church, or of governments, monarchies and economic conditions. However, there are some concepts you should be familiar with in order to more fully understand the medieval world view, and this lecture is designed to introduce (or remind) you of them.

First, a broad TimeLine, and an introduction to some of the terms you might come across in readings:

300: Roman Europe:

410-476: collapse of western Roman Empireimages-2

476-1000: the Dark Ages

1000-1400: the Middle Ages

1400-1500: the Renaissance

1517-1564: the Reformation

1500-1700: early modern Europe

The term ‘medieval Europe’ can cover anything from 476 to (according to some historians, 1917!) normally about the late 1300s, but any ‘label’ is always very vague and somewhat inaccurate. Just as one ‘for instance’, the Renaissance was an elitist and largely intellectual movement that a) didn’t touch the mass of Europeans at all (they never had any idea they were living through a cultural revolution) and b) occurred in different parts of Europe at different times. Italy’s Renaissance was in the mid-1300s to the late 1400s, England’s Renaissance was in the 1500s. Many of these labels describe states of minds more than anything else: the term ‘medieval’ can be used to describe a state of mind or a social system (thus it can be applied to early twentieth-century Russia as easily as thirteenth-century France); others, like the Reformation, can be clearly dated to defined events.

Secondly, you should be aware that most of the modern European borders or countries did not exist in medieval Europe (defined as Europe between the 1000s and 1600s). France had only become a coherent state by the late 1600s, Germany remained a fragmented mess of virtually independent states until the nineteenth century, as did Italy. Spain had managed to unite itself in the late fifteenth century, but still underwent turmoil in the early modern era. England was the only medieval state that resembled its later, modern form. People identified themselves with

  • lordmedieval europe small
  • race (based on language similarities rather than geographical regions)
  • but, most particularly, their very local community and region

rather than nation or country.

  • largely ordinary people saw no evidence of a ‘state’:
  • central administration a joke in most countries
  • their local lord was the one to whom they paid taxes and relied on for the admin of the law
  • their local priest was the man who conveyed to them news of the outside world
  • people’s loyalty was to their village/local region/local lord & people who lived fifteen miles away were foreigners

Even the few ‘coherent’ states in existence (ones which had effective central administrations, stable currencies, effective taxation systems) still had ‘identity problems:

England, the best example of a coherent state in medieval Europe, was nonetheless a ‘fruitcake’ culture. Its culture was a mix of:

  • Celtic
  • Roman
  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Viking
  • French (very strong)

English did not become the national language until the late 1500s, the ‘English’ as a people really only existed from about the 1200s and then few thought of themselves as such.

Medieval Europe, particularly its social system, was built on the back of the chaos in post-Roman western Europe and the invasions of the Dark Ages.

  • Western Roman Empire collapsed from the early fifth century, gone by the end of the fifth century (the eastern Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine Empire to finally be overrun by the Turks in 1453)
  • Western Europe in the Dark Ages was characterised by
    • a generally rural society (most towns shrank or disappeared)
    • invasions:
      • invasions during the fifth and sixth centuries by ‘Germanic’ tribes from northern and central Europe;
      • invasion during the eighth century from the south by Arabs (Muslims); Europe only just avoided becoming an Islamic state;
      • invasion during the ninth century by Vikings from the Scandinavian region
      • the Norman Invasion of England in 1066 was the last of many hundreds of years of invasions (although the movement of peoples across the Eurasia had been in progress for thousands of years)

The centuries of turmoil during the Dark Ages (a broad statement, for there were many years of peace, and many great achievements, during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’) resulted in a peculiar structuring of society, largely known as ‘feudalism’ (a problematical term); see my first year lecture notes on Feudalism . Society was grouped into three ranks, or estates:images

  • the First Estate, the church and all its clergy. This was the estate that guarded the spiritual welfare of society;
  • The Second Estate, largely the nobility. The nobles protected society, they provided its literal sword arm;
  • The Third Estate: everyone else, largely the peasantry and what townsmen and craftsmen there were. This was the estate that worked. It comprised some 90% of Europe’s population, all of which was needed to work the land to feed the top 2 estates (approx. 10% of any given population)

A few words about the three estates. (See my first year lecture notes on Feudal Society for more on the first two estates.)

  • the Church was highly independent: considered itself free from all secular controls, believed itself the leader of society, gave itself the right to interfere with monarchs and state policy. Divided into higher clergy (abbots to popes) and lower clergy (mostly parish priests and sundry monks and friars); the higher clergy tended to come from the second estate and were generally very wealthy, the lower clergy came from the third estate. As a massive and unwieldy, but immensely powerful and wealthy, institution, the Church, as the greater number of the clerics, were often corrupt.
    • part of the reason the Church was so powerful and so wealthy, was that in this prescientific world, the Church guarded all knowledge and explanations of this world. The world, for virtually all medieval people, was understood in almost exclusively religious or spiritual terms.
  • the second estate lived only for war; the men trained exclusively for war, their women to keep the home estate. With the first estate, the second estate largely controlled all the land, as well political and economic power in any given region.
  • the third estate is what this unit is all about, so only a few words about them here. Most members of the third estate were:
    • peasants, either free or unfree, but most would have had some kind of bond to a local lord
    • lived in a manorial situation
    • were rural workers
    • rarely moved from the village or locality of their birth
    • lived their lives to the dictates of Church and season … and to the dictates of their local custom and culture

The Medieval Christian Religion:

Medieval Europe, as the European’s lives, was dominated by the Christian Church, and it is useful to say a few things about it here.

  • The conversion of Europe was a time-consuming and nail-biting time for the Church, and some of its conversion practices had a massive impact on how medieval religion was practiced among the common people.
    • Roman Europe had a veneer of Christianity, but this was largely lost during the age of Germanic invasions;
    • from the sixth century the Roman Church began a reconversion campaign in Europe (which took many centuries). In order to convert the mass of Europeans, the missionaries tended to absorb pagan practices, so that by the 1000s Christianity had many questionable rites and beliefs. What this meant for the ordinary people was that their daily religious beliefs and practices still contained much of their pagan past, although it is important to note that the Europeans believed themselves devout Christians.
  • In western Europe there was only one Church: the Roman Catholic Church (the Byzantine Empire had a Church that was based around Constantinople – Istanbul – and became what we know as the Eastern Orthodox Church). The Roman Catholic Church, however, was not terribly securely seated: medieval Europe was shaken by successively stronger heresies (evidence of a deep dissatisfaction with, and resentment of, the Catholic Church) until it was torn apart by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. After 1517 there was a religious schism: the Roman Catholic Church versus a variety of Protestant churches.

The medieval world was a very insular place. Most people had no idea of the outside world: anything more than 20 miles away was foreign, anything more than a thousand miles away was myth. Most people believed themselves ringed by hostile infidels or hostile seas: Arabs, Mongols, Turks and the vast sea of death populated with sea monsters – the Atlantic. Most ordinary people had little to no contact with the outside world, the world beyond western Europe was dark and largely evil. Stories and myths abounded about what was out there, but mostly people had no idea was existed beyond their own world, and their own world was all they would ever know.


There are three major changes which profoundly affected the lives of the ordinary people during the period 1000-1600 (for you to keep in mind when reading):

  • the breakdown of the feudal structure of society between 1300-1500.
    • there are many intertwining and complicated reasons for this breakdown, but it was primarily related to the rise of wealth (feudal society was based on a system where there was no cash about), and so thus people could rely on wealth to buy them what previously they’d relied on the feudal system of relationships for; but the Black Death (below) also had a profoundly destructive effect effect on feudal society
  • The Reformation of 1520s – 1550s: the final schism within the Catholic church which had been falling apart in degrees since the early 1300s. This profoundly affects people’s lives, particularly in newly Protestant regions, but some aspects of people’s lives don’t change: the new Protestant churches remained as profoundly intrusive and controlling of people’s lives as did the Catholic Church. (In Protestant regions the cult of the saints was abolished, magical religious practices were suppressed etc.)
  • The Black Death of 1348-1350: nothing has more profoundly altered Europe than this event. Between a third to a half of Europe’s population died – and no one understood why. Neither the Church nor the states could explain it or mitigate its effects. Very broadly, what happened was that because the twin authorities of society could neither help nor explain, the common people became far more ready to question them. The old deferential bonds were, if not completely destroyed, profoundly undermined.

There are many useful general medieval histories in the library. Some are:

  1. Bishop, The Penguin Book of the Middle Ages
  2. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe
  3. K. Ferguson, Europe in Transition 1300-1520
  4. Grabois, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Medieval Civilization
  5. R. Hale, Renaissance Europe
  6. Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West
  7. Hay, The Medieval Centuries
  8. Heer, The Medieval World
  9. St. L. B. Moss, The Birth of the Middle Ages
  10. Painter, A History of the Middle Ages
  11. W. Previté-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History (2 vols.)

(Also note the longer Cambridge Medieval History in the Reference section of the Library&emdash;this is currently being updated with the latest edition. An excellent reference.)

  1. W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages

Of them all, Bishop and Painter are probably the best.


Town and Village Life

images-4Where and how did people live in Medieval times?

*In general, most Europeans lived in either a small village (or close to a small village) or in a larger town. In both cases the countryside (and perhaps the wilds) were never far away.

*Toft/Croft/Homestead, Castle, Monastery, Home in Town

*Examples of Peasant Homes: (Country) – TOFT/CROFT/HOMESTEAD:

*CENTRE OF HOMESTEAD: The croft and toft is where the family life was centered. It was a small piece of property (one-20 acres + acreage elsewhere in form of strip fields (beside other strip fields) for growing things elsewhere in the village, also rights to ‘common grounds’ – pasture and forests – for grazing animals, sharing in wild game/berries, gathering firewood etc. The croft or toft was where families kept all their worldly goods, cared for their animals, raised their children and entertained their friends. This home was simple and not meant to last for more than 20 years. When the old house began to get run down, a new one was built often on an entirely new piece of the property. The old house was then used as an outbuilding for farm equipment or animals – very few building regulations … people built additions to houses when necessary.

*A FEW SIMPLE DESIGNS: Archeological excavations found only a few basic types of homes. They could be small one-room cottages or larger long houses with a possible second floor.

* MATERIALS FOR BUILDING HOUSES: The materials used to build a house varied. Wood was the preferred choice, but it was not always readily available. By the 14th century, it was very scarce and was used only in the frame of the house. The walls were filled with cob, a mixture of mud, straw, and chalk; or wattle and daub, which “consisted of a screen of woven twigs and small branches covered with mud and finished off with a lime wash that left the house sparkling white.”

* WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO LIVE IN THEM? Most medieval homes were cold, damp, and dark. Very unhealthy environment to live in. For security purposes, windows, when they were present, were very small openings with wooden shutters that were closed at night or in bad weather – glass was expensive and besides leaving them exposed or open at night time meant demons would be able to charm people through the clear glass! Many peasant families ate, slept, and spent time together in very small quarters, rarely more than one or two rooms. The houses had thatched roofs and were easily destroyed.


* Houses were low and tended to be at the front of tofts close to the village main road which lay below them. The roads were often muddy/damp trenches.

* The church and the market place were the focal points of the village – the church was likely the only building built to last from one generation to the next.

*The villages were lively and active during the day but less so at night – people typically bedded early and rose very early in the morning. Children ran around and played games, or herded geese and other animals. The women bustled around the village washing clothes, fetching water, and working about town.

* Peasants typically spent part of their time working their own land and part of their time doing things for the local lord. Most villages had one or more ‘manors’ in evidence – even though the noble families were often away. When feudalism began to collapse and the money economy re-emerged peasants were released from ‘feudal fealty’. They earned money incomes on the Lord’s estate instead … many also paid rent to the local Lord who tended to reclaim vast areas of ‘common ground’ and even the land upon which peasants had built their toft, croft and the strips of field which they had farmed in return for feudal favours. With enclosure lords withdrew many of the means of survival from local peasants – a period of great hardship ensued.

Examples of How Nobles Lived: LIFE IN A CASTLE

Thousands of Castles all over Europe: many small. Usually a Noble Family lived in it – accompanied by servants etc.

*COLD DRAFTY LIVING: Not Romantic at all – lots of hardship and discomfort.

*THE CASTLE HALL: Invariably, the living quarters of every castle had one basic element: the hall. The hall was either located on the ground floor, or sometimes for greater security, on the second level. If the hall was located on the ground floor, the floor of the hall was either earth, stone, or plaster. If the hall was located on the second floor the floor was always timber. Often the family of the castle sat at one end of the hall on a raised bench, while everyone else sat on lower benches. The dining table was also located in the hall, however, it was often just a temporary setting, often being dismantled between meals. If the family of the castle had a permanent dining table it was a sign of great wealth. The hall was lit through candles and melted animal fat that were placed on spikes and candlesticks. Later on in the middle ages much of the light and heat came from fireplaces. Eventually noble families separated themselves from the servants at food times: William Langland lamented this separatism in Piers Plowman: “Woe is in the hall each day in the week. There the lord and lady like not to sit. Now every rich man eats by himself in a private parlor to be rid of poor men, Or in a chamber with a chimney And leaves the great hall.”layout

*FLOORING: Carpets were not used. Instead, the floors were strewn with straw. Although the straw was replaced every so often, many times “an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, excrement of dogs and cats and everything that is nasty,” was found under the straw, according to Erasmus.

*BEDROOMS: The sleeping quarters were often only separated by a curtain. Later on, castles had a great chamber in which the lord and lady of the castle slept. If this chamber was located on the second floor, it often had “squints” in which the lord could peek on his guests, and make sure everything was in order. The great chamber did not hold much furniture. Rather, the main piece of furniture was a large bed. This bed had a wooden frame, and its springs were made of either rope or leather. Linen hung over the bed to offer protection from drafts, as well as privacy, because often personal servants slept on a trundle bed in the chamber.

*CASTLE KITCHEN: The kitchen was generally made with timber, and had a central fireplace where meat could be stewed in a cauldron.

*ANIMALS AND PLANTS IN CASTLE: They were everywhere! Animals to be slaughtered were kept near the kitchen. Similarly, plants/some trees which provided fruit and herbs were grown in the castle garden – also near the kitchen.

*THE CHAPEL: Seen as indispensable – located close to the hall, near the great chamber. The chapel was often two stories high; the noble family would sit in its upper story, the servants in the lower level.

*LATER Middle Ages DEVELOPMENTS: Due to the increasing number of personnel needed to run the castle in the later middle ages the castle had to undergo many accommodations. Barracks, mess halls, and bigger kitchens had to be built in order to accommodate these numbers. The barracks and the mess halls were made of the same timber as the second floor hall.

EXAMPLE OF LIFE IN Monasteries, Nunneries and other places of spiritual withdrawal: Life of Prayer: Monks and Nuns

*Monk and Nuns were basically expected to devote themselves totally to God and to Good Deeds. Upon taking Holy Orders one entered a literally ‘cloistered world’ – self-contained, so as to avoid the need of intercourse with the outer world – this was to purify monks and nuns from the impurities of the outside world.

What was life Like? [The following are some examples of life in a Benedictine Monastery]

*Four types of Benedictine monks: (1) Cenobites, those living in a monastery under an abbot; (2) Anchorites, or hermits, living a solitary life after long probation in the monastery; (3) Sarabites, living by twos and threes together, without any fixed rule or lawfully constituted superior; and (4) Gyrovagi, a species of monastic vagrants, whose lives were spent in wandering from one monastery to another, often brought discredit on the monastic profession.

.•MEETINGS: The brethren frequently meet to council upon all affairs of importance to the community. One is expected to be prompt, cheerful, and absolutely obedient to the superior in all things.

  • SILENCE: One is expected to live a life of silence or moderation in the use of speech.
  • PRAYER, STUDY, SCRIBING: One is expected to pray – this is the work of the monk. His work day is composed of the Canonical Hours, seven during the day and one at night. A set number of Psalms, etc., must be recited during winter and summer, on Sundays, weekdays, Holy Days, and at other times. Other work included studying and copying out biblical texts.

*SLEEP: Monks lived in a dormitory each monk had a separate bed and slept in his habit, so as to be ready to rise without delay – a light burnt in the dormitory throughout the night.

  • PUNISHMENT: Offences against the rules of the Monasteries brought down various punishments: first, private admonition; next, public reproof; then separation from the brethren at meals and elsewhere; then scourging; and finally expulsion
  • GIVING UP OF EARTHLY POSSESSIONS: Monks were forbidden to possess private property without the leave of the abbot, who was duty bound to supply all necessaries. Monks are forbidden from receiving letters or gifts from outside without the abbot’s leave.
  • DOMESTIC CHORES: All monks were expected to serve frequently in kitchen at regular intervals
  • READING HOLY SCRIPTURES ALOUD: A monk was expected to read aloud during meals, which was a duty to be performed by such of the brethren, week by week, Signs were used for whatever was required during meals, so that no voice would interrupt the reader.
  • REGULATIONS ON WHAT WAS EATEN: Monks were to eat a certain amount of food of a certain quality. Two meals a day were allowed with two dishes of cooked food at each. A pound of bread and a hemina (probably about half a pint) of wine was also given to each monk. Flesh-meat was prohibited except to sick or weak monks. Hours of the meals varied according to the time of year.

* IMPORTANCE OF MANUAL LABOUR: Manual labour for the monks was emphasised and thus it was timetabled into daily life – never less than about five hours a day. Often monks worked at a craft or digging the priory vegetable patch.

*CLOTHING: It was to be sufficient in both quantity and quality and to be suited to the climate and locality, according to the discretion of the abbot, but at the same time it was to be as plain and cheap as was consistent with due economy. Each monk had to have a change of garments, to allow for washing, and when traveling he was supplied with clothes of rather better quality. The old habits are to be put aside for the poor.


* DIFFERENCES: Towns and Villages

  1. Towns tended to be fortified – thus houses were tightly packed together – many more “Two Storey’ Buildings. Also many had out of the ordinary sort of building a cathedral or abbey perhaps – due to population and presence of a moneyed economy. Also these were the places garrisoned – soldiers (and other people) ‘living away from home’ tended to hang out. Protection from invaders often the prime concern – thus quite unhealthy places to live … too many people living in a very small space.

*Villages rarely fortified – peasants headed for their nearest town (or the forests) when news arrived of possible invasions etc.

  1. Towns housed greater proportion of outsiders and marginal folk (criminals/prostitutes/beggars etc.) – from other regions and lands – than did villages.images-6

*Villages more socially conservative and more based upon tight knit (socially exclusionary) domus and kinship arrangements – less impersonal than the towns.

  1. Towns subject to periodic epidemics and disasters (fires/invasions). Unsanitary conditions (sewerage/food handling/public health measures etc.) meant when one person caught something nasty the whole town did too! i.e. the Plague. The water supply was generally polluted, streets were quite unclean and unhealthy – human sewerage/animals droppings in the streets – open gutters. Large amounts of wealth and power concentrated in ‘strategic’ buildings meant towns were often the target of invading armies.

* Villages suffered various plagues too, but people were generally more healthy in the country – though easier to starve, and more primitive building conditions and medical knowledge meant that villages too were not that healthy to live in. Villages were pillaged by soldiers etc. on their way through to towns – easier to evade invaders not such a target, but there is safety in numbers and villages were burnt down easily.

  1. Towns had large markets – food storage facilities etc. tended to be focal points for more specialised goods and services. Many weird and wonderful goods and services not seen in the village environment were on show in the towns. Roads between major towns more traversed than roads leading only to villages – news traveled fast along these trading routes.

* Village markets had much less variety – less money around, more concerned with barter. Also less impersonal – everybody knew everybody else.

  1. Centres of learning (medicine/theology/philosophy etc.), culture and religious life once towns began to revive in the 12th century – thus much more connected to Europe-Wide Christian conceptions of time and geography. More connected to the concept of Christendom – – eventually became centres for Heresy also – and the fast transmission of ideas across Europe (university Towns)!

* In villages the parish church and its priest had to satisfy many of these requirements of civilisation – thus older belief systems lingered on longer in the villages and there was less openness to learning and also to the centralised models of the world which came with trade-based towns full of nobles and soldiers.

  1. Larger variety of ‘trades’ and ‘professions’ (jobs!) in towns – huge Guild halls, some schools (centres of learning), large religious houses, many more alehouses and varieties of entertainment – wandering poet/musicians, gymnasts, buffoons, story tellers, ‘circus freaks’ etc. . Many people did specialised jobs (for money!) which didn’t require contact with the country/nature at all.

*Village life saw men and women learn a variety of useful trades/skills rather than specialising – most skills were agriculturally based.

  1. Nobles and the high Clergy spent large parts of their lives in the towns – specifically they tended to organise the defence of the region or the town through the centralised and more developed bureaucracies of the towns. By the later Middle Ages many villages didn’t see a noble for years! (see Montaillou).

* Villages usually had only one noble family – if that – living in the vicinity. Often nobles spent part of the year in a town and part of the year on the country estates – worked as feudal serf or later renting freeman by local peasants.

  1. When the Feudal Monarchies of France and England began to forge out national identities for their subjects the Towns were at the forefront in defining that consciousness and providing the organisation and economic infrastructure to make it happen.

* Village people tended to be more conservative and localised in their politics.

  1. By the 13th century many serfs were running away from feudal bonds in order to find work in the towns – for money to buy their freedom.

* Village: Very difficult to get hands on enough money in the villages to buy one’s freedom.

* What was it Like to live in a Medieval Community – village or town?

* Firstly, this is one aspect of Medieval life that cannot be reconstructed by archaeology alone. We need: 1) an understanding of material aspects of Medieval villages and towns – what did the town or village look like? what is it like to walk through physically? etc.; 2) to reconstruct work, entertainment/social and domestic habits; 3) to recover and understand the rules (determinants) governing social interactions – marriage, friendship, childhood, learning etc. 4) to recover knowledge of customs/ beliefs etc. related to people’s relationship to animals and the natural world; 5) to accumulate knowledge of how religion/Saints/superstition etc. functioned in the community: a) socially b) personally; 6) to be aware of the rules governing economic aspects of life – we could continue!

*We can walk around the reconstructed streets of many Medieval towns or villages today – and this can give us some idea as to the Medieval experience – however, this can be deceptive. We have to:

  1. Edit out cars, trucks and traffic, electronic banking and computerised communication systems, sealed roads and all the other technological wonders invented after the industrial revolution.

*Replace with horses, cattle and carts – manure in the streets! – non-descript roads/paths going out of town in a haphazard sort of way to other towns – traversed by the said animals and human’s carrying trading goods on their backs. Also very little money. Early nights – burning things (Candles/torches) etc. at night was a luxury in a society with little enough firewood for keeping warm.

  1. Edit out our alienated ‘interiorised’ forms of social interaction – as well as the sense of being an individual in a mass of people one doesn’t know. Forget also our experience of sped up time.

*Replace with the ‘medieval version of the ‘small-town mentality’ – intensely social (hardly any time alone) everybody knows everybody else’s business – homes are virtually ‘open houses’ – people gossip with the owners as they pass, owners go about their domestic business and gossip back. People hang around the Town Centre playing games (entertaining/being entertained/ speaking/ listening (to news, proclamations, minstrels, folk stories etc. etc.)/ buying/selling, talking/gossiping etc. Time is more leisurely – and fits itself to the passage of the seasons.

  1. Edit out the many and sundry ‘health’, ‘socialisation’ and ‘economic’ laws and regulations which moderate, regulate and organise relationships between individuals in modern Western societies.

Despite the image we have of medieval peasants as being over-regulated we are in fact far more subject to the power of the state than they were. There were local customs certainly – and these were often quite complex in terms of their control of social life – but they were concrete, kin or neighbour based controls – not the vast impersonal workings of invisible bureaucracies such as we have. Thus we have to imagine public spaces being used for spontaneous activities – games, drinking, song, gambling etc. – often quite physical activities ‘wrestling etc.’ in ways we only see once or twice a year in our age. Also many untreatable diseases were likely to be on display, since Medieval people lived with such maladies people had more tolerance than we show today. Many people suffered skin irritations; similarly, blindness and deafness were endemic. Leprosy, small pox, and other diseases were also rife and much more on display than they are in our society

  1. We need to edit out multi-roomed, ‘intensely private’ homes and places of business as well as the relative absence of animals in our lives.

Replace with: Medieval houses were one room only – the centre was the ‘hearth’ – was used to keep warm in the winter and to cook food. Sometimes the cooking fire was outside – people cooked sat around talking etc. then slept inside (often with the animals, and kids all in the one room). All family life revolved around the hearth. People often slept within close proximity to it. Visitors came and went at regular intervals – many visitors slept in same beds as hosts (nothing was thought of this – it did not mean sexual relations). Sometimes peasant houses were one long room, with a fence or other structure dividing the humans off from the animals; sometimes humans huddles together with sheep, pigs, chickens and other domestic animals in the winter to maintain body heat. Often business was conducted from the same place in which the peasant family lived.images-2

  1. Edit out modern practices surrounding water supplies (also, soap and washing machines), sewerage and rubbish disposal practices etc.

Replace with ‘communal wells’, ‘bathhouses’ (in the bigger towns), ‘washing in streams’ – often a long way from home. Clothes not often washed – and continuously repaired. Forget about our conception of ‘fashion’. Toilet areas – holes in the ground (public areas: trees etc.) – or in the cases of Castles ‘long drops’ into moats and rivers. Rubbish often left in the streets – but less of it – almost everything was consumed or recycled through necessity.

*Edit out ‘healthy’ foods/ supermarkets and plentiful supplies of food, also fridges and other modern ways of preserving food.

Replace with: Dysentery, worms, scurvy and other food related illnesses common. Medieval life was hard on people’s stomachs – in the towns food was often ‘cut’ with non-organic matter. Health regulations were virtually non-existent so people didn’t understand the concept of ‘germs’ and thus had no idea how to guard against such things – cooking utensils were washed in disease carrying water – often close to where people or animals did their toiletry! Then there is the problem of famine – for most of the middle ages starvation was a major problem for large sections of Europe’s population – especially in the harsh winters of the northern climes.

6) Edit out (among the peasants) modern practices of separating children from their mothers (in ‘private’ rooms/crèches/schools etc.).

Replace with virtually universal ‘breast feeding’ (up to three years among peasants) though, with, wet nursing among many aristocratic mothers. Long in arms periods for young children – childhood very physical – children spent a lot more time exploring nature. … less intellectual life, more geared to learning skills knowledge off a variety of kin/village people in the village rather than through schooling.

7) Edit out work life dominated by the artificial demands of industry and commerce.

Replace with work life dominated by the demands of the Christian (or local popular) calendar, the seasons and the weather. Life revolves around the cycles and life stages of local flora. Social gatherings and festivities take place according to natural events or events related to the Christian year. The local church was the ‘spiritual’ centre of a town or village, the town centre was the ‘secular’ centre of the town.



Medieval Time

*What is time? Is it an objective external fact or a human invention?

  • Is our sense of time socially conditioned? There is certainly plenty of evidence accumulating to suggest that it evolved with human society. The question is to what degree do public perceptions of time match private perceptions of time?

*Difficult to Understand Pre-Scientific Experiences and Understandings of Time: Satellites, Greenwich Mean Time, global communication systems, developments in physics and astronomy, and space travel all make it extremely difficult for people living in modern societies to understand the different perceptions and experiences of time and history endured by Pre-Scientific Europeans.

*We experience time differently. Our society regulates the passage of bodies through time differently. We measure time differently.

In this lecture I’ll be talking about the associations Medieval People associated with the the passage of time. We can look at them as a series of ‘contrasts’ in many ways:







Medieval time was at once much more “concrete” and “sacred” than it is today. What do we mean by ‘Concrete’? Well their perception of time was dominated by:

  • The seasons, important agricultural events/work-related events as they occurred locally.

*We now have a more or less abstract perception of the seasons. By contrast, a local and concrete perception of time would mark spring according to the days particular flowers appeared in the fields, or according to the period particular animals, birds insects etc. behaved in particular ways. Spring arrived at different times for the lowland peasant to the highland peasant and so on.

*Many Medieval people marked the passage of time according to both the Julian Calendar of months and highly localised Pre-Christian words for the months as concrete agricultural/ seasonal phenomenon … e.g. grape month, harvest month, jackdaw month, dove month, wolf month, hot month, month of clods etc.

*Seasons and the changing landscape enabled people to orientate themselves within the year, and told them what to do next … the landscape was the calendar for many pre-literate peoples:

When the sloe-tree is as white as a sheet,

images-9Sow your barley whether it be wet or dry


When the oak puts on his gosling grey,

‘Tis time to sow barley, night and day.


When the fern is as high as a spoon,

You may sleep an hour at noon.

  • Another aspect of Localised time was the fact that Periods of the Year were often marked by religious, legendary, historical or superstitious markers.

*On such and such a day such and such a hero, saint, etc. connected to a specific place, church, boulder, spring etc. and did such and such an action – which is celebrated ever after and which indelibly imprints the local landscape to local understandings of time.

Le Goff summarises agricultural Time:

“Farming or peasant time involved waiting, putting up with things, unchanging circumstances, starting things over again, slowness … resistance to change. It lacked events and did not need dates, or rather its dates were ones that fluctuated gently according to the rhythm of nature. For rural time was natural time. The great divisions were day, night and the seasons.”

Sacred Time

*Most religions explain time as an endless cycle of rebirth and regeneration:

  • Ancient Mayan civilisation worked on a cycle of 260 years
  • Other eastern religions work on cycles as long as 12,000 years

Cyclic time offers the hope that one will always be reborn at some point of the wheel of time, and reborn in this world. Everyone gets a second (or forty-second!) chance.

*Medieval Sacred Time/ Church Time:

*Medieval people experienced time in connection to supernatural entities of both a more or less personalized, local character (Pre-Christian or local Christian e.g. a local saint) and a universal character e.g. God (who created time across all Christendom)..

*Medieval sacred time was different to Graeco-Roman, Celtic and Germanic sacred time – which had traits associated with ‘recurring time ‘or ‘eternal return’.

*In the Medieval view, however, time belonged only to God and could only be lived out – it was continuous and linear.

*To grasp, measure or turn it to account was considered a sin.

*The Liturgical calendar of seasonal Christian religious observances reinforced this perception of time, as did the ever present ‘tolling of the bells’ to mark off mortal transitions of God’s time.

*Sacred time was tied to cycles of prayer and penance: i.e. to linear movement toward salvation. Sacred time was also tied to the liturgical calendar from Christ’s birth (Incarnation) through to ascension … Advent to Pentacost. Saints’ Feast days also marked out progressions of sacred time during the year.

*Sacred time in the Middle Ages also regulated economic activity and work rhythms.

* The Clergy were MASTERS OF THE MEASUREMENT OF TIME: they controlled the symbols of time for most of the Medieval period, especially in the rural backblocks. Bells and liturgical calendars of feasts, holidays etc, controlled moral behavior.

Jewish and Christian conceptions of time are different to other religions – they link in with Judeo-Christian conceptions of History: How?

Judaism and Christianity teach a linear sense of time/history – past, present and future.

  • Time moves from the Creation (Genesis) to the Destruction (Judgement Day) of the universe.
  • Time is a measurable sequence of un-repeating events.
  • People are not reborn into this world, but move to a different world (a different existence). At the end of time the souls of the virtuous will be crowded together in the glory of God’s love.

Christian Sacred Time – SEVEN STAGES

God created the universe in 7 days

Medieval Church divided history into seven ages:medieval_christmas

1) from Adam to Noah

2) from Noah to Abraham

3) from Abraham to David

4) the Babylonian Captivity

5) from the Babylonian Captivity to the Incarnation (birth of Christ)

6) from the Incarnation to the present

7) the age of man’s heavenly rest with God.

Man’s life was also divided into 7 stages: infancy; boyhood, manhood; prime; middle age; old age.

So to a woman’s life:

Two first seven years for a rod they do whine (14),

two next as a pearl in the world they do shine (28),

two next trim beauty beginneth to swerve (42),

two next for matrons or drudges they serve (56),

two next doth crave a staff for a stay (70),

two next a bier to fetch them away (84).images-10

Church hours (Roman Hours Christianised) of the day:

Matins (midnight)

Lauds (3am)

Prime (6am)

Terce (9am)

Sext (Noon)

Nones (3pm)

Vespers (6pm)

Compline (9pm)

*Between 5,228 and 6,000 years between ADAM and Christ according to various chroniclers of the Middle Ages. The church, however, was mostly ambivalent about reckoning numbers, like peasant culture the church preferred a chronology of significant events (liturgical in character).


  • Townsfolk lived a far more regulated life than their country compatriots:
    • Church bells more likely to be rung
    • guild bells
    • curfew bells
    • bells for the night watches
    • bells to regulate working hours
    • bells for the defence of the towns etc.
  • from the late 1300s clocks were introduced as a reliable means of regulating the bells, and thus regulating the life of workers and townsfolk
  • time became even: the day was divided into 24 hours. By the fifteenth century the hour had become the basic unit of labour, previously it had been the day.

Meanwhile the vast majority of the people – the rural workers – continued to live in seasonal and Church time. Towns became isolated islands of regulated, even time in an ocean of uneven and vague time.

  • Town Time: more exact, abstract (non-concrete), secular, rational – related to the obsessions of town people. Town time was related to “labour time” in factories, “guild time” among craftspeople and “merchant time” among traders. It was in the towns that our modern idea of Productive Time was birthed.
  • 2) Merchant Time: – had to be more universal across large geographical distances and needed to be tied to ‘productivity’ – i.e. labour done in a particular amount of time … Merchant time was tied to money, interest, investment, usury, ‘capital’ – thus began the capitalist experience of time.
  • What came first: the clock or the need for a clock?



  • Peasants had little understanding of calendar years. Things happened ‘back in history’ according to the same principles they applied to seasonal or other events – e.g. ‘back then’ was when a child was young, when a fire happened etc. EVENTS defined the Year, NOT abstract numbers. However, some knowledge of the Julian calendar seems to have co-existed with an Events DRIVEN concept of time.
  • peasants rarely used abstract names for months (although they may have done in pagan Europe when the names of months closely followed the seasons). Many simply forgot the Julian names for the months – or needed to place ‘concrete names’ beside them to meaningfully understand the passage of time.
  • calendar dates, or numerical dates within months, meant very little to Medieval peasants – especially in rural areas.

Thus: the date 1 June 1261 probably meant nothing to most peasants.

imgresSo how did peasants refer to events in time past?

  • generally used Church (festival) time, seasonal time e.g. the growth of a tree, or the decline of their own body.
    • None of these methods could accurately locate an event in ‘time past’. Time past can only ever be vague … “around about Lent in the year the cow fell in the pond and drowned”.
    • Perhaps the relevant family will know what year that was, maybe the village will, but no-one outside the local community will be able to locate the event in ‘time past’.
  • If peasants could not accurately locate events in time past, either to themselves or to others, then the past became difficult to conceptualise. Everything before their lives, or their parents’ lives, was easily lost.
  • This difficulty in referring to the past also meant a peasant’s own age became very vague the older s/he got.
    • there are always ‘milestone’ early in life, but these get fewer, and farther between, as a person ages.
  • The past via myths and legends? Time past was always very vague in myth and legend. Events happening a thousand years previous might seem to have taken place just before one’s parents’ time if described using myth or legend.
  • Time future? Could Medieval people conceive of their own futures? Plan for them? Could they conceive of an age beyond their own?

People lived close to the past (Roman ruins, pagan remnants, prehistoric earthworks etc.), but did they have any concept of a past, or of past societies?

  • People had a different concept of past; they believed they lived in the same Age as Christ had. (It was the scholars of the Renaissance who realised the difference and labelled periods ‘Dark Ages’, ‘Roman Age’ etc.)
  • medieval people had a concept of passing time, but not of changing times. No concept of ‘progress’.
    • note that so many aspects of life remained the same from generation to generation: work practices, clothing, festivals etc.
    • Did they have any need to ponder the differences between their society and past societies?



Conflicts Over Different Notions of Time

* In the Medieval period there were conflicts over different perceptions of time – these conflicts were linked, in turn, to the great social conflicts of the Medieval period. There was probably no one UNIFIED or DOMINANT idea of TIME or CHRONOLOGY. The medieval mind (like our modern mind) accepted multiple methods for reckoning time.

Agricultural, Seigneurial and Church Time (all more or less concrete and influenced by the seasons) predominated up until around the 13th century. After that Town and Merchant time began to take over – very much our understanding of time! Le Goff states: “Technical progress broke up traditional conceptions of time and made it discontinuous.” Time was laicized and “desacralised”.

  • town time – was in conflict with rural time especially. Work in towns was not necessarily linked to specific seasonal events, instead it was linked to endlessly repeating profitable/productive practices which workers specialized in.
  • agricultural time – more rubbery, seasonal, less exact, more tied to nature and work and to specific ‘events in nature’, to animals, plants, seasons etc. In conflict with town time.
  • peasant time – either in villages or towns was different to time as experienced by those better off economically … also different to time as experienced by the clergy.
  • seigneurial Time (bells, trumpets and horns)- regulated by collecting of dues, taxes, fines etc. also tied to ‘fighting’ AND the homage of vassals. Beginning of ‘bureaucratic time’ but in early medieval period this type of time was still firmly tied to nature … for the peasants paid fees and taxes when the crops came in! Bulk of dues to Lords had to be paid at Michaelmas (29th September) – kind of like Tax Day today.
  • Church time – Conflicts between Protestant and Catholic perceptions of time flared up in the Early Modern period … a calendar without Saints’ Days became a protestant goal. Inevitably protestant time became more secular. Conflict with ‘town time’ – especially the time of the merchants – who were ‘trading in time’.
  • merchant time – In conflict with ‘sacred time’ – time is money to the merchant – Merchants make a living off of moving goods in space and time according to the demands of capital – merchant notions of time became associated with the concept of profit.
  • male-female time – dependant upon what men and women did. Female time was more concrete (embodied) and tied to the ‘monthly’ cycle and domestic and agricultural activities. Women experienced time similar to their menfolk when their husbands were farmers, but when hubby was a merchant or townsman we can theorise a perceptual schism opening up between each gender’s experience of time.


  • On St Distaff’s Day (Jan 25) neither work nor play
  • Upon St David’s Day (March 1), put oats and barley in the clay
  • Sow beans and peas on David and Chad, Be the weather good or bad
  • Till St James Day be come and gone (July 25), You may have hope, or you may have none



The Remnants of Paganism and the Supernatural in Medieval Life

Christianity in western Europe:

  • spread first via the Roman Empire as the official Roman state religion
  • collapsed during the Germanic tribal invasions of the 5th century
  • missionary monks and priests reconverted western Europe from mid-Dark Ages

What did the missionary monks find?

  • pagan faiths based about:
    • the worship of many godsPAN
    • the worship of holy places within the ordinary landscape: rocks, stones, groves, lakes, rivers, trees
    • gods associated with the earth and sky about the people
  • a world full of supernatural creatures: gods, sprites, elves, ghosts, etc.
  • a world peopled with wonder workers who could manipulate this supernatural world: wizards, witches, soothsayers etc.

How did the Church effect a conversion?

  • by compromise
  • by absorption
  • by redefining previously pagan sacred sites as Christian ones
  • associating saints with the sites previously associated with a variety of gods …


The Christian God & faith is remote, abstract and inaccessible. People needed accessible gods, gods associated with their daily world and their ancient sacred sites … the Church gave them a myriad of saints to fill these functions.

The Church:

  • appended major Christian festivals to pagan onespagan-yule-spirit
    • Christmas is based on the pagan fire festival of Yuletide (held at the time of the winter solstice)
    • Easter is based on the pagan spring destival of Eostre

This process seemed sound, but it fatally blurred the lines between pagan and Christian&emdash;who was converted, the people of Europe, or the Christian Church?


Basically, the process resulted in two churches:

  • the church of the first two estates, the elite, the more likely to be educated, which stayed closer to the theological roots of Christianity
  • the church of the third estate, largely uneducated (as were its priests) and largely un-taught in their Christian faith. These people believed themselves Christians, but their daily lives were still highly attuned to ancient ways.

For whatever reasons, the Church reinforced the place of the supernatural in people’s daily lives.



In a world with no scientific explanation, everything was largely defined in supernatural terms.

The world itself was highly enchanted:

  • many sites invested (or infested) with supernatural beings
  • features of the landscape&emdash;misty, low-lying islands, caves, hills, ancient burial grounds or barrowsTumulus_Dissignac2
  • churches themselves were highly enchanted: tombs, altars, crypts etc. could carry magical prowessthe air itself was packed with supernatural beings:
    • ghosts
    • demons travelled the air looking for souls to steal (the Church calculated them at 1,758,064,176)
    • as well sundry angels, saints, etc.




Ordeals called on the supernatural intervention of God to pass judgement when courts, judges and juries were undecided.

Four basic types of ordeal:

1) the hot rod or iron ordeal: a suspect carried a hot rod of iron a set number of paces. His hands were then bound up and if, after a set number of days, they remained unblistered, then he was not guilty.

2) the boiling water ordeal: the suspect plunged his or her hand, had it bandaged, and then inspected after a set number of days.

3) swallowing a holy morsel of bread: the guilty would always choke.

4) cold water ordeal: suspect thrown into a pond. If they sank, then they were not guilty. (But often bound and gagged on being thrown in.)


Popular Religion II

Religion, religious belief(s), the supernatural and supernatural beliefs, pervaded every aspect of life:

  • relations with the Church, religious life supervised by the Church (esp. via the local priest)
  • work, whether
    • the idea that work brought one closer to God
    • the days one could, or could not, work
    • guilds’ religious orientationimgres
    • ploughing/fertility rituals conducted in the fields by priests and/or peasants
    • the songs and dances of religious orientation done at place of work (field)
    • the blessing of tools by priests
  • health, whether
    • praying to saints, and visiting their shrines
    • murmuring spells over potions or appealing to supernatural agencies to heal
    • blaming demons, sprites, imps and fairies for ill health
  • social life
  • many hospitals
  • education (many universities and schools controlled by the Church, and studies would have been influenced by religion everywhere)
  • the writers and recorders of society (until the fourteenth century) were largely Churchmen
  • the administrators and legal clerks of the medieval world were generally clerics
  • sexual life was affected by the Church, as by religious guilt and fear
  • eating habits were affected by religious festivals and periods of fasting
  • religion explainedthe workings of the world
  • the Church and religion provided the medieval world with one of its major concepts of time (the annual cycle of religious festivals etc.)
  • Death was dominated by religion

Relations with the Church

The Church invaded, and sought to control, all aspects of life:

  • sexual activities, marriage, birth, death, work, time, eating etc. (all the things listed above)imgres-2


The Church had its own judicial system, and its own taxation system:

  • peasants had to pay a yearly tithe (10 – 12% of their income), as well as a death (mortuary) tax, generally one of their livestock.

The tens of thousands of clergy in minor orders who wandered the roads and created havoc were, as all members of the church, unable to be tried in state courts.


Problems with understanding the Christian faith

  • There was no coherent effort to educate the peasantry in their faith (although the Roman Church realised this had to be done)
  • peasants had no understanding of the Latin mass. They generally could not understand a thing said in Church services.
  • the parish priests were generally of the peasants themselves, and had minimal, if any, education. They were not able to instruct the peasants.
  • Interiors of churches awash with sculptures, paintings, carvings, icons, yet these held almost no meaning for peasants (unless they made up their own stories about them)
  • add to the above the fact that by the 12th century the Church was a massive, wealthy (in gold and land) and powerful organisation that was also deeply corrupt.
  • thus local priests were often not well respected, and the higher clergy (bishops etc.) were loathed and feared.


What did people understand of their religion?

  • only the issues of prime importance:
    • the necessity of baptism for a child
    • the necessity of the appropriate death ritual (involving priests etc.)
    • the horrible threat of excommunication
    • penance was taken seriously
  • of prayer and theology most knew nothing, not even the Lord’s Prayer

What did peasants understand of the Church? That as a result of peasant labour, the Church was wealthy beyond measure. The Church controlled the gateway to salvation, yet was corrupt beyond measure.

Nevertheless, the peasants’ faith was often their only avenue of hope in a dismal life.images-1



People voted with their feet:


  • Cathar (Albigensian):popular from the 12th century through to the 14th century, extensive through central and southern France with both nobles and peasants. A feature of this heresy was the simplification of the entire hierarchy of priests.
  • Waldensian heresy:very widespread through France and parts of Germany in the 12th century and early 13th century. Claimed the Church was corrupt, and believed, among other things, in the abolition of the priesthood (Church hierarchy), and that all that was needed for salvation was an understanding of the Bible (Church rituals, sacraments and entire structure was unnecessary). Never entirely put down.
  • Lollard heresy:massive heresy among peasants (and largely protected by the nobles) in England, claimed the Church was corrupt and had lost God’s grace, claimed that the entire system of sacraments and rituals were unnecessary and the institution of the church could virtually be scrapped. Claimed that all you needed for salvation was an understanding of the bible. This heresy, and its ideas, was never entirely put down.
  • Hussite heresy: Germany 15th century, basically same ideas as the Lollards.imgres-3
  • Atheism???????



An Italian, born 1532, a self-taught peasant who eventually rose to become the mayor of his village. Believed:

  • priests were useless, they only wanted to have a good time at peasants’ expense, and no-one needed them to attain salvation.
  • The ‘virgin’ birth? Ha!
  • masses for the dead were useless, instead people should spend money and effort helping those still alive.
  • The Church was too rich for its own good.
  • God loves, and saves, people of all faiths, even Jews and Turks.
  • All sacraments were human inventions, and the Eucharist was but a piece of dough, not God himself.
  • Confession was useless, you might as well confess to a tree as to a priest. (Instead, you should confess directly to God.)


Popular Resentment


The Plowman poems: a series of poems popular in England and Europe during the medieval period, and used as a popular voice of social and religious complaint.

  • Prayer and complaint of the Plowman (c. 1300)Among other things, complains of:
    • the only true priest is Christ, and no earthly priest can shrive (or forgive) a man of his sin
    • why do some priests have more power to cleanse a man of sin than others?
    • priests grant to themselves powers that Christ granted to no earthly man
    • priests take money for services
    • priests live luxurious lives, away from Christ’s teaching
    • points out that God created woman to be a helpmeet for men … yet what sort of men are these priests that forsake a helpmeet (wives) and instead fornicate with whores?
    • Lord, why is it that a thief who steals a horse is put to death, yet they who rob the people of their lifeblood and souls live in ease?
    • the Pope has become a lord, and lives in luxury
    • why is it that a man must give his meagre stock of goods and livestock to a priesthood that already has more than it needs?

Oh Lord, deliver thy sheep out of the ward of these shepherds who work more to rob thy sheep of their riches, than they do to protect thy sheep.

(This is more than a social commentary, it is a heretical tract!)

  • God Spede the Plough (c. 1400s)A plowman complains about the number of clergy and nobles who demand his money and work:
    • the parson takes his tithe
    • the king’s lawyer takes his wheat and meat
    • the lord’s bailiffs take their cut
    • prisoners beg charityimages-2
    • grey friars demand money to save his so
    • Augustine friars come and take his bread and cheese
    • black friars also take their slice
    • Observants (lower clergy) take corn and meat
    • lawyers come to take rent
    • priests travelling to Rome demand our silver
    • clerks (in holy orders) from Oxford take money to teach


  • Miracle Plays: Plays put on by guilds during religious festivals in towns, and based on stories from the Bible.In “Cain and Abel” both grumble about the tithes they have to pay their priest.For truly, Lord, thou art most worthyBoth best and worst, full certainly,The best sheep, full heartily,I tithe to God of great mercyAmongst all fools that go on ground,To tithe the best, that is not sound,But I more wisely shall work this [way]Of all my corns that may be found.Popular doggerel:Why should the parson have one in ten?Why should the parson have one in ten?
  • One in ten, one in ten,
  • We’ve cheated the parson, we’ll cheat him again,
  • To tithe the worst …
  • And keep the worst, that is near lost.
  • I hold thee to be one of the most;
  • Cain says:
  • Amongst my flock that I can see,
  • All is had of grace of thee.
  • The best to have in each degree;
  • Abel says:

Popular Religion I

We turn now to the way in which Peasant communities experienced the Church:

* As we’ve seen already in earlier lectures, religion, religious belief(s), the supernatural, supernatural beliefs and superstitions, pervaded every aspect of peasant life. From the 12th century on most Western Europeans became increasingly aware of the role of the Universal church in their lives.

In what ways did the church impinge on people’s existence? – for better or for worse:



  • The church as Interpreter of Spiritual Yearnings/Manifestations: most public expressions of ‘spirituality’ were supervised by the church (esp. via the local priest) – the spiritual yearnings/manifestations of the individual soul, were thus, usually explained/absorbed into the prevalent Christo-centric world view.
  • A person’s work (an extremely social activity) was defined by the church’s cultural organs as a manifestation of a person’s relationship with the Christian God:
  • the idea that work brought one closer to God
  • the days one could, or could not, work
  • guilds’ religious orientationimgres-4
  • ploughing/fertility rituals conducted in the fields by priests and/or peasants
  • the songs and dances of religious orientation done at place of work (field)
  • the blessing of tools by priests
  • praying to saints, and visiting their shrines
  • murmuring spells over potions or appealing to supernatural agencies to heal
  • blaming demons, sprites, imps and fairies for ill health
  • hospitals often dedicated to Saints and often run by friars, monks, nuns etc.
  • A Person’s sense of Physical, Psychological and Spiritual Well-Being was moderated, explained and dependant upon supernatural forces as defined by the Christian intellectual system:
  • Social Life: Since most people were ‘nominally’ Christian one’s social life tended to revolve around interactions with people who viewed the world (or at least thought they did) through Christian eyes: family, friends, acquaintances etc
  • The Medieval education system – what there was of it:       (e.g. many universities and schools) were controlled by the Church, and studies were powerfully influenced by religious doctrine and prayer.
  • Cultural Infrastructure – the writers and recorders of society (until the fourteenth century) were largely Churchmen.
  • Law and Bureaucracy: the administrators and legal clerks of the medieval world were generally clerics
  • Love and Sex: As we’ve seen the church was quite interfering in its attempts to oversee the love relations – and especially the sexual life and married life – of Medieval people. One couldn’t think of sex during this period without seeing (experiencing?) it through the prism of sin, Adam, Eve, Temptation, Penitentials, deadly/cardinal and mortal sins etc. etc.
  • What one ate or drank and when one ate or drank: eating and drinking habits were affected by religious festivals and periods of fasting
  • The Cosmos: religion explained the workings of the world, the stars, the planets, etc.
  • Time: the Church and religion provided the medieval world with one of its major concepts of time (the annual cycle of religious festivals etc.)
  • Death and the After Life: Death was dominated by church beliefs concerned with the after-life, with the judgement/weighting of souls (vices heavy/virtues light), with eternal damnation in a very real underground hell, or flight to an equally real heavenly paradise.
  • We could continue …


The Church invaded, and sought to control, all aspects of life:

  • sexual activities, marriage, birth, death, work, time, eating etc. (all the things listed above)imgres-5

*Then there was its influence over the income of peasants – and their paths to appealing against the excesses of that influence: The Church had its own judicial system, and its own taxation system:

  • peasants had to pay a yearly tithe (10 – 12% of their income), as well as a death (mortuary) tax, generally one of their livestock, and of course we’ve seen that penance was often converted into gifts of money/property etc..

*Freedom from Prosecution in Secular Courts: The tens of thousands of clergy in minor orders who wandered the roads creating havoc were, as members of the church, unable to be tried in state courts.

SUMMARY: by the High Middle Ages, the church was a very powerful institution indeed. However, we should not see this power as monolithic, Europe was too complex a cultural entity for that. Among the peasants, in particular, church power was resisted/diluted in various ways: by circumstances related to literacy/local culture etc. (as we see repeatedly with Montaillou – the church is both all-pervasive and curiously impotent); by pagan remnant beliefs and practices outside the church; by the resistance (passive and otherwise) of local Lords/Kings and even Bishops; by Heretical beliefs; by the periodic social and cultural collapses (wars/plagues etc.) that ravaged Europe; by foreign religious influences (often brought into Europe by returning Crusaders) and so on.

*Lets look at some of the factors which oppose the “monolithic argument of church dominance”:

What did people actually understand of their religion?

  • Usually, only the religious issues of prime importance:
  • the necessity of baptism for a child
  • the necessity of the appropriate death ritual (involving priests etc.)
  • the horrible threat of excommunication
  • penance was often taken seriouslyimgres-6
  • of prayer and theology most knew nothing, not even the Lord’s Prayer

How did Peasants feel about the Church?

*If we were cynical: we could say that as a result of peasant labour, the Church and its guardians – who preached worldly abstinence – had become wealthy beyond measure, and, also, morally bankrupt beyond measure. Likewise, that the church worked hand in hand with the same secular powers/rulers who exploited them day in day out in the fields etc.. The Church supposedly controlled the gateway to salvation, yet it seemed to have lost touch – despite attempts at reform – with the essential social and political values of equality and inner communion with God which had so characterised primitive Christianity. Nevertheless, the peasants’ faith was often their only avenue of hope in a dismal life.

* We were not being cynical … Medieval peasants became increasingly ‘anti-clerical’ after 1200-

CAUSES of 12th C Anti-Clericalism

There were numerous reasons for the rise of anti-clerical sentiments among the laity during the twelfth century.

Problems with worldly manifestations of the Christian faith:

  1. A) Failures of the Message:
  • Peasant Illiteracy Widespread: There was no coherent effort to educate the peasantry in their faith (although the Roman Church realised this had to be done)
  • Latin Mass caused communication problems between the church and peasants: peasants had little or no understanding of the Latin mass. They generally could not understand a thing said in Church services. Priests, in turn, often unable to communicate to their ‘flocks’ in the vernacular.
  • Peasant Priests: local parish priests were generally peasants themselves, they thus had minimal, if any, education. They were often unable to instruct the peasants in the correct modes of worship.
  • Image over Substance in Church Interiors: Interiors of churches were decorated with sculptures, paintings, carvings, icons, etc, yet these were rarely fully understood by peasants and worse, they often served non-religious roles (dare we say it popular cultural roles) – they were often mere spectacles meant to impress rather than educate and facilitate prayer – thus they were one of the first targets of the Reformation!
  • Church Corruption, Inability to Live up to its own Moral Codes (especially members of the secular clergy), the feeling that the church was really OF THE WORLD rather than the spirit: by the 12th century the Church was a massive, wealthy (in gold and land) and powerful organisation that was also deeply corrupt. From the perspective of peasants: Priests/clergy didn’t practice what they preached.imgres-7
  • Authoritarian Church men and the Fear of God: Many Medieval people feared and loathed their local representatives of the Universal faith. Priests were often not well respected, and the higher clergy (bishops etc.) were loathed and feared by many poorer people in particular.

*Problems for Church from the Lofty Perch of the Historian!

  • Urbanisation/ Education/ Revival of Classical Learning: The growth of the educated class, including laymen, brought about by the rise of abbey and cathedral schools as well as universities. Such developments led to closer examination of the Church’s “revealed truth.”
  • Philosophical Factors
  • Studies such as Peter Abelard’s Sic et Non (“Yes and No”) demonstrated the contradictions within that “revealed truth.”
  • Some scholars abandoned all of the “revealed truths” except for the Scriptures, and translations of the Scriptures (often declared illegal) allowed people to judge the established Church against its origins. They found no Scriptural bases for much of the Church’s organization, its practices, its privileges, and many of its teachings.
  • The Nominalists were led to consider whether the Church was not a human institution, in which case it was legitimate for the laity to require its reform and reorganization.
  • Political Factors
  • The struggles over lay investiture had involved the Church in secular politics. This weakened the Church’s position that ecclesiastical affairs should be free from secular interference but that the Church had the right to pass moral judgments on laymen and their actions.
  • Church played Power Politics. By inciting civil wars in Germany, the Church promoted a great deal of suffering and converted the Holy Roman emperors from allies to political foes.
  • Ecclesiastical Lords Slow to Give up Powers: The residents of the rising towns and cities of Western Europe needed charters of liberty to free them from the restrictions of feudal practices. Secular lords granted such charters rather freely, but ecclesiastical lords were often unwilling to relinquish their rights and privileges to laymen. The townspeople seized these rights and privileges in waves in communal rebellions (urban revolts) that swept across Western Europe in the 1070s- 1080s and 1120s.
  • Social Factors
  • Not doing Much to Stop Poverty: The Church was unable to care for the growing number of paupers with its traditional institutions and revenues. It was requiring more income, but much of this was seen to be used for the building of giant and exceedingly expensive churches, increasing the number of clerical functionaries, and supporting clerics in relative luxurious life-styles.
  • A Ruralised Church: The Church in the West had adapted over centuries to a rural setting in which it served a relatively uneducated flock. Its most zealous and idealistic members joined monastic orders in which they had little or no contact with the laity. The secular clergy working in the new towns did not have the education or fervor to reach members of the middle class or to resist the temptations of city life.images-3
  • Internal Factors
  • The Church lacked the number of well-educated and committed clerics needed to meet the needs/questions of the new educated reason-minded, middle classes.


Examples of Popular Resentment


The Plowman poems: a series of poems popular in England and Europe during the medieval period, and used as a popular voice of social and religious complaint.

  • Prayer and complaint of the Plowman (c. 1300)

Among other things, complains of:

  • the only true priest is Christ, and no earthly priest can shrive (or forgive) a man of his sin
  • why do some priests have more power to cleanse a man of sin than others?
  • priests grant to themselves powers that Christ granted to no earthly man
  • priests take money for services
  • priests live luxurious lives, away from Christ’s teaching
  • points out that God created woman to be a helpmeet for men … yet what sort of men are these priests that forsake a helpmeet (wives) and instead fornicate with whores, each other and other men’s wives?
  • Lord, why is it that a thief who steals a horse is put to death, yet they who rob the people of their lifeblood and souls live in ease?
  • the Pope has become a secular lord, living in luxury and vice.
  • why is it that a man must give his meager stock of goods and livestock to a priesthood that already has more than it needs?

“Oh Lord, deliver thy sheep out of the ward of these shepherds who work more to rob thy sheep of their riches, than they do to protect thy sheep.”

*Can you smell Heresy here? How much does it prefigure the criticism Martin Luther pinned to the church door of Wittenburg at the beginning of the Reformation? How much were the church’s negative opinions of heresy based upon ‘theological issues’ and how much were they based upon fear of losing a lucrative ‘this worldly’ power/wealth base?

God Spede the Plough (c. 1400s)

A plowman complains about the number of clergy and nobles who demand his money and work:

  • the parson takes his tithe
  • the king’s lawyer takes his wheat and meatimgres-8
  • the lord’s bailiffs take their cut
  • prisoners beg charity
  • grey friars demand money to save his soul
  • Augustine friars come and take his bread and cheese
  • black friars also take their slice
  • Observants (lower clergy) take corn and meat
  • lawyers come to take rent
  • priests travelling to Rome demand our silver
  • clerks (in holy orders) from Oxford take money to teach

*Yes the Men of God needed the money of others to follow their calling: And, we might add, the world seems no better a place for all the ‘praying’ these people do. Priests, monks, friars etc. were slowly gaining reputations as social parasites feeding off the hard work of others – peasants – that they claimed superiority over on account of their own closeness to God.

Miracle Plays: Plays put on by guilds during religious festivals in towns, and based on stories from the Bible.

In the play “Cain and Abel” the two characters grumble about the tithes they have to pay their priest.

Abel says:

For truly, Lord, thou art most worthy

The best to have in each degree;

Both best and worst, full certainly,

All is had of grace of thee.

The best sheep, full heartily,

imgres-9Amongst my flock that I can see,

I tithe to God of great mercy

Cain says:

Amongst all fools that go on ground,

I hold thee to be one of the most;

To tithe the best, that is not sound,

And keep the worst, that is near lost.

But I more wisely shall work this [way]

To tithe the worst …

Of all my corns that may be found.

Popular doggerel:

We’ve cheated the parson, we’ll cheat him again,

Why should the parson have one in ten?

One in ten, one in ten,

Why should the parson have one in ten?

*Here and there Popular resentment turned into calls for rebellion against the various ways in which the church controlled the populace …. and thus we talk of …


* Let’s first define heresy. The technical definition is “error, obdurately held,” which meant, in the Middle Ages, that a person believed something that was contrary to the “revealed truth” offered by God to humanity through the Church, and that the person continued to hold that belief even after it had been pointed out to him or her how that belief was contrary to “revealed truth.” Heresy was both hated and feared.

*Soul Damnation and Hell as a way to Maintain the Church’s wealth/power base: People believed in physical Hell, in which sinners would suffer the most excruciating pain imaginable forever and would be aware that their agony would never end.

* The Church taught, and most people believed, that the only way to avoid such a fate was by following the teachings and being protected by the rituals (sacraments) of the Church.

*A heretic was doomed to Hell, but could also convince others of his or her wrong belief and so lead them to Hell also.

*So, a heretic was regarded as we might regard someone carrying a highly contagious and incurable disease.

*We would lock such a person up where they would not come in contact with anyone; the people of the Middle Ages killed them. Moreover, they often killed them in public and horrible ways as a warning to everyone of how dangerous heretics were.

* The opposite of heresy was orthodoxy, or “right belief.”

*There had been heresies since the emergence of the organized Church in the fourth century, but they had generally been disputes over points of theology.

*During the twelfth century, however, several heresies arose that were in fact criticisms of the practices of the Church rather than religious theory, and gained widespread support among the laity. Lay criticism of Church practices is called anti- clericalism.


*The Albigensians, so-called after the southern French town of Albi where they were particularly strong, are thought to be a continuation of the Manichaean heresy that flourished in the time of Augustine of Hippo (late 4th-early 5th centuries) and was centered in Persia.

*Bogomils (predecessors): It supposedly reappeared in a) Asia Minor as the Paulicians, spread to the b) Balkans, where its members were known as the Bogomils, to the towns of c) northern Italy as the Patini, and finally to d) France, where they were known as the Cathari.

* Theological Position of Dualism: All of these sects shared the common feature of being dualist, that is, they believed that there were two basic principles in the universe — a principle of good and a principle of evil. Although many Christians held a similar belief (God versus Satan), this was not the official doctrine of the Church.

*Cathar anti-clerical Twist: They held that Jesus had been sent to Earth by the principle of Good, but that he had been tricked and killed by the Jews and the Romans. His murderers then played a terrible trick by establishing a Church designed to lead people astray into the power of the principle of Evil by pretending to be the thing that Jesus had been sent to create. They went so far as to make good men and women worship the Cross, the weapon with which they had killed Jesus.

* Cathar Structures: The Cathari were divided, like the Christian world into laity – called credentes, or “believers” – and clergy — called perfecti, or “the complete ones.” They had no churches or other buildings, and the perfecti wandered among the believers, traveling in pairs, living lives of great austerity, speaking the language of the people, and tending to their spiritual needs in a way that the orthodox Church had not doneimgres-10

*Church Response: The established Church tried to combat this movement by sending spokesmen to engage the perfecti in public debate, but this proved to be a mistake when it became clear that the perfecti were better debaters than the orthodox clerics and that their way of life gave them greater credibility than the Church’s spokesmen enjoyed.

*Crusade (Force as a solution): Innocent III (1198-1216) asked the king of France to mount a crusade against the heretics. Under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, the northern French knights committed such atrocities that many of the nobility of southern France joined the resistance against them. The “crusade” was eventually successful and the few remaining Cathari were driven deep underground, but the brilliant culture of the French Midi was also destroyed, and the land of the South was annexed to the Kingdom of France.


* A Frenchman called Peter Waldo: In about 1173, a merchant of the French city of Lyons by the name of Pere Valdes (generally known in English as “Peter Waldo”) was moved to defend the orthodox Church by carrying its message to the urban masses of which he was a member. Several of his acquaintances agreed to follow him. After making financial arrangements for their families, they gave the rest of their money to aid the poor, and, adopting an austere style of life doubtless modeled upon that of the Albigensian perfecti, began to travel about in pairs, preaching to the people in their own language.

*Vernacular Translations of Bible: In order to advance this movement, Waldo arranged for the translation of the Bible into the French of the region, and he and his companions applied themselves to reading and preaching on its basis.

* Heretics through theological beliefs or through threat to wealth? They proved quite popular, but orthodox clerics were soon complaining to the papacy about their activities. Their audiences saw the austerity and poverty of the Waldensians as a reproach to the local clergy and Church, and the Waldensians were soon drawn into preaching reforms that left their audiences with distinct anti-clerical attitudes.

*The papacy tries to control the Waldensian preachers, particularly since their Biblical translation varied from the official Latin Vulgate in some important points and the Church began to feel that the preaching of the Waldensians’ were bordering on heresy. The Church eventually ordered them to stop preaching and to restrict themselves to good works on behalf of the sick and needy.

* The Waldensian response: A significant minority of the Poor Men of Lyons regarded this as a blow against their entire movement and as an attempt by the Church to curb legitimate criticism and to avoid facing the need of reforming itself. They continued to preach, and the pope finally declared them to be heretics. They reacted by attacking the established Church and the entire sacramental system, denying that there was any Scriptural basis for these institutions, and characterizing them as devices which were designed to oppress the poor and to secure wealth and privilege for an undeserving few.

*Another Crusade in the name of Wealth Protection: The Waldensians were attacked in the same manner as other heretics and were eventually driven underground. It was only with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that it was found that the Waldensian movement had survived in some isolated valleys of northern Italy.

Other Heresies (Some From Later in the Medieval Period)

  • Lollard heresy:

massive heresy among peasants (and largely protected by the nobles) in England, claimed the Church was corrupt and had lost God’s grace, claimed that the entire system of sacraments and rituals were unnecessary and the institution of the church could virtually be scrapped. Claimed that all you needed for salvation was an understanding of the bible. This heresy, and its ideas, was never entirely put down.

  • Hussite heresy: Germany 15th century, basically same ideas as the Lollards.
  • The Reformation!!!!!



*Gradual Loss of the Church’s moral Authority: The orthodox Church managed to meet the challenge of the heresies, anti-clerical, and uncontrolled popular movements until the 14th century crises. However, in the process it lost much of its power of moral suasion by its use of force. From this time on, the Church could not count on the automatic support of the mass of believers, and it was forced to adopt ever-greater regimentation.

* For ordinary people we note that popular religious movements were often fueled by economic and class pressures, tensions, conflicts and resentments. Misinformation, apathy, and a desire to use religion (orthodox or heretical) to gain relief from: a) the excesses of secular Lords, and b) exploitative church leaders/institutions, did battle in the hearts of many peasants with the personally revealed truths of their Inner sense of God.


Medieval Spare Time, Sports & Popular Culture

*There was a general intermingling of work, leisure and spirituality during the Medieval period. Not so much of a demarcation line between work and leisure, in particular, as we have today.

*Nevertheless, there were certain times of the day or the year when people were more likely to engage in ‘pass-times’, sports and other entertainments. Night-times, weekends and festival times being the obvious ones.

*The Medieval period also saw the beginning of what we might call ‘degrees of specialisation’ in relation to popular cultural activities – part-time highly localised cultural pursuits co-exist with travelling artistic milieus ran by full time specialist singers, acrobats etc.

Some Important Dichotomies – different entertainments were indulged in by different groups of people at different times of the year:

1) Men, Women and Children often indulged in different entertainments

2) There were also individual activities, family activities and more social activities (related to village, town, guild, church etc.).

3) There were Indoor & Outdoor activities for different seasons (winter, spring, summer and autumn).imgres-13

4) Various estates – nobles, ecclesiastics, peasants – engaged in activities expressive of those estates.

5) We also note localised entertainments v travelling (or itinerant) entertainments

6) We also note that activities today considered mere entertainment (i.e. confined to leisure time) were in medieval times linked to a person’s: a) life-stage transitions, b) work c) spiritual life, and d) community existence.


General Comments on Popular Culture, Sports etc. and the Rest of Life


* Church Ambivalence re: Leisure and Work: Though the church taught that work kept peasants from laziness and sin – it nevertheless seems to have ordained many more ‘non-work’ days than we enjoy today. During ‘Creation’ God had worked in various ways and then rested – so too must mankind. The ‘days sacred to God’ were not days for work but for reflection and celebration. Too much work was seen as a flight from the deity – an over-valuing of the material world at the expense of God. Medieval clerics would be appalled at the levels of ‘work-addiction’ we have in the modern world.


*Sport as Military Training (especially for men). Many sports (especially among the noble classes) were thinly disguised forms of military training, e.g. hunting, gymnastics, horsemanship, archery etc..imgres-14


*Individualism, competitiveness versus spirituality and we-feeling: Sports seem to have been seen in a less competitive light than they are seen today. This did not mean that the sports were not sometimes competitive, even blood thirsty – indeed the general ‘physicality or Medieval life’ made sure that blood was often spilled – but competitive sport as we know it did not sit well alongside the group consciousness required by village life. This was less the case among the nobility – there sport was often related to ‘warrior’ roles required of many nobles. Interestingly, many nobles complained about the sports and pass-times of peasants – because they supposedly distracted peasants from the idea of sport as military training.


*No entertainment or culture industry in the sense that we understand it today. No mass media certainly – people often had to make up their own entertainments.


* Immediacy of Entertainments and Oral Culture: The live performer and the resonant human voice were much more fundamental to entertainment than they are today. There were also few books and very little visual art – books and art only existed, usually, among the elite. Words evoked worlds!


*Communal Expectations for all members of society to engage in Singing, dancing, story telling etc. When was the last time all the students in this room sang publicly? Who of you have danced publicly of late? In Medieval society everybody was expected to have some skills in entertainment. Medieval culture was not a ‘watching’ culture such as we have today when it came to sports and the arts, it was a ‘doing’ culture. One took one’s turn entertaining (singing, dancing, acting, playing an instrument, telling a story) and being entertained, or one entertained others by joining in on group entertainments.


*Singing, dancing, acting, playing instruments was seen as a method of linking one to the divine in a way that we have more or less completely lost touch with today. Thus consuming art as an unimportant diversion from the real stuff of life was an unheard of concept – art was central to life, accompanied many serious aspects of existence and evenimgres-17


  1. magically protected quickened various aspects of one’s work,
  2. helped ensure that crops grew and game was plentiful and one’s domestic animals were healthy (and marked the passing of the seasons)
  3. protected the soul and the physical body through various stages of the life cycle (e.g. birth, Christening, courting, Marriage, death, etc.),
  4. Aided mankind in healing – calling down the deities in order to gain spiritual mana in order to heal wounds etc.
  5. one learnt spells, charms, songs etc. to call down the magical and spiritual benefits of supernatural forces – and this was an extremely serious business. When one (or one’s village) sang songs in praise of God one sought his blessing, or the blessings of some saint or pagan deity, in such a way that the psycho-spiritual safety of the village or one’s individual soul was guaranteed.


Where Did people Engage in Sports, Games, Cultural Pursuits etc.?


Family Hearth: family or individualistic pass-times, Medieval people enjoyed: story-telling, performances by local musicians, folk tales, jokes, philosophising by itinerant preachers (even heretics), quieter games (chess) and dances.


Village Green or Marketplace: Communal entertainments and sports took place here – e.g. executions/punishments; Outside sports like wrestling, gambling, boxing, Tug of War, football (pig’s bladder), archery contests, tournaments, etc. This is also the place where group cultural activities (especially related to folk customs) were carried out/performed, e.g. larger performances by musicians/actors, jongleurs/minstrels. Many were out of town performers. Fire festivals, announcements by town criers (sort of like living newspapers!) and other sorts of seasonal dances and celebrations also took place here, as well as performances by itinerant preachers, herbalists and assorted charlatans, e.g. freak shows, circuses, performing animal shows etc. Many of these events were often mixed in with market activities.


Inns/Bathhouses: These were sites for gambling, drinking games, lascivious dancing, folk songs, swimming and washing (with all the fun and ‘gossip’ we associate swimming pools).


The Local Castle or Lord’s Home – especially the Great Hall. These were places where some seasonal celebrations took place. Also, where travelling jongleurs /minstrels etc. put on performances. Some noble families employed bands and fools for entertainment purposes. Also, books and public art were sometimes on display e.g. the Books of Hours, Bestiaries and even more scholastic works.images-2


Churches/Cathedrals etc.: Miracle Plays (though these were often staged elsewhere in a village or town), religious singing, itinerant preaching, and music, acting, pomp related to the many religious feasts and festival days. Religious art was also on public display in these places. These religious establishments were also a kind of local treasure house of ancient books and parchments – making them something like today’s libraries and places of learning. Note: Books/parchments were very expensive in those days.


Guild Halls: Celebrations/Pass-times artistic performances etc. were often put on by guilds to bring about group feelings and generally entertain members and their families (a bit like today’s ‘work parties’?)



Wandering Minstrels, Tumblers, Jugglers, Singers, Harpists, Jongleurs, Fools, Mimics, Itinerant Rhymers, Mummers and Acrobats.


*”At a time when books were rare and theatre, properly so-called, did not exist, poetry and music travelled with the minstrels and gleemen along the roads.”


*Minstrels were made welcome by peasants and lords alike – expected to be present at every feast. Mirthmakers made life meaningful … sang away care, also they were a kind of aphrodisiac for jaded lovers.


Sang or recited in French, Vernacular English, etc. the “loves and deeds” of ancient heroes, “war stories”, “sweet tales”, “lively songs to excite laughter”.


*Ancient Traditions Survived Through Minstrels: It has been argued that the minstrels, troubadours and jongleurs inherited an ancient and serious oral literary tradition. The tradition had its roots in pagan Celtic, Roman and Germanic cultural belief systems.


* Guilds of Minstrels eventually formed – both men and women admitted.


*People’s Poets: Often minstrels accused of ‘sowing strange, disquieting doctrines’ under cover of song, among peasants and other oppressed minorities. Ballads and popular songs often recommended revolt – social and political revolutions. Minstrels were often anti-church – belonging to the ‘church of poetry’ which was much more amenable to love, sexuality and the like.

  • Welsh Minstrels particularly famous for their revolutionary songs: they sang about the equality of all men. Also songs warning the rich to look after the poor.


*Age of the Minstrels: We can talk about an “Age of the Minstrels” – 9th to 14th centuries. After that period a degeneration of the form took place as literary tastes changed and the book entered centre stage along with theatres and urban entertainments related to towns.


*Arrival of Minstrels for the Night: Often arrived at castle moat /gates in the afternoon or early evening. Announced themselves (accompanied by dozens of the village’s children) by singing a little enticer. It was expected that the village/town nobles or high ranking officials in the peasant community would give them food and lodgings, perhaps some money, before their eventual departure. Many noble houses had ‘minstrel’s galleries’. Some even had resident minstrels and fools.


  • Prestigious for a noble to keep a band of well-known travelling minstrels in his household. However, as these story telling professions gradually fell into ill-repute – due to associations between minstrels and highway crime, the wayfaring life and political insurrections – many minstrels seem to have lived fairly marginalised lives after the 1400s.
  • Fools and minstrels often took their pick of the women in noble households – before moving on! They were seen as being outside ordinary life to some degree – possessed as it were by god or the devil, but generally in touch with the supernatural. Many were believed to have powers of cursing and curing – one didn’t cross them!
  • Performances would often go on deep into the night – ending sometimes in drunken debaucheries.
  • Minstrels often lead singing sessions – especially on repeated refrains/choruses where they were part of a song.

What Lays the Minstrels Sang:


Arthurian Songs:

The Prowess of Charlemagne:

The Song of Roland:

Extracts from National Oral Literatures: Eg. The Mabinogion

Tales featuring local heroes, barely disguised pagan deities, demigods, devils and monsters.

imgres-19Contemporised Greek and Roman Epics

Apocryphal Tales of the Saints and Holy Men

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Courtly Romances)

Ghost/folk stories, tales, legends and ballads/roundels

Tales from the Robin Hood Cycle





1) The vielle – a kind of violin or fiddle

2) tabor (tambourine)

3) harp

4) lute

5) guitar

6) bag-pipe

7) rota (small Celtic harp)

8) Celtic style drums



Entertainments Attached to Festivals, Seasonal Change, Major Changes in Agricultural Year etc.


*Though we’ll have more to say about Medieval festivals and feast days in the lecture of the same name later in the semester, we do nevertheless need to discuss the kinds of entertainments people got up to on Medieval feast days.


*Often folk customs, spiritual traditions, superstitions, work and seasonal changes gave birth to particular kinds of entertainments which were both: a) entertaining – fun, often humorous, b) of serious religious import.


*Particularly interesting were the public displays of superstition and custom which sought to protect villages – more specifically ‘souls’ – human, animal, vegetable – from bad luck, evil, witchcraft, sickness, disease, etc.




*Peasant Rain Dances/Processions in Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. During droughts a procession of children went round to all the local wells and springs. Heading the procession was a girl adorned head to foot in flowers, grass and herbs. She was drenched with water at every water-hole while the other children sang an invocation as follows:


Perperia, all fresh bedewed

Freshen all the neighbourhood

By the woods on the highway

As thou goest, to God now pray!images-9

Oh my God upon the plain,

Send thou us a still, small rain:

That the fields may fruitful be,

And vines in blossom we may see;

That the grain be full and sound,

And wealthy grow the folks around!

[From Frazer’s The Golden Bough]


– A genuine public magical rite BUT also, we might imagine, lots of fun!


*Tree Worship: Reverence for the soul of trees and other plants:

– [Slavonian and Bulgarian peasants] Threatening fruit/nut trees (ie to cut them down!) by way of public rituals. The goal: to try and get them to bear fruit

– [German peasants] “Marrying” and tying fruit trees together – with all the ceremony of a human marriage. Goal to make them bear fruit.

– [German and French peasants] “Harvest-May”. Peasants brought home (in careful but celebratory manner) a tree or a large branch decked out with the last ears of corn harvested. This was placed in a barn to dry where it stayed put until the next year. It was believed to harbour the spirit of the corn.

– [Europe-wide] Dancing round the May-Pole and setting up May-trees and May-bushes at stable doors, and, for young men, near the house of a beloved. The rite was supposed to protect women and cattle from infertility, and could produce milk in cows since tree-spirits embodied the spirit of Spring – ie. the bursting forth of new life that occurs at that time.


*Seasonal Celebrations/ Rituals:


– Carrying out Death (Winter) and bringing in Life (Spring or Summer) [Bavaria, Bohemia, Slovania, Thuringen]. A group of urchins make a straw image of death which they dress up and parade through the streets during the period of Lent (i.e. the end of Winter). They sing that they are “Carrying out Death” and “Bringing in Spring [or Life]”. After receiving various gifts they take the effigy out of the village and burn it in a field, drown it, or tear it to pieces in a field – often there are conflicts with neighbouring villages if the effigy strays too close – the children are seen as ‘transferring evil’ – ie. giving it to other villages. Often mock ‘fights’ between bands of children from different villages take place. The goal of the rite was to keep Death away.


Some fling it into raging torrents of water/melting ice singing:


Death swims on the water,

Summer will soon be here,

We carried Death away for you,

we brought the summer,

And do you oh holy Saints,images-8

Give us a good year

for wheat and rye?


– Bringing in Summer [Bohemia, Germany] Young tree cut down at end of winter, adorned with a Green Crown, red, green and white ribbons and a female doll representing Summer [Lito]. They sing a song as they march back into town:


Death swims in the water,

spring comes to visit us,

with eggs that are red,

With yellow pancakes!

We carried death out of the village

We are carrying summer into the village!


Battle Between Winter and Summer [Sweden, Austria] Two troops of men on horses – one lead by a man in furs, carrying ice and snowballs, the other lead by a man dressed in fresh leaves and flowers. Summer came off victorious and the ceremony ended in a village feast! Sometimes the boys take on one role, the girls another – boys chase out winter (a person acting the role or a straw effigy dressed in furs) and the girls follow them to the village green with one of their number dressed as the May Queen. She wears a bright dress and is decked with flowers and garlands representing spring.


– Harvest Customs/ Harvest Supper – The Great Mother, the Corn Mother, Rye Mother, oats Mother, Barley Mother, Pea-Mother. [Slavic, Hungary, Poland, England, Germany, France].   The last bundle of corn is treated like a divine being a corn spirit, sometimes an animal is substituted a wolf (The Corn Wolf) or a rooster (the Corn-Rooster), Hare, Cat, Goat, Bull Cow, Pig (Sow or Boar) or Fox   … many customs related to this. The slowest reaper/harvester on the field may end up with ‘The Old Lady’ or the Corn Wolf – believed to be hiding in the Last sheaf. If a woman she may be termed the Old Lady, or the mother of the Corn for a week or even a year . Can be positive (will marry in next year) or negative. Sometimes, the last sheaf is dressed up as an old lady and paraded through the streets to songs and dances – later propped up and becomes the centre of the resulting Harvest Feast – often Eaten symbolically. Often an animal is sacrificed at this time – symbolising the flight of the particular vegetative spirit in question Often her seeds are scattered for her return the following year.


– Public Expulsion of Evil [Europe Wide].“Attempts to expel the accumulated sorrows of a people” Various periods for the ‘The expulsion of witches’. Germany: people armed themselves with brooms and rushed madly about the village to the sound of tolling bells whilst singing songs designed to ‘drive out the witches’, and making a general clatter and uproar as they went. Such rites often took place in March, sometimes on ‘Good Friday’, sometimes on May Day Eve (Walpurgis Night). Houses were cleansed (smoked) with Juniper berries and rue and a ceremony of ‘Burning out the Witches’ began as the sun set. Pots and pans rattled, bundles of twigs were burnt on village green, dogs ran free and were encouraged to bark … people sang:


“Witch flee, flee from here or it will go ill with thee!!”


People then ran 7 times round the village. Witches were thus smoked out of their winter places and driven away out of the village.


– European Fire Festivals


From ancient times peasants practiced customs related to the building then lighting of bonfires on special days of the year. Effigies were often burned at such festivals. Some key days: Spring (First Sunday), Lent, Easter Eve, 1st day of May (May Day), Midsummer (23rd of June), Halloween – All Souls (31st October), Christmas Day etc.


Fire rites were sometimes aimed at ‘driving out evil’ – in the form of witches, wizards, demons of the air etc. – and protecting/purifying domestic animals and people. The days also involved welcoming in particular seasons, e.g. Spring. Fire days were times of great song, dance, merry making, music, sporting contests, drink etc.


NB: many of the examples listed above are detailed in Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic and Frazer’s many-volumed work The Golden Bough.

Medieval Attitudes towards Sexuality


“The couple were not alone in their marriage bed: the shadow of the confessor loomed over their frolics.”

Jean-Louis Flandrin in Western Sexuality, p. 126

*Failures of Medieval Christianity toward Sex – In no other area of Medieval social life does the conflict between universalist church attitudes/laws etc. and lay attitudes (peasant and aristocratic) manifest more powerfully than in that of sexuality.

*The assault on the ‘flesh’ carried out over almost a thousand years by Christian apologists, monks, priests, cardinals etc. represents one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of human sentiments.

*Whereas the church won its battle (overall) to install its vision of ‘marriage’ on the European populace, it failed miserably in its attempts to regulate sexuality according to its dictates – though its attitudes did end up having an enormous influence (mostly negative) influence – in terms of increasing the collective store of guilt that accumulated around this apparently most simple of human activities.

*Whereas today we see the church’s attempts to free young people from the constraints of ‘arranged’ often loveless marriages as emancipatory, the same cannot be said for its attempts to regulate sexual life according to its own dictates (and obsessions) and down to the tiniest detail – ie. sexual positions.

Church Theory:

*The Insatiable Womb: The church fathers held on the one hand that women were incapable of sexual pleasure or at least could do with out it (IDEAL Mother/Mary/ wife), and on the other that women were insatiable sexually (WITCH/ SUCCUBUS/ PROSTITUTE) … The devouring womb, or vagina dentata was a powerful Christian symbol (eventually connected to the concept of hell) throughout the medieval period. Man’s chief goal was to control its insatiability through marriage. Female sexuality seems to have been a total mystery to the patriarchs of church and state during this period.

  • IDEAL VIRGINITY/CHASTITY: above all, virginity and chastity were best; they allowed one to reach a more holy place, become closer to God.
  • sexual activity was a form of fleshly delight … fleshly delights could entrap the soul and endanger salvation (or contemplation of the next world).
  • Sex was allowable only within marriage and only for the conception of children (thus sex for enjoyment only, or active measures to prevent conception, were mortal sins). Marriage was an acceptable outlet for lust … only if the outlet was used to create children
  • sex thus had to be between husband and wife, and with the husband on top. There was to be no kissing or fondling of ‘shameful’ parts
  • all other sexual activity was a sin: sodomy, bestiality, homosexuality, masturbation etc. were all banned
  • sex was banned at various times:
  • at holy times of the year:
  • Lent
  • images-11Advent
  • Rogationtide (a movable feast about June)
  • Sundays
  • Saints days (sometimes)
  • a wedding night (so as not to corrupt the nuptial mass)
  • on Wednesdays and Fridays (this didn’t ever really take off!)
  • husbands could not have sex with wives who were menstruating (no conception possible, but the church also feared corruption of the man’s seed at this time, so that a resulting child might have a physical deformity … e.g. red hair)
  • no sex with pregnant women (not necessary&emdash;they were already pregnant, but the Church also believed sex during this time could also cause abortion)
  • no sex for some 40-60 days after giving birth (the woman was unclean)
  • no sex while breast-feeding (women breast-fed for up to 2 years): this was not a hard and fast rule, and it is fair to assume that of all these restrictions, this was the one most usually broken.


This table looks at one husband and wife, and is of a year in which the wife does not become pregnant, does not give birth and is not breast feeding (all of which would impose further restrictions), and do not live is a strict parish that dictates that Saturday nights (before Sunday), the night before Holy Days and Wednesdays were out of bounds. It also does not consider the restrictions on sex during the autumn months to avoid summer births, all of which would add further restrictions.


Sundays 52
Saints Days or Holy Days 40 (average)
Lent 40 week days
Advent 15 week days
Rogationtide 15 week days
Fridays (not counting above weeks of restrictions) 38
Days of Menstruation 60


EXAMPLES (of sexual ‘deviancy’) FROM PENITENTIALS

A Penitential is a guide book for priest-confessors that lays out the penance for different sins. These examples are from different penitentials over a 500 year time-span (late Dark Ages to about the 1300s):

  • “Have you fornicated against nature, that is, have you had intercourse with males or with animals, that is, with a mare or a cow or a donkey or with some other animal? If once or twice and if you had no wife to enable you to expend your lust, you must do penance for forty days on bread and water [for seven years]. If, however, you had a wife, you must do penance for ten years on the established days, and if you were in the habit of this crime, you must do penance for fifteen years on the established days. If, however, this happened to you as a youth, you must do penance on bread and water for a hundred days.”

Payer, Sex and the Penitentials, p. 139

Other penitentials put the penance at 25 years, and demand that the beast be killed and its flesh thrown to the dogs.

  • “If a bishop commits adultery with another’s wife [he shall do penance] for 12 years, 3 of these years on bread and water, and is to be deposed; a priest, for 10 years, 3 of these years on bread and water, and he is to be deposed; a deacon and a monk, for 7 years, 3 of these years on bread and water, and he is to be deposed; a cleric and a layman, for 5 years, 2 of these years on bread and water.”

Payer, p. 23

  • If a husband had sex with a wife during pregnancy, in her ‘unclean’ period after childbirth, or during menstruation, 20 days penance.
  • Sex on a Sunday resulted in 2 or 3 days penance.
  • Anal intercourse – 7 years penance.
  • Male sex with a sister or mother – 4 years penance.
  • Father with son – 10 years pilgrimage, with 2 years on nothing but bread and water.images-13
  • Man over 20 involved in a homosexual act with another man – fifteen years penance
  • Woman with woman – three years
  • “A small boy misused by an older one, if he is 10 years of age, shall fast for a week; if he consents for 20 days.” (Payer, p. 42)

Rattray Taylor, Sex in History, p. 19:

“The church never succeeded in obtaining universal acceptance of its sexual regulations, but in time it became able to enforce sexual abstinence on a scale sufficient to produce a rich crop of mental disease. It is hardly too much to say that medieval Europe came to resemble a vast insane asylum.”

(Perhaps she is being a little extreme!!)

How Much Did Church Regulations Affect People?

We know a great deal about what the Church wanted people to do (or not do, as the case may be), but what was the reality? Think about these points:

  • were Church regulations and penances prescriptive or descriptive?
  • were they the result of knowing what was happening, or what the (sexually repressed) priesthood thought was going on? Do they describe the reality of daily life, or only what the Church thought daily life should be?
  • Were medieval people driven to ‘insanity’ through fear of breaking Church law and going to hell, or did they just shrug their shoulders and get on with it? Keep in mind that:
  • we have the rules and regulations of the Church that derived from Rome … but how far did they control the lives of village communities thousands of miles away?
  • the local representative of the Church in every village was the local priest: who was generally uneducated (to the point of illiteracy) and often completely out of touch with what was going on in Rome
  • who did the local priest have allegiance to? Rome (far away, distant Rome) or the local community of which he generally was a part?
  • to what extent would he have enforced Rome’s decrees?

Would village/local community pressure have been greater than the Church’s influence?

*Reality? People worried about breaking Church law, but the realities and needs of their daily lives probably meant that many of the stricter Church regulations went unobserved.

*Also remember that there were three main factors that impacted on the medieval family’s life: 1) the Church, 2) the village community, and 3) the battle for personal survival in a hostile world. Sometimes (rarely) these three factors would have been in harmony, but more often they would have been in conflict. Which most affected the medieval family in their daily lives?

Social / Family pressures on the sexual act itself:

(possibly of more concern to the medieval couple than the Church restrictions???)

  • fear of pregnancy or fear of conceiving at the wrong time of the year:
  • images-12Can the family afford to feed another child?
  • Can the family afford to have the wife away from field work during the weeks just before and after birth?
  • Is the woman too ill or weak to bear a child?
  • Do the husband and/or wife simply not want another child?
  • how does the local community feel about a new child? A feudal lord? What are the pressures on land/food supply like?
  • also think about how much a couple might desperately want a child
  • Is there enough privacy for sex?
  • Are the couple well enough? (Exhausted? Malnourished?)


Medieval Birth Control: How?

It is evident that some kind of birth control must have been practised (see the chart on baptisms) … but how?

  • abstinence
  • coitus interruptus (withdrawal method)
  • breast feeding (uncertain at the best of times)
  • herbal lore to:
  • prevent conception. Herbal brews could be used to ‘bring on a late period’. Some of the herbs used were:
  • pomegranate rind
  • penny royal
  • Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot)
  • Stinking Gladwin (?modern name?)
  • abort the child
  • abortion by physical intervention (usually violence)
  • infanticide


*Women Got the Worst Deal: Women tended to receive the worst deal from the later medieval lay and ecclesiatical alliance which saw laws constructed concerning non-acceptable sexual relations. Here localised family-village-based attitudes (concerned with inheritance/property/lineage etc.) seem to have united with the concerns of the universal church. Young men were allowed, even encouraged to sow their wild oats, women, on the other hand were expected to reserve their bodies for their husband only. Many women coerced into taking husbands against their will – many subtle social pressures on women to take on the ‘yoke of marriage’. Common Law often handed out the Death penalty to women who committed adultery – few men copped this punishment.

*Sites of Female Resistance: Despite church and secular laws, women frequently sought affection outside theimgres-23 marital bed – though secrecy was the order of the day. Monks and priests were especially sought after partners – not married! Priests and parishioners alike found it increasingly difficult to ignore the libidinous urges that were so thoroughly denied by the church.

*Class-Based Differences: In practice the regulation of sexuality seems to have been more severe the further up the social ladder one went – the necessity of carrying out such activities in secret seems to have increased, likewise the public odium connected with being caught in the act.

*Tolerance of Prostitution: There was widespread tolerance of young men (bachelors) making use of prostitutes during the medieval period. Though married men, priests/monks and Jews? were banned from the brothels of the major towns many did in fact frequent them – those caught often received only minor fines.

*Rural tolerance for Pre-marital Sex: Country people in particular mostly turned a blind eye to sex among young unmarried people. Many peasants seem to have been more or less totally oblivious to church doctrines in this area – i.e. as in the Montaillou case.

*Courtly Love: This remarkable cultural movement – perhaps a response to the harshness and unnaturalness of Medieval Christian attitudes toward sex and marriage – idolised opposite values to those espoused by the Medieval church. It represented a site of lay rebellion against (subversion of) the prevalent mentality with its glorification of non-marital (adulterous) love and sex.

*Arab Influences. Arab culture never developed the ambivalences around sexuality that the Christian West developed – because of polygamy men had a very different attitude toward women than that predominant in the West – one was actually expected to please them – i.e. it was accepted that women felt ‘pleasure’ during the sexual act. Along with the eroticisation of adultery that took place with the troubadours, later Medieval lay society developed a more enlightened attitude toward sexuality than that being enforced by the church.

*By 1300s Eroticism Flourishes: Medical treatises appear with a healthy attitude toward sex – for one thing many sexual positions are described, so to, sodomy and other “unnatural” acts.

*Homosexuality (Notes)

Homosexuality widespread in many of the towns and cities of Christendom – where networks could be set up. Despite church attitudes many of these circles were often tolerated by townsfolk. Less tolerated in the rural areas. There are, never-the-less many records of homosexual males, and less often lesbians being executed for sexual ‘crimes’. As with the Jews periodic purgings tended to take place when a society was stressed – e.g. during the Black Death. At such times anybody different, especially anyone believed to be committing ‘sins’ against god by virtue of their lifestyle were the first to be punished – then God would treat the general population well! (Theoretically).

The ‘Demonization’ of Homosexuality

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God? Be not deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind … shall inherit the Kingdom of God.

St. Paul, Corinthians

Since in the Christian view sex was only for ‘reproduction’ large areas of sexual experience were more or less forbidden – including homosexuality. Sex for pleasure and fun forget it!

*Early Links to Homosexuality as Cause of Collective Misfortunes: The Christian fathers and Roman Emperors such as Justinian took the literal view that violations of nature caused nature to retaliate, and that homosexual practices led to famines, earthquakes, and pestilence.

*This link between unnatural sex and plague remained popular in the Middle Ages, and was taken as evidence of righteousness by the Spanish in their conquest of the aboriginal Indians. For the Spanish, the Indian’s acceptance of homosexual behaviour provided a major justification for their conquest and subjugation of the New World. When the Indians began to die from the microbes brought over by the invaders, the Spanish saw this as confirmation from God of the inherent virtue of their acts.

*Church Penitentials on Homosexuality: The Church’s attitude to homosexuality in the early Middle Ages can been found in the Penitentials, the handbooks for confessors. One of the most influential of these works was the “Decretum” of Burchard of Worms. Here the penalties for homosexual sodomy were:

If the penitent were single seven years of fasting & abstinence

If the penitent were married 10 years penance

If the offence was habitual 15 years penance

If the offender was a youth 100 days on bread and water.

*Scale of punishment: Homosexual sodomy was rated as the most serious offence. Other homosexual acts however, were seen as far less serious. Mutual masturbation, for example, carried a penance of thirty days – the same as challenging someone to a drinking bout or having sex with the wife during Lent.

*Three groups were regularly said to be involved in homosexual activity the nobility, the clergy, and students.

*13thC Developments: The Thirteenth Century marked the heightening of church beliefs equating homosexual acts with demonic impulse. Homosexuality was not seen as something innate to individuals, but rather as a habit deliberately taken up as an act of wickedness.

*Pestilence Theme: It was declared that Homosexuality led to leprosy and insanity, and was linked to paganism and idolatry.

*Heresy Theme: Inevitably, homosexual acts became linked to accusations of heresy and witchcraft, of which the most spectacular case was probably the Knights Templars who were accused of devil worship, heresy and sodomy.

*Death By Burning (Scapegoating of the Other): By the 13th Century, both England and France had followed the Emperor Justinian’s punishment of homosexuality death by burning (hence the word ‘faggots’).


Status of Women

Medieval society was a very patriarchal society, dominated by a patriarchal Church. (Note the word ‘Lord’ for God: this was a medieval innovation instead of the more ancient Hebrew or Greek words meaning teacher, or respected person.)

  • The husband/father was the legal head of the household, and his wife’s lord (a wife who refused to obey her husband destroyed her household); thus he could ‘chastise’ his wife

Women have always had a ‘bad press’ via both the Jewish and later Christian Churches:

  • Women were all ‘daughters of Eve’: Eve caused the Fall of Mankind through succumbing to temptation. If it hadn’t been for her … Thus all women, as daughters of Eve, were liable to the temptation of evil and had to be rigidly controlled in order to prevent chaos spreading throughout the world. Women continued to ‘tempt’ men into sex (fleshly sin). Women must therefore be controlled. (This is a very bland and simplified statement.)
  • women as temptresses = witches and prostitutes

On the other hand, there were some highly positive views of women:

  • women were mothers in an age when children were treasured and valued in a way they are not now. The process of birth was a highly mysterious process that gave women ‘power’ – or at least a value that was far higher than today
  • women were workers: in a peasant society the wife not only gave birth, but also contributed half of the partnership marriage in work value (not to mention the value of what dowry she may have brought into the partnership). Work value was also far higher in the medieval era than it is now
  • Women tended to gain ‘power’ within a community as they grew older; men lost it (a man’s standing was tied to his ability to work)

Were medieval women valued more than modern women???

Women could:

  • inherit land/property (this was eroded from about the 1300s onwards)images-5
  • own land/property in their own right
  • own or run a business in their own right
  • refuse consent to a marriage
  • rule in their own right (depending on the realm)
  • could instigate court action

These were rights that, for example, were rarely seen in other contemporary societies (e.g. Muslim societies, eastern European societies)


*Suspicion and attempts to regulate the sexual act during the Medieval period turned into obsession and alienation. Alienation as a result of following conventional norms and obsession in stepping outside them – since the anxieties of transgression often produced ‘fixation’ and a perverse heightening of the sexual impulse accompanied by guilt and fear.

*Images of sexually frustrated monks busily developing laws about the very things of which they had little or no experience is, unfortunately, not far from the truth. Once a natural impulse/drive is distorted – even in the name of ‘spirituality’, perhaps most specially in the name of spirituality, all sorts of personal and social pathologies flourish.