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.


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