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:

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