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The medieval church: your guide to religion and worship in the Middle Ages

Professor Nicholas Orme answers key questions about religion and worship in the Middle Ages

Colour illustration of people gathering outside a church during the Middle Ages
Published: April 6, 2022 at 1:51 pm
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Why was the Church so important in medieval England?

The Church in the Middle Ages was more than just a way of connecting with God; it was a whole belief system. Christianity in medieval times didn’t just focus on people’s relationship with God. It also set out to explain history, science, ethics, how one should behave, and so on.

Whole areas of study that we would now separate into science or sociology or politics, fell under religion in the medieval centuries. What’s more, the Church was responsible for many things which, nowadays, we would look to the government to care for, such as education, morality, and charity.

Whole areas of study that we would now separate into science or technology or politics fell under religion
Professor Nicholas Orme

The Church also had an important role in medieval life, which it has somewhat lost today. Nowadays, there are lots of different things you can be doing on a Sunday morning rather than attending church services. In a rural community of the Middle Ages, the local church would have been a major place to meet and socialise. Many churches developed social organisations of maidens (girls aged from 12 up to marriage), young men of similar ages, and married women or ‘wives’. So church was not just a place where people worshipped on a Sunday; it was a place where friendship groups could gather, too.

Where and how did the Church get its wealth?

The Church was not a single body, so you cannot say that it was rich any more than you can say that British society today is rich. There were enormous variations of wealth within the Church and its various institutions. At one extreme, there were archbishops and bishops who received huge salaries, although they had to pay the costs of their administrations out of their own pockets. At the other end of the scale, poor chaplains and curates earned about £3–£5 a year, which wasn’t much different to the annual income of artisans and labourers. Monasteries, too, might be rich or barely able to survive. There were huge variations in wealth.

Did you know? 

The Church was one of the main distributors of charity during the medieval period and gave out alms – such as money or food – to the poor and needy. Hospitals, run by religious orders, cared for the sick and poor, and gave shelter to travellers.

As to where the money came from, the Church possessed endowments. Individuals over the centuries gave lands and money, particularly to support monasteries since monks could not go out into the world and earn money for themselves. The clergy of the parish churches were supported by tithes and offerings. Tithes were the most important part of their income, allowing them to receive a tenth of agricultural production – corn, barley and rye, and one tenth of newborn animals – calves, piglets, lambs, as well as honey, milk, cheese and so on. Offerings of money formed a smaller part of clergy income. They were made four times of the year and at baptisms, marriages and funerals. Parish sizes and wealth varied hugely from one to another, so being a parish priest didn’t indicate what income you might receive. Incomes could vary from as much as £80 or £100 a year to as little as £3 or £4.

What would the sensory experience of a medieval church have been like?

Ideally, churches were to be neat and colourful, with hangings of coloured fabric on the altar. Clergy wore coloured vestments for mass and some other services. But it all depended on how much a church could afford. It is often thought that the inside walls of all medieval churches were decorated, and they were up to a point, but sometimes the decoration would have been quite simple – imitation brickwork, plaster or stencil patterns, for example. There are many records of churches lacking watertight roofs, window glass and satisfactory furnishings, and some would have looked rather shabby.

Inside, churches would have smelt of damp, candle smoke, incense and possibly the bodies of dead worthies buried beneath the floor. At a well- attended service you would also have sung in royal and noble chapels, from which it spread to cathedrals, monasteries, and the wealthier parish churches. Many lesser churches can have heard it only from visiting singers on special occasions.

Was attending church compulsory?

From puberty you were expected to go to church on Sundays and for religious festivals. There were about 40 or 50 important festivals in the church calendar, so for about 90 days of the year, you would be expected to be in church, at least for mass in the morning. However, the Church had to accept that it could not impose complete attendance and exceptions had to be made for shepherds, fishermen and servants.

The Church had to accept that it couldn't impose 100 per cent attendance
Professor Nicholas Orme

In practice, making people attend church was difficult. A priest could refuse to hear their confessions or report them to the church courts where they might be fined or made to do public penance, but it was a long-winded process. There were always some people in a parish who did not go to church very often. Attending church on Easter Sunday was absolutely compulsory for all adults, however, so almost everyone would have been there on that festival.

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Were children required to attend church?

Small children were often taken to church because they could not be safely left at home. Equally, there are records of accidents that happened when parents left them at home, possibly in the care of an elder sibling. As mentioned, children did not have to attend church until puberty: indeed 15th and 16th-century congregations could be unforgiving about the restlessness and noise of younger children in church.

There were no services specially for children except on Saint Nicholas Day (6 December) and the Feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December), when a boy would be dressed as a bishop, with a mitre and staff, and preside over the service with a retinue of other boys. When the Reformation came, however, the first Book of Common Prayer – in English – in 1549, decreed that parish priests should hold regular classes in church to provide religious instruction.

What happened during a medieval church service?

We know little about how churches were used before 1300. Until then, the likelihood is that there were not many seats, except for the nobility and gentry who sat in the chancel with the clergy. Instead, the congregation may have mostly stood, unless they brought their own stools, and knelt at significant points in the mass. The most important of these was the point at which the bread and wine of the Eucharist was consecrated and held up by the priest to be venerated.

Seating seems to have become more common during the 14th century, and normal during the 15th. Congregations wished to imitate the seated nobility, and people wanted seats that recognised their social rank. Parish church authorities were eventually obliged to put in general seating and grade it accordingly. The wealthy would sit (or stand or kneel) in seats at the front, with their inferiors further back. Seating was allocated by the churchwardens, the lay officers who looked after the church fabric and furnishings, and fees were usually charged for seats.

As for the religious experience, services were conducted in Latin mand took place in the chancel at the east end of the church, which had a big screen separating it from the western nave where most of the congregation were placed. People were not expected to follow the text of the service or say responses as they would do today. That role was performed by the parish clerk, with the congregation watching from a distance. If you were pious, you might bring a rosary or a prayer book with you and say quiet prayers, so there would have been a subdued murmur of voices in the nave alongside the service itself.

What most people do not realise is that, by the 15th century, the Latin mass included some material in English. At the beginning, all were sprinkled with holy water, and heard an English verse reminding them of their baptism.

Then, in the middle of the service, there were announcements, and prayers for the pope, the king, the crops and individuals in need. There was sometimes (but not necessarily often) a sermon. At the end of the service, an ordinary loaf was blessed and divided up, another English verse was said, and everyone was given a fragment of the bread. Medieval congregations were not given the communion bread and wine at mass, hence the ‘substitute’ of the holy loaf. Only at Easter did the congregation receive the communion bread, and even then not the wine.

Were men and women separated during church services?

This is hard to answer. Sometimes they were, and sometimes they weren’t. Wealthy people do not seem to have been separated according to sex because we hear of nobility, gentry and merchants sitting with their wives in the chancel or side chapels. The rest of the congregation may well have been separated, but the practice probably varied from church to church. At times when they were separated, women would usually have been placed on the north side of the church, and men on the south side.

The reason for this is that the north side was considered to be the ‘safe’ side, while the south was considered ‘unsafe’. The rood – the figure of Christ on the cross set above the entrance to the chancel – always faced west. A figure of the Virgin Mary was placed at his right (north), with Saint John the Evangelist to his left (south). The north side, the side presided over by the Virgin Mary, was considered to be the side of the saved, and women were seated here because they were deemed to be more open to temptation. Men were placed on the ‘unsafe’ side because they were reckoned to be better able to stand up to evil. But equally there were other customs that dictated where you sat, such as certain seats being tied to particular properties.

Going to church was a very different experience from what it is today. It centred on ceremony not on instruction. Yet through regular attendance, the form and much of the meaning of services could become understood, and for literate people, at least, services could be supplemented by reading instructive books at home.

Nicholas Orme is emeritus professor of history at the University of Exeter. His most recent book is Going to Church in Medieval England (Yale University Press, 2021)

Interview by HistoryExtra content director Dr Dave Musgrove. Words by BBC History Revealed editor Charlotte Hodgman

This article was first published in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Dr David MusgroveContent director, HistoryExtra.com

David Musgrove is content director of the HistoryExtra.com website and podcast, plus its sister print magazines BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed. He has a PhD in medieval landscape archaeology and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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