Christianity and Popular Religion in the Middle Ages

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

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

The background

All of what was eventually to become Western Europe was once populated by pagans of various sorts. Some of these pagan religions we know very little about, while others are much better known. What is certainly true is that "paganism" also showed variations depending on locale. Roman state paganism, with its pantheon of gods and goddesses with different patronages and its cult of emperor-worship, was primarily a religion of the cities and of the Roman aristocracy in the countryside. Those lower-class country folk living within the bounds of the Roman empire usually practiced a much more simple form of the religion, often with local gods and goddesses with patronage over springs, fields, woods, and general fertility, whose rites often bore no resemblance to the rather solemn Roman rites and could vary widely from location to location. So, to ensure the success of the crops or luck in childbearing, a person would leave a token at a shrine, or go though a small ritual, asking for the particular god or goddess for help, sometimes with the promise of a gift if the help were granted. This was the general form pagan practices took outside the Empire as well. For the average person, these rituals were a comfort--a way of dealing with the unknown.
When Christianity was officially adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, it is estimated that perhaps 10% of the Empire was Christian. In the cities, where the percentage was higher, complete conversion was aided by the fact that by the late fourth century, one had to be Christian to advance one1s political career. Thus, urban areas became Christianized long before the countryside--thus, the original meaning of paganus --something akin to "country bumpkin"--gradually came to apply to the polytheistic practices of country folk. Gradually, however, over the years, country-dwellers in Roman (or formerly Roman lands) became Christians, but often unconsciously adapting the rites associated with the agricultural year and life cycles into a Christian context. Rather than gods or goddesses, they now propitiated patron saints. Likewise, when the various Germanic tribes began converting (sometimes in great mass baptisms), perhaps only their leaders understood even basic Christian doctrine. To make up for this, new churches were often built on the sites of old temples; even if the new "Christian" did not understand the new doctrine, he or she would at least understand that this was a holy place in which one worshipped this new God and his saints. It is, however, an overstatement to say that the Church "stole" various holidays and practices from the pagans; it is far more likely that these former pagans simply continued to do rituals they associated with worship and that gradually, over the centuries, their former associations were forgotten.

The "second conversion" of Europe

By 1000, Western Europe was now wholly Christian, apart from a few Jews, and some remaining pagans at the extreme edges. Up until this point, Christianity had continued to be mostly an outwardly-directed religion, much as most of the earlier pagan religions had been. The focus was on behavior, rather than on its motivations; what was important was not what was in your heart, but your actions. God (and Christ) were viewed in art as distant and all-powerful; most early depictions of Christ, for instance, focus not on his suffering or humanity, but on his awesome majesty and divinity. The concept of sin was only in its infancy, and once again, confined to actions, not the internal state which produced them. Penance was seen as a way of "making good" for transgressions in front of the whole community. At the more intimate level, people continued to do those rituals which ensured the success of the crops, but seldom did the state of one's heart and internal piety enter into the equation. Only in the silence of the monastery could one go further, focusing on the state of one's soul beyond one's actions; but this was a path few followed.
All this began to change some time around the tenth century. Gradually, starting amongst the educated churchmen, but spreading over time to educated lay folk and finally, to the lower classes, the health of one's soul began to take as much precedence as ritual and practice. This coincided with a period of reform within the Church which began to encourage, then eventually required, clerics--particularly parish priests--to be educated in the meaning of the sacraments and to be familiar with basic doctrine. By the thirteenth century, there had been an explosion of study not only of theology, but also in the liberal arts and philosophy, culminating in the creation of universities. And more and more, the Church emphasized that laypeople should contemplate and understand Christian teachings in their hearts, carrying them with them always; the ideal was not only to participate in rituals such as the Eucharist, but understand what they meant. The sacraments, in particular, became "medicine for the soul", working against the deadly sins. The heretofore public sacrament of penance became a private matter between priest and parishioner; just as a doctor cared for the body, the priest cared for the soul. What became more and more important was not the performance of the ritual, but the accompanying state of mind. Sermons began to become a regular part of the mass, which people were encouraged to attend at least on major feast days, if not weekly. A whole order of friars (the Dominicans, or Friars Preachers) were founded upon the premise that an educated clergy who practiced poverty and preached widely and skillfully would both serve as an example to the laity and combat ignorance and heresy. This flies in the face of the persistent belief that the Church wished the laity to remain a compliant flock of uneducated sheep; in fact, countless examples exist of laypeople being encouraged to become educated, so that they might better understand the teachings of the Church. At the universities, an incredible amount of questioning of doctrine and inquiry into conflicting sources occurred, especially as scholars tried to reconcile existing doctrine with recently-rediscovered works of Aristotle. The twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries were an incredibly dynamic period of study and debate of theology and philosophy; the conservative Church unwilling to bend in the face of daring new theories is, in fact, a product of the Reformation and Counter-reformation period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Popular Practices

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

The Liturgial Year and the Agricultural Cycle

I will discuss mostly what are known as festa ferienda, or major feast days, which excepted people at least partially from servile work, as observed in England (an analysis of the yearly cycle for all of Europe would take far too much time). Virtually every day on the calendar is the feast of some saint; which ones were festa ferienda varied from place to place; most of those in this article are common throughout Europe, although the celebrations associated with them varied. Often included in the festae ferienda was the feast of the patron of one's parish church.
Spring in England was considered to begin in February, when the ground generally thawed enough for plowing; by the end of the month, farmers were sowing peas, beans, and oats. On February 2 fell the Feast of the Purification of Mary, more commonly called Candlemas after a tradition of holding candlelit processions on this day. The parish priest would also bless candles on this day to be taken away by the people, which were believed to be especially helpful in times of sickness. This is approximately the halfway mark between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox; while we now look to the groundhog on the same date to tell us whether we shall have six more weeks of winter, medieval Englishmen and women undoubtedly saw Candlemas as heralding the approach of spring. Spring was also equated with Lent, the forty day fast which precedes Easter. Since Easter is a movable feast, Ash Wednesday--the first day of Lent--fell anywhere between February 4 and March 9. The day before was called in England Shrove Tuesday or Shrovetide; in France, of course, it is known as Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday", a reference to the customs of wild revelry and overindulgence that preceded the beginning of the Church's most solemn fast the next day. In England, as in many places, the customary food for Shrovetide was pancakes.
Lent began the next day. This forty-day period of fasting (no meat other than fish was to be eaten, and the faithful were encouraged to go even further in their devotion) was by far the most important period in the medieval church--a time for introspection and acts of piety. Traditionally, palms left over from the last Palm Sunday were burnt to produce the ash which the priest used to mark each parishioner with the sign of the cross. Once yearly confession became mandatory for all Christians, they were encouraged to do it during Lent. No marriages could take place during this period without special dispensation.
In England, the calendar year began anew at Lady Day (the Feast of the Annunciation--nine months before Christmas Day) on March 25, at least until the latter part of the sixteenth century). Easter Week began on Palm Sunday, when the faithful would bring "palm leaves" (usually willow, box or yew) or rushes into the church in honour of Christ's procession into Jerusalem. In the later Middle Ages, this evolved into an occasion of great pageantry, with costumed parishioners representing the Prophets processing around the churchyard along with the church's relics and a consecrated Host in an elaborate container, carried under a canopy. Great acts of charity were often done on Maundy Thursday, and a special Mass was held where all the candles were symbolically extinguished one by one during the liturgy to symbolize the coming darkness of the Crucifixion. The priest prepared for the coming days by consecrating three Hosts during Mass (as there would be no Mass on Good Friday, a day of mourning) and stripping the altars afterwards, washing them with water and wine symbolizing Christ's passion. In cathedral churches, the washing of the disciples' feet by Christ was reenacted by the bishop with the cathedral clergy. On Good Friday, the people of the parish followed the custom of "creeping to the cross"--approaching a special cross barefoot or on one's knees to kiss its base. One of the Hosts consecrated the night before was then placed, along with this cross, in a special sepulchre in the north side of the church, and a guard was placed on it until Easter morning. The week culminated in Easter, the greatest feast day of the medieval calendar (it fell between March 22 and April 25), when the Host and cross were taken out of the sepulchre and carried in procession into the church, led by the great Paschal Candle, which symbolized the reentry of light into the world. By Easter, dairy work had usually commenced in England.
The weeks following Easter were a time of great merriment--Lent was past, and the hard work of planting crops was over, except perhaps the planting of flax and hemp for spinning and weeding of the fields. On Hock Monday, the young women of the parish would capture passing men on the streets, only releasing them after a small ransom was paid into the parish funds. The men got their revenge the following day, Hock Tuesday, when the custom was reversed. May Day (or the Festival of Sts. Philip and Jacob the Apostles), of course, has a history long preceding the Christianization of Europe, and the celebrations reflect a general theme of fertility appropriate to what was considered to be the first day of summer. Besides the maypoles, gathering of flowers and forays into the woods (even by town-dwellers), there were diversions of a less innocent nature.
On Rogation Sunday (which fell five weeks after Easter), the parish priest, along with the people, would "beat the bounds"--walking around the boundaries of the parish, accompanied by handbells, offering up prayers to insure the success of the crops; a large session of communal drinking often ensued. Along with May Day, Ascension Day (the Thursday after Rogation Sunday) and Whitsunday (Pentecost; ten days after Ascension Day) were popular days for "ales" or festivals; attending these was called going a-maying. While the parish church sold ale to raise funds, plays (often of Robin Hood or St. George) would take place, dancing (including, late in our period, Morris Dancing) would occur, and perhaps a tournament, presided over by an elected King and Queen.
Somewhere between May 21 and June 23, depending on the date of Easter, fell the Corpus Christi festival, with its focus on the consecrated Host of the Mass; in England, this became the traditional time for the presentation of pageants and plays commemorating the life of Christ, often sponsored by the town guilds. As with many feast days, this day became the focus of religious guilds--usually the most prestigious--which sponsored processions similar to those described for Palm Sunday. June was also the month for sheep-shearing, and festivals often marked this event. The festival of St. John the Baptist (June 24), or Midsummer, was the culmination of this festive season, whose celebrations once again contained pre-Christian echoes. Popular were huge bonfires, staying up the whole night on Midsummer's Eve, parades and military displays, and civic processions. After Midsummer was the time to mow the fields and prepare for haymaking, which usually occurred in July, although the Translation of St. Thomas of Canterbury, England's most preeminent saint, on July 7 provided yet another chance for revelry.
In August, the main crops would be harvested, and all other work ceased in rural areas as there was much work to do in a very short time. August's major feast was the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, which because of its date (August 15) often became a harvest festival as well. This provided a break in the heavy toil to attend diversions such as morality and mystery plays. Sometime in September, the harvest came to an end with the bringing in of the last sheaf of grain; the celebration of "harvest home" marked this occasion, where seed cakes were the traditional meal. As the grain was threshed and the fields winnowed, orchards were also harvested, and on Holy Rood Day (September 14) it was traditional to go nutting. By the end of the month, the winter fields had been plowed and sowed with rye, and by Michaelmas (the Festival of St. Michael the Archangel, on September 29) the harvest was over. Rents were usually due on this day, the beginning of a new agricultural year, and accounts were reckoned as farmers now had the means to pay debts. University terms commonly began about this time.
October marked the sowing of wheat, the brewing of ales for winter, and the preparations for the winter season. All Hallows' Eve (October 31, the evening before All Hallows' or All Saints' Day), as it is today, was considered to be a time when the ghosts of the dead walked amongst the living. In November, animals were brought in from pasture and stalled in barns, and some were slaughtered to provide meat for the winter, traditionally on St. Martin's Day (November 12), and any final cleaning was done before it became too cold to work outdoors. St. Catherine's Day (November 25) was also very popular, and the traditional time for young women to perform various rituals ( such as noting whether the shape of an apple peel allowed to fall to the floor resembled any initial) which were believed to help foretell the name of their future husband.
On the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day (November 30), the fast of Advent began. Although technically as solemn as Lent, observations of this fast were generally not as strict. With little to do outdoors except for woodcutting, it was (as it is today) a season of good cheer. St. Nicholas' Day, on December 6, was a time for role reversal in the schools, where one of the boys would be elected as Bishop for the day, presiding over a court of misrule. The truly festive portion of the season began on Christmas Eve and lasted through to Twelfth Night, the evening before Epiphany (January 6), the feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts for the infant Christ. While gifts were exchanged particularly on this night, they were also common at any time during the twelve days, particularly on Christmas and New Year's (or the Feast of the Circumcision--although the date did not change until Lady Day on March 25, this was still remembered as the first day of the Roman year). Homes were decorated with evergreens, bay, holly, ivy, and mistletoe, and special foods--pies, nuts, fruits (particularly oranges), the Boar's Head, and the Wassail, a spiced ale served in a brown bowl with great ceremony--marked the occasion. The emphasis on light and warmth (embodied in the Yule Log) dates back to the pre-Christian period. The people enjoyed games and dancing, and plays of a more secular nature and mumming were popular customs, as was the appointment of a King and Queen of Misrule. On the day after Christmas (St. Stephen's Day), lords and servants might reverse roles, and those in service received their yearly gift of a set of clothes or livery. After Twelfth Night, the people got back down to business, and the yearly cycle began anew as farmers began to plan for spring by performing maintenance work around the homestead.
Other than of Advent and Lent, I have not mentioned fast days. One was expected to fast on the Ember Days (the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following St. Lucy's Day (December 13), Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday, and Holy Rood Day), as well as on the vigils (evening before) of all the feasts of the Apostles except for Philip, James, and John, and on the vigils of Christmas Day, Whitsunday, Assumption Day, St. Lawrence's Day (August 10), St. John the Baptist's Day, and All Saints' Day.

End of part one.
Go to Part Two