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Christianity and Popular Practice in the Middle Ages, Pt.2

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

Patron Saints

The practice of assigning specific patronages to particular saints probably reached its fruition during the period under discussion. The earlier practice of praying to a particular saint to intercede with God or Christ for the supplicant in a specific manner was now supplemented by a growing focus on using the lives of the saints as models for Christian behavior. These stories circulated in a number of ways--in collections of anecdotes for use in sermons, in visual form (such as paintings or windows in churches), or in popular literary collections, such as the Golden Legend (often called the second most popular book in the Middle Ages, after the Bible). Churches, of course, had always had their patron saints--the patron of the church occupied one of two niches or chapels at the front of the church; the Virgin Mary occupying the other--increasingly, that saint's day became a significant day in the life of the parish community, being marked by processions and other celebrations. Craft guilds also had their patron saints; their feasts being marked by guild banquets and almsgiving. On the personal level, virtually every occupation or stage in life had a patron saint--a friend in Heaven to call upon, if you will, and to serve as a role model.

The Cult of the Virgin Mary

Nowhere is the growing focus on the human side of Jesus more apparent than in the burgeoning cult of the Virgin Mary, which added a more intimate, maternal side to the Church heretofore unrealized. It was the Blessed Virgin's special role to intercede for humanity in Heaven; she was everyone's Patron Saint and Heavenly Mother, sure to show mercy in time of need.

The Rosary and other Devotions

Along with the Our Father (Pater Noster), the Ave Maria was one of the two things in Latin almost everyone knew; these two prayers were eventually combined together (starting in the late 13th century) in the Rosary, a special devotion practiced by laypeople and clergy alike, often with the assistance of a set of beads. The rise of Marian devotion meant that the Ave Maria became popular (the faithful believed that each time it was said, Mary relived the joy of the Annunciation). These were often said in fifties, each fifty being termed a chaplet. This was combined with the earlier tradition of saying 150 Our Fathers in place of the 150 psalms--known as the "poor man's breviary", as a poor cleric or layperson might not know the Psalter. By the sixteenth century, the Rosary was a series of 150 Aves, followed by a Pater after each ten. The faithful contemplated fifteen mysteries of the Virgin as they said the prayers, in three sets of five: The Joyful mysteries (The Annunciation, Mary1s visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Christ, his presentation in the temple, and his being found in the temple); Sorrowful (the agony of Christ in the garden, his scourging, his crowning with thorns, his carrying of the cross, and his crucifixion) and Glorious (his resurrection, his ascension, the sending of the Holy Spirit, the assumption of Mary, and her coronation as queen of Heaven).
Production of books to assist lay people in their devotions became more and more common throughout the period, and exploded after the invention of movable type and the advent of the printed book. These included the Book of Hours --set devotions centred on the liturgical year--essentially a private liturgy for lay people, allowing them to meditate privately, away from the confines of a church. These ranged from the highly decorated to the simple, and were often passed down in families, much like the family Bibles of today. Also available for devotion and edification were collections of saints' lives or moralistic tales and Mass books for the laity (containing prayers and points to ponder during the various parts of the Mass).

Confraternities and Guilds

In the earlier Middle Ages, lay involvement in churches had been limited to attending services in them, with the exception of the rich, who could found or endow monasteries or chantries. As lay education increased and the growth of towns led to more and more wealth in the hands of the merchants and craftsmen, they, too, sought ways in which to leave their mark upon the Church. Confraternities and guilds were one of the most popular ways in which to not only get together with friends or associates, but also to do good works for the community. As I mentioned above, there was usually a parish guild devoted to the patron saint of the church, which became responsible for planning the festivities and procession on the feast day, for upkeep of the statues of the patron (and other such stuff) in the church. In larger towns, merchant guilds would often found chapels devoted to their own particular patron saint in the side aisles, competing with each other in a game of one-upmanship in regards to the finery of the banners and statuary in their particular chapel. Not all guilds were based around crafts or occupations--quite a large number of them were purely philanthropic in nature, providing for hospitals for the sick, alms for the poor, endowments to poor scholars, and funds for widows of their own members. The more intense of these societies were sometimes directly affiliated with one of the orders of monks or friars--a good example of this is the Dominican Third Order, a lay organization devoted to works of charity and piety which was directly associated with the Dominicans. These organizations allowed members to pursue piety without retiring from the world or joining the clergy.


One of the most prevalent expressions of popular religion in this period was the pilgrimage. The faithful undertook pilgrimages for a variety of reasons: for penance, in search of a cure for an ailment, or out of simple piety. Not to be overlooked, however, was the simple novelty of traveling outside of one1s home community. A look at the pilgrims to the shrine of St. Thomas in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales demonstrates the wide spectrum of social classes who took part in such journeys (from knights to craftsmen, laypeople and clerics alike)--as well as illustrating that pilgrimages were both occasions for community with fellow pilgrims and expressions of piety. The destination of such a journey was the shrine of a particular saint, usually to be found in a church or cathedral. One need not necessarily journey more than a few days from home--shrines were plentiful in most parts of Europe--but anyone who could afford it, of course, longed to make one of the great pilgrimages: to St. Thomas Becket's shrine at Canterbury, or along the famous route of Sant'Iago de Compostella in Spain, or the Big Pilgrimage--to the Holy Land (when possible). Of course, after such a journey, one would want to bring home souvenirs; pilgrim's tokens of pewter were the t-shirts of the Middle ages in this respect.


Shrines, by definition, contained relics. Relics came in three forms: First, an actual bodily remnant of a saint (body, finger, hair); second, an item which a saint wore or touched, or a miraculous image of the saint (clothing, staff, chair, icon), and third, miscellaneous items associated with either type of physical relic (for instance, dust from a tomb, oil exuded from an icon, holy water). All of these were often thought to have positive effects on health or well-being; in fact, it is a relic's ability to aid in miracles that is its proof of legitimacy. Thus, each of the several churches claiming to have the head of St. John the Baptist could claim to have a legitimate relic--as they had all performed miracles. A medieval person would have explained away the incongruity to the mystery of God, who had obviously decided to bestow sanctity on all the heads, rather than wondering which one was "real". Relics of the first two types were rarely readily available, but were instead contained in elaborate reliquaries or tombs and prized by churches, cathedrals, and the odd king. Pilgrims, however, often were able to obtain the third type, and medieval shrines are often in bad condition as a result of years of pilgrims scraping off paint or dust, as well as from having folks spend days or even weeks camped out in close proximity to the shrine in hopes of cures or luck. Occasionally, pilgrims would even take up a monastic or reclusive life at the shrine, never leaving again.


One does not normally think of crusades as outlets of popular religion, but as extensions of the idea of pilgrimage, they deserve attention--particular in their later incarnations, when crusaders' oaths were taken by all classes of society. To understand the crusade fully, one must understand the mindset of the medieval person. It is commonplace in the twentieth century to examine the Church in retrospect, especially its all-too-human failings, with typical modern skepticism. Implicit in this analysis is the idea that an "age of faith" is somehow an age of ignorance, in which a corrupt Church sought to control both the minds and bodies of the masses and stamped out any attempt at "free thinking". This is to misunderstand the medieval mind. First, it is often forgotten that the Church made many attempts to control the violence in society which were quite beneficial. On the eve of the First Crusade, the great wars of conquest largely over by now, roving bands of "thugs" of the knightly classes had taken to wandering the countryside causing trouble. Urban II's call to crusade in 1095 was partially an attempt to redirect the energies of these men, whose whole raison d'etre revolved around combat, towards a common enemy of the Faith, rather than towards each other. It is no accident that one of the duties of a knight under the emergent codes of chivalry was to defend the Church. It is during the Crusade period that these codes become fully developed. Knights were bound together both by their class and by their Christian faith, as well as their place in the feudal hierarchy. To the medieval person, this hierarchy was divinely ordained, and both Church and Crown had their appointed places.
I have already alluded to the two major factors in choosing to take a crusaders' vow: piety, or a desire to defend the holy places of the faith from the "infidel"; and loyalty to one's overlord in the feudal hierarchy. A third should be added to this, one which is somewhat related to the first: the idea of penance. Each bears further discussion. But I want to mention a third reason sometimes cited for the crusade in passing, that being that younger sons went on Crusade in search of land. While this may indeed have been a factor in the first Crusade, and perhaps even the second, it was not a factor by the thirteenth century. The Crusader Kingdoms of the twelfth century had largely disappeared by the thirteenth, and with their disappearance, the crusade movement had drastically changed in character. The thirteenth century crusades were far more personal in nature than had been the earlier efforts, in which huge armies from many nations allied together. These crusades tended to be organized by a single king or a coalition of noblemen; this probably contributed to their comparative lack of success in actually besting the foe. Facing a resurgent Islamic world powered by the relatively ruthless Mamaluk Turks, based in Egypt, the European Crusaders found themselves outclassed. This did not stop them from trying, however. Going on Crusade was one sure way of gaining military experience for a young noble, particularly a younger son whose future was not yet certain--but seldom was land a promise in this later day.

As I mentioned, thirteenth century crusades were largely organized by one or more powerful nobles in a particular country, and national pride was often an issue. Thus, those personally attached to the retinues of major noblemen often followed their lords overseas, as might local knights and gentry, depending on the popularity of the particular nobleman. Those who did not actually make the trip could contribute in other ways, as I shall note in a moment.

Finally, there is the motive of piety or penance. Though the crusades were extremely violent in nature, they were largely undertaken with the idea in mind that one enlisted to fight for God's cause in His army--a "soldier of Christ" in the very real sense. And in fact, by the thirteenth century, the threat from 3the infidel2 was considerably more pronounced than it had been in the late eleventh, when the movement had first began. By this time, the real fight had returned to its original roots--protecting and defending the pilgrimage destinations in the Holy Land. Not being able to have access to Jerusalem --even if one could never actually go there in person--was as important, or nearly so, to a thirteenth century Christian as for a modern Muslim to know that someday, one might make it to Mecca. In addition, priests were regularly assigning taking a crusader1s vow to the noble classes as penance for major crimes and indiscretions by this time--this was simply a evolution of earlier assignments of pilgrimages. Many even took the vows as a form of voluntary penance--after all, as from the early days, crusaders were given a plenary indulgence for all sins committed while on Crusade, and it simply "looked good on your resume", as it were. There were few of the upper classes and virtually no kings who did not take such a vow in the thirteenth century, so far had the idea spread. By the thirteenth century, more and more people, both male and female, were taking crusaders' oaths. The majority of these people never set foot in the Holy Land, but they certainly fulfilled their vows --by making monetary contributions, or by raising forces. This allowed the ethos to spread throughout society, even to the fairly poor. Thus, the taking of such vow became a powerful way of expressing one1s piety--often in a very public manner.


This article barely scratches the surface of understanding the medieval mindset vis-a-vis religion, but it's a start. I would highly recommend the books in the bibliography if you would like further information. I have barely touched on the issue of "superstition", although a number of the practices I have described have a reputation these days of being products of it. I am not thoroughly convinced the medieval mind is any more superstitious than the average modern mind; almost everyone I know has a "lucky number", and the various superstitions of sports teams during the playoffs defy anything I've ever encountered in the Middle Ages. Humans are always coming up with rituals of various sorts to deal with the unknown; I doubt that will ever change.


Brooke, R. and C. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984. An excellent overview of the topic.
Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. One of the best discussions of late medieval popular religion and the subsequent impact of the Reformation on religious practices available.
Lloyd, Simon. English Society and the Crusade: 1216-1307 . Oxford 1988. An exhaustive survey of the impact of the Crusades on thirteenth century England; more concerned with societal rather than military concerns.
McLean, W. and Singman, J. Daily Life in Chaucer's England. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. An excellent overview of all aspects of life in late 14th century England, including a calendar of the agricultural and liturgical year.
Riley-Smith, J.C. The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading . London, 1986. A brief introduction by one of the authorities in the field, this book (as the title indicates) is primarily concerned with the early development of the Crusading ideal.
Sumption, Jonathan. Pilgrimage: An Image of Medieval Religion . London: Faber and Faber, 1975. While its scope is much larger than the title would indicate, this book is particularly useful as a starting point for study of pilgrimage.
Swanson, R.N. Religion and Devotion in Europe, c.1215-c.1515. Cambridge, 1995. A brand-new book which looks at the topic in light of recent research into literacy, the role of women, pastoral care, and the line between popular and elite religion; it is more concerned with discovering the deeper meanings behind most of the practices than with simply discussing them.

Copyright 1997, Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved