Importance of Mass in Early Modern Europe

The Mass was Critical to Many Communities

John Bossy’s interesting article explains three aspects of the Mass in Europe prior to the Reformation as well as its overall importance to the community.

For centuries, the Catholic church has had a huge influence over the lives of its patrons. Never more so than prior to the Reformation and the teachings of Protestant Reformers and Humanists such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli among others. In early modern Europe, the Mass was a critical component to both the religion and the daily practice of the people.

Class inequality

Many communities encouraged everyone to come to church for Mass. Some areas even forced their citizens’ attendance and would issue punishments if someone did not have a valid reason for their absence. However,this does not mean that it fostered the same notions of equality when it came to the sermon and ceremony.

Surprisingly, it was not uncommon for even the priest leading the service to be completely literate and/or understand what they were saying. The Mass was said in Latin and while it was possible for the some priests to understand, it was pretty unlikely that any of the laity did. This was not a concern for the church, however, as it was believed that the lay citizen did not possess the intellect for the divine word.

Church Emphasis on Purgatory

The Catholic church became very concerned with focusing on the saving of souls believed to be in purgatory. While some believe that the indulgences sold actually saved the souls of those to had died from suffering in purgatory. Others however, particularly after the Reformation and the teachings of Martin Luther, saw this as corruption within the church spurred by economic greed rather than a concern for the afterlife.

Regardless, during the early modern period, many people trusted in the church and dutifully prayed and payed for those whom they believed were in Purgatory. Additionally, to take it one step further, they also believed that it was the rightful obligation of the family to pray for a deceased relative so that they might save them from any pain or punishment after death. It is important to recognize the huge psychological impact that might have had.

Selfless Prayer

The Catholic Mass was normally not an opportunity to seek revenge against those who might have wronged you. It was also not the time to ask for personal favors, wish, or desires. Instead the people were encouraged to pray for and bless their family and friends and also the community. Everyone and everything else were to be left until a later time after the actual Mass was over.


  1. John Bossy, “The Mass as a Social Institution 1200-1700,” Past and Present, No. 100 (1983).