Religion in the Middle Ages


Medieval religion developed as a hybrid of pagan beliefs and practices and Catholicism, eventually dominating the everyday lives of peasants.

The religion of the Middle Ages, as characterized by historian Peter Brown, was about “the joining of Heaven and Earth.” As Christianity spread throughout Europe in the Early Middle Ages, the Latin Catholic Church dominated official and proscribed religious beliefs, in some cases driving pagan practices underground while in other cases incorporating pagan rites and rituals into the emerging tapestry of medieval religious structures. All life was dominated by some aspect of the Catholic Church, from life to death and throughout the calendar year, identified by hundreds of feast days.

Medieval Religion and Daily Life

In a society where most people – as many as 98%, were illiterate serfs and peasants, the only avenue of escape rested not on earth, but in the afterlife. Although the rigidity and unending routine of society in the Middle Ages was mitigated by festivals usually tied to important feast days of the Church, such as the carnivalesque periods before Lent or Christmas – a subject explored by historians like Z. Natalie Davis, the over-riding factor of daily life was found in conformity to Church control of everyday life.

At the center was the parish church. It was here that peasants brought livestock to be blessed on St. Blasius’ Day, February 3rd. On Candlemas Eve, peasants brought candles to the priest to be blessed. Church bells were rung at the approach of storms and it was the Church that kept all records of births, marriages, and deaths. Regional parishes often celebrated feast days in honor of local saints. In one bizarre instance at Guinefort, France, a dog evolved into the veneration of a saint, sometimes referred to as the Holy Greyhound.

Pilgrimages, Relics, and Indulgences

Medieval religion was very visual. Cathedrals were filled with sculptures, carvings, and later during the Gothic period, stained-glass windows, all of which depicted images and stories from the Bible as well as the lives of the saints. The effort to conquer Purgatory and achieve penance was often tied to pilgrimages to the great Cathedrals and monasteries where important relics were displayed including the remains of martyrs and saints. Chaucer’s pilgrims in Canterbury Tales were traveling to the site where Archbishop Thomas Becket had been brutally slain, ostensibly on orders from King Henry II.

From the 8th Century onward, indulgences became an important aspect of religious practice. Throughout the following centuries, indulgences dramatically expanded until their abuse became a significant part of Reformation criticism, forcefully addressed by Martin Luther in 1517. Pilgrimages, relics, and indulgences are still part of Catholic practices in the post-modern world.

Urban Life and the Waning of Religious Influence on Daily Life

The slow formation of towns and town-law as opposed to Church “canon” law assisted in the weakening of Catholic domination in everyday life. In his chapter, “A Bourgeois Puts His World in Order: The City as Text,” Harvard historian Robert Darnton notes the importance of religious structures but also intimates the weakening effect of religious domination in the light of non-religious urban motivations such as commerce (The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, Penguin, 1984). Although occurring at the end of the post-Middle Ages, the account illustrates how towns and cities encouraged lifestyles not compatible with centuries of European peasantry.

The Paradigm of Medieval Life and Death

Religion in the Middle Ages served several purposes. Catholicism represented a unifying factor as well as a controlling mechanism to define human existence within a paradigm of cosmic order brilliantly stratified and explained by the poet Dante. Detractors and dissidents were heretics, threats to the conformity of religion which formed the most important aspect of social and cultural identity.