The medieval church was as much a part of the community as the market or baker’s shop. For those who practised Christianity, the church was the way in which they could communicate with God.
The Mass in Medieval Times
Medieval church services were much less formal than modern-day religious services. The service was spoken by the priest in Latin, which meant that most people had little understanding of what was being said, although they would have known a number of prayers by rote. The sermon, however, was in the common language of the country, and was often a harsh speech in which the priest spoke about the wrongs committed by his flock and the terrible perils which would await those who didn’t repent.
The church was one of the finest buildings with each community, and had stained glass windows at a time when few other buildings were glazed. The Church demanded a tithe of ten percent of each person’s income, which was payable either in cash or goods. Barley was a common donation to the medieval church and was used in ale-making to raise money.
Church Services in the Middle Ages
The congregation stood in the nave to hear the Mass and watch the priest on the altar; it was rare for seating to be available. The old and infirm had the opportunity to lean against the outside walls or against a pillar whilst the service was in progress.
On special occasions, the congregation could look forward to a change from the usual routine. As well as the normal daily Mass, the clergy acted out simple plays to illustrate Bible stories – which later evolved into the popular medieval mystery plays.
Donations to the Church in the Middle Ages
Such was the power of the Church in the Middle Ages that people from all sections of society offered gifts to the Church in order to receive blessings or forgiveness, or (they believed) to assure themselves of a place in heaven. In return, the Church was expected to provide for the poorest members of society, and to help the community in times of need, such as during the fourteenth-century Black Death.
Those with the means to do so could contribute to the wealth of the parish church by providing fine linen for the altar, vestments for the priest or valuable altar vessels such as jewelled chalices. Others went still further and commissioned additions to the church, such as a lady chapel dedicated to a deceased relative, or a stained glass window which would provide a long-term example of the person’s piety.