Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Get me to the Church on time: the Medieval Church

Okay, here it comes. A controversial topic: religion. Eventually you knew I was going to touch on religion. Hang on to your hats, because here it is…

The peal of village church bells can represent a Sunday service, a wedding, or a funeral. The solemn chanting of Benedictine Monks is peaceful, and paired up with holiday music, warms the heart at Christmas time. The comfort of rosary beads, a home altar with a statue of Jesus or the Madona, a simple cross on a chain necklace, or even the oft-joked about plastic Jesus on the dashboard of a vehicle are all symbols of religious faith. Modern man doesn’t live by the rules of the Church as devotedly as his or her medieval ancestors once did.

Why is that?

Let’s start with the basics. During the Roman and Greek periods, education was available to all who wished it. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the new era, the ‘Dark Ages’, changed the game plan. The common folk were too busy keeping alive while warlords fought over small territories. A leader was needed and the Church stepped up. Christian missionaries moved outward from the Holy City of Rome, slowly making their way through the now crumbled old Roman Empire. Encountering pagan tribes and pockets of roman citizens, the Christians spread the word of the ‘new’ religion. Also working to convert barbarians were men like Benedict, who established monasteries as he travelled. Muslims weren’t sitting still either, they had their own recruiters working to convince people their religion was the one true faith.

The new faith became important, and the Catholic Church quickly became part of the day-to-day lives of the people. The seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, marriage, penance, last rites, Holy Orders, and the Holy Eucharist (also called communion, a commemoration of the last supper) could only be performed by Priest. By denying a person’s access to the sacraments, and thus causing the individual to be shunned by their peers and potentially by God (should they die), the Church held tremendous power over its members. The ultimate punishment was excommunication – the ‘permanent’ removal of the rights to the sacraments; although, excommunication could be removed by petition to the Pope.

The day-to-day life could be tough, but wasn’t as bad as Hollywood has led modern society to believe.  People’s homes weren’t tiny huts with leaky straw roofs. Houses weren’t the size of our homes today, but they were big enough for a family to live in. Depending on the local resources, houses were built of lumber, stone, or waub & dattle. The majority of people couldn’t read or write but again, if necessary, a local monk or priest was usually available to handle such duties. If one wished to learn, monastic or cathedral schools provided education for prospective clergyman and nobility. Young girls could get their learning at an abbey or convent. Higher education was available in France, Italy, and the Middle East.

 Most folks rarely travelled beyond the village they were born in except for marriage. People were self-sufficient, and at the same time would and together in times of trouble or to help with large projects.  The Church oversaw legal matters relating the Canon law, but with the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church took over civil and criminal cases in areas where there were no other options.

As time passed, and each faith increased their numbers, the pagan numbers began to fall. The organized religious leaders in Europe quickly found out they couldn’t wipe away centuries of pagan rituals. Rather than clash with the local people, the Church modified the pagan rituals and turned them in to Christian ceremonies with new names.  One example was Christmas. King Constantine decided to make December 25th Christ’s birthday. The Church missionaries, while traveling through pagan territories, added various rituals through-out the years, giving us the Christmas tree (from the Yule Log), mistletoe, and presents (12th night). The bunnies associated with Easter came from fertility feasts and the decorated eggs had been long used by many ancient civilizations including China.

The Church was involved in many aspects of the medieval person’s life. Other than a sundial or looking up at the sun and guessing, the only way to tell time was via the tolling of Church bells. The chimes signaled church services: six am for Prime, nine am for Terce, none for Sext, three pm for None, six pm for Vespers (which was the end of the workday), nine pm for Compline, three am for Matins and Lauds (often combined). The church bells may have been varied in the different seasons.

Marriages, births, and deaths were recorded in the local church ledgers. Until the printing press was invented, only the well off could afford books. Therefore, many of the average folks counted on the priests to track major events. Until government required schooling for children; young boys trained to assume their father’s role and girls were expected to marry to man chosen by the head of their household. Obedience was the normal way of life preached by the Church.

The business of selling Saints was highly profitable. When a popular priest or a martyr died, it was not unheard of for a church to spring up at the site of the death or around the tomb (i.e. St. Thomas Beckett). Since the Church took advantage of the pilgrims showing up, by their devotions and contributions, no one wanted to discourage the fondness of saints. Relics of the saints, in the form of pieces of clothing, personal items, and body parts (mostly bone fragments) were sought after. The precious holy goods were kept in reliquaries made of gold or silver and decorated with colored enamel or jewels.  Even more desired were relics of the true cross, from Jesus, Mary, or from one of the Disciples.

King Henry II was the first king to challenge the church’s authority. He felt that any clergy who broke the law should be tried in a regular court, instead of an ecclesiastical court. The catalyst for this radical thinking was an incident in which a clergyman was accused of a felony crime and then was admonished and released by the Church. In an equivalent crime, a common man would be severely punished. The King’s decree was the end of his friendship with Thomas Beckett the Archbishop of Canterbury (see previous post).

I hope you enjoyed this short log on the Church. Any thoughts in return?

Stay safe out there.

For more information:

Everyday Life in the Middle Ages
By Sherrilyn Kenyon
1995 Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH
ISBN #0-89879-663-6

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Middle Ages
By Timothy C. Hall
Alpha, New York, NY
ISBN # 978-1-59257-831-3

Daily Life in the Middle Ages
By Frances and Joseph Gies
1969 Barnes and Noble Books, New York, NY
ISBN # 0-7807-5913-8

The Medieval Reader
By Norman F. Cantor
1994 HarperCollins, New York, NY
ISBN # 0-06-270102-9

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