Saturday, 24 September 2016

Late medieval popular religion

This post is based on the following works:
The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. B. A. Windeatt (Penguin, 1994).
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580 (Yale, 1992).
Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford, 2005).
Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1992).
_______________The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages (Penguin, 2006).

Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

The English Church

Ecclesia Anglicana was an integral part of both the Catholic Church and the English nation. All who lived in England owed political allegiance to the king and spiritual obedience to the bishop and the pope. Around 1400 there were probably some 9,000 parishes in England, each governed (in theory) by a priest who was (in theory) celibate. The principal function of a priest was the recital of the divine office and the celebration of the Mass in Latin, a function that could never be performed by a lay person. The Mass was one of the seven sacraments. However, lay people had an important role. They were responsible for the fabric of the nave and the provision of service books, altar vessels and vestments. These were the responsibility of the two churchwardens, who were elected from the village elite, to serve for two years.

Popular piety

The care given to parish churches reflected the piety of the people.  The historian Susan Brigden writes (p. 38): 
‘This was a society in which devotions to God and belief in the elements of the Christian faith were assumed, in which there were sanctions, worldly and otherworldly against those who did not give visible witness of their faith; in which membership of the Church and obedience to its teachings were profound social duties’.  

Popular devotion focused not on the abstruse doctrines of Christianity, but on the crucifixion.   There was an intense concentration on physical suffering – blood, wounds – and on the emotions of joy and despair. Religion was visual and ritualistic. Most churches had a rood screen that divided the nave from the chancel and represented the figure of Christ on the cross with Mary and John on either side. On Good Friday people performed the ritual known as ‘creeping to the cross’, a ritual performed by Henry VIII as late as 1539, five years after his break with Rome.

These practices were inspired by a very real fear of hell.
The Last Judgement,
Wenhaston, Suffolk.


The doctrine of purgatory loomed large in late medieval Christianity, especially after the Black Death.  It was a place of purgation where sinners suffered until their sins were cleansed and they were able to proceed to heaven. As the wicked went to hell, and only saints went straight to heaven, most people assumed that they would spend some time in Purgatory

Reducing this time was therefore a major preoccupation. One way in which this could be achieved was through masses. As families were precarious, institutions were set up for this purpose, sometimes before death, and sometimes in the will of the deceased person.  Some chantries were founded in monasteries or cathedrals but more were established in parish churches of guild chapels. Such a chantry would be sited in a chancel aisle or the chapel of a parish church. Priests would be employed to say masses for the deceased.

Mystery plays

What does Hamlet mean by his reference to the ham actor who ‘out Herods Herod’? This is a reference to the mystery plays that were enacted across England every summer on pageant wagons on which actors (all male) played characters such as God, Christ, the Virgin Mary and Noah and his wife. ‘The mystery plays, put on by the craft guilds of the towns, were the most popular drama ever staged in England.’   They were probably written by the clergy, but were acted by members of the guilds, who controlled the accompanying processions. In York the shipwrights presented the building of the ark, the fishermen the scene of the Flood, the bakers of the Last Supper.  After the processions more informal ceremonies followed as parishes, fraternities and religious houses withdrew from the public scene to have their dinners. 

The most ambitious of these plays, the York, Chester and Wakefield cycles, dealt with the whole Christian story. The York plays were performed over a single day, in chronological order, on pageant wagons proceeding from one selected place to another. The cycle covers the story of man's fall and redemption, from the creation of the angels to the Last Judgment; six plays are peculiar to York (the play of Herod's son, of the Transfiguration, of Pilate's wife, of Pilate's majordomo, of the high priests' purchase of the field of blood, and of the appearance of the Virgin to the Apostle Thomas). In the last revision of the York plays, about 14 plays (mainly those concerning Christ's Passion) were redacted into powerful alliterative verse, the work of a dramatic genius, often referred to as the York Realist. The York plays have been preserved in the Ashburnham Manuscript, in the British Library.

The plays all show a preoccupation with Christ’s human nature, leading to graphic portrayals of the crucifixion and to a devotion to his mother, Mary. The plays mixed the sacred and the secular and might have seemed irreverent by later standards. The shepherds were portrayed as truculent adolescents, Noah’s wife as a shrew, Joseph as a ridiculously jealous husband. 

Corpus Christi 

The plays were performed in early summer to coincide with the great festival of Corpus Christi, which was observed on the Thursday (or, in some countries, the Sunday) after Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost). This meant that it could be held at any time between 21 May and 24 June - a time of year when the weather was likely to be warm even in northern Europe. The great focus of Corpus Christi was the procession in which the consecrated host was carried through the streets under a canopy. By 1453 the Norwich Corpus Christi procession was ordered by craft: the smiths, tillers, masons and lumberman under a banner; carpenters, joiners and wheelwrights; woollen-weavers, linen-weavers, fullers and shearmen; fishmongers and freshwater fishermen; and finally haberdashers, cappers, happers, pinners and pointmakers. 

The theology behind Corpus Christi was extremely significant. In 1216 the Fourth Lateran Council sanctioned the word ‘transubstantiation’ as a correct expression of Eucharistic doctrine to describe what happens during the central Catholic ritual of the mass and how the words ‘Hoc est corpus meum’ were to be interpreted. Using Aristotle’s categories the Council moved that while the accidents (outward appearance) of bread and wine remained after the words of consecration, the substance has changed to the body and blood of Christ. 

The Council also recommended annual communion after due confession and penance. For all the other Sundays in the year, people did not go to mass to communicate but to observe the key moment of consecration, accompanied by the gesture of elevation. At the elevation, bells pealed, incense was burned and candles were lit. English parish inventories of the fifteenth century record the expenditure on bells and their maintenance.  The Council of Exeter of 1287 ordered that at least one of the candles should be of (expensive) beeswax.  

One consequence of this enhancement of the mass was that it became more clearly the preserve of the clergy. From the twelfth century the chalice was increasingly withdrawn from the laity.  In 1415 the Council of Constance decreed that only the clergy could communicate in both kinds. 

In 1352 the surviving members of the Corpus Christi fraternity in Cambridge, the religious society that united the towns’ leading burgesses, founded a new college, funded by the legacies of dead members. 


There were several reasons for pilgrimage: the keeping of a vow, thanksgiving, request. But one of the most important was the gaining of indulgences. These derived from the idea that Christ and the saints had accumulated a treasury of superfluous merits that could be granted to believers in the form of dispensations either by the pope or a bishop or an archbishop. Each dispensation granted relief from specified periods in purgatory in return for acts of devotion.

The great pilgrimage sites were Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela. Margery Kempe wrote about her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Listen here for Melvyn Bragg's 'In our Time' programme about her. The Eton schoolmaster William Wey described his pilgrimage to Compostela

The cult of St James (Santiago) of Compostela dates back to the alleged discovery of his relics at Compostela in Galicia c. 810. A church was built and a cult developed around it. In 844 King Ramiro’s victory over the Moors at Clavijo was accompanied by the appearance in the heavens of St James ‘Matamoros’ (the Moor slayer) on horseback. St James became the patron saint of Spain and in the 12th century large-scale pilgrimages to Santiago began. The shrine was especially popular with English pilgrims, including the Wife of Bath who has been ‘In Galice at St James’, and the cleric William Wey, who left an extremely important account of his pilgrimage. The Norwich housewife, Margery Kempe, was even more adventurous, as she travelled to Jerusalem. The main English pilgrimage sites were Canterbury and Walsingham.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were both enthusiasts for the Walsingham shrine; Henry went three times. At Walsingham the relic of the Virgin’s milk was kept on the high altar. It was solidified and protected by a crystal vial. The pilgrim would kneel on the lowest step of the altar and touch the relic with his or her lips. Then the custodian held out a board for a cash offering; Henry offered £1.13.4d.  The great Dutch humanist, Erasmus, visited the Walsingham shrine in 1512, though he was far more sceptical.

Erasmus’s scepticism reflects a growing attitude of criticism to the alleged relics and miracles associated with shrines. At a popular level this scepticism had been in existence since the late fourteenth century when the Lollard movement challenged many of the tenets of the Catholic Church. 


The historian Eamon Duffy has shown that late medieval piety was strong and deeply embedded – but it had its severe critics, and it proved surprisingly fragile when challenged in the sixteenth century.

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