How effectively did the late medieval church satisfy the aspirations of its members?
The Church had been absorbed into European culture as part of a large corpus of local beliefs. Ranging from the powers of seventh born sons, to the role of bleeding horses on St. John the Baptist’s day, local beliefs permeated the everyday lives of the peasantry as an integral part of their spiritual lives. The power of shrines was held not to be in their devotion to an interceding saint, but their location and magical power. The copying, parodying or adaptation of Church ceremonies was an oft-cited ritualism and clergymen often complained about the sacrilege of such activities, but the original successes of Christianity had been due to their absorption of rural beliefs. These beliefs “bond people to the rituals, and implicitly to the institutions, of the old Church.”
The elites of Europe viewed religion in a wholly different way. Whilst the poor were concerned with their next harvest, or some other material need, the rich could afford to invest in their souls. Being a “good Christian” was of vital importance to them, and the posthumous sanctions were known to be very severe for failure in this respect. As a result, the elites were keen to appear to be good Christians, in that they made a show of learning the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, stopped work on Sundays, went to hear Mass, confessed at least once annually, upheld the fasts, venerated the saints, sought the sacraments and left money for masses for their own souls.
The sacrament of confession was an important part of religious life, especially within the ruling classes. Whilst Cameron sees some ruling class supervision of the lower rungs of society via confession, he accepts that reconciliation was not a cynical means of domination, and that there was a great need for confessors, reflected in the ruling classes’ maintenance of house-hold priests. Just as late medieval Catholicism offered a rule for life and the means required to police that rule, it also allowed the rich pious to pay someone to take over their piety for them. Prayer and masses could occur on behalf of patrons by priests paid accordingly in order to ensure the spiritual health of a founder.
The growth of the cult of relics was a vital part in the dissatisfaction that led to the Reformation. At a shrine of relics, the work imposed upon a pious man after their last confession could be paid off, but soon these indulgences spread elsewhere, away from the shrines. The aim of the indulgence was to add the holiness of the Church to the believer’s efforts to help one’s soul. This was, for the most part, an elite custom, using the Church to get reassurance in the face of divine judgement rather than invoking divine aid against nature or demons.
The religion of the elites and the religions of the poor were very different, but both sectors benefited from certain aspects of the ecclesiastical service. The sacraments were given regardless of the status of the individual, and “sacramentals” which included blessed palms from Palm Sunday, holy water and consecrated candles were also given out freely.
The whole of European society used the church as an important forum and structure for their lives and the central position of the Church reinforced communities. The church-going process was not the modern sombre affair. The mass could be heard whilst the congregation talked on the other side of the screens. Contact between different social branches of the church, the rich and the poor, allowed the support of the poor. This idea did not necessarily mean communities of local people meeting at mass. Guilds, brotherhoods and fraternities often heard mass together. The role of the Church in community spread beyond the walls of the churches themselves. Plays, processions and other entertainments were church events. In 1533 in Augsburg, rival protestant and Catholic families argued over the processing of a cross through the town centre.