Religious Piety

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RELIGIOUS PIETY. The word "piety" has its roots in the ancient Latin pietas, a term that implied filial duty and respect for elders, obligations that were religious duties in antiquity. The word has long been used as well to describe the rites and devotions people practiced in their daily religious observances in the medieval and early modern periods and to describe more specifically the ways in which they worshiped Christ and venerated the Virgin Mary and the saints.


Scholars have long spoken of "Marian piety," "christocentric piety," or "saintly piety." In tracing the contours of religious piety, historians have also been concerned to delineate the differences between the religion of Europe's masses on the one hand and the official religion of the church on the other. Obvious differences have long been noted between these two kinds of religious experience. The official teachings of the medieval church were fashioned by highly literate elites who often shared a common outlook created by academic training in canon law and theology. The piety of Europe's peoples, by contrast, was rooted in the concerns of village life and in the issues that surrounded an overwhelmingly agrarian existence. Beyond such distinctions the attempt to try to isolate a "popular piety" distinct from the official church is problematic since, at the dawn of the early modern period, elites and people shared many religious assumptions. The European clergy of the time was not a hereditary caste, but was recruited anew in each generation from the laity. For much of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, few clergymen had much formal theological training since the seminary came to play an important role in clerical education only at the end of the sixteenth century. Its rise helped to create a wider gap between the intellectually rigorous, highly structured religions promoted by the Protestant and Catholic Reformations and the cycles of religious rituals and beliefs that were popular in towns and countryside. This divide became one of the defining features of European life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and helped to sponsor the notion of the "superstitious folk," as well as the presumption that European history represented a gradual triumph of rationality and secularity over popular magic. For most of the early modern period this thesis cannot be applied without significant cautions because, particularly in the years between 1450 and 1650, both elites and people appear, to modern observers, to share many superstitions. The thesis of gradual secularization and rationalization has, as a result, been more recently challenged even as historians have continued to be concerned with charting the importance of piety as a dynamic factor in forging early modern societies.


In the early modern world religion was not a separate sphere or dimension of existence. While modern intellectuals assume a dichotomy between sacred and secular, religion functioned in premodern Europe as a "sacred canopy," to use a term coined by the sociologist Peter Berger. Religious explanations for existence and its rituals permeated every dimension of life. At the dawn of the early modern period the church's teachings provided an explanation for the sinner's place in a larger drama of forgiveness and redemption in the afterlife. The piety of the people, on the other hand, was frequently more practical in orientation, concerned with the "here and now" instead of the hereafter. Under the best of circumstances, demographic, economic, and material realities were bleak for most Europeans in the early modern centuries, and scores of rituals were used to try to control life's harsh circumstances. Many practices common throughout Europe explicitly violated longstanding church prohibitions against the use of magic, but they were, nevertheless, firmly ensconced in society through centuries of usage. Women fearing the pains of childbirth, for example, relied on amulets and spells to protect themselves as they approached the day of delivery. Peasants protected their livestock with similar practices, just as they tried to prevent headaches, toothaches, and all sorts of personal ills through various rituals. Rites intended to ensure the fruitfulness of the fields, the marriage bed, and the barnyard were common, just as specific feast days were considered auspicious times for gathering herbs and other plants for combating diseases and fashioning potions that might protect against bad weather. In these and many other ways people used rituals and objects to combat the evils that threatened everyday living. Even when these practices did not explicitly violate church prohibitions, they sometimes subtly altered Christian teaching to suit purposes other than those originally intended. Examples of this tendency can be seen in the widespread popularity of sacramentals and benedictions in Europe around 1500. Sacramentals were lesser rites of the church that often had their origins in the sacraments themselves. They included a range of services like the blessing of water, a practice that originally developed from the sacrament of baptism; and the consecration of candles, palm leaves, and other objects used in church liturgies. These rituals were not sacraments per se, and thus were not dependent upon the ministration of a priest. At the same time they were thought to be beneficial to body and soul, and for this reason laypeople adapted them for their own use. Peasants ground up consecrated bread, palm leaves, and other blessed objects, casting the residue on their fields, or they sprinkled holy water on their doorsteps, beds, and homes. Benedictions were another widely popular custom, with prayers commonly being offered to God and the saints to protect against threatening circumstances. Despite the attempts of early modern Protestant and Catholic reformers to curtail the abuse of many of these practices, they often persisted unchanged in European societies into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Perhaps no other dimension of piety had such a long history as the veneration of the saints. From early Christian times the cult of the saints had played an important role in spreading Christianity, and the popularity of the saints had long been sustained through a steady stream of miracles. The missionaries who had journeyed to northern Europe in early medieval times often came with relics of the saints in hand and, until the twelfth century, the cult they nourished remained intently focused on physical objects. During the later Middle Ages (twelfth to fifteenth centuries) successive waves of change had introduced new subjective elements into Western religion as Europeans came increasingly to venerate images and statues of the saints alongside their ancient relics: the images were no longer the direct, physical relict of the saint but only represented the saint's presence. Christians now focused their devotion more decidedly on the Virgin Mary and on saints common to the entire church rather than on the graves of holy men and women from their own regions. While this broad snapshot holds true generally, saintly veneration was amazingly complex and continued to display many local variations in the early modern period. Local saints and relic cults survived at this time, often flourishing alongside Marian shrines and international saints common to the entire church. In sixteenth-century Spain, for example, hundreds of shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to local and international saints were present throughout the peninsula, and the power of the image, statue, or relic that was revered at each of these places was perceived to be distinctive, with the patron of a specific shrine often acquiring a special ability to combat certain diseases. Many people appealed to a broad spectrum of the saints for aid throughout their lives, and a rich lore circulated about local shrines as people traded tales of successful intercessions worked by a specific shrine's patron. The clergy fed a popular appetite for miracles by regularly publicizing intercessions the saints had worked. While most of the thousands of shrines that attracted the faithful in Europe were quite small and drew people from nearby, the faithful also traveled to great international shrines. Places like Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Mont Saint Michel in France, Canterbury in England, and, above all, Rome were great transregional centers of devotion. These sites became more important on the religious landscape during the fifteenth century as a result of the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Turks in the eastern Mediterranean, events that cut off the Holy Land as a destination for all but the most resourceful of European pilgrims.


While many rituals were practiced beyond its control, the church was nevertheless a vital force in the religious piety of Europeans around 1500. Through its system of seven sacraments the Catholic Church dispensed divine grace to the faithful, even as certain of the sacraments played a role in marking life's rites of passage. The sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and extreme unction (the last rites) were universally received by both laypeople and clergy alike, and while they were important religious ceremonies, these rituals also functioned with a large social purpose, admitting those who received them into new life stages. Rich traditions of godparentage, for example, had grown up over the centuries around baptism, and at the beginning of the early modern period the rite retained an important communal dimension, as parents sometimes named scores of godparents for their children, hoping in this way to establish a protective network for them as they matured. The early modern world knew its share of lax or indifferent Christians. For most of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, most Europeans rarely received the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist more than once each year, although devout Christians attended the Mass and other services of the church more frequently, their attendance being a sign of their devotion. Even the devout, however, rarely received Communion more than two or three times a year. Instead, most practiced the custom of adoring the Eucharist at the moment of its consecration in the Mass, or in the tabernacles where it was kept in every church between services. This visual piety inspired the commissioning of enormous tabernacles for displaying the Eucharist, some of which rose to more than forty feet in Europe's major churches. The importance of viewing religious objects also nourished the custom of displaying saints' relics on important feast days. Passive activities like this were important to the devout, but late medieval and early modern religion also offered many opportunities for participation. Confraternities provided a vital avenue for those seeking to deepen their faith. These brotherhoods and sisterhoods of laypeople and clergy met regularly to say prayers and perform good works. Their members sometimes practiced ascetic regimens that imitated the disciplines of monastic life, including self-flagellation, the wearing of hair shirts, and other acts of self-denial that were designed to overcome the needs or desires of the body. Since the Mass was believed to be beneficial to the souls of both the living and the dead, the endowing of Masses was a pious good work, held in high repute throughout Europe. Fasting, dietary restrictions, and other good works like the giving of alms to the poor were also widely practiced by those anxious to live more perfect lives.


The church also played a key role in defining social life and in structuring the passage of time through the observance of its liturgical seasons and holidays. The penitential seasons of Advent and Lent were particularly important to those who were interested in a diligent observance of the church's teachings. In these seasons the devout abstained from sexual activity, from the eating of meat and all its byproducts, while they intensified their prayers and attendance at Mass. For society at large, feasting was more cherished than fasting, and the often raucous celebrations of Carnival that preceded Lent were vital releases that prepared the way for the rigors that followed. Many religious holidays were commemorated each year, and they were commonly celebrated with religious processions, dances, and feasts. These celebrations were usually crowded into the late spring and summer months when the weather was more favorable for outdoor activity. The Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost (also called Whitsunday in England), the commemoration of the founding of the Christian Church, occurred in May or June, and were followed by the Feast of Corpus Christi, a celebration of the Eucharist and of Christian community as "the Body of Christ." Huge bonfires lit on the Feast of St. John the Baptist in late June often became the scenes of revelry, dancing, and brawling, while the commemoration of the Assumption of Mary in mid-August rounded out the cycle of major summer religious observances before the harvests of the early fall. During the summer months many parishes and confraternities also made processions to local shrines, and in Europe's villages, the season was often marked by the observance of the kermis or fête, an anniversary celebration of the local church's consecration. Lay leaders in the parish staged these celebrations, and thus the kermis became an opportunity for them to demonstrate their important status in the community, even as the celebration provided all villagers with another occasion for entertainment.


In the years following his 1517 attack on indulgences, Martin Luther developed a new theology centered on the concept of justification by faith alone. Luther's doctrinal insight denied that good works played any role in human salvation, and as a result he came to reject many traditional religious teachings. During the 1520s he reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two (baptism and the Eucharist) and denied that the Mass was a sacrifice beneficial to the living and the dead. The beliefs in purgatory, the effectiveness of pilgrimage, and the intercession of the saints were similarly rejected; clerical celibacy and the many privileges long accorded the clergy were similarly abolished. The developing Reformation came to emphasize humankind's utter helplessness in the process of salvation and the life-changing experience of a faith that was given as a free gift of God's grace. In Germany, this new Evangel came to be the standard by which traditional religious practices were judged. Luther and his evangelical supporters were uncompromising in opposing those practices that seemed to promote a belief in the saving benefit of good works. At the same time they also tried to eliminate rituals intended to control life's harsh circumstances and to secure earthly rewards, denouncing the seeming effectiveness of many of these practices as the "work of the devil." While uncompromising in their attitude toward many longstanding customs, Luther and his followers permitted many traditional practices provided they were adapted to a church centered on the Gospel. Other reformers who rose to prominence around the same time did not share this tolerant attitude. At Zurich in Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli promoted reforms that attempted to clear away more than a thousand years of religious rituals and to replace them with a dramatically simplified religion subjected to biblical teaching and the example of the ancient church. While he relied on governmental authority at Zurich to accomplish his reforms in an orderly fashion, radical reformers elsewhere nourished demands for social as well as religious change. Their demands erupted in the great Peasants' War of 15241525, and in its wake, both religious reformers and state officials moved to institutionalize the Reformation and to adopt educational schemes to indoctrinate the young in the new teachings.


The educational programs fostered by the Reformation were also inspired by a series of inspection tours of local religious life that were known as visitations. On their journeys through the German countryside, state and religious officials discovered a remarkably low level of knowledge about Christian doctrine among the people. State and church leaders came to concentrate their efforts on catechizing the young, a plan to which Luther himself contributed by the publication of his famous German catechism in 1529. In the coming decades his statement of key Christian teachings and evangelical doctrines was adopted in Lutheran Germany in many primary educational schemes, even as his practice of catechism was soon to be imitated by all kinds of Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, anxious to foster a higher level of religious knowledge. Catechisms were usually taught to children in weekly sessions conducted by village priests and ministers. Their appearance was important because in the heated world of Reformation and Counter-Reformation debate, printed catechisms and other confessions of faith were seen as important ways to inoculate the laity against competing religious positions. But the long-term effectiveness of these campaigns remains highly debatable. Filled with dry formulas, the catechisms were often mastered merely through rote memorization. After a century of intensive efforts to educate the young, both Protestant and Catholic officials continued to discover remarkably low religious knowledge in the countryside. Yet at a more fundamental level the rise of catechisms and confessions points to a development that was to intensify in the coming centuries. Increasingly, church and state officials judged a person's mastery of doctrinal formulas as an indication of their piety and devotion. The notion that religion was an ideology that might be defined intellectually thus came to compete against the rich world of devotional and protective practices that had largely defined piety for most Europeans in 1500.


Educational schemes were the first prong of Protestant and Catholic attempts to reform piety and were soon to be followed by a broad campaign to elevate moral behavior. In traditional religious life, festive and pious elements had long flourished side by side, with dancing, drinking, and revelry occurring along with the Mass and processions at the commemoration of major feasts and holidays. The religious life of Europe had long oscillated, moreover, between periods of self-denial and raucous celebration, with the festive releases of Carnival preceding the ascetic fervor of Lent. Now both Catholic and Protestant moralists came to promote a new serious moral tone they hoped might pervade the entire year, not just the penitential seasons long promoted by the church. The efforts to raise moral standards were most pronounced in those societies that adopted Reformed Christianity, the pattern of Reformation teachings that had first begun to emerge in the work of figures like Huldrych Zwingli, and which later came to be dominated by John Calvin's influence. But in Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican societies the campaign to raise moral standards was present as well, intensifying in particular during the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At this time Protestant and Catholic Reformers set themselves with greater determination to the task of ridding the countryside of rites they judged magical and superstitious, even as they tried to enforce more uncompromising moral standards. In Calvinist, Lutheran, and Anglican societies prayer, frequent church attendance, Bible reading, and family devotions were imposed as replacements for traditional rituals, benedictions, and sacramentals. Among Catholics, attendance at Mass and frequent reception of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist were intended to forge a similar determination to achieve moral perfection. The new puritanism of the age inspired many attempts to outlaw dancing, blasphemous language, and prostitution as well as all forms of sex outside of marriage. This moral order was best achieved on a small scale, that is, in a medium-size city like Calvin's Geneva, where religious and civic officials joined forces to scrutinize the populace's activities quite closely. Yet as territorial princes and their state and church officials adopted the heightened moral tone of the age, they tried to foster a similar observant climate in the countryside, often to the chagrin and outright resistance of rural people. The ideals of religious devotion these early modern moralists most often favored were a sober, prayerful attitude; a diligent observance of Christianity's moral teachings; and frequent worship and participation in the life of the parish. This emphasis on parochial life flourished in all the major religions that developed as a result of the sixteenth-century Reformations, and it spelled key changes for piety since it fixed people's attentions ever more intently on the local institutions of the church, rather than on the broad range of communal rites and personal rituals that had played such a large role at the dawn of the sixteenth century.


The processes unleashed by the Protestant and Catholic Reformations also heightened the importance that certain religious practices played in the creation of Catholic and Protestant cultural identities. The intense biblicism of Calvinism, for example, led outsiders to identify the religion's followers as a "people of the book" who favored restraint in church decoration and an unadorned style of worship. By contrast, Lutherans and Anglicans retained much of the substance of the medieval Mass, while translating that service into the native tongue. In both these traditions a rich musical life was just one of the many new cultural developments that came to play a key role in sustaining the popular appeal of these religions and in creating their early modern identity. The singing of chorales and other musical innovations in Lutheranism afforded the laity a rich avenue of participation in the worship of the church, as did the service music and anthems of Anglicanism. For Catholics, many traditional rituals of the medieval church lived on, even as they came to be subjected to subtle modulations. The popularity of pilgrimage, the cult of the saints, and the intensely visual character of late medieval religion survived into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but were now subjected to the more vigorous disciplines of parish life, even as they were wedded to a heightened emphasis on penance and moral perfection. Devotion to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary similarly intensified, even as new images of the Virgin like the Madonna of Victories came to express her increasingly important role as a triumphant standard bearer for Roman Catholicism. In these and numerous other ways the institutional changes in early modern religious life left their mark on European piety down to the present day. At the same time these forces proved insufficient to obliterate the rich, varied substratum of popular beliefs and rituals that had long played a vital role as a force for negotiating the problems of daily existence.

See also Calvin, John ; Calvinism ; Carnival ; Catholic Spirituality and Mysticism ; Church of England ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Magic ; Pietism ; Puritanism ; Reformation, Catholic ; Reformation, Protestant ; Reformations in Eastern Europe: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox ; Theology ; Zwingli, Huldrych .


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Philip M. Soergel

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Religious Piety

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