The Laity and Popular Beliefs

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The Laity and Popular Beliefs

Separations Between Clerics and Laity.

Even though people today view the Middle Ages as a time of great religious faith, it is clear that the role of the laity within official medieval Christianity was relatively limited. By the thirteenth century, the majority of people who lived in Western Europe were nominally Christian. Most had received Christian baptism and professed to practice the faith, the exceptions being the minority of Jewish people scattered throughout various European cities and the Muslims who were still living in Spain. For those who were not part of the clerical world, however, it seems there was not much access to the richness of the Christian tradition. Nobles and royalty who had clerics living among them at court clearly had the advantage of daily contact. But since many others did not know how to read, and understood Latin (the language of most prayers) in only a limited way, contact for the laboring and commercial classes did not extend much beyond attending worship and interacting with local clergy. Lay experience of the holy was mostly visual and auditory, including encounters with religious art and the stories portrayed in these artworks, as well as the homilies of their priests (during the time periods that medieval liturgies incorporated preaching). Such religious art often showed biblical typology or foreshad-owing of New Testament events in Old Testament stories; for example, David struggling with a bear foreshadows Christ's conquering of Satan in a miniature from the Winchester Bible of 1160–1175. During Christian feast days, they may have heard or seen enacted stories connected to the saints and the important events from the life of Christ. Members of the laity were not, however, encouraged to receive communion during the earlier medieval centuries. In fact, it was not until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that they were required to go to confession and receive the eucharist at least once a year.

Lay Observance at Mass.

In the absence of receiving communion, the only contact with the sacrament was visual, when the priest elevated the host and chalice. However, in churches with rood screens (wooden or metal par-view gates separating the altar area from the rest of the church), visual contact was often impaired. Mothers did teach their children statements of faith and prayers, particularly the Credo, Pater Noster, and Ave Maria. In urban areas where there were schools, clerics taught children to read Latin from the Bible or a psalter (a book containing the psalms). These city-dwellers received formal religious education from the clerics who taught them, and, in imitation of their teachers, might set aside certain times of the day to pray. If they were literate and wealthy enough to own psalters, they might recite the written prayers. Daily attendance at Mass for the laity was limited to those who had both the piety and leisure to comply. In most cases, these masses were held in small chapels and provided opportunity for greater contact with the clergy, although the priest's back was turned to the congregants for most of the liturgy. Again, it was not until the thirteenth-century Lateran Council that serious directives were issued in regard to weekly attendance at Mass. Some evidence of contemporary expectations for participation is offered by a twelfth-century book of instructions and devotion for laity called the Lay Folk's Mass Book, written by an archdeacon of York named Jeremiah. The instructions were originally written in French for Norman aristocrats, but only the late thirteenth-century English translation survives. A collection of directives that indicate the role of the worshipers and how they should be positioned, such as kneeling at the elevation of the consecrated elements, are contained in the work.

The Sacrament of Marriage.

The notion of marriage as a sacrament began to be connected in the Middle Ages to certain rituals and exchanges of consent that took place at the front door or on the porch of churches. Marriage did not become an official sacrament of the church until the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Emphasis on assent and mutual giving, including consent of both partners along with the physical act of consummation, mark the canonical parameters of the essence of the union. While local customs and laws varied widely throughout Europe, the role of the church in witnessing and binding the union seems to have only been prevalent from the twelfth century onward. However, once it became a sacrament, the church also played an important role in the dissolution or annulment of marriage and the integrity of family life. All marriages from the early thirteenth century on were to be public. Banns (formal public announcements) were to be published, and private

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or clandestine unions were forbidden (although, if secretly performed, these marriages were not invalid). Marriage of blood relatives (consanguinity) within the fourth degree of relationship and marriage within a spouse's family (affinity) within the third degree was forbidden. Later, the statute concerning affinity was revised to forbid only the first degree (marrying a dead spouse's parent or sibling). In many cases, marriage was certainly not even seen as an idealized or spiritualized form of love, but a contractual arrangement. The attitude towards marriage and love held by most celibate theologians was far removed from the ideal of courtly love espoused by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Christine de Pizan, Chrétien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Dante Alighieri in the literature that developed during this period.

The Afterlife.

In medieval Christianity everyone believed in an afterlife where the good were rewarded and the evil were punished. But the idea of going directly to heaven or hell upon one's death was not firmly entrenched in the popular lay mentality. Sometimes souls were visualized being raised to God in a napkin as in a miniature from a book of hours from York, England. It was believed that souls lingered among the living (almost as ghosts), possibly to keep promises, solicit prayers, or even settle old accounts. Dances for the dead in cemeteries, some attempting to drive the deceased back to the spirit world, were banned by synods in the twelfth century. It was necessary for the church to affirm the doctrine of purgatory, a place where the distressed souls would be allowed to linger. It was not that people during this era had a greater fear of death than in other historical periods, but they did fear dying in a state of sin, without the comfort of the sacraments or forgiveness. People began leaving property to the church or to the poor so that their souls would be prayed for after their death. Even the most corrupt of princes and knights on their deathbeds sought to make reparations for their evil deeds. This may be the reason why many people in the final years of their lives would retire to monasteries and convents to be connected to God and the prayers of a community in death and be remembered in the community's masses for the deceased.


The laity also believed in miracles and divine interventions, with saints often playing a major role. Indeed, at times it seems people were more interested in miracles and relics than in the accumulation of countless good deeds that might earn them a way into heaven. Pious lay persons could distinguish themselves through generosity, hospitality, and almsgiving. However, taken more seriously was the idea of penitence and making reparations for one's sins, even after absolution through a priest was given in confession. Piety found its expression most clearly in outward signs and rituals. Sacramentals (such as blessings, benedictions, exorcisms, stations of the cross, dubbing of a knight, coronations, ceremonies, receiving palms and ashes, and litanies) were often as important to the medieval laity as the Sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, Confession, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick). The church of the thirteenth century did a number of things to eliminate the power of popular piety by creating more rigid standards for the canonization of saints, rather than allowing the cults of these figures to develop from popular acclaim. The condemnation of practices such as trial by combat (in which the accused and the accuser of a crime engaged in physical combat with the belief that right would triumph over wrong) or trials by fire and water (in which a guilty person thrown into a body of water would float and one whose hand was burned would become infected) were included in the Fourth Lateran Council in order to allow church courts rather than miraculous intervention to rule the day. Priests were forbidden to be present at the ordeals, thus discouraging the notion that these affairs might be orthodoxy.

Lay Spiritual Movements.

Since the laity were in many ways excluded from active participation in the official life of the church, it is not surprising that lay spiritual movements began to flourish. One late twelfth-century movement developed into a group called the Humiliati, which actually evolved into an officially sanctioned lay order during the early thirteenth century. The Humiliati began in Lombardy and Milan around the time of the Waldensian controversy, which arose in the late 1170s when a rich merchant named Peter Waldo in Lyon, France, underwent a religious conversion and started a lay spiritual movement—unsanctioned by the church hierarchy—based on voluntary poverty, vernacular translation of the Scriptures, and public preaching. Some Humiliati were married and lived with their families. Others lived in community, almost like a religious order. They held meetings in common houses owned by the local groups. Most Humiliati were nobility or, at the least, educated people of some means. Their first obligation was to embrace apostolic simplicity. They wore simple clothing, lived simple lives and sought to stand at odds with enemies of the true Christian faith. Unlike the Waldensians, they found it distasteful to preach in public. Each group had a minister or lay leader but in general they did not abide by a rule.

The Life of the Humiliati.

While several popes like Lucuis III and Alexander III tried to legislate against the Humiliati, other pontiffs wrote them letters calling on them to live lives of penitence, to be peaceful and forgiving, to act against usury (charging interest for loans), to keep their married state if already wed, and to prepare to enter the narrow gate of heaven. Some members recited the seven canonical hours, others fasted twice a week. They gave charity to all those in need and showed special concern for lepers. One of the things the group became famous for was the making of cotton cloth and inexpensive wools. During this period, producers of fine cloth often belonged to guilds that controlled prices, so there was a great need, especially among the lower classes, for inexpensive cloth. In a sense, the production of such cloth became part of their "ministry," to the point where it even began to be asked for by the trademark of Humiliati. The lamb of God became their symbol. By 1216 there were 150 communities of Humiliati in the Diocese of Milan alone. In 1201 Pope Innocent III gave permission for the Humiliati to continue their work under two conditions: that they not own land that they themselves did not work with their own hands, and that their preaching be limited to the sharing of faith and exhorting of one another. Eventually the Humiliati fell into three orders: canons and canonesses, monks, and lay people. Like other European religious, Humiliati monks followed the Rule of Benedict, and their canons followed the Augustinian Rule. In 1246 they had grown large enough that Pope Innocent IV decreed that all the Humiliati orders take direction from one Master General for their group. By 1298 there were 389 houses of Humiliati of the second order in Italy. The third order of laity was, of course, immense and beyond calculation. The group began to decline in number after the fourteenth century but continued through the 1500s.

Devotional Images.

Another effect of the increasing lay desire for direct participation in spiritual experience was the development, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, of devotional art, with a distinctive emphasis on images of the Passion of Christ. While earlier lay Christians, particularly women in the upper class, had relied on beautifully illustrated texts called Books of Hours to guide and inspire their devotions, later worshippers focused specifically on the pictures themselves as they appeared in wall paintings, stained glass, and scrolls, as well as amulets, charms, and individual parchment or paper broadsheets that could be owned even by people of modest means. Among the most popular images were the Holy Face—an image of Christ's countenance supposedly imprinted on a cloth (sudarium) held by Saint Veronica when Christ used it to wipe his face—and the Sacred Heart bearing the evidence of the side wound Christ suffered at the crucifixion and showed to Doubting Thomas (John 20:27). Various meditational techniques were employed to make the Passion vivid, among which was a strong interest in the damage wrought to Christ's body both before and after his crucifixion and the physiological changes it underwent on the cross. For example, Christ's torment was often expressed in metaphors comparing the body to a book, or a scroll, or even a shield bearing a coat of arms whose "armorial bearings" were made of the tools and weapons—called the arma Christi—used in his torment. Thus, the words of Christ's "book" are his deeds, suffering, and passion, and the letters are the five wounds of his hands, feet, and body. Often all of the wounds can be placed on a heart-shaped shield such as the one revered in a late medieval English devotional work called The Desert of Religion.


Francis Andrews, The Early Humiliati (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Brenda Bolton, "Innocent III and the Humiliati," in Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World? Ed. James M. Powell (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994): 114–121.

Rosalind Brooke and Christopher Brooke, Popular Religion in the Middle Ages (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984).

John B. Friedman, "Images of Popular Piety in the North," in Northern English Books, Owners, and Makers in the Late Middle Ages (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995): 148–202.

André Vauchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

see also Music: Religious Music of the Layman ; Visual Arts: Spiritual Life and Devotion

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The Laity and Popular Beliefs

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