The Medieval, Catholic Roots of the Elizabethan World

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The Medieval, Catholic Roots of the Elizabethan World

The Elizabethan Era took place in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, from 1558 to 1603. Often considered a golden age in English history, this period marked the nation's belated step into the Renaissance, a cultural movement that was already flourishing in other parts of Europe. The Renaissance (French for "rebirth") began around 1350 in the cities of Florence, Rome, Venice, and Milan (all in present-day Italy). During this period scholars studied classical Greek and Latin philosophy, and this new focus inspired a vibrant art movement and a shift to a rational (based on reason rather than on church authority) approach to the study of the relationship between human beings and God. The introduction of Renaissance thought to early sixteenth-century England created a new optimism (hopeful outlook) there. Many historians believe this exciting age of social and cultural transition, or change, helped England to develop into the nation it is today. But it did not happen all at once. As Elizabethan England stepped one foot forward into the Renaissance, its other foot remained firmly planted in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages (also called medieval times) spanned from c. 500 to c. 1500. This chapter will briefly examine some of the ways people in medieval, Catholic England thought and lived just before Elizabeth came to power.

The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages

By far the most influential institution of the Middle Ages was the Catholic Church—the only Christian church in western Europe. (In fact, the word "catholic" means universal.) For many centuries the Catholic Church unified, or brought together, all Christian people under a shared set of beliefs. Most of the great medieval scholars and artists dedicated their talents wholeheartedly to the church, and most of Europe's population depended upon the church on a daily basis.

Throughout most of the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was based in Rome. It was led by the pope, the bishop of Rome, who was considered God's representative on earth. The pope appointed the cardinals and bishops, or religious leaders, who went out to serve the various states and kingdoms of Europe under the pope's leadership.


A clergyman with a rank higher than a priest, who has the power to ordain priests and usually presides over a diocese.
Authorized religious leaders, such as priests and ministers.
A person who serves or participates in the royal court or household as the king's or queen's advisor, officer, or attendant.
A large church district made up of many parishes that falls under the administration of a bishop.
A religious opinion that conflicts with the church's doctrines.
Someone who expresses an opinion that opposes established church doctrines.
Ranking, or classification, of beings according to some standard, such as ability, importance, or social standing.
The community served by one local church.
A class of farmers who worked in the fields owned by wealthy lords. Part of the crop was paid to the lord as rent.
A deceased person who, due to his or her exceptionally good behavior during life, receives the official blessing of the church and is believed to be capable of interceding with God to protect people on earth.
In Christianity, deliverance from sin and punishment.
In Roman Catholic doctrine, the miraculous change that occurs when a priest blesses the Eucharist (bread and wine) and it changes into the body and blood of Christ, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine.

While religious unity was a goal of the medieval church, religious tolerance was almost nonexistent. Non-Christians in western Europe fared poorly. All Jews were expelled (forced to leave) from England in 1290, and from France in 1306 and again in 1394. Those two countries—along with Germany, eastern Europe, and northern Italy—were exclusively Christian. That is, everyone who lived there was required to be a faithful member of the Catholic Church. In Spain there was growing tension between the Catholics and the Muslim Moors who ruled Granada, a province in what would soon become southern Spain. The hostilities increased until 1492, when Spain conquered Granada and united as a Catholic state, driving out all Jews and Muslims.

The order of the universe

Medieval Europeans thought of the universe as a carefully ordered place. They used a simple model called the Great Chain of Being to express this sense of order. The Great Chain can be envisioned as a huge ladder mounting up to the heavens. At the very top is God, who created all things. Below God, in descending order, are the various levels of angels, the stars, the Sun, the Moon, the planets, humans (each at a specific social level), animals (with apes at the top), plants, and finally rocks and soil. Each element in the universe took a specific place within the hierarchy, or ranking system, according to its unchanging standing in the universe. Each element also fulfilled a particular function in the world.

In the Catholic belief system, the universe had been maintained in perfect order until Adam and Eve committed the original sin by disobeying God and eating from the tree of knowledge. For their sin, God threw them out of Eden, or the earthly paradise, and doomed all their descendants to a world of change, death, and corruption. The only hope for human beings to find salvation (deliverance from the effects of sin) was to repent, or recognize their sins and try to find forgiveness. No one could be saved unless they understood and accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the salvation of humankind. Catholics regularly celebrated the miracle of Christ's sacrifice. At the Catholic Mass a process called transubstantiation took place. In the transubstantiation ceremony a priest blessed bread and wine, miraculously turning it into the actual body and blood of Christ, though it continued to look like bread and wine. This ceremony was often called the Elevation of the Host, referring to the priest's raising of the wine and bread immediately after blessing it so the miracle could be seen and revered by the members of the church.

Medieval Christians believed they could only find salvation by following the guidance, laws, and teachings of the church, for according to Catholic beliefs, the church and its clergy had been proclaimed by Christ to be the only intermediary (go-between) between God and human beings. Most medieval people could not read, so they could not study the Bible for themselves. They relied on the church to explain the will of God to them. The church also instructed its members to live moderately, without seeking excessive wealth or fame, and to honorably serve their religion and their ruler. In church the faithful were taught not only the key to salvation, but also how to live as a community and accept the life into which they were born.

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Medieval Europeans were fascinated with death in ways most modern people would find strange or even disgusting. Their art frequently represented the decomposed bodies of the dead in hideously graphic detail. Great artists painted picture after picture of the skeletal figure of Death claiming his victims. In Paris an elaborate park was created in the Cemetery of the Innocents, the burial place of hundreds of thousands of poor people. In the thirteenth century people enjoyed leisurely afternoon walks through the cemetery park, viewing the open shelves full of disintegrating human bones. The fascination with death seems to have arisen from the medieval view of life as a difficult passage that had to be endured on one's way to the afterlife. Medieval Christians hoped to be prepared for death when it came; they believed that people who died without having repented their sins and confessed them to a member of the clergy were doomed to suffer in the fires of hell forever.

Medieval churches in England

In early medieval England local churches were built and funded by noblemen, or lords who ruled over large districts. The lord appointed the parish priest, usually someone of the commoner class (something like the middle class of today), who then lived and worked at the parish church. A parish is the community served by one local church. The parish church was more than a religious institution; it was the center of village life. The parish churches took on the duty of caring for the sick and the poor. They frequently offered travelers a place to stay, and they provided whatever schooling was available in a village. They also served as centers for celebrations and ceremony.

Cathedrals were large churches that served as the seats of the bishops, the religious directors of the dioceses. A diocese is a large church district that encompasses many parishes. Cathedrals were usually magnificent buildings that brought prestige and business to the towns in which they were built. They served as places of worship and religious celebration, but they were also cultural centers that housed religious courts, marketplaces, and schools. Two famous English medieval cathedrals were at York and Canterbury.

Monasteries were communities set apart from the daily life of towns and villages in which monks, men who had pledged their lives to prayer, lived in a community together, practicing a simple and pious life and following strict rules. Women who wished to pursue a life of prayer were called nuns and lived in convents. Most English monasteries and convents were initially built in isolated (far from other communities) areas. The monasteries owned their own lands and functioned as lords, with peasants working the land for them. (Peasants were farmers who worked in the fields owned by wealthy lords. Part of the crop was paid to the lord as rent.) Monks and nuns in England taught religion but also participated in worldly enterprises, including commerce and entertainment.

The Western Schism and England's growing distrust

In 1378 a power struggle arose between two different popes who both claimed to lead the Catholic Church. One pope set up headquarters in Avignon, in present-day France, and another remained in Rome. The European states split their loyalty between the two. This split, called the Western Schism, lasted nearly forty years, until 1417. Many Europeans felt doomed during this time, believing that no one could find salvation as long as the Catholic Church was divided.

English people had traditionally been somewhat intolerant of foreigners; consequently, many of them had difficulty accepting the foreign pope as their spiritual leader. The Western Schism heightened these feelings of distrust. When it ended in 1417 many English people were unwilling to accept the pope as the supreme leader of the Catholic religion in their land. Some of the more devout English Catholics also were growing suspicious of other new trends in the Roman Catholic Church.

Over the years the church had developed many rituals through which its faithful could seek God's favor. Rituals are established ceremonies performed in precise ways according to the rules of the church. For example, someone hoping for a good harvest might purchase candles to burn for a particular saint. (A saint is a deceased person who has received the official blessing of the church and is believed to be capable of interceding with God to protect people on earth.) Someone repenting a small sin might repeat certain prayers over and over. Those who had the means might collect holy relics, such as the bones or belongings of a saint. During the Middle Ages the Virgin Mary became the object of many people's prayers for protection and comfort; many prayed directly to her image. To some scholarly Catholics of the time, these practices seemed more like superstition than religion. Superstition is the belief that there is a kind of magical power within certain practices or objects and that the future, or the outcome of certain events, can be influenced by certain behaviors.

The Catholic Church offered several ways for its wealthier members to use their money to improve their lives after they died. According to the Church all people (except saints) who were not destined for hell upon their deaths went to a middle place called purgatory. In purgatory the deceased person suffered punishment similar to the torments of hell as a means of purifying his or her soul in preparation for heaven. Unlike hell, however, the suffering in purgatory was finite (would come to an end). The length of time one spent there varied depending on the seriousness of one's sins. But the prayers of the living could shorten the time a dead person spent suffering in purgatory. For example, when someone died, a priest led a Mass to pray for the release of the person's soul from purgatory. Family members were expected to continue these prayers well after the death. To ensure their prompt release from purgatory, people began to leave large sums of money to the churches to pay for prayers to be said for their souls after their deaths. Wealthy people invested in chantries, which were private chapels they endowed with enough funds to pay for priests or monks to say daily masses for them for many decades after their death.

In the later Middle Ages people who had sinned could also use their money to purchase papal indulgences. These were fines imposed by the church on people who had sinned and repented, and the church viewed

The Lollards

In 1366 John Wycliffe (c. 1320–1384), a philosopher, theologian (one who studies religion and the nature of religious truth), and priest who taught at the University of Oxford, called for England to separate from the current pope and take control of its own Catholic Church. Wycliffe did not believe the huge and wealthy institutions in Rome or Avignon comprised the Catholic Church. He defined the church simply as the combined souls of all faithful Christians. According to Wycliffe the pope was failing to serve the church adequately. The pope, in turn, accused Wycliffe of heresy, an opinion that conflicts with the church's doctrines. The pope's anger did not concern the English government, which until that time had no real experience with heresy. Despite the pope's accusation Wycliffe was allowed to continue teaching at Oxford.

In 1380 Wycliffe began to criticize the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Wycliffe argued that what took place in the ceremony—changing bread and wine to the flesh and blood of Christ—represented a miracle but it was not in itself a miracle. He contended that God alone could perform that miracle, not human priests. Later he argued against the Catholic practice of confessing one's sins to a priest, asserting that only God had the power to absolve (pardon) people of sin. In effect Wycliffe contended that priests had no more authority than other believers.

Wycliffe played a large role in the first translation of the Bible from Latin to English in the 1380s. The Catholic Church held that it was the function of the church to interpret and teach the Bible to its followers, and it opposed translations. Wycliffe believed that ordinary English people should be able to study the Bible individually in order to appreciate the word of God. To spread readings of the Bible throughout the populace, Wycliffe sent out his followers, who were called Lollards, as traveling preachers. Wycliffe hoped that the Lollards, who lived in poverty and had no official connection to the church, would eventually replace the existing church hierarchy.

Long after Wycliffe's death, the Lollards continued to gather secretly to study the translated Bible. As there were only a few dozen English-language Bibles, many Lollards memorized large portions of it and thus brought it to others. The existing English-language Bibles were carefully passed from generation to generation. Many Lollards became more radical, or ready to make drastic changes, in their religion than their founder, Wycliffe, had been. They caused enough concern in England that Parliament passed an act to burn heretics, or people who opposed the established Roman Catholic doctrines, at the stake. In fact, two Lollards were burned at the stake for their beliefs, but the movement was small and did not become a major issue in England. The Roman Catholic establishment continued to be troubled by the existence of the Lollards, though, and in 1428, the pope ordered Wycliffe's bones to be dug up, smashed, and scattered as punishment for his rejection of the church's authority.

them as a way to atone, or pay, for one's sins. Critics noted that they also had the effect of filling the church treasury.

By the 1400s the Catholic Church in England had, indeed, become very wealthy. Many bishops, priests, and monks who in prior times might have spent their time in prayer were more often spending their time on the tremendous business operations of the church. While some monasteries quietly performed their devoted religious work, others became corrupt. A few were shamefully immoral and others simply neglected their purpose. Most English people remained perfectly content to worship in their parish churches, but some found it increasingly difficult to respect the teachings of piety and moderation from a clergy involved in worldly pursuits.

The Renaissance begins

In Europe a new movement called the Renaissance developed during the fourteenth century, initially stemming from the works of the Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374). His enthusiasm for classic Latin writings eventually spread from Italy to all of western Europe. The study of classical texts, philosophy, and religion came to be known as humanism. The classical texts introduced scholars to a new way of viewing the world. Medieval Europeans had believed that the meaning of life on Earth lay primarily in its relation to an afterlife. They valued the arts only if they had a religious purpose. The new Renaissance humanists challenged the blind acceptance of authority that had been the standard of the past. Renaissance humanists encouraged the individual to search for truth through human reason. They valued earthly life and glorified human nature.

One of the most important advances of the Renaissance was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398–1468) in the 1450s. The first press, a mechanism in which small metal pieces engraved with single characters could be arranged to form words and sentences, was used in Germany to print the Latin translation of the Bible. Soon presses appeared all over Europe, with enormous impact. Literacy (the ability to read) grew and knowledge spread as the printed word became readily available to many people for the first time. To some the large-scale production of the Gutenberg Bible brought about a welcome change in religion, for it meant that every person could discover Christian salvation through his or her own understanding of the Bible individually—without the help of the church.

By the late fifteenth century, many humanists had begun to study the Bible, initiating a reform movement. The reformers were generally well-read, pious people who wished only to improve the Catholic Church—not to start their own church. One leading early-sixteenth-century reformer was the Dutch-born humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536). Erasmus applied his knowledge of classical civilization to pre-medieval Christianity. He felt that medieval Christian scholars had corrupted the faith, making doctrines too complicated and too difficult to understand. Erasmus produced his own translation of the New Testament and wrote In Praise of Folly (1509), a satire of the clergy, scholars, and philosophers of his day. A satire is a literary work in which human folly is ridiculed through irony or humor. English statesman Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) shared Erasmus's frustration and also wrote satires hoping to reform the practices of the church and the clergy.

For More Information


Brigden, Susan. New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485–1603. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Schama, Simon. A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? 3500 bc–1603 ad. New York: Hyperion, 2000.

Smith, Lacey Baldwin. The Elizabethan Epic. London: Panther, 1966.

Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. New York: Vintage Books, 1942.


"The Middle Ages." E-Museum at Minnesota State University, Mankato. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Muhlberger, Steven. The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

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The Medieval, Catholic Roots of the Elizabethan World

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