views updated May 23 2018



Defining Piety. Piety is the outward expression of that form of belief usually called spirituality. The medieval Church recognized that a person’s actions were relatively easy to ascertain and, thus, placed great emphasis on good deeds. At the same time it recognized the difficulty in supervising a person’s spirituality, and it focused much of its Church policy on developing correct piety, hoping that this outward expression would correlate to an equally correct spirituality. The piety of the medieval Europeans also reflected the synthetic elements in medieval Christianity. By the ninth century most European peoples had been nominally Christian for centuries; a few, especially the Scandinavians, were converted only around the year 1000. Little evidence has survived about the extent of the religious instruction that most laypeople received, but it is known that many old pagan superstitions survived. Furthermore, the elements of Christianity that had most in common with a people’s pagan beliefs and practices were those that most firmly gripped the illiterate converts in early days. The old Germanic religion, for example, had high gods and a host of lesser spirits, who were especially attached to specific physical places and objects. Christianity too had its high God and welcomed devotion to many saints, all of whom had their favorite local habitations that were closely associated with their physical remains. Equally alive were the evil spirits, or devils, who took over many of the activities of the underworld that could not be attributed to God and his saints. There is, however, a danger in putting too much emphasis on a supposed continuity from paganism to Christianity. While historians know little about the beliefs of common people in the Christian period, they know even less of the paganism that these beliefs replaced.

The Foundations of Salvation. By the thirteenth century the Christian Church in the West had developed a theory and system of salvation designed to facilitate the movement of all Christians into heaven, a passage that Christ had opened to Christians by his sacrifice on the cross. Based on the premise that all humans were born sinful, the Church designed a series of steps to mark a Christian soul’s progress. These steps were called sacraments, and by the thirteenth century a general sacramental system was in place. The seven sacraments were, in the order a Christian might receive them: baptism, confession, eucha-rist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and last rites. Holy orders, which marks the reception of an individual into the priesthood, was the only sacrament not experienced by the majority of Christians. The appropriate performance of these rites was one of the many good works Christians were expected to perform in order to prepare themselves for salvation. In addition, there were many other activities in which Christians could be involved to express their piety and to ease their salvation, including providing dowries for poor girls, giving land or buildings to the clergy, contributing to poor relief, and aiding the sick.

Liturgy. Holding a divine service was one of the most powerful ways medieval Christians expressed their piety. Modeled on the Last Supper, the mass of the medieval Christian Church combined prayers, chants, Gospel readings, and even sermons. The service culminated in the offering of the eucharist, a wafer that had been transformed into the actual body of Christ, to members of the congregation that had prepared themselves spiritually through fasting, a confession of their sins, and true repentance for them. These masses took various forms in the Middle

Ages, depending on whether communion was offered to the congregation at large or the priest alone took it as the mediator between the laity and God. They also differed depending on the degree of ritual, and the masses held to commemorate the highest holy days of the year, such as Easter (Christ’s death and resurrection) and Pentecost (Christ returning to the disciples after his resurrection) were the most elaborate of the year. There were also a series of secondary services held throughout the year. A medieval church frequently had one main, central altar and a series of smaller altars on the sides of the building, so a church often echoed with the sound of chants, prayers, and other services throughout the day and well into the evening. Moreover, it was not uncommon for medieval Christians to attend these services as often as they were available, and medieval rulers, clergy, and other laity were praised for hearing mass daily.

Churches and Their Furnishings. The sites for these liturgical practices were churches, and during the period between the tenth and twelfth centuries great effort and wealth were expended in building them. Impressive buildings arose everywhere, from the cathedrals of France and England to the royal chapels of Sicily. These buildings reveal the generosity of the patrons who provided the bulk of the construction funds. The donors’ motives were often secular as well as religious. Some of these patrons hoped not only to win heaven but also renown; the Normans of England may have been partly motivated to build such impressive buildings to impress the conquered English. Even religious motives might have been mixed, according to the simplicity or sophistication of the religious thought of the patron. A church was the house of God: his image looked down in majesty from somewhere in all these buildings. The drama of Christ’s passion was reenacted daily, at mass. After God, the patron saint of the specific church could be regarded as the chief living presence. A saint was thought to have a special interest in a church dedicated to him or her, and an overwhelming interest in the church that housed his or her mortal remains. After the saint, the most important occupants of the greater churches were the bishop or abbot and the community of monks and canons. Priests performed the sacrifice of the mass, whose growing importance in general piety is also demonstrated by the increasing number of side chapels that appeared in churches during the Middle Ages, each with an altar at which celebrations of the mass might take place. In churches large and small, cycles of paintings and stained glass instructed the illiterate laity. The artistic efforts expended in church building were clearly meant to be primarily pedagogical, rather than decorative. A council of Arras, as early as 1025, put it this way: “the simple and the illiterate cannot see in the Scriptures Christ in the humble state in which he willed to suffer and die for us; let them therefore contemplate this by means of paintings.” In addition, pious individuals paid for paintings, sculptures, and small offerings to be placed throughout the church. Although medieval churches strike modern viewers as having a stark majesty, during the thirteenth century they were riots of color. Walls were painted; sculpted tombs were set in walls and floors; families hung banners near their personal altars; and small wax images called ex votos were left at key locations in a church to thank God, Mary, or a saint for a blessing or favor.

Preaching. Because, at most, 5 percent of the medieval European population was in any way literate, communicating Christian doctrine and correct pious practices was a challenge for the medieval Church. Modern scholars often suggest that one method the Church used was preaching. Unfortunately, not much evidence of preaching survives from before the thirteenth century. Much earlier preaching that appears to have been “learned,” in the sense that it consisted in reading translations or summaries of the homilies of the Fathers of the Church. Examples do exist, however, of twelfth-century sermons by preachers such as Bernard of Clairvaux, who could sway large lay audiences. With the friars in the late twelfth century the sermon became an important means of Christian instruction and entertainment. It is hard to minimize the effect that the revival of urban life, which began in the eleventh century, also had over religious practices. The urban environment provided a concentration of Christians, a disproportionate number of whom had some education and were literate, as an audience for the friars’ sermons. These sermons in turn apparently inspired medieval city dwellers to a closer examination of the Gospels and increased their hunger for additional sermons. This medieval urban piety, inspired by a succession of famous preachers, fostered reform movements well into the sixteenth century.

Intercession and Saints. Given humanity’s innately sinful condition and the difficulties of attaining heavenly perfection, much less just the difficulties of life on earth, Christians turned to conspicuously holy figures for guidance and support. By the ninth century some regulation had been given to these beliefs, and by the late twelfth century a system of recognition of these figures, known as saints, was in place. Key to this system was their role in interceding on behalf of less-blessed Christians. It was regarded as shocking in the Middle Ages that the average Christian should pray directly to God; instead, saints were advocated as appropriate go-betweens or intercessors between mortals and God. Considered more approachable and less preoccupied with universal matters, saints were perceived as having special interests not only in particular places but also in specific sorts of people. In addition to places where they had lived or churches where pieces of their earthly bodies were kept, they were often believed to protect their namesakes and people in specific professions. For example, St. Sebastian was the patron saint of archers because he was shot to death with arrows, and St. Francis was the patron saint of archers because he preached to them. Collections of miracles, such as the popular thirteenth-century Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voraigne, are full of stories of how a saint cured the sick who came to his tomb, saved from harm those who prayed to him, or destroyed those who were rash enough to attack his property or molest his faithful. Whatever modern views of miracles may be, it is clear that, in the Middle Ages, many people expected the supernatural to impinge on daily life. God and his saints were active in their world.

Pilgrimage and Relics. Among the laity, pilgrimages most commonly took the form of trips to visit relics of holy figures and saints. Physical objects associated with a saint, relics, were generally a saint’s bones. Relics could be quite personal; among the relics on display in the Middle Ages were the milk of the Virgin and the foreskin of Jesus. More than a reminder of the saint, a relic was seen as a sign of the actual presence of that figure at the site where his or her


Like stories of the saints’ blessings, stories of how the Devil and his servants caused human misfortune were prevalent in the Middle Ages. The following story comes from Caesar of Heisterbach’s well-known thirteenth-century collection of miracles, which was used extensively in medieval sermons. As in most accounts of the Devil’s work, he is eventually defeated by the Church and saints.

When our abbot was celebrating mass last year on the Mount of the Holy Saviour near Aachen, a possessed woman was brought to him after the mass. When he had read the gospel lesson concerning the Ascension over her head and at these words, “They shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover,” had placed his hand upon her head, the devil gave such a terrible roar that we were all terrified. Adjured to depart, he [the Devil] replied, “The Most High does not wish it yet.” When asked in what manner he entered, he did not reply nor did he permit the woman to reply. Afterward she confessed that when her husband in anger said, “Go to the devil” she felt the latter enter through her ear. Moreover that woman was from the province of Aachen and very well known.

Source: Caesar of Heistcrbach, Ctwsarii Hehterbacensh monatbi ordinu cister-tiensis dialogue miraculorum, 2 volumes, edited by Joseph Strange (Cologne: Published for H. Lempertz by J. M. Heberlc, 1851), I: 291.

relic was housed; thus, their importance and the value of visits to them. Promises to go on pilgrimage were a common part of medieval repentance. Most pilgrimages were to sites within two or three days’ travel from a pilgrim’s primary residence. Certain pilgrimages, however, were regarded as especially meritorious and adventurous, once in a lifetime trips. Among these were travels to Rome to visit the tombs of the apostles and the martyrs. St. Martin at Tours in France, St. Patrick’s purgatory in Ireland, and St. Michael in southern Italy were popular throughout the Middle Ages. St. James of Compostela in Spain became increasingly attractive in the course of the Christian reconquest of Muslim Spain; the image of St. James as Moor slayer was long a favorite. Dramatic events of the Middle Ages gave rise to new shrines. Such was the case when the dispute between King Henry II of England and Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, led to the murder of the archbishop in 1170. Thomas’s tomb at Canterbury almost immediately became an important pilgrimage center and remained so until it was torn down during the Reformation. For the truly pious, or the truly foolhardy, the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem remained the ultimate pilgrimage destination. Jerusalem drew the faithful because of its close association with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The holy voyage to Jerusalem became the archetypal pilgrimage, joining the ascetic practice of an arduous and risky journey and satisfying the duty to do penance for sin in order to truly renew oneself. At the end of the trip bathing in the Jordan River at the same place where Jesus had been baptized was a dramatic sign of rebirth. In fact, one of the most enduring forms of pilgrimage in the second half of the Middle Ages was the Crusade.

Images of Christ. Christ always had an important role in religious art and contemplation in the Middle Ages, but the way Christ was approached and visualized varied over time. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries Christ was frequently depicted in majesty, which emphasized his divinity, and in judgment, which stressed reward of virtue and the penalties of sin. The crucifixion was also represented, although not as frequently as the majesty, and even on the cross Christ was usually depicted as triumphant over death and was frequently shown crowned with the crown of royalty. Toward the end of the eleventh century artists began to depict the suffering Christ. In the thirteenth century a greater emphasis on Christ’s humanity was related to the more personal spirituality of that period. Christ was depicted helping his mother, as a real infant, or interacting with his disciples as a fellow man. Medieval mystics took this personal emphasis and visualized Christ, using traditional Christian rhetoric, as a bridegroom, waiting for the repentant and faithful Christian just as a benevolent groom waits for a reluctant and embarrassed bride.

The Virgin Mary. By the thirteenth century, with the emphasis on Christ’s humanity, came a stress on the person of his mother. Veneration of the Virgin Mary spread to people at large. In the late Middle Ages the Virgin Mary became a kind of ultimate saint, the mother of all mankind, who was interested in everything having to do with her Christian children. As a benign but strict mother, she filled an intermediate position between the sinful Christian and God the Father, who seemed to be increasingly distant and patriarchal. Focus on the Virgin’s tender care for Christians was a key element in mendicant piety, and quickly spread throughout Europe through Franciscan and Dominican preaching. In fact, the veneration of the Virgin Mary is an important exception to the localness of most devotion to saints and its vast spread, from the eleventh century onward, operated as a powerful element of spiritual unification of the entire West.

Criticisms of Medieval Piety. The concentration of effort, the excitement, and the sense of dedication in the building of so many churches might lead one to believe that everyone in medieval Europe must have supported the efforts. These elaborate and expensive efforts were considered symbols of man’s devotion to God, but some people took a different view. They saw the gold, silver, and precious stones that adorned sacred objects as symbols of worldly riches and pride in a society where most people were poor. These objects were also called proof that the Church was the Church of the powerful and the privileged. The most extreme critics argued that sacred images were perhaps idolatrous. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said of the great building efforts of the monks of Cluny: “I put aside the vast height of their churches, the excessive length, the empty spaces, the rich finish, the curious paintings. We will look rather at the sumptuous ornaments encrusted with gems and gold, put there so that money may breed money and pilgrims may give to the monks alms that should be bestowed upon the true poor.… Just Heaven! Even if they are not choked by their impropriety, they might at least hesitate at the cost.”


Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

Bernard Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West (London & Baltimore: Edward Arnold, 1986).

Jeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer, The Devil in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984).

Andre Vauchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices, edited by by Daniel E. Bornstein. translated by Margery J. Schneider (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe (New York: Tau-ris, 1999).


views updated Jun 11 2018

pi·e·ty / ˈpīətē/ • n. (pl. -ties) the quality of being religious or reverent: acts of piety and charity. ∎  the quality of being dutiful: filial piety. ∎  a belief or point of view that is accepted with unthinking conventional reverence: the accepted pieties of our time.


views updated May 18 2018

piety †pity XIII; faithfulness to filial (or similar) duties XVI; devotion to religious duties XVII. — OF. piete (mod. piété) — L. pietās, -tāt- dutifulness; f. pius PIOUS; see PITY, from which piety was not fully differentiated till late XVI.