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Laity in the Middle Ages


Specific study of the laity in the middle ages has until recently been neglected. Standard works of reference seldom treat separately or even mention "lay" thought and influence. There is much research yet to be done, so what shall be attempted here is an interpretive study under the following headings: (1) definition of the term laicus in the Middle Ages; (2) the two powers cleric and lay, Church and State; (3) the laity and the Church's teaching authority and jurisdiction; (4) the social order; (5) lay spirituality; and (6) conclusion.

Definition. The term laicus in the Middle Ages took on a strongly juridical, institutional meaning. As an antonym of clerus it became synonymous with "one under authority" or "one who was unconsecrated" as against the consecrated authorities, the clerics. The great medieval authors had little time for the layman; when they did mention him, it was usually to stress his subordination to the clergy or to note his excesses. This negative attitude contrasted sharply with the use and meaning of the term λαός in the NT and λαϊκός in the early Church, where it meant a member of the people of God, one who was baptized, and thus referred to clergy and laity alike. By the 11th century the dualistic concept of membership in the Church was strengthened by the gregorian reform ideals, which fostered specific religious virtues for all clerics, e.g., the common life and celibacy. gratian crystallized this attitude in the influential text Duo sunt genera Christianorum (Corpus iuris canonici C.12 q.1c.7); there are two kinds, for religious are included with the clerics. The distinguishing mark of the clergy was the tonsure; it marked the recipient's submission to ecclesiastical jurisdiction and brought him many advantages not possessed by laymen. Consequently, many of the laity took the tonsure or entered minor orders (see holy orders), whose original specific function was gradually rejected. We may cite, for example, the instance of Arras, in which a group of married bankers and merchants took the tonsure to escape secular justice against their financial misdoings. Abuse of clerical immunity from secular jurisdiction became common, for the test of membership of the clergy was hard to apply and literacy became the criterion. Extreme claims arising from this confusion, e.g., Thomas becket's defense of criminous clerks and the bull clericis laicos of boniface viii, injured the cause of the Church in the eyes of the laity.

The Two Powers. Throughout the Middle Ages the laity were regarded as inferior to the clergy. Such texts as Dt 22.10, "You shall not plow with an ox and an ass harnessed together," were cited as proof that the laity should not be brought into ecclesiastical matters. Thus, the Synod of Seville (619) forbade laymen to serve as stewards or as ecclesiastical judges (Corpus iuris canonici C.16 q.7 c.22). But the reality was far different. In the matter of episcopal elections in the early Church, the laity approved of the candidate elected by the clergy. Then the lay ruler, apart from the consecration, consolidated the whole process by taking it into his own hands. His influence predominated until the 11th century. Thus Richard I of Normandy had his son Robert elected to Rouen; his nephew Hugh, to Bayeux; and another nephew, John, to Avranches. The Gregorian reformers tried, though unsuccessfully, to restore the ancient discipline. Despite the eventual control exercised by the cathedral chapter and later by the papacy, episcopal elections continued to be subject to pressure by the lay rulers.

Much of this interference arose from the nature of the relationship between church and State in the Middle Ages. The Church, which occupied a favorable position in the Western kingdoms, treated the lay powers as an instrument to fulfill its mission. Churchmen often invoked lay help, e.g., in the deposition of "unjust" rulers (thus, the Emperor henry iv), in the crusades against the infidels, or in the suppression of heresy, as in the wars against the albigenses (12081330). gregory vii expressed these ideas in his two letters to Abp. Hermann of Metz in 1076 and 1081 (Reg. 4.2, 8.21). Popes, such as innocent iii and innocent iv, and other prelates often exercised great influence over lay rulers. Papal authority in Italy and its spiritual influence elsewhere frustrated the so-called medieval Empire (see holy roman empire).

Although lay rulers benefited from ecclesiastical recognition, such as sacral anointing, they did not accept hierocratic claims unless these suited their purposes. Moreover, they quickly converted the concept of a duty to help the Church into a right to do so. The lay princes generally favored the dualism of the primitive form of the Gelasian theory (see gelasius i, pope), but extreme polemicists, such as the anonymous of york, could reverse the roles completely (cf. Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Libelli de lite 3.667).

In practice, the distinction between Church and State was an obvious one throughout the Middle Ages. So great was the lay threat to the independence of the Church that the latter was forced to define its position in every way. Its great wealth was the special object of lay ambition. Ultimately, by the 11th century, this resulted in the virtual feudalization of the Church. The proprietary church system and lay ownership of tithes were widespread abuses, which caused even supposedly extreme hierocratic churchmen to distinguish between the Church, as divine and clerical, and the State, as temporal and lay.

Canonically, the clerical reaction to lay intrusion was consistent and absolute (cf. Corpus iuris canonici C.16q.7 cc.143). Secularization of church property was prohibited. Laymen were excluded from ecclesiastical administration with some exceptions, e.g., the seniores laici in the African Church in the 4th and early 5th century. In fact, lay interference, especially in the use and disposition of church property, lasted throughout the Middle Ages. Much of the interference was the result of willing consent by the clergy, e.g., the employment of laymen as collectors of tithes, as agents and bailiffs for cathedral chapters, as lawyers to represent Church interests in the secular courts, and as bankers for the papacy and lesser ecclesiastical units. Lay intrusion was particularly strong after 1300, for the canonists and theologians failed to deal with the problems generated by the economic changes of the time. They continued to repeat the ancient formulas when they should have dealt anew with such urgent matters as the "right" of the State to tax Church wealth or its responsibility to care for the poor. There had been some exceptions, as when Innocent III accepted the already existent alienation of tithes to laymen, except for the parish clergy's quarter, and when the various national clergy made payments of grace in lieu of taxation. However, from 1300 onward ecclesiastical finance caused a great dial of suspicion and dispute.

Papal finances in particular roused lay hostility, so that in the 16th century pretended financial abuses were commonly regarded as a major cause of the reformation. This was a major propaganda victory for the lay rulers. In fact, the papacy had been most powerful financially only until the early 14th century. Papal assets gradually fell into lay hands, so that on the eve of the Reformation the greater part of papal income came from the Italian patrimony and not from abroad (see states of the church).

These disputes enlivened the Middle Ages and, toward the end, took place in an atmosphere of anti-clericalism. But this was not always so. Before 1300 in all the major conflicts there were laymen and clergy on both sides. Gregory VII often appealed to the laity against recalcitrant clergy, and the Emperor Henry IV enjoyed the support of the clergy of the Empire against the pretender Rudolf. Mutual interests and prevailing opinion drew Church and State together. The laity could not conceive of a society without the Church, and from this the medieval Church drew its greatest strength. In the last resort the Church depended on the lay powers for the enforcement of its "rights," the libertas Ecclesiae.

Laity, the Magisterium, and Church Jurisdiction. With few exceptions, notably heretics and Jews, the laity wished to live and die within the body of the Church. The Church carried the grave responsibility of presenting the true faith, which it elected to fulfill by developing its institutions and sacramentology, to the detriment, some would say, of the charismatic or prophetic ministry. Thus, no treatise emerged from the Middle Ages on the place of the laity within the Church; in fact, there is no treatise De ecclesia as such until the De regimine christiana of james of viterbo. Of course, the laity had some function within the sacramental system, especially in the administration of the Sacrament of matrimony and, in times of necessity, of baptism. Certain pious practices, e.g., lay confession, approved by thomas aquinas (In 4 sent. 17. 3.3.2 ad 1), helped to bridge the gap between clerics and laymen. The concept of lay participation in offering the sacrifice of the Mass with the priest was not lost (cf. peter damian, Patrologia Latina 145:237). But these were exceptions and do not refute the generalization that the role of the people in the medieval Church was essentially a passive one. Lay poverty and ignorance were chiefly responsible for the laity's never achieving an "apostolate" or a "theology," making it impossible for the educated clergy to propose a cooperative role, except that of the material sword, the arm of the Church. The office of preaching was rigorously denied to laymen (cf. Leo I, Patrologia Latina 54:104546; Corpus iuris canonici D.23 c.29; X 5.7.12, 13; VIo 5.2.2); women especially were forbidden to preach.

These prohibitions were generally successful until c. 1100, when the intellectual Renaissance and the economic revolution of the 12th and 13th centuries produced a new type of layman, the forerunner of the humanist and the civis, and a new class of people, the urban proletariat. These new laymen came up against the ancient prohibitions. The gap between them and the clergy widened, and their aspirations went elsewhere, especially into the medieval heresies, until the coming of the friars (see mendicant orders) helped redress the balance.

The heresies (there were really only two main groups, the waldenses and the cathari) were largely lay movements that were strong in the towns. They were evangelical, anticlerical, and inspired by the concepts of the "primitive church" and the "community of believers." Both stressed lay preaching and apostolic poverty (see poverty movement). The Waldenses in particular encouraged Bible reading in the vernacular and lay confession. Not surprisingly, the heretics succeeded so long as they had support of the lay rulers, who used the threat of heresy to secure economic concessions from the Church. Ultimately the lay princes were forced to ally with the Church to suppress heresy because the doctrine of lay individualism threatened their own theocratic basis as well as the hierocratic structure of the Church (cf. Second Lateran, c.23; Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta 178).

Various methods of suppression were tried, including force and persuasion. The rise of the friars, initially with strong lay orientation, partly succeeded in winning back the laity who had been lost to the parish clergy. But in Canon Law the property of obstinate heretics was confiscable (cf. Innocent III, Vergentis in senium, March 25, 1199; A. Potthast, Regesta pontificum romanorum inde ab a. 1198 ad a. 1304 643; Corpus iuris canonici X5.7.10). This decided the lay rulers, especially the lords of northern France, who then forced the Church into the long wars against their southern neighbors, the so-called crusade against the Albigenses.

The final adoption of force and the use of the inquiition as the prime instrument for the suppression of heresy may be linked with the failure of the noble attempt by St. francis of assisi to channel lay fervor into the service of the Church. Francis' great merit was to have recognized a vital truth, viz, that in certain situations the people must be consulted and their needs linked with those of the Church. Unfortunately, the subsequent institutionalization of the franciscans was a sign that the Church was not prepared to pay a sufficiently high price to retain the allegiance of the masses, i.e., a religious order with a predominantly lay character. After 1242 no lay brother could be appointed to offices in the order (see elias of cortona).

The conflict between lay and cleric was heightened by lack of understanding on the part of the clergy. Although the Church recognized lay competence in secular affairs (Fourth Lateran, c.42; Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta 229), its whole approach was prejudiced by regarding the lay state as a concession to human weakness (cf. Corpus iuris canonici C.12 q.1 c.7). The laity reacted by hostility, which led to the common clerical observation that "they [the laity] are opposed to us" (cf. commentary of hostiensis, Corpus iuris canonici X3.30.17).

In practice the conflict was generally one of jurisdiction (the independence of Church courts, clerical immunity from secular courts, the right of the Church to try laymen for certain offenses) and administration (the distribution and use of Church property, and appointment to Church offices). On these matters the Church left no doubt that the laity should not interfere. The (false) decretal Nulla facultas of Pope Stephen was widely cited in support (cf. First Lateran c.8; Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta 167).

There was also a great deal of agreement and cooperation, e.g., in the medieval councils and synods to which the laity were generally summoned for technical advice, publicity, or aid in executing certain decrees. Hostiensis stated that laymen should be present when their own causes, marriage, or matter of faith were being treated but absent during discussion of ecclesiastical matters or clerical faults. In the 15th century Panormitanus (see tudeschis, nicolaus de) gave two examples of the use of lay periti at general councils. The idea of excluding laymen from councils did not emerge until after the Council of trent.

The Social Order. The medieval Church performed many of the welfare functions of the modern State, for ecclesiastics recognized the principle that the Church's wealth was not for the sole use of the individual cleric but for the good of the Church as a whole. Such welfare services included provision for hospitals, the poor, pilgrims and travelers, and education. But the canonists failed to adjust their teaching fully in the light of the economic and social changes of the period after 1300. This left the Church unprepared for the emergence of the concept of the civis, or citizen, which replaced the term laicus. It signified a diminution in the social functions of the Church and called for a realignment of traditional distinctions.

In this respect, the most notable deficiency of the Church was the failure to provide a system of education for the masses. [see education.] This is not the same as saying that there were no educated laymen in the Middle Ages. It is commonly but mistakenly supposed that once the classical tradition of the early Church in the West had passed, an educated laity had also disappeared, and that especially from the 9th to the 12th century only clerics could read and write. Riché gives many examples to prove the contrary, concluding that the equation laicus = illiteratus was valid only in the sense of one who does not know Latin. In any case, certain professions, e.g., law and medicine, had a strong lay tone throughout the Middle Ages (cf. Fourth Lateran, c.18; Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta 220). In Italy the tradition of a lay culture was never entirely abandoned, and it began to flower again in the 11th century. Throughout Europe instruction for children did exist, although the teaching was a clerical monopoly until the 13th century. The earliest lay-controlled schools were those conducted by heretics.

However, the rise of the learned layman as a prominent figure in society dates from the early 12th century onward, and educated laymen flourished in the Roman law schools and universities of southern Europe. Laymen were even admitted to the Canon Law schools and included such canonists as the eminent joannes andreae (12701348), Petrus de Ancharano (13301416), and Laurentius de Ridolfis (d. c. 1450). But lay education was directed principally to secular subjects. There was nothing in the later Middle Ages to equal lay influence in the early Church, when a large number of the Fathers began their theological work as laymen, e.g., SS. Cyprian, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, Jerome, and Augustine. Significantly, the majority of these belonged to the Eastern Church, where the tradition of the lay theologian had never died. Institutionalism in the West led to the idea that the study of the sacred sciences belonged to the clergy, and that of the profane to the laity.

Changes in the social and educational status of the laity resulted from the economic expansion of the 12th and 13th centuries, and the Church played a role in these developments. One view is that the Church encouraged "good" business (cf. the just price and the prohibition of usury). Another is that the Church hindered commercial growth by such restrictions. Both views need revision. In the early Middle Ages the economy was mainly at subsistence level, so the Church could treat economic matters in severe condemnatory terms because little was at stake. But in the expansion period her teaching was modified to suit new conditions: usury laws were revised, the just price was in fact merely the market price, and business became respectable. If anyone suffered it was the Church, which frequently was the victim of the layman's pursuit of profits. At the end of the Middle Ages economic collapse and discontent among the lay rulers and merchant classes led them to attack the Church's wealth as a cure for economic ills and even, finally, to embrace the Reformation.

Lay Spirituality. In the Western Church the general lack of an educated laity left the people cut off from the main stream of religious thought. The language of the Church was Latin, which proved difficult for the barbarian and pagan masses who had entered the former Roman provinces. Such people could not, initially, provide a firm foundation for the faith, so the Church established its unity upon the clergy, the sacramental system, and Canon Law. There was thus little opportunity for a positive lay contribution to the spread of the faith. For several centuries the sorry lot of the masses, victims of frequent plagues, famine, a high mortality rate, and low life expectancy, made it impossible for the Church to do more than preach satisfaction for sin (see penitentials) and to encourage prayer in the form of the cult of some local saint. In any case piety was associated with ascetism, and marriage was at its best a concession to human weakness. From about 1000 some changes were noticeable. Marriage as a Sacrament was stressed; devotion to the humanity of Christ and to Mary, His Mother, the elevation and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, religious drama and literature, vernacular translations of the Bible, as well as the physical expansion of the Church (parish churches, cathedrals, monasteries, built principally by laymen and financed by lay donations) witness to a remarkable growth of lay piety that was genuine, intense, and widespread. In 1215 the Fourth lateran council (c.21; Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta 221) obliged every Christian of the age of reason to receive the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist at least once a year. Finally, the coming of the friars helped spread religion in the cities and towns. If this enthusiasm failed to remain orthodox and gave place in the later Middle Ages to superstition and heresy (see, e.g., J. wyclif, J. hus, M. luther), the responsibility lay elsewhere.

Conclusion. Throughout the medieval period there were definite modifications in the status and influence of the laity within the Church. The most marked change is noted after 1300, when lay hostility to the papacy, anti-clericalism, and a lay spirit emerged (see marsilius of padua, Defensor pacis ). Contact with Renaissance humanism, the growth of the State, the philosophical skepticism of nominalism, the spread of lay education, the effects of endemic plague, especially of the Plague of 1348, the Hundred Years' War, the avignon papacy, the western schism, conciliarism, the spread of heresy and popular revolts such as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 in England, made the period from 1300 to 1500 an age of transition. Yet canonists and theologians failed to note these things. The general councils merely reiterated earlier prohibitions and in doing so increased the gap between the laity and the clergy. On the eve of the Reformation, the Fifth lateran council (151217) had nothing to say concerning the social and religious aspirations of the masses, apart from the bull for reform of the montes pietatis (Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta 601603).

The great merit and achievement of the medieval Church was that it had been able to inspire the masses to fervor and enthusiasm. But its negligence in directing these emotions into worthwhile and respectable objectives and, essentially, its failure to educate the laity were momentous defects for which the Church was to pay a heavy price.

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[j. gilchrist]

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