Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Religious Life in the Middle Ages

by | February 2, 2013 | 14 comments

So what do you do if you’re a Medieval lord with twelve children and not enough land to divide between them all?  You give your kids away, of course.  And who do you give them to?  The Church.

One of the areas of medieval history that we in the modern world might find it the hardest to identify with – particularly as romance novelists and enthusiasts – is that of the life of the Church.  How could people stand to live cloistered lives, praying all day and at the mercy of a Pope you would probably never see?  Chances are it was a life that wasn’t chosen freely either.  About 80% of the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages had been given to the Church as children.  These children, also known as oblates, had no say in the life they were given to. 

But before you are tempted to think that this was horrible and cruel of Medieval parents, let’s take a look at exactly what these lucky few could expect from their lives.

566px-Richard_of_WallingfordIf you know anything about the Middle Ages at all you probably know that the Church was one of the most powerful institutions in the world.  Which church?  THE Church.  In the Medieval Western World there was only one church, the Catholic Church.  There were other religions, Judaism and pockets that practiced the older Pagan ways, but for all intents and purposes it was the era of the Catholic Church.  (Though I do want to point out that the Medieval Catholic Church is not the same thing as the Modern Catholic Church)

The Catholic Church was like any other kingdom and as such it had power , subjects, and landholding.  The feudal system was alive and well within this system.  The Church held manors the same way that nobles did.  These manors were organized and run similarly to secular manors, only with monks or nuns acting in the place of lords.  Villages and peasants belonged to lands owned by abbeys and convents across Europe and served them the way they would serve a noble family.  Perhaps even more reliably. 

Secular leaders would as a matter of course give land and money, as well as goods and children, to monasteries.  Why?  Because it was vital that the monks and nuns that lived on these lands not be bothered with everyday concerns.  Religious men and women had a higher purpose, a vital purpose in the eyes of Medieval people.  They needed to pray.

Now I tend to be a Medieval apologist.  I am of the firm opinion that life in the Middle Ages wasn’t as bad as most pop-history has painted it to be.  I don’t think that people were as dirty or unhappy as some folks want to believe.  But there is one area where even I can’t make excuses for them.  Medieval people were seriously superstitious.  Their lives were ruled by supernatural forces. 

Maybe it was a remnant of ancient times when the Old Ways prevailed and people believed in many gods that controlled all aspects of the natural world.  These gods needed to be appeased and celebrated with rituals, practices, charms, and offerings.  The only change Christianity brought was to narrow it down to one God … or rather three Gods … and Mary, of course … and the rest of the saints.  Not that far removed from Paganism at all.  It was so vital to people of all classes of Medieval society to keep these supernatural forces on their side that an entire class of people was required to devote all of their time and energy to prayer.  Thus the Religious life was born.

Of course the delicious paradox in this swirl of superstition and devotion is the fact that the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages were the most highly educated and advanced people of the era.  Yes the nuns too.  This was one aspect of the medieval world in which women not only thrived, they ruled.  Philosophy, science, and medicine all flourished within Religious life. 

Hildegard of Bingen was one of the most respected people (not just women) of the High Middle Ages

Hildegard of Bingen was one of the most respected people (not just women) of the High Middle Ages

We in the Modern era tend to short-change the vastness of Medieval learning because we know so much more now, but our knowledge was born of the fruits of Medieval labor.  It was the religious men and women of the Middle Ages who compiled books of flora and fauna, classifications of natural elements and events, and theorized about astronomical events.  Hospitals were parts of monasteries and a great deal was known about herbal cures and, yes, surgery.  Monasteries and churches were the centers of the arts in the Middle Ages.  Stained glass, painting and sculpture, music and theater were all created and housed for the most part by those in religious life.  And most importantly, universities sprung from monastic roots.

So if you had been given away by your parents to a monastery or convent as a child not only would they be “buying” favor with God for your sacrifice, you would have been assured a life full of scholarly, artistic pursuits in a more or less comfortable environment.  Yes, you would have had to do your duty and spend a lot of your time praying.  Maybe.  Not always.  Some nobly born monks or nuns spent more time at court or in battle than on their knees in sackcloth in a church.  A lot depended on which order you belonged to.  And, of course, which era of monasticism you lived in.

When the bottom fell out of society in the Late Middle Ages, religious life saw a shift as well.  As things started to go south financially in the Church there was more of an opportunity for members of the lower classes to join monastic life.  Where most churchmen before had been of noble birth, by the Late Middle Ages an increasing number were from a variety of social classes.  If you wanted to be an upwardly mobile peasant, here was your chance.  In fact, through the Late Middle Ages there were actually a few Popes who had started out as poor farmer’s sons or homeless vagrants.  That kind of meteoric rise is downright modern.

Yes, it’s not something we think about in our romance-writing worlds, but the religious life would have been a good one in the Middle Ages.  In fact, it would probably be the life I would choose if I suddenly found myself transported back in time.  How about you?

[all photos in this post are public domain]


  1. callie hutton

    Very interesting post, Merry. I really enjoyed it. I took a History of Europe course in college, and it turned out to be no more than the history of the Catholic Church, which, as you pointed out, was a huge source of power and influence for the times.

  2. Sandy Rowland

    Thanks for the post. I always gain. If we’re writing about the middle ages, we have to remember that religion was a huge part of life. The story won’t ring true without it’s mention. Thank you for bringing this up and so much information.

    This group astounds me with its knowledge!

  3. derekd

    Merry, wonderful post. Sometimes I think we lose track of how powerful and all encompassing the Church was during this time. We point to eras such as the Inquisition and witch burnings because of the horror and sensationalism, but often gloss over the debt owed in the areas of human rights, music, visual arts, education and medicine.

    Thanks for the reminder of how huge a role this institution was during this age.

    • Merry Farmer

      Yep. Up until the 14th century, when all hell was breaking loose all over Europe, the Church was mostly a benevolent, unifying force. But that part of history tends not to get the same press as all the bad things.

  4. Ella Quinn

    Wonderful post, Merry. I can really see the draw to a monastic life full of learning and knowledge.

  5. Angelyn

    I like the stories of the girls that ran away (or tried.) Great post…

  6. Susan Macatee

    Sounds good to me, Merry! Of course men would benefit the most, since they held all the power in both secular life and the Church.

    • Merry Farmer

      Ah ha! But that’s part of the point. Women were a VERY important part of the Church in spite of the predominance of men. And in the religious life a woman could (and many were) as powerful as kings. That’s one of those real history things that people tend to forget or think they know when it’s actually not true. 😉

  7. Mary Anne

    As a practicing Roman Catholic I am somewhat offended by the comment that Catholicism is, or ever was, “one step” away from paganism. And please correct, the Catholic Church has NEVER believed in three Gods.

    Thanks for calling attention to the fact that the Church, and in particular the monks, were most important in many, if not most aspects of western civiization.

    • Merry Farmer

      Forgive me for not getting back to you about this right away, but I had to think hard about my response before giving it.

      I’m so sorry if you took offense to my statements about the medieval Catholic Church. No offense was meant at all. But as I mentioned in my post, the MEDIEVAL Church was very, very different than the MODERN Church. I can’t retract any of my statements because I believe them to be true.

      I did not come to these conclusions flippantly either. My mentor and professor of Medieval History at the University of Central Florida, Dr. Elmar Fetscher, first proposed this theory to me (backed up with extensive research, I might add). He was raised Catholic himself and spent his formative years in a monastery. He took the similarities between medieval paganism and Christianity for granted. Similarly, when I was at Villanova University for graduate school and went through the RCIA program to be baptized Catholic, none of our instructors had a problem with Catholicism’s early origins. In fact, my teacher, Fr. Peter Donohue, current president of Villanova, led us through some very interesting exercises comparing the styles and form of early medieval paganism to the styles and forms of the early Church.

      It’s not a condemnation or insult that the early Church borrowed and melded a lot with the pagan traditions of Europe. I see it more as a sign of ingenuity. And paganism, then and now, is a rich religious tradition with a lot to offer. It’s well known that our Christian holidays were divided amongst pre-existing pagan holidays in an effort to convert the masses. The Medieval Church relied more heavily on the earlier traditions of its people. It also morphed and changed many times – MANY TIMES – during and since the Middle Ages to arrive at the form it is in today, especially during the Counter-Reformation. That’s not a bad thing or an insult, it’s just fact.

      Incidentally, I looked for some online resources to support this point, but just about everything I found online was propagandistic and blatantly biased one way or another. As far as books go though, Norman F. Cantor has a good discussion of the early Christian Church as it related to Roman paganism in his work “Civilization of the Middle Ages” as does William Manchester in his book “A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance”.

      As for the debate over One God-Three Gods, that’s been going on for about two thousand years and this isn’t the appropriate forum to discuss it.

  8. Lana Williams

    Very interesting post, Merry! Your research is always fascinating!

  9. Mary Anne

    I appreciate your lengthy response. I am not saying there were no Paganistic influences on Christianity; unquestionably there were. But exactly what they were and to what extent they influenced the Church are somewhat questionable, which possibly explains your difficulty in finding sources to back up your suppositions. About the only thing that firmly agreed on is the timing of certain holidays, like Christmas and Easter, which coincided with Pagan holidays.

    As far as your comments about the Trinity are concerned,you’re right, this is not the right forum to discuss it, and that’s why I took offense. Some of us still believe in the Trinity, and also venerate Mary and the saints. You may think of it as superstition, or one step removed from Paganism. But just as I would think twice about stating my beliefs about certain other religions pubicly, I would ask you to think carefully about it too, as you now have done.

    If you are a baptized Cathoic and went through RCIA, then you are no doubt aware that the church still recognizes the Trinity and venerates Mary and the saints. I realize that many Catholics don’t do this, but many still do. And I believe their beliefs should be respected. That is all.

    Thanks again for your response.

  10. Caroline Clemmons

    Merry, lovely post and I’m sorry you drew a negative response. Facts are facts, and yours are spot on. I loved Ken Follet’s book PILLARS OF THE EARTH. I thought it dealt rather well with a fictionalized version of medieval religion. You did not say Catholicism is one-step away from paganism. But what if you had? It’s your post and your opinion.

  11. Wendy Quest

    What an interesting post – thanks for sharing!



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