The eleventh and twelfth centuries comprised perhaps the most dynamic period in the European middle ages.
There was an expansion of population, agriculture, trade, towns and the frontiers of western society
There was a radical reform of the structure and institutions of the western church, and by fundamental changes in relationships with the eastern churches
In the period came about the development of crusades, knighthood and law, Latin and vernacular literature, Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture, heresies and the scholastic movement.
This is the background to the series of talks given by Pope Benedict XVI prior to Christmas in his General Audiences. He has dwelt on one aspect: monks and the monasteries.
Since the New Year he has spoken of the fruits of this expansion in the thirteenth century
Bernard Hamilton, Emeritus Professor of Crusading History, University of Nottingham discusses the role of the laity in his essay Religion and the Laity in Chapter 13 of Volume IV of The New Cambridge Medieval History (2008)
The essay is interesting if only to compare the situation then with the situation that prevails now.
Here are some extracts:
"The western church in the early eleventh century had emerged from almost 200 years of civil wars and invasions as a dynamic force, capable of rapid and successful expansion in adverse conditions. For since the Carolingian age Catholic Christianity had spread from its heartland in the British Isles, France, the empire, Italy and northern Spain, to become the official religion of Bohemia, Poland and Hungary and it was continuing to expand into the Viking homelands of Scandinavia and their new settlements in Iceland and Greenland.
A uniform though sparse church organisation existed throughout this huge area. All the Christian west was divided into dioceses, though they varied considerably in size; but the provision of parishes was very uneven. All towns had at least one church while some, like Rome, had more than a hundred, but even in parts of the west which had been Christian for centuries many rural areas were still served by the clergy of a central minster. The parish system was only gradually coming into being, and since over 90 per cent of the population lived in the countryside, this meant that a very high proportion of them had no regular access to a church.
Any attempt to generalise about the faith and practice of laypeople in the central middle ages is bound to be tentative. There is no statistical information available such as may later be found in parish registers, while the fairly abundant ecclesiastical legislation is often a better index of clerical expectation than of lay behaviour.
Evidence about the religious observance of individuals relates chiefly to rulers and to members of the high nobility. The practice of the rest of the population has to be reconstructed from piecing together the written and archaeological evidence about the provision of churches and clergy, the liturgical evidence about the rites which the clergy performed, the numerous charters which record the legal transactions between laymen and the church, and the anecdotal evidence found in chronicles, saints’ lives, literary works, homilies and biblical commentaries, about how laypeople were expected to practise their faith and how individuals did practise it. ...
Church membership was conferred by baptism and in ‘old’ Christian areas infant baptism was universal.
Because infant mortality was high everywhere, many baptisms must have been performed by laypeople, particularly by midwives. Everybody had the right to baptise in case of necessity, by pouring water on the candidate three times while saying in any language, ‘I baptise thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ Those who were baptised in that way might later have the additional baptismal ceremonies performed by a priest, but that was not essential.
Children who grew up in places with no parish church would have learnt about the Christian faith from their parents and from occasional visiting clergy, but their knowledge might well have been sketchy. Those who lived near a church would usually have been catechised by the parish priest and have had the chance to attend mass regularly, and the strong visual elements in the Catholic liturgy were in themselves an important means of lay instruction.
But unless they lived near a cathedral, or near a reformed monastery which encouraged lay attendance at chapel, most laypeople would never have heard a sermon, for the majority of priests were not licensed to preach. Indeed, the general level of education of the lower clergy remained poor.
There were, of course, some excellent cathedral and monastery schools which provided the best education available in western Europe, but the clergy who were trained in them did not normally undertake parish work, but were groomed for senior office in the church by being appointed cathedral canons, or chaplains in noble households.Most of the lower clergy were given a practical training in their duties by other priests, who were sometimes their fathers, and therefore their knowledge of the faith was often limited.
It is difficult to be certain how far pagan belief and practice survived in the Christian west. It persisted in some newly converted regions like Norway and Hungary, but in areas where Christianity was well established paganism seems to have merged into folklore, as may be seen, for example, in the older stories, such as Culhwch and Olwen, preserved-in the Mabinogion.
But although the imagination of people in the Christian west may have continued to have a pagan dimension, all the evidence suggests that the church had won the intellectual battle by the eleventh century, and that in general terms everybody accepted the Christian world-picture.
They believed that the universe had been created by God; that the devil had marred God’s work with man’s connivance so that evil had come into the world; that Jesus, God’s son, had by his incarnation, sacrificial death and resurrection redeemed the world; that he had founded the church to continue his work on earth; that man was immortal, and that when he died he would be judged by God and his soul would enter Paradise or be condemned to Hell; and that eternal salvation depended on accepting God’s grace in the sacraments and leading the life of Christian perfection.
Some people undoubtedly had a fuller understanding of this cosmology than others, but it provided the general framework within which everybody thought about the world in which they lived.
Lay religious practice was quite often limited. Most people knew the Lord’s Prayer and considered regular private prayer desirable. Those who lived near a church would sometimes attend mass, although only some members of the nobility appear to have done so as a matter of course on Sundays and feast days.
Most people seem to have made some effort to hear mass at the great feasts, notably Easter, but lay communion was comparatively rare in much of Europe. Marriage was not accompanied by a religious ceremony in most places.
It is impossible to tell whether laypeople went to confession at all regularly at this time. Certainly some monastic reformers urged them to do so, and the liturgical evidence suggests the tenants on some monastic estates performed penance and received absolution annually during Lent. It is known that many fighting men were reluctant to use the penitential system. They committed acts of violence in the course of their everyday lives, but the church held that serious and wilful sins of that kind could only be forgiven by making confession to a priest and performing the penance which he enjoined.
Such penances were often so lengthy, humiliating and painful that men deferred confession.
Although most people seem to have wished to make their confessions when they were dying, priests were not always available and laymen, and on occasion laywomen, sometimes acted as confessors.
In the case of those who died unshriven the church authorities normally assumed that they had repented in articulo mortis and gave them Christian burial.
A society therefore existed in the early eleventh century in which all laypeople in a general sense accepted a Christian explanation of the universe, which included personal immortality and accountability to God for their actions. But because many of them had received little instruction and had few opportunities to take part in public worship they found it difficult to live by Christian standards.
The church taught that however wicked a man had been, he would obtain eternal salvation if he wanted it, although he might have to perform harsh penances after death, but that he could be helped in this by the prayers of the church on earth. This society therefore particularly valued the reformed monasticism which had begun to develop throughout the west during the tenth century because these communities took their religious vocation of intercession for the living and the dead seriously.
There were two main types of reformed monastery: communities like Glastonbury, F´ecamp and Cluny owned extensive estates and had considerable economic and political power; the monks were noblemen and their time was spent chiefly in performing an elaborate liturgy.
The other model was the eremitical form of monasticism favoured by men like St Romuald (d. 1027), which sought to conform to the golden age asceticism of fourth-century Egypt. Such communities had few endowments, tried to avoid secular involvement, and encouraged severe fasting and corporal mortification. Their monks were recruited from a wider social spectrum than those of the great abbeys, but like them devoted their lives chiefly to liturgical prayer. ...
Reformed monasteries were regarded as centres of Christian excellence, for it was widely believed that the life of Christian perfection entailed renouncing the world, normally by taking monastic vows. This was a very natural reaction in an age when Christian standards of behaviour had only been partially accepted by society at large, which remained extremely violent. This equation of holiness with self-denial meant that the hermit monks were venerated as the Christian elite, whose renunciation of the world was on a truly heroic scale.
The outstanding example of this in the eleventh century was Peter Damian, who as cardinal bishop of Ostia was second only to the pope in the Catholic hierarchy, yet who lived as a hermit at Fonte Avellana. There were, of course, devout lay people, but in contemporary sources they are represented as seeking to behave like monks while living in the world, though it is difficult to know how accurate such descriptions are since they were almost all written by clergy. The emperor Henry II (1002–24) and Edward the Confessor (1042–66) were both credited with monastic virtues such as regular attendance at divine worship, and also the practice of chastity even though they were both married men. ...
From 1046 the papacy began to direct and coordinate the various movements for church reform. Initially the popes sought to suppress simony, the sale of church offices, and to enforce clerical celibacy, but from the reign of Gregory VII they became more ambitious and tried to secure free canonical elections of the higher clergy. This led to bitter disputes with many western rulers during the next fifty years, which were finally resolved in a number of concordats whereby, although rulers continued to control the appointment of bishops and abbots, chapters secured the right to monitor elections and to appeal to the pope against abuses.
By the twelfth century the papacy had become a dynamic power in thewestern church, but it had lost much of the fervour which had characterised the early years of reform. The reform movement had raised expectations among devout lay people which had not been entirely fulfilled, while the increase in the power of the church at all levels inevitably caused some resentment. Favourable conditions therefore existed for the growth of anti-clericalism.
During the twelfth century, except in frontier areas, most settlements of any size came to have a parish church and a resident priest. The labour involved in building churches and the cost of endowing them showed a huge degree of commitment to the church by laypeople all over the west. The existence of parish churches made the routine practice of the Christian life possible for the majority of laypeople. Although most rural priests were poorly educated and not trained to preach they were valued by their parishioners for their professional skills: they could baptise the newborn, offer the mass regularly on behalf of the parish, bless the fields at rogationtide, and, most importantly, bury the dead and pray for their souls. In some areas priests performed weddings, although in many places marriage remained a family affair. No doubt occasional church attendance became more common once every village had its own church, though there is no evidence of widespread regular Sunday attendance at mass.
But the growth of parishes also increased the possibility of conflict between clergy and laity. The cost of maintaining churches and priests was largely met from tithes, theoretically levied on all sources of income, but normally on the principal grain crops, but tithes were frequently impropriated by lay patrons, and this was a source of litigation. Another potential source of tension between the clergy and their flocks was the enforcement of marriage laws, which extended canonical impediments to the sixth degree of consanguinity, that is to people who had a common great-grandparent. It is difficult to know how rigidly or generally these laws were enforced. ...
The church hierarchy was itself affected by the changes which were taking place in the twelfth century. Thus although one of the main aims of the papal reformers had been to make a clear distinction between clergy and laity, this was to some extent neutralised by the simultaneous growth of literacy in western Europe. In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries there was a huge increase in the number of men seeking instruction in the cathedral schools of northern Europe and the city schools of Lombardy, and since teaching was in Latin everywhere and the northern schools were controlled by the church, students came to be regarded as clergy. In northern Europe they were customarily tonsured as clerici, or clerks, and received the legal privileges of the clergy without any of the corresponding obligations. Some clerks never took major orders and were thus able to marry and live as laymen, and the distinction between clergy and laity became blurred.
Although it is sometimes argued that the increase of lay literacy contributed to the rise of heresy, this is not self-evident. Latin literacy had never been a clerical monopoly. There had always been a few lay people who could read the language: milites literati, like Baldwin I of Jerusalem (d. 1118), trained as churchmen but were recalled to the world, as well as some learned laywomen, like Adela of Blois.
Moreover, throughout much of Italy Latin was still close enough to the vernacular for lay people to have a general understanding of the liturgy. During the twelfth century the number of laymen who could understand Latin increased greatly: large numbers of civil lawyers and doctors were trained, who were good Latinists and could understand the services of the church and, if they wished, read theological works. Some merchants also could read legal Latin, and perhaps follow the liturgy, though they may not have been able to understand literary texts.
Outside Italy Latin was incomprehensible to the uneducated, but vernacular literatures were growing, and although probably very few people could read such works they nevertheless reached a wide audince. Trouv`eres were heard not simply by their patrons but by their entire households, while in towns reciters stood in the streets and entertained the general public; and the works which these men performed sometimes dealt with religious themes, like the Life of St Alexius which proved very popular.
Vernacular translations of parts of the Bible had been made earlier in monastic schools, but this process was accelerated in the twelfth century, and by the end of it substantial parts of the Scriptures had been translated into most of the main western European languages, although this was not systematic, and a complete vernacular text of the Bible was not available until almost a century later.
In the twelfth century no restriction was placed on lay access to the vernacular Scriptures, and people could own texts or listen to them being read aloud. The liturgy was not translated, but vernacular devotional books were written to help laypeople to meditate during mass. The capacity to read and write was a neutral skill, and although the spread of literacy may have aided the growth of religious dissent, it undoubtedly also led to an increase in devotional reading and a deeper understanding of the Christian faith among orthodox laypeople.
The papal reformers attempted to address the spiritual needs of important groups of lay people. They were particularly concerned about the problems of penance, which, as noted above, tended to cut fighting men off from the practice of the Christian life. The warriors were a socially amorphous group composed of the nobility and great landowners, together with armed retainers and mercenaries recruited from free peasants or serfs. The church had been concerned with the activities of these men since the mid-tenth century, when the rite for the blessing of swords for use in God’s service is first found in some German pontificals. In the early eleventh century some devout fighting men, particularly in France, responded to the church’s appeals by forming voluntary associations to limit warfare. These are collectively known as the Peace of God movement, and its supporters undertook to respect the lives and property of churchmen and the livelihood of non-combatants. ...
Most members of the western church were peasants, and attempts were also made to provide for their spiritual needs. In the late eleventh century some Benedictine houses, notably the congregation of Hirsau, had begun to profess lay brethren, or conversi and this practice was adopted by the Cistercian order in the twelfth century.
Unlike monastic servants, lay brethren took vows and lived under a rule. They did not learn Latin and participate in the choir office, but recited a simple vernacular office together at regular hours, and worked as farm labourers. This institution proved immensely popular: huge numbers of conversi were professed in the new communities, and as Southern observed, without them the Cistercians could never have undertaken their vast programme of colonising and land reclamation.
No doubt men became lay brethren for a variety of reasons, but this development must reflect the existence of a sizeable group of peasants with religious aspirations which could find no satisfaction in lay life. In the monasteries they could use their lay skills, but they were also taught how to pray, and how to grow in the life of perfection.
As these innovations show, the twelfth-century church still considered that the full Christian life entailed renunciation of the world. Such a course was not open to most people, who were married and had secular responsibilities, although it was not uncommon for people to be professed late in life after their wives or husbands had died and when their children had grown up.
Other laypeople remained in the world, but became associates of the Military Orders, and in return for benefactionswere assured of the prayers of the brethren during their lifetimes and after their deaths.
But some people no longer regarded the contemplative life as the sole Christian ideal. No doubt their attitude was shaped in part by the spirituality of the newly founded communities of Austin and Premonstratensian Canons, who had pastoral aims. Certainly some laypeople in the twelfth century were very concerned about ministering to the needs of the urban poor. For example, rich burgesses often left charitable endowments stipulating that at set times food should be provided for a fixed number of poor people and that, in accordance with Christ’s commandment, their feet should also be washed. Such benefactors were clearly aware of Christ’s teaching about the importance of good works to salvation.
Some bishops in the twelfth century tried to encourage lay piety by offering partial indulgences for a variety of activities, like going on pilgrimage, or saying certain prayers. A partial indulgence was always expressed in terms of equivalence to a period of penance (e.g. a forty days indulgence conferred the same spiritual benefits as forty days of traditional penance).
But even without these clerical stimuli, lay piety manifested itself most vigorously then as it had done for centuries, in pilgrimages. Except when they were imposed as penances, the church did not consider that pilgrimages were obligatory.
Men and women undertook these journeys voluntarily as expressions of their own religious devotion and commitment. Pilgrimage continued to be made to well-established shrines like Ste Foy of Conques and St Martin of Tours, and those of St Michael the Archangel, captain of the hosts of Heaven, and therefore popular with warriors, at Monte Gargano in Apulia and Mont St Michel in Normandy. But in the twelfth century new shrines became popular, like that of St James at Compostela, in the extreme north-west of Le´on, who was venerated as an apostle, but also as the matamoros, the patron of Christian armies in the war against Islam. In 1164 Rainald of Dassel translated the relics of the Three Kings who had come to worship the infant Christ to Cologne, where their shrine rapidly attracted large numbers of pilgrims who valued the royal magi as protectors against sorcery.
Canterbury, scene in 1170 of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, soon became an international cult centre and a healing shrine. But although more people than ever before visited Rome on ecclesiastical business and venerated the shrines of the apostles while there, the city was no longer the chief focus of western pilgrimage as it had been before 1050; that role had passed to Jerusalem.
Pilgrimages to Jerusalem had become popular in the eleventh century particularly through Cluniac influence, but the foundation of the Crusader States made the journey quicker and safer, since it could be accomplished by sea without entering Muslim territory. Thousands of people went there each year and became familiar with the land where God’s son had lived among men.
But the Jerusalem journey continued to involve self-sacrifice: death or captivity remained genuine hazards, and the return journey from northern Europe could take almost a year if weather conditions were adverse. But people from all ranks of society went to Jerusalem, and this was a personal act of faith in which the mediation of the clergy was unnecessary. ...
The twelfth century also witnessed a great increase in devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The liturgical observance of her principal feasts, Candlemas, the Annunciation, the Assumption and the Nativity of the Virgin, had been established in the west for centuries, but in the twelfth century her cult came to assume a uniquely exalted place in popular and ecclesiastical esteem.
The reasons for this are complex. Since the council of Ephesus in 431 the church had revered Mary as the Mother of God; but the implications of this were only fully felt on a devotional level in the western church as a greater awareness of Christ’s humanity developed there during the twelfth century. This was expressed on an intellectual level in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, but was experienced by a wider public through the iconography of the suffering Christ in liturgical art and the popularity of pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
The growth in devotion to the man Christ Jesus led to an increase in reverence for his mother from whom he had received his human nature. The theological reasons for Marian devotion were set out by scholars like Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux; but the form in which that devotion was expressed owed much to the idealisation of womanhood found in some twelfth-century vernacular poetry.
In the literature and art of the period Mary was still portrayed as the Mother of God, but she also became Our Lady, the perfect example of womanhood.
Although this perception originated in aristocratic circles, it was rapidly diffused by the iconography of the Virgin in the stained glass windows and sculptured reliefs of the new cathedrals and churches of the west.
Although there was no diminution of devotion to the other saints, Mary came to be regarded as chief intercessor, with her son, for the whole human race and worthy of greater reverence than any other of God’s creatures.
Devotion to her took many forms: some monastic communities and some secular clergy recited the Little Office of Our Lady in addition to the Divine Office. Most parish churches came to have a Lady chapel, or at least a Lady altar, and a statue or painting of the Virgin, and lay people were taught the Hail Mary in its scriptural form.
Vernacular lives of theVirginwere written and proved very popular: they drew not only on the gospels, but also on the second-century Protoevangelium, an apocryphal work attributed to the Apostle James.
The principal shrines of the Virgin were in the Holy Land, at Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where the church of Our Lady of Josaphat was believed to be the site of her assumption into Heaven; but during the twelfth century western models of these churches were built as devotional centres for people who could not go to the Levant, like the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. ...
Arguably the greatest change in lay piety during the twelfth century was the new way in which people came to think about Christ. The early medieval figure of divine power, the Harrower of Hell and judge of the living and the dead, was giving place to the son of Mary who had lived among men in the Holy Land and died and risen again in Jerusalem, a city familiar to thousands of western people.
In the second half of the eleventh century there seems to have been an almost total absence of religious dissent in western Europe. This period coincides, of course, with the most intense and idealistic phase of the papal reform movement and that almost certainly explains why lay people who wished to lead the life of perfection did not think it necessary to form secessionist groups, but could instead support the popes in their struggle to purify the whole church.
The Patarini of Milan exemplify this trend. They had much in common with some twelfth-century reform movements which will be considered later, and which were driven into schism through the opposition of the church authorities.
Though contemptuously named the ragpickers by their opponents, the Patarini had respectable leaders: Arialdus a scholar, Anselm a priest and the noble brothers Landulf and Erlembald. They sought to enforce the observance of the papal reform programme in their own city: they were opposed to priestly concubinage, and urged the faithful to refuse to receive the sacraments from simoniac priests. The Patarini rioted against the imperialist and unreformed Archbishop Guido in 1067 and were given the banner of St Peter by Archdeacon Hildebrand, the eminence grise in Alexander II’s pontificate. The movement lasted for a generation and spread to Piacenza and Cremona, even though its fortunes fluctuated in Milan. It received the highest accolade of papal approval in 1095 when Urban II declared that Arialdus and Erlembald might be honoured as saints."