Recently, I have been working on a portable altar in the style of the one found at Jarrow and a reproduction of which can be seen at Bede’s World. That got me thinking about religion in the middle ages. The original notes it is to the honor of Saint Peter; mine is to the honor of St. Olwyn, the patron saint of Micel Folcland. Matters in several books read lately, including a list of tithe days in Larsom’s Canute the Great, combined with the matter and set me scribbling…
The importance of the Church in the middle ages cannot be minimized. The Middle Ages was defined by the Christian Church. So many aspects of medieval life—from the royalty, to the taxes, to some of the actual kit being worn—was defined and regulated by the Church. Any attempt to engage in an historical recreation while not incorporating or disregarding ecclesiastical thought and life is entirely specious and inadequate if not fantasy. What some folk call a medieval reenactment or, indeed, the more ambiguous re-creation but which ignore the Church is doing nothing but having a fancy-dress party. By that, we do not mean just having people walk around in formal ecclesiastical garments but that certain rituals, certain rites, certain practices, the illusion of certain beliefs are presented and in fact required and reenacted. This is, to a great extent, the difference that you will see between a fantasy organization ands serious living history society. At the most, you can only call such half-baked attempts medievaloid or perhaps medievalish.
However, the importance of religion in the culture of the middle ages is not restricted to Christianity. For example, in heathen times the common people of England respected their kings when they were responsible for a good interaction with the deity but not when there apparently was not. As Laurence Larson notes in Canute the Great, “They were to secure the favor of the gods. A failure of crops meant that a duty had been shirked. The feeling lingered for some time after the disappearance of heathendom.” For several centuries afterwards you can still perceive heathen practices and beliefs within the so-called Christianized Europe. This is not to say that they were trying to perpetuate heathen practices. In fact, certain superstitions that we see yet today sprang out of the heathen beliefs ad practices!
In fact, if we look at the battle that was taking place in northern Europe around the time of the Millennium when Christianity tried to assert itself over the prevalent heathenism, one is left with a certain feeling that the people who were to be converted were being succored into the Christian faith by the acceptance of certain heathen beliefs, which were incorporate into Christian thoughts and practices. This is seen as far back as the conversion of th Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century, when Pope Gregory said,
“The temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God …. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account…. but kill cattle to the praise of God…. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.”
This quote is, the way, recounted by Bede in Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, quoting a letter to Mellitus in June 601. (We shall not mention the importance of Bede, a cleric, in our understanding of what went on in early medieval English culture…)
Returning to the importance of Christianity during the period, we might mention the reason for Crusades, or the various pogroms that massacred Jewish populations or the brutality seen in the conquest of Jerusalem from Muslims, where an eyewitness, Fulcher of Chartres, who noted in Gesta Francorum Jerusalem Expugnantium that, “In this [non-Christian] temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.”
However, the importance of religion in the eleventh century in England can be seen much closer than Jerusalem. The sheer requirement of tithes was essential to the conduct of business during the middle ages as can be seen by the list of customary ecclesiastical fees that Larson notes in his biography of Cnut that Church Lights were gathered at the Feast of the Purification (Candlemas, 2 February), Easter Eve and All Saints Day (1 November); the Church Scot on Martinmas (11 November); Peter Pence on Saint Peter’s Day (1 August); Plough Alms on Fortnight after Easter; the Tithe if the Harvested Crops on All Saints Day (1 November); and the Tithe of the Young Beasts on Pentecost.
To ignore these as so many “reenactors” do—or perhaps they have no idea of their existence at all—is to create a fallacious concept of life in the time. In fact, we look at the conflict between the ecclesiastical and the secular cultures during this time, it becomes very important! And its portrayal is essential to an honest portrayal of the culture of the time!