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Pitkin Guides

An Overview of the Church & Faith in the 14th Century
by Jeff Hobbs

F A I T H  &

in late 14th Century England

The parish church played a very important part in everyday life and it was involved in secular affairs as much as spiritual ones. Church courts regulated the moral behaviour of local parishioners and were a means of settling disputes between neighbours, whilst monasteries might provide alms to the poor, and a basic education to local children. The parish also took money from its parishioners in the form of the tithe, which was a percentage of their income and/or livestock.

At the same time, the parish church served a more informal purpose as a focal point for the local community. It was usually a bigger building than that of the local villagers and might serve as a community hall for such functions as plays, dances and even markets. There were numerous holy days and feast days throughout the year - perhaps between 30 and 50 depending upon locality - and some of these meant days off work.

In terms of the mass itself, the laity's main role in the service was as spectators. They were encouraged to participate in a series of Creeds, Aves and Paternosters at identified points in the service, but otherwise the mass was in Latin and required little participation. The church walls were often painted with biblical pictures, such as scenes from the passion of Christ, and depictions of Doomsday. At a time when literacy was only beginning to increase amongst the wealthy lay people, these images were an important element of the population's perception of their faith. At the same time, Doomsday was a common component of faith at this time, with many believing that the end of the World was imminent.

An important element of faith at this time was the belief in purgatory - a place between heaven and hell, where the soul would need to be cleansed before it might go to heaven. Therefore, it was believed, remission from time in purgatory might be bought on earth from things such as indulgences. These were documents signed by prelates that granted a certain amount of pardon for the soul when in purgatory. Travelling pardoners sold these indulgences, but another way of gaining one was to take part in a pilgrimage to a holy shrines in England or abroad.

People sought remission in purgatory in other ways. Institutions such as chantries, fraternities and religious guilds were set up by groups of lay people to provide prayers for the souls of the living and/or the dead when they were in purgatory. These different organisations varied in wealth - they might have great buildings and employ their own priests, or they might merely provide a candle or two in front of an altar.

Another notable aspect of popular religious devotion, in the late fourteenth century, was the performance of miracle plays. Some of the larger trade guilds, for instance those of York and Coventry, performed miracle plays amidst the widespread festivities of Corpus Christi week. These plays were performed in great cycles - which spanned several days - and they charted the story of the World from its beginning to Doomsday, with great emphasis on Christ's passion in particular. All of the trade guilds of York took part, and great expense and preparation went into the staging of these plays.  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright 2000, LLC