Religion in the Middle Ages

Most people in the Middle Ages lived their lives fully believing in the reality of a spiritual realm all around them and in heaven or hell when they died. At this time, the people of the British Isles were Roman Catholic and the majority of people strongly believed in this religion and its values.

In the Middle Ages, the Church provided for the religious aspects of people's lives – baptism of babies, marriages, confession, the last rites for the dying and burying the dead.

But the Church did much more than this:

  • Monasteries and nunneries looked after the old and sick, provided somewhere for travellers to stay, gave alms to the poor and sometimes looked after people's money for them.
  • Monks could often read and write when many other people could not, so they copied books and documents and taught children.
  • Monasteries often had libraries.
  • Church festivals and saints' days were 'holy days', when people didn't have to work.
  • The Church put on processions and 'miracle plays'.

The Church played a big part in government:

  • Bishops sat in the House of Lords.
  • They could raise an army for the king in times of war.

It was a mistake for a king to fall out with the Church – King John was excommunicated, and King Henry II was whipped after the death of Thomas Becket.

Medieval pilgrim badge
Medieval pilgrim badge

Religion played an important part in people's lives:

  • Many people chose a career in the Church or in a monastery. In 1300 one in twenty townspeople was a cleric.
  • Many knights tried to earn forgiveness for their sins by going on a Crusade.
  • Many people went on a pilgrimage to try to reduce the time they thought they would spend in purgatory. A person who had been on pilgrimage would wear a badge to show which shrine he had visited.

Each shrine would have a different symbol that could be understood even by people who couldn't read or write. The symbols were:

  • a small bottle of oil (St Thomas Becket at Canterbury)
  • a shell (St James of Compostela in Spain)
  • a palm leaf (Jerusalem)
  • cross keys (Rome)

Anybody who was not a Roman Catholic Christian was persecuted:

  • Jewish people were often attacked and in 1290 were expelled from England.
  • Many poor people still believed in pagan superstitions. If they were caught, they were burned as a witch or sorcerer.
  • In the 15th century, the Lollards believed that people ought to be able to pray and hear the Bible in English rather than Latin. Many were burned as heretics.