Any serious attempt to understand medieval life and culture must engage with religious belief and activity. Religion was not a compartmentalised section of life in the medieval era, as in the modern west. Rather, it pervaded every sphere of thought and practice, with contemporary concepts of morality, authority, community, gender, family, sex, poverty, and death – and much more besides – shaped by the teachings of the medieval Church. This chapter will introduce some of the most important sources for medieval popular religion – that is, the religious beliefs and practices of the bulk of the population – and some key methodological issues surrounding the interpretation of these materials. For the sake of coherence, it will focus on the later middle ages, here defined as the period from c. 1250 to c. 1500. This era can be seen as a distinctive phase in the history of popular religion in western Europe. It witnessed a sustained endeavour by the Church to improve the religious knowledge of the laity (i.e. non-clerics), following the pastoral initiatives established by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Moreover, the Church’s official adoption of the doctrine of Purgatory in 1254 gave additional impetus to religious practices which provided for the swifter passage of souls through that place of suffering, en route to heaven. This chapter will restrict its focus mainly to late medieval England, for which a particularly rich and diverse body of evidence survives – although much of the discussion could apply equally to other parts of western Christendom. Its aim will be to consider and illustrate some of the ways in which we can draw conclusions about religious beliefs and practices from the ample but complex corpus of evidence surviving from the late medieval period.
The later Middle Ages once attracted less attention from historians than the period 1050–1250: an era long regarded as the apex of medieval civilisation (and labelled, revealingly, the ‘high’ Middle Ages). However, the later thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries provide particular opportunities for the study of popular religion. A number of illuminating genres of evidence for this subject become available only from the 1200s, the product of the Church’s renewed pastoral endeavours and its evolving legal and governmental structures. The Fourth Lateran Council enacted that every man and woman should be required to confess their sins to a priest at least once a year. This ruling generated concerted efforts to ensure that both layfolk and their parish priests (or ‘parsons’) were sufficiently well instructed in the Church’s teachings – including what constituted ‘sin’ and how different faults might be redressed through appropriate acts of penance – for this system to function effectively. Ecclesiastical concerns about deviance, with the growing spread of ideas deemed heretical in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe, also stimulated the Church’s concerns to monitor and inform popular belief at every level of society. These regulatory initiatives, moreover, were underpinned by the ongoing codification of ecclesiastical (canon) law, which specified the religious duties and responsibilities of the clergy and the lay population alike.
Much of the primary source material available for the study of late medieval religion grew directly out of these developments. Practical handbooks for priests, including manuals for administering confession, circulated widely. A great quantity of preaching material was produced, including collections of model sermons such as John Myrc’s Festial, to instruct and guide the population in Christian living. The steady rise in lay education and literacy over the later Middle Ages, moreover, stimulated a growing corpus of devotional literature in English. From the 1200s, bishops kept registers recording their routine business, including their inspection (or visitation) of the parishes in their diocese and their investigations into local conflicts, violations of ecclesiastical law, and cases of suspected heresy. Records of the Church courts’ activities in upholding canon law also survive in increasing volume for the later Middle Ages. This business included the proving (‘probate’) of wills: a particularly important and widely used source for the popular religion of this period. Moreover, the novel requirement for parishioners to take responsibility for the upkeep and furnishing of their section of the parish church (the nave) and the churchyard – widely acknowledged by the later thirteenth century – necessitated the production of churchwardens’ accounts, recording how these duties were discharged by the parish’s representatives. The widespread rebuilding and adornment of parish churches in this period also provides a wealth of architectural and artistic evidence for popular religious belief and practice in late medieval England.
Therefore, there is no shortage of source material which can be used to illuminate late medieval popular religion. The study of this subject has grown, and evolved, considerably in recent decades. Until the 1980s, at least in the English-language historiography, the primary focus of many studies was placed on the Church and its institutions. This encouraged an approach which presented popular beliefs and practices from the perspectives of the ecclesiastical authorities and the sources they generated. These clerically produced genres of evidence, however, tend to emphasise shortcomings and discontents. Bishops’ registers and parochial visitation records provide evidence of misdemeanours and disciplinary failings. Church court records bring to light instances of conflict between priests and people, such as financial disputes (often relating to the tithe, the 10% tax paid to their priest by every parishioner) and non-attendance at weekly services. They also document the trials of men and women accused of heresy and magical practices. Finally, the sizeable corpus of sermon evidence which survives from the late medieval period tends likewise to accentuate failings, as preachers exhorted layfolk to lead lives of greater piety and religious commitment. A similar impression of irreligion can be derived from certain genres of late medieval literature, written by clerics or lay moralists, which bemoaned the failings of different sections of the population to observe faithfully the precepts of the Christian life.
The downbeat narrative of late medieval religious life which grew out of the study of these particular genres of primary source was all the more powerful for its fusion with Protestant critiques of the pre-Reformation Church. During and for many generations after the sixteenth-century Reformation, Protestant writers regarded the medieval Church as an essentially corrupt body, primarily concerned with upholding its own power and privileges. In particular, the use of Latin for church services, the clerical monopoly on bible-reading, and the persecution of Lollard ‘heretics’ – regarded as the forerunners of Protestantism – were portrayed as self-serving measures designed to keep ordinary men and women in their place. Historians influenced by this paradigm were naturally drawn to primary sources which emphasised conflict between the clergy and the populace, a lack of lay engagement with the rituals and teachings of the medieval Church, and an apparent ignorance of the central tenets of Christianity.
Over recent decades, however, a range of alternative approaches to the study of late medieval popular religion have been developed. Perhaps the most sophisticated and influential work in this regard has been Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars (1992/2005), a wide-ranging attempt to understand late medieval religious belief and practice on its own terms. Duffy’s work, and the ‘revisionist’ studies it has inspired, not only overtly rejected ‘Protestant’ readings of the medieval Church, but also quietly switched focus away from those genres of evidence which had buttressed traditional interpretations of popular religion. Indeed, bishops’ registers, Church court records, heresy trials, and other clerically produced materials feature relatively little in this scholarship. Instead, Duffy and other revisionists have built their depiction of late medieval popular religion from primary sources generated primarily by laymen. Their favoured forms of evidence include churchwardens’ accounts (which record lay spending on parochial buildings and activities); material evidence, including the surviving fabric of the many hundreds of English parish churches which were rebuilt and beautified in the later Middle Ages; records pertaining to religious guilds, institutions which were founded and managed by layfolk; and religious poems and lyrics of the kind often recorded in laymen’s commonplace books.
The emphasis on these genres of evidence has generated a very different picture of late medieval popular religion, showcasing lay agency, understanding and engagement. Revisionist historiography has also downplayed religious deviancy. Duffy sought explicitly to refocus attention on the ordinary parishioner, arguing that historians of medieval England have shown a disproportionate and distorting interest in ‘Lollards, witches and leisured, aristocratic ladies’ (Duffy, 1992/2005, p. 2). It has also been frequently argued in recent years that fifteenth-century Lollardy was largely a ‘construct’ of the medieval Church, which overplayed the existence of heterodoxy partly through paranoia and partly in order to suppress criticism and inspire loyalty and support from the rest of the population (Bernard, 2013; Swanson, 1989).
The methodological shift in focus towards primary sources generated by the laity has provided a valuable and necessary corrective to older works which relied heavily on the Church’s records. These developments also reflect wider trends in the discipline which have emphasised social history and ‘lived religion’, in place of an ecclesiastical history which implicitly privileged clerical elites and institutions (Arnold, 2005). Revisionist studies have succeeded in presenting late medieval popular religion in a much more positive light than traditional paradigms allowed, but historians have also been keen to move beyond debates about the popularity and unpopularity of the Church conducted with one eye to the Reformation period. Recent trends in the scholarship include more detailed studies of particular sections of the population, or particular components of popular belief. Numerous works have shed fresh light on the religious activities of women, a group significantly under-represented in the surviving sources and who must generally be studied through writings produced by men (e.g. Barr, 2008; French, 2008). Other lesser-recorded or marginalised groups such as the poor and the young have also been the subject of insightful scholarship, and historians have paid renewed attention to medieval ideas and practices concerning death, sanctity, magic, sickness, and much else.
Selecting and interpreting sources
It is clear from what has been said that the selection of primary sources is a critical factor in any analysis of medieval popular religion. Historians privileging clerically produced evidence will present a very different picture of religious belief and practice from that generated by historians emphasising lay records. Evidently a balanced approach is preferable, although judgements about which genres of source deserve greater weight are likely to vary from historian to historian. Perhaps most important is to be alert to the kinds of information and impression that different sources are likely to yield, and to acknowledge this explicitly in one’s analysis. A strong awareness of the limitations of individual sources is a valuable attribute of the medieval historian, as there is always a danger of attempting to draw more categorical or more wide-ranging conclusions than can readily be justified from the available evidence. The need to think carefully about what our sources can and cannot tell us will be elaborated in the following section.
When interpreting any primary source, an obvious starting point is to consider who produced it and why. The general distinction between materials generated by the Church and those created by the laity has already been emphasised, but may in some contexts be overdrawn. Some ‘lay’ records, such as churchwardens’ accounts, were produced in order to conform to ecclesiastical laws or requirements. The extent to which such materials detail wholly voluntary and self-generated lay activities therefore requires scrutiny. The uncertain balance between lay and clerical agency can also be found when analysing testamentary evidence. There is sufficient variation between wills to indicate that the content of these documents was informed to a significant degree by the testator him/herself. However, late medieval wills were invariably written down by a clerical scribe who may have exerted some influence over the document, including the recipients of bequests and the particular provisions made for the testator’s soul. The difficulties of discerning the boundary between lay and clerical authorship are also very familiar to historians of medieval women. The ‘autobiographical’ writings of female mystics such as Margery Kempe, for example, were evidently shaped by their male confessors and spiritual advisors to a greater or lesser extent. The complex authorship of many of our sources suggests that studies of popular religion which neglect or sideline the role of the clergy may be problematic.
It is equally important to assess precisely whose activities are being documented and whose beliefs recorded in the evidence which survives. For example, the extent to which sources such as churchwardens’ accounts, guild records and material evidence can illuminate the experiences and attitudes of the bulk of the medieval population might be questioned. These genres of evidence were largely generated by well-to-do layfolk (usually men). Churchwardens were chosen from a pool of the most influential families of the parish, and the acts of religious patronage they record were often the preserve of wealthier parishioners. The same was no doubt true for the provision of many of the elaborate screens, stained glass windows, wall paintings, pews, roofs, and devotional objects which survive from late medieval England. A good number of religious guilds, moreover, were associations of the respectable, requiring a notable financial outlay to join and for ongoing membership. Visitation records also arguably convey the complaints and concerns of parish elites, as it was the churchwardens who reported on parochial matters to the ecclesiastical authorities. It follows that we should exercise caution when drawing conclusions about widespread religious engagement and enthusiasm from evidence of this kind, which may reflect local hierarchies as much as communal endeavour (Arnold, 2005).
Another essential issue to address when interpreting primary sources is the audience for which they were intended. Some genres of evidence concerning medieval popular religion were produced by and for the ecclesiastical authorities alone. The findings of parochial visitations were confidential, and were available only to the bishop and his staff. Church court records were also private, although the penances to be performed by those found guilty of transgressing canon law were often very public. Churchwardens’ accounts, on the other hand, were read aloud before the parish community and thus were intended for wide consumption (French, 2001). The same, of course, was true for many acts of religious patronage. The names of benefactors to a parish church were entered on its bede (prayer) roll, to be recited at the Sunday mass. Major contributions to a church’s fabric and furnishings would also be signalled by inscriptions or images requesting intercession for the benefactor’s soul. Aside from acts such as confession, medieval religious life was resolutely public and communal rather than private and individual. Many of the religious activities carried out by late medieval layfolk, therefore, were performed before one’s neighbours, and they accordingly carried a range of meanings beyond simple piety.
It is also important to recognise that a great deal of the evidence we have for popular belief and practice is normative – that is, it tells us what people were expected to do and believe, rather than how they necessarily acted or thought in practice. This is the case for medieval sermons, the visitation and reforming injunctions produced by the ecclesiastical authorities, and the tracts and treatises written by religious writers and reformers. But although we might be sceptical that medieval people routinely behaved and thought in the ways the Church prescribed, normative sources nevertheless provide valuable insights into contemporary teachings and perceptions of particular issues, activities and groups. Moreover, for those sections of medieval society whose voices feature rarely if at all in the available sources – including the poor, the young and non-elite women – the most promising avenue of enquiry is often to explore the ways in which these groups were portrayed and constructed in the dominant discourses of the time. Our sources reveal much about medieval mentalities concerning social status, wealth and poverty, gender and sexuality, health and sickness, deviance, and many other themes of cultural history – in each case, mentalities which were notably shaped by the teachings of the Church. Religious art and architecture can also shed much light on the thought-worlds of men and women in this period.
The selection and interpretation of sources for medieval popular religion, therefore, requires sensitivity to the genre of evidence under consideration and to its conventions and limitations. We should be aware that surviving records were produced for particular purposes, and cannot always answer the questions which interest the modern historian. In particular, they tell us a lot more about what medieval people did than what they believed, and the motivations behind the actions of individuals are often opaque. It is also much easier to observe and recover the practices of some social groups than others. The breadth of primary sources available for the study of medieval popular religion makes it necessary for the historian to be selective; and all genres of evidence will be more appropriate and useful for some lines of historical enquiry than others. An awareness of the interplay between clerical and lay sources should shield us from simplistic conclusions about the population’s estrangement from or enthused engagement with the teachings and structures of the late medieval Church.
In this final section, three particularly common genres of evidence for late medieval popular religion will be discussed in greater detail, in order to illustrate some of the general points made above and to provide some practical guidance for using primary sources to develop a historical argument. These genres are wills, churchwardens’ accounts and visual evidence. By the later fifteenth century, wills and financial accounts were being increasingly written in English, rather than Latin, and examples of vernacular documents have been chosen to illustrate the discussion which follows.
Wills survive in large numbers from late medieval England, and can provide important insights into the concerns and priorities of individual testators. Nevertheless, we should approach this evidence with caution when seeking to draw conclusions about religious beliefs and practices. As we have seen, wills were written down by clerical scribes and the nature of influence which these clerics might have exerted on the content of individual documents is uncertain. It is also important to note that late medieval wills were generally made on the approach of death, and the strong concern about the afterlife that they display was not necessarily representative of testators’ mindsets at other stages of their lives. A further difficulty regarding wills is the skewing of evidence in favour of higher-status men. Will-making was generally the preserve of the wealthy, and surviving examples from less-affluent testators tend to be much briefer for the simple reason that they had less money and fewer possessions to bequeath. Married women, moreover, could not make wills, and so the large majority of late medieval female wills were produced by well-off widows.
Despite these caveats, there remains a good deal that we can learn from wills. They contain much of interest to the social historian, conveying information about – among other things – material possessions, clothing, and ties of family and friendship. The significant focus of these documents on matters of religion, however – with provision made for the testator’s soul as well as their estate – is impossible to miss. This characteristic can be readily viewed in the will of John Carre, a wealthy draper, a former mayor of York, and Member of Parliament, made on 6 November 1487 [A]. Like the vast majority of late medieval wills, Carre’s begins with a clause bequeathing his soul to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy company of heaven (i.e. the saints). Carre’s will, however, provides an example of a unusually elaborate soul bequest – naming God as his ‘saviour’, requesting the prayers of ‘the glorious virgin’, and specifically naming three individual saints. By identifying such departures from the norm, it is possible to suggest particular devotional tastes of the testator. In this instance, the references to St Sampson and St Mary Magdalene appear to reflect Carre’s close association with religious buildings in York (including his parish church) dedicated to those saints. St John of Beverley, meanwhile, was Carre’s name saint, as well as a figure of regional significance. We might also draw conclusions about a testator’s particular religious tastes from their bequests, including here precious rings offered to an image of the Virgin and Child in York Minster.
The most striking feature of many late medieval wills is the large number of bequests made to ecclesiastical institutions, intended to finance prayers for the souls of testators and their families. These elaborate provisions can be used to document associations between testators and different branches of the Church. John Carre’s bequests included gifts to his parish church, religious guilds, institutions catering for the poor (maisons dieu) and sick (leper houses), anchoresses, and several houses of friars, monks and nuns from a wide range of different orders. When tracing religious connections and predilections from testamentary evidence, it is possible to employ both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Historians have often compiled statistics from samples of wills concerning the number of bequests to different ecclesiastical institutions, in an attempt to trace the changing popularity and prominence of (for example) the religious orders or guilds. Similar calculations can be made for favoured places of burial, which are usually indicated in late medieval wills.
This kind of research can potentially produce valuable results, for example highlighting variations in religious patronage between different kinds of testators (nobility, gentry, townsmen, women, etc.). The centrality of the parish church in lay religious life is also underscored by the very large numbers of testators who made bequests for their church’s fabric, decoration and personnel – as did John Carre, who left money to his parson, to the other priests serving his parish church and to the parish clerk, along with candles (‘torches’) and two silver candlesticks for the high altar. The compilation of statistics from wills, however, can be an imprecise or even misleading tool of analysis. Calculations concerning change over time are particularly hazardous. As will-making was gradually adopted by a wider section of society, including men and women of more modest means, the number and size of bequests for the good of the testator’s soul in many individual wills inevitably declined. It has also been pointed out that many people made arrangements for their soul during their lifetimes, and so we cannot assume that wills reveal the full range of religious provision by individual testators (Burgess, 1987).
For these reasons, fine-grained qualitative analysis can often be more revealing about testators’ tastes and associations than counting up different categories of bequest. For instance, wills can often be used to identify personal connections between testators and local clerics. Thus, John Carre cited three members of religious houses by name: Margaret Aske, a nun of Watton Priory, Dr Shirwyn of the Grey Friars (Franciscans), and the abbot of St Mary’s Abbey in York, to whom Carre bequeathed an expensive pair of spectacles and a bonnet. The choice of a chantry priest and a parson as his executors, whose responsibility it was to ensure that the provisions set out in his will were carried out in full, is also suggestive of friendly and trusting relations with members of the clergy. We might also conclude from the detailed instructions given here for the benefit of his soul that John Carre – like many other late medieval testators – was very well informed about the range of services the Church offered for the dead.
Conclusions about the motivations that lay behind will-makers’ bequests are, of course, more difficult to draw. Do they represent a fear of Purgatory – colourfully described in late medieval writings as a ‘place of right marvellous pain’? It has been argued that the post-mortem provisions outlined in wills should be seen as a business-like and pragmatic response to approaching death (Duffy, 1992/2005). Yet John Carre’s concern for his safe passage into heaven is evident in his will, with its emphasis on the seven works of mercy, including feeding and clothing the poor, relieving prisoners and aiding the sick: deeds which were connected explicitly with salvation in Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25). As well as providing for the afterlife and expressing his personal piety, Carre’s bequests and the elaborate preparations for his funeral also served to project his status, fulfil social expectations and ensure his memorialisation. Altogether, details such as these – which proliferate in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century wills – shed light on the reciprocal relations between the laity and the clergy, the rich and the poor, and the living and the dead in late medieval culture.
Another important genre of evidence for late medieval popular religion is the churchwardens’ account, recording the annual income and expenditure of the parishioners’ official representatives. Churchwardens – usually two in number, but sometimes three or four – were elected each year to administer the parish’s resources and to oversee the upkeep of the nave and churchyard. Their accounts do not survive in the same numbers as wills, and the large majority of extant examples from fifteenth-century England come from southern counties. These documents shed light on parishioners’ expenditure on their churches and on the religious activities and devotions in which they engaged. It is important to note that these sources generally reveal communal rather than individual activity, and it is not always clear whether parochial initiatives were broadly based or the preserve of a small number of people. Nor should we assume that churchwardens’ accounts provide a full picture of parishioners’ activities. They record only activities which involved some kind of monetary exchange, and leave no trace of those facets of parish life where no money changed hands. Moreover, the ‘fair’ or final copies of the accounts on which we must usually rely were generally an abbreviated version of more detailed draft accounts; and it also appears that some parochial activities came under the purview of officers other than the churchwardens, and so do not feature in the latter’s accounts (Burgess, 2002).
Despite their limitations, these sources can tell us much about lay religious practices and devotions – as may be illustrated from the 1491/2 account from the parish of St Edmund in Salisbury [B], produced by its four elected churchwardens for that year. The communal practices and rituals in which parishioners engaged emerge particularly clearly from surviving accounts (Hutton, 1994). The Salisbury example highlights a number of important moments in this parish’s year. These included their annual fair; the feasts of Michaelmas (29 September) and the Annunciation of the Virgin (25 March), on which indulgences were sold to raise funds for the church’s upkeep; and the various preparations and offerings made for Easter and Christmas indicate the centrality of these festivals. The parish also came together on more sober occasions such as the death of parishioners, which was marked by the ringing of the great bell.
Historians have used such examples of collective festivities, rituals and initiatives as evidence for the ways in which the parish could forge communal identity and purpose. Churchwardens’ accounts can also tell us something of the particular roles played by different groups of parishioners. This includes the place of women in parish life, as illustrated here by the figure of ‘Edyngdon’s wife’ who washed and mended the church’s ornaments and vestments (cf. French, 2008). A wide range of artisans and workers, including young men of the parish, were also hired to contribute to the upkeep of the church. Other lay activities and concerns can be discerned from the income side of churchwardens’ accounts – including regular gifts for maintaining candles (lights) on altars or before images of saints, and various payments relating to death and the afterlife. Modest sums were also raised at St Edmund’s by selling seats in the church, i.e. pews reserved for individuals and families. This reminds us that the parish did not just create community, but also provided opportunities to signal one’s place in the local hierarchy. Indeed, a close study of the names which recur in churchwardens’ accounts can shed light on the identity of parish elites and permit conclusions about how broadly based parochial engagement seems to have been. Such research relies on the survival of a run of accounts from a single location, which also permits comparative analysis tracing the development of parish activities and priorities over time: a technique which has been put to good use for the Reformation period (e.g. Hutton, 1987).
When interpreting this genre of evidence, we might also draw a distinction between ‘compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’ religious activities and outlays (Kümin, 1998). Although the boundary between these two categories may not have been hard and fast, it can be fruitful to consider how far and in what ways layfolk exceeded the (not inconsiderable) requirements of ecclesiastical law. In particular, many parishes went to considerable lengths to render their church building or its worship more elaborate and impressive. The parishioners of St Edmund’s Salisbury, for instance, made a significant outlay of almost £10 on a new cope (a priest’s vestment), which was purchased in London. An even larger sum was spent on acquiring a precious new cross, which featured work in gold. The parish also clearly took pride in its painting or banner of ‘Paul’s Dance’ – that is, the dance of death, or danse macabre (see below). Alongside surviving material evidence, churchwardens’ accounts can therefore be used to build arguments about the religious environment experienced by late medieval parishioners: an environment which they evidently did much to create and preserve themselves.
This leads onto our final category of source material for late medieval popular religion: visual evidence. Although a large proportion of religious artwork from medieval England was destroyed during the sixteenth-century Reformation and seventeenth-century Civil War, there still remain many important survivals in churches, museums and books. There is no space here to discuss the full range of medieval religious art – much of which was displayed on church walls, screens, windows, tapestries and altars – or the wide range of interpretive techniques and methodologies deployed by art historians. This final section will instead focus on the images found in books of hours: that is, prayer books owned by literate laymen and women. To illustrate the potential utility of this genre of evidence, we will briefly consider a number of images relating to death and dying drawn from late medieval books of hours, held in the University of Liverpool library. These examples all come from expensive and high-status volumes, from various parts of western Europe. However, relatively cheap, mass-produced prayer books were becoming available in growing numbers over the later middle ages – in particular with the development of printing in the second half of the fifteenth century (Duffy, 2006).
Among the prayers generally included in books of hours was the Office of the Dead, a core component of the medieval funeral service. For this reason, images relating to death appear frequently in these volumes. Such representations – which, as the examples below indicate, are highly varied in their choice of subject matter – can be used by historians to seek insights into contemporary ideas, teachings and practices concerning last things. Two particularly striking illustrations point to the prominence of death in fifteenth-century Europe. The first [C], an illumination in an Italian book of hours from Florence, portrays death in the form of a winged skeleton riding on a black bull. He brandishes a sickle, in preparation for his grim harvest, as though riding out to war. Lying before this menacing figure are the stricken figures of a man and a woman, both of whom are relatively young. The devastating power of death is underscored by additional depictions of a crowned skull and crossbones, under which lie two dead cherubs. A rather different illustration of death appears in an image from a French book of hours from the second half of the fifteenth century [D]. This features a dance of death (danse macabre) scene, in which a corpse carrying a coffin leads on figures representing the pope, a cardinal and a king. Unusually, the figure of death appears not as a skeleton but as a rotting, hairy, and eviscerated body. Its grin and jaunty posture seem to mock the fate awaiting the pope and other dignitaries. This image conveys with relish the standard message of the danse macabre: everyone must face death, however powerful or wealthy they are. These illustrations can be used to assess contemporary attitudes towards dying and the dead, particularly in the light of traditional claims that the later Middle Ages was a morbid era obsessed with death (Huizinga, 1924).
Other illuminations in late medieval books of hours depict the sacred rituals surrounding death in late medieval culture, which were intended to help the population confront life’s end. An illustration from a mid fifteenth-century French book of hours [E] portrays the burial of a (coffin-less) corpse in the churchyard. The grave is being reused, with the skulls and bones it previously held waiting to be removed to a charnel house: a common practice in medieval Europe, an era when only the wealthiest had their place of burial marked. The dignified ceremony takes place in the presence of hooded mourners in black, and is presided over by a priest, whose cross points to the hope of resurrection. A comparable image [F] from an English prayer book, dating to c. 1360, represents a funeral service. This is an altogether higher-status occasion, with well-dressed women in attendance and a coffin decorated with gold brocade. The prominence of clerics in the image again underscores the Church’s indispensable role in the negotiation of death and the salvation of the deceased. Their performance of the Office of the Dead, the text of which follows this illustration in the book of hours, draws the viewer’s mind to the Church’s remedy for human mortality. Art historical evidence of this kind can thus be used alongside written sources to enable a more rounded analysis of the meanings and functions of medieval rituals.
The two final images to be considered here illustrate the wider context of the Church’s teachings about death. The first [G] – from a French book of hours dating to the second half of the fifteenth century – shows the wrapping or enshrouding of Christ’s body, following the deposition (taking down) from the cross. The Virgin Mary and other saints attend the pierced body in sombre and prayerful devotion. The medieval understanding of last things was inextricably linked to the death of Christ, by which (the Church taught) man was reconciled with God. Images of the crucifixion and its aftermath were at once a stimulus for devotion, hope and imaginative identification with Christ’s death. The second image [H], an illustration accompanying the penitential psalms in a fifteenth-century Flemish book of hours, depicts the last judgement: an image typically displayed in parish churches in the form of the ‘doom’. It shows Christ sitting on an orb and displaying his wounds – emblems of God’s love and salvation – while two trumpeting angels announce the Last Judgement. Some souls are seen rising from their graves to be taken into heaven, while others are depicted in the mouth of hell. This powerful image conveyed and expressed contemporary beliefs about the meaning of death, and the necessity of leading a life of Christian virtue. Perhaps surprisingly, images of Purgatory – such a core element of late medieval understanding of death – seem to have been extremely rare, either in churches or books of hours. Instead, the focus of visual culture was the ultimate destination of the soul, as represented in images of the Last Judgement. This wider context for Purgatory – and the ultimate hope of salvation for those passing through – was thus strongly foregrounded in late medieval religious imagery. The ways in which medieval art worked alongside other forms of religious instruction is thus potentially a productive area of historical research.
This chapter has sought to provide a general introduction to the various genres of primary sources which survive for the study of medieval popular religion, along with a more detailed discussion of a small sample of evidence. It is no simple matter to understand and reconstruct the religious beliefs and activities of medieval people. However, although every primary source raises questions of emphasis and interpretation, about which historians often disagree, a clear sense of the limitations and opportunities provided by the surviving evidence is the starting point for more advanced historical writing.
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