Medieval Advent

Mattana, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent does not, as I’ve read in more than one place, begin on the last Sunday in November. Mostly it does, but occasionally it begins on the first Sunday in December. The crucial thing is that Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. Unlike Lent, the other great fasting period of the Middle Ages, it isn’t a set period. It varies in length from year to year.

For the people of the Middle Ages, Advent was a time of preparation for Christmas. It wasn’t Christmas itself, as many of my neighbours think, since Christmas trees and Christmas decorations are already appearing in these parts. Advent was, and is, the beginning of the church year and it was a serious time. It was such a serious time that people had to fast. Fasting meant abstaining from meat, not abstaining from food altogether. This showed them that this time was different from the rest of the year. It was a time for reflecting on the past and thinking about the future.

Doom Painting

Advent wasn’t just about preparing for the baby in the manger; it was also about preparing for the second coming of Christ. Everyone in the Middle Ages was aware that Christ was coming again and would judge mankind. Most parish churches had a doom painting somewhere on their walls. Doom paintings showed what we would call the Last Judgement, when Christ judges everyone, living and dead, sending them to Heaven or Hell.

Doom paintings, such as the illustrations to this post, are quite frightening. They show the two different fates awaiting everyone, living or dead. Usually, those judged righteous are assisted to Heaven by angels, while demons with sharp teeth, claws and instruments of torture carry the unrighteous to Hell. I should think that seeing one of those every time you went to church, which would have been more than once a week, would have had a very salutary effect on your behaviour.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

23 responses to “Medieval Advent

  1. I visited Salisbury’s restored Doom Painting in St Thomas Church last March. Breathtaking! I’m sure you’re right about the effects on a weekly congregation. It was my last outing before lockdown which somehow seems appropriate.,

    Liked by 3 people

  2. York Minster has a carved doom stone which i think would be quite horrific for the people to contemplate. Cool post April.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Maybe its because I am getting older but it struck me when reading this that I like periods of ‘abstinence’ or at least not overindulging (not that I find them easy!) but they DO serve to clear a space (in my tummy?) and clear the mind…as I am quite anti-religion I havent been able to see that before. Maybe my life long cake and biscuit love has been an act of rebellion…hmmm. Thanks 🙂

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  4. We would find abstinence at this time of year nigh on impossible. All those pre-Christmas catch-ups with friends, which always involve eating and drinking. And abstaining only from meat (easily done) wouldn’t cut it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. lydiaschoch

    I had no idea Advent was a separate thing from Christmas! Interesting. If it’s okay to ask, do you know if married couples were also expected to abstain from sex for these week? I thought I once read there used to be specific holy days that included prohibitions on that.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I need to come visit this blog more often! Your content is amazing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I went to parochial school growing up, and I remember lighting the Advent wreath in our classroom every year: 3 purple candles and 1 pink candle to light, one per week until they all were lit at once and Christmas was upon us! A very visual reminder for a child.

    Liked by 1 person

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