It’s hard to overstate the influence that the church had on everyone in fourteenth-century England regardless of who they were or where they lived.
Most people’s experience of the church was within their own parish and parishes were tiny. Southampton was a small town enclosed by one and a quarter miles of walls, yet there were five parishes within those walls. There was also a friary, but we’ll come to that later. The size of the parishes, even in towns, made it possible for parish priests to know their parishioners and vice versa. Nobles and the king had their own chaplains to look after their spiritual well-being.
Many towns also housed a monastery or abbey. Southampton had an Augustinian friary. Monks of the mendicant orders, like the Augustinians, were more visible in the community than other monks, who tended to remain within their monastery walls, although even they left the monastery more often than we might think. In some towns, again like Southampton, a local monastery provided the priests for the parish churches. Even if you didn’t have one in your town, you were never very far from a monastery or abbey in fourteenth-century England.
Not only was the church everywhere, but it also influenced every aspect of life. It didn’t just tell you what to believe, but it also decided when you could or couldn’t eat meat and what type of meat you could eat. Horseflesh was forbidden, although it was a rule followed only in England. The church said that you couldn’t have sex on certain days (although that was probably fairly widely ignored). The church told you who you could and couldn’t marry; the rules about consanguinity, however, were so complex that few people who weren’t aristocrats or monarchs, for whom legitimate heirs were important, could have worried about them. Somewhat surprisingly, you didn’t need a priest in order to marry, although the church was doing its best to bring that too into its sphere of influence. The church told you what the time was and rang bells to announce it. The church told you when you could have a day off from work. It turns out that there were lots of days off if you were a medieval labourer.
For many people the church was also its landlord. The bishop of Winchester, for example, was lord of much of the land between the south coast and London. Over the centuries wealthy men and women had given gifts of land to monasteries and individual churches, often in exchange for prayers and masses after their death, but sometimes simply because it was an act of charity. This meant that many thousands of people paid rent to the church and farmed the church’s land.
Schools and universities were run by the church and part of their purpose was to educate boys and men for the priesthood, but more often for the civil service. Most men in what we would today think of as public service were clerics of one kind or another. Some of Edward III’s closest advisers were churchmen. This access to education also meant that the best educated men in the kingdom were clerics and they tended to be the ones who studied to advance knowledge. They were the scientists and philosophers, as well as the theologians.
It wasn’t just the men in the civil service who were politicians, though. Bishops, abbots, cardinals and popes were also very involved in national and European politics. Various popes sent cardinals to negotiate with the participants in the Hundred Years War. Since they were French and based in Avignon, however, they weren’t trusted by the English and the diplomatic missions were failures.
The medieval church really was everywhere and governed most aspects of people’s lives.