The Influence of the Medieval Church

Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

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.

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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18 responses to “The Influence of the Medieval Church

  1. Very interesting… yes, the Church had an enormous influence on everyone and for everything.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    Thank you.
    That the church controlled peoples’ religious observances, food sources, sexual practices and potential marital partners was not surprising. This might have been tough on non-believers or Jews who weren’t expelled, but at least it was accepted by royalty, Parliament and the nobility.

    But you say that the church was also the landlord for many ordinary families. This meant that many thousands of people paid rent to the church and farmed the church’s land, without it being supervised by state authorities. That suggests that the Church could control both religious and secular/economic parts of life. Scary.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Technically there weren’t any non-believers or Jews in England in the fourteenth-century, although I’m sure there were various scales of belief. There weren’t any state authorities to oversee how landlords behaved towards their tenants, but each manor had by-laws that had to be observed by tenant and landlord, and there were legal ways for the tenants to obtain compliance from their landlords.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I bet churchmen today look back on their history and weep. They got away with a lot back then.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I would imagine the church made much of its income through rent collection. So different from today!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. No wonder so many monarchs supported breaking ecclesiastic powers. Those who remained strong Roman Catholics had even greater pull with their current Pope. I imagine many incentives for loyalty were promised.


  6. Until the sixteenth century there wasn’t any option other than to support Rome, although various English monarchs supported church reforms at different times.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Richard

    A wonderful post–thank you!
    April, do you have any recommendations on readings (books, articles, etc.) on the topic of the church as landlord? I’m curious about learning more regarding this, but seem to be coming up short on where to begin. Thanks for any suggestions you may have!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Richard, off the top of my head I can think of three that touch on it. They are Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies. The village they focus on is in a manor belonging to Ramsey (I think) Abbey. England Arise, by Juliet Barker mentions some of the retallations against ecclesiastical lords of the manor during the Peasants’ Revolt. The English Manor 1200 to 1500 by Mark Bailey contains extracts from various documents, some of which relate to church as lord of the manor. I’ve only read bits of this book, though, so I don’t know how useful it would be.


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