Category Archives: The Medieval Church

Medieval Bills of Exchange

Last week there was a question in the comments from Ellen Hawley who wanted to know how the innkeepers who stored and organised the transport of goods on behalf of merchants were paid by those merchants. I touched on this subject a bit when we were looking at how ransoms for prisoners of war were paid, but there is more to be said on the subject.

Banking in the fourteenth century was fairly sophisticated, even if two Florentine banks had gone bust lending money to Edward I and Edward III. Italian banks and Italian merchants were the most advanced in their business dealings, but we have to go back to the Templars in twelfth-century France to understand where the idea of how to make payments over large distances and in different currencies without physically moving lots of money arose.

Moving large amounts of coins was rarely a good idea in the Middle Ages. It was incredibly difficult to protect a train of slow-moving pack animals or carts from robbers and bandits. Even small amounts of money were vulnerable, as Chaucer discovered when he was robbed on three separate occasions when he was carrying money to pay men working for Richard II. This is not to say that real money and jewels weren’t transported around Europe and the East because they were. In 1328 a large amount of money was sent from the papal court in Avignon to Lombardy to pay the army there. There was a guard of 150 cavalry, but they were attacked and half the money was stolen and some of the cavalry were captured by the bandits and had to be ransomed.

Since it was so risky, another way had to be found to make payments across large distances. Somewhat surprisingly, we have to go back to the Templars and the Crusades. Although the Templars were active in protecting pilgrims and fighting in the Crusades in the holy Land, in England, France and Italy one of their primary functions was providing secure storage for important documents and precious objects. Although monasteries in general were fairly secure, the Templars were soldiers as well as monks. If I had to give my precious objects to someone, I think I’d prefer them to be in the care of men who were able to fight to protect them, rather than simply rely on the strength of monastery walls and doors.

The Crusades, however, meant that wealthy men needed to be able to access some of their money while they were in the East.  Not only did they have to feed the soldiers in their retinue, but they also had to replace lost or damaged equipment and horses. They also had to live in a certain style.

Fortunately, the Templars could help them. The Templars had preceptories all over Europe and in the East. A preceptory was a headquarters. Temple in London is where the English one was located and Le Temple is where the French equivalent was built in Paris. These were built like fortresses and were very secure. Wealthy men could deposit money in one of them and receive a letter of credit allowing him to receive the same amount in the local currency (less administration charges and interest) at any preceptory in Europe or in the Holy Land. This meant, of course, that the Templars made a profit on the transactions.

The records kept by the Templars were very thorough and everyone trusted them, with good reason. They even had a treasure ship off the coast of the Holy Land from which kings and nobles could make emergency withdrawals whilst on campaign. They were also able to make loans.

Since men from across Europe were involved in the Crusades, it’s not a surprise that the Templars became involved in the activities of Italian merchants and bankers who were interested in trade across Europe and in the East.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the Templar’s great wealth proved too tempting and Philippe IV of France destroyed the order in that country. The Florentine bankers had learned what they needed to do to fill the gap and came up with bills of exchange.

Bills of exchange allowed a person in one country to pay someone in a different country and in a different currency. They were also a form of loan on which interest was charged. Since charging interest was illegal, it was usually hidden in the administration fees, commission and exchange rates. Money didn’t have to be transferred just between branches of the same bank, but could also be transferred between different banks. The banks were not banks as we know them today. As far as I can discover, the only banks were Italian, but they operated all over Europe.

Bills of exchange weren’t always practicable. Sometimes the rate of exchange in one place made it too costly to buy a bill of exchange and silver, gold or precious stones had to be transported from one place to the other, because, despite the cost and risks involved, it was the cheaper option.

Bills of exchange weren’t just used by merchants, but also by people on business for the papal court. Men in the service of the kings also used them. Bills of exchange could only be used between locations that had more or less equal amounts of money in the branches of the bank. If the difference between them was too great, coins would have to be transported from one place to the other.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it allowed innkeepers in France to be paid in their local currency by a merchant in England.

The Templars: History and Myth
by Michael Haag
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford

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 Fourteenth Century, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Monks, Thirteenth Century, Twelfth Century

Medieval Shrines

Pilgrim badge, Becket’s shrine

Some time ago I wrote a post about pilgrimage and how many people travelled from their homes to visit shrines. The shrine didn’t have to be far away or even devoted to an important saint, but it had to be a shrine that contained a holy relic of some kind.

Some shrines were huge and the pilgrims could go inside. Others were much smaller. The main thing was that the shrine should contain a holy object. In some places the pilgrims were permitted to see the relic, in others the relic was only displayed on special occasions, if at all. A relic could be a part of a saint’s body, something the saint had touched, something associated with a miracle performed by Jesus or an object associated with him. Most famously these last were parts of the True Cross or the crown of thorns. All these objects were believed to have the power of healing, protection, forgiveness or spiritual guidance depending on the saint involved.

This belief in the powers of relics went back to the first days of Christianity. Since shrines and reliquaries contained objects of power, they also, by association, became objects of power themselves.

One of the outcomes of the second Council of Nicaea in 787 was that every church should have a relic, in or on the alter or beneath it in a crypt. Even small parish churches needed a relic in order to be consecrated.

Much has been made of the vast number of fake relics during the early Middle Ages, as there was easy money to be made from selling them to churches. There were, for example, many heads of John the Baptist. Many people were aware that fake relics were in circulation. They could accept that a particular relic might not be all that was claimed for it, but still believed that it had power because people accepted it as a relic. Others simply believed that relics possessed the power of self-replication.

Most pilgrims brought money to shrines. At some of the larger pilgrimage sites part of the money was spent on souvenirs of the trip in the form of pilgrim badges like the one at the top of the post. These were a proof that the pilgrimage had been completed, which was useful if the pilgrimage was a form of penance ordered by the pilgrim’s priest, or a punishment.

Pilgrims didn’t just buy souvenirs, they also left gifts at the shrine. A gift could be money, but it could also be a precious object. Pilgrims who undertook the journey to thank the saint for a healing miracle, for example, might leave a model of the affected body part made of gold or silver. Sometimes, however, the person giving thanks was not very wealthy and their models were made of wax. Wealthy pilgrims might also give money to the church housing the shrine.  Pilgrimage was a commercial proposition from the beginning of the fifth century. Offerings left at the shrine, however, were rarely touched by the church housing the shrine, even in times of great financial need.

Most English shrines were dismantled during the Reformation and the precious metals left by the pilgrims were taken to the royal mint.

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

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 Church, Medieval Buildings, Pilgrimage, The Medieval Church

Medieval Lent

Saxon Rood

Since we’ve just entered Lent, I thought we’d have a look at what happened during this period in the Middle Ages. When we think about Lent as it was experienced seven hundred years ago, we tend to focus on the fasting aspect. Meat, milk (cream and butter), and eggs were banned, which, as I’ve said in other posts, probably wasn’t much of a change for most people who struggled to get meat much of the time. What we rarely think about is what Lent meant to a medieval person. Today many people think that Lent is just about giving up chocolate or television or something else that’s reasonably important to them, but people in the Middle Ages knew that giving up things was to help them to reflect on the meaning of Lent.

So, what was, and is, Lent? It’s the forty days before Easter and is a very sombre time in the church calendar. It leads to the despair of the Crucifixion and, ultimately, to the joy of Easter Day. Like Easter, it doesn’t have fixed dates. It takes as its model the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness and is a time of sacrifice and deprivation. It lasts from Ash Wednesday until the end of Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday.

Before Ash Wednesday, there is Shrove Tuesday. In the Middle Ages this wasn’t a single day but a longer period known as Shrovetide, when people confessed their sins so that they could begin the Lenten fast having repented, received absolution and done penance. This is the meaning of the word ‘shrive’ from which ‘shrove’ is derived. Even in a small village it would probably have taken the priest longer than one day to hear everyone’s confession. Shrove Tuesday was the last day on which meat, milk and eggs could be consumed and in some countries it turned into a bit of a party – Carnival. That’s not the case in England, where it was a fairly serious day until the Reformation. That’s when the tradition of making pancakes to use the last of the eggs and the butter began.

The other thing they were supposed to abstain from during Lent was sex. Who knows now how strictly that particular injunction was observed? Since most people, even married couples, had no privacy, I suspect that it was … for the most part. No one could get married in Lent and it’s still something that many churches aren’t keen on. These days, though, it’s more for practical reasons than spiritual ones. Lent is an austere time and churches can’t be decorated as some couples might wish.

This many centuries later, it’s really hard to know what people thought about Lent, but they wouldn’t have thought it was just about what they couldn’t eat, or couldn’t do. The church was the centre of everyone’s life and everyone grew up going to church on Sundays and feast days. The parish priest was always there and there was probably a monastery or convent not far away. Mendicant friars might have visited the parish and preached. Parishioners heard sermons and, even if their priest didn’t have access to a Bible, they learned enough about the cycle of the church year to understand the meaning of Lent. They would have understood that it was a time of reflection and preparation. Fasting was only something that would aid this; it was not the most important aspect of Lent.

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 Fourteenth Century, Medieval Food, Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

The Friar of Carcassonne by Stephen O’Shea – A Review

Published: 2011
Pages: 280

Although most of the events related in The Friar of Carcassonne take place in the fourteenth century, their roots stretch back into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the explosion of heresies in the Languedoc, an area of southern France. Stephen O’Shea has written about the origins of Catharism in the region in a separate book, The Perfect Heresy, and The Friar of Carcassonne is the story of a Franciscan who played an important role during its end.

Brother Bernard Délicieux, a Franciscan, took on the inquisition (very definitely lower case at that time) when no one else dared. There had been obvious abuses by the Dominican inquisitors in Carcassonne, a town in Languedoc, at the end of the thirteenth century. Some of the inquisitors, it turned out later, received financial benefits from identifying certain wealthy people as supporters of the heretics. Very little ‘evidence’ was required to condemn someone and many men spent decades incarcerated in terrible conditions, eventually dying in prison for supporting people they’d never heard of. This was the main incentive for Bernard to take on the inquisition.

O’Shea goes back in time at the beginning of the book in order to set the scene. By the end of the thirteenth century Catharism had begun to die out, but there was renewed persecution in the last two decades of the century. This resulted in unrest in a region that had only recently become part of the kingdom of France. Eventually what was going on there caused concern both to the pope and to the king of France.

Brother Bernard is presented as charismatic, intelligent and persuasive. O’Shea shows how he managed to gain the support of both highly-placed churchmen and counsellors of Philippe IV, king of France. He also shows how easily Bernard made enemies in equally high places, including kings and popes. Bernard, it turns out, could also be a bit of a rabble-rouser when he wanted and he wasn’t above lying to further his cause or to save his life.

Unusually for something that happened in a remote corner of the world to someone who wasn’t terribly important beyond that corner, the events are well-documented. The reasons for this become very clear as the tale progresses. O’Shea makes good use of these records in his presentation of the friar and his activities.

I enjoyed the book, but found it quite disjointed. Of necessity, O’Shea has to explain a lot of background before he can write about what Bernard did in a particular situation and why it was significant, and that breaks up the narrative, since it’s necessary in almost every chapter. There are also copious notes at the end of the book, citing sources for those who want to find out more. If you’re interested in the heresies that erupted in the twelfth century, you will probably want to read this book.

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 Book Review, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Heresy, The Medieval Church

Geoffroi de Charny and the Turin Shroud

These week we’re continuing with our look at aspects of the life of Geoffroi de Charny. Like most of his contemporaries, de Charny was very pious. In the 1340s he started planning the building of a church on his estate at Lirey. He wanted to have five clerics in the chapel who would pray and say masses for himself, his family, the king and the royal family. It was in relation to this church that the Shroud of Turin was first mentioned and De Charny was probably its first owner, if not the person the commissioned its creation. He’s certainly the first verifiable owner.

The first mention of it being in his possession was in a papal letter written not long after his death, when de Charny’s son had inherited the shroud. De Charny junior gave exhibitions of it to the public to no little scandal, since he gained financially from it. It’s possible that de Charny himself exhibited it around 1355 to 1356. The exhibitions were subject to an episcopal investigation at the time, led by Henri de Poitiers, the bishop of Troyes. It seems that the church was worried that the shroud was being passed off as a relic of Christ. Following the episcopal investigation, the family were told that they had to announce that the shroud was not a relic whenever they exhibited it. This doesn’t mean that it was created with the intention of deceiving people, but that people can convince themselves that something is a relic, even when it clearly isn’t.

A pilgrim badge has been found showing the shroud with the arms of de Charny and his second wife. They might, of course, be the arms of de Charny’s son, but the badge certainly shows that there were sufficient pilgrims wanting to see the shroud around the middle of the fourteenth century that it was worthwhile to have lead badges manufactured to sell to them as souvenirs.

This sounds trite, but in the days before photography, a badge was proof that someone had arrived at and returned from a recognised site of pilgrimage. This might be particularly useful if the pilgrimage was being carried out as an act of penance. It was also a way of recognising another pilgrim.

It’s possible that de Charny purchased the shroud while he was on crusade in 1345 to 1346, although unlikely due to the way in which the linen thread was spun. It’s more likely that it was made and painted at his or his wife’s request by an artist local to Lirey for an Easter service, in which a linen sheet representing Christ’s shroud was carried to the altar and laid on it ready for mass. This was a recorded part of the Easter liturgy in some places. Most scientific tests have dated the shroud to between 1260 and 1390. The width of the cloth is certainly standard for the fourteenth century loom. It would have been created as an icon, an aid to devotion, rather than a false relic, something deserving reverence of itself. It was only later that it was considered to be a relic.

The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy
The Origins of the Shroud of Turing by Charles Freeman, History Today November 2014

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 Fourteenth Century, Pilgrimage, The Medieval Church

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

Medieval Music

In the last post we saw that people are taking to medieval style music in a big way at the moment. That made me reflect a little on the kind of music that was around in the Middle Ages.

Music was very much a part of medieval life. Then, as now (well, not right now, but usually), there was music in church and music for dancing. Performances of mystery plays were accompanied by music. Pilgrims often sang as they walked.

It’s difficult to know now what medieval music sounded like, or even what some of the instruments used in the Middle Ages were. Much of what is known about medieval instruments comes from pictures and sculptures, which don’t say anything about what the instruments were made of or how they were made. They don’t even provide much information about how they were played. Sculptors and artists weren’t necessarily accurate in the way they depicted musicians and their instruments. If they weren’t musicians themselves, their representations of the instruments and how they were held and played could be flawed. There were some treatises written about music, though, which help.

Fortunately, there are those who have done the work to try to replicate what medieval musicians might have played. They reproduce the instruments and work out what the musical notation means. Musicians research performance practice and the music is performed.

The examples below are fairly short and come mostly from the twelfth century. The first two are from the Carmina Burana. This was a collection of poems by various authors mostly written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Most are in Medieval Latin, but some are in Middle High German. Many of them are very bawdy, so you’ll have to go elsewhere to find the lyrics. Carl Orff set some of the poems to music in the 1930s, so the name and some of the poems might be familiar to you. He wasn’t the first, though. Many of them are accompanied by music in the original manuscript.

In taberna quando sumus means ‘when we are in the tavern’. Need I say more?

Tempus est Iocundum (The time is pleasing) is a celebration of new love.

This next piece is the sort of thing that pilgrims sang on their way to Compostela to the shrine of St James. Dum Pater Familias tells the story of St. James and ends as a prayer to him.

Finally, here’s a piece by Hildegard von Bingen, an extraordinary woman who was a nun in the twelfth century. Ave generosa (Hail thee, noble one) is a song of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m sorry about the picture that goes with it, but you could listen with your eyes closed.

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 Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life, Pilgrimage, The Medieval Church

Things I’ve Learned From The Canterbury Tales Part One

Canterbury Tales

When I started reading The Canterbury Tales I guessed that I would come across a few things I didn’t already know about the fourteenth century. This has proven to be the case,  even within the first few pages, but some of the things I’ve learned aren’t really enough to sustain a whole post. I thought, therefore, that I would do a series of ‘pick and mix’ posts as things arise. There is nothing to link the things I’m writing about, other than that I came across them in The Canterbury Tales and found them interesting

One of the pilgrims going to Canterbury is a friar. In his description in the General Prologue, Chaucer tells us that the friar keeps knives and pins in his long sleeves to give to women. This came as a bit of a shock to me. Aside from sounding rather dangerous, why was the friar giving things to women? The notes came to my aid here and it turns out that friars, who travelled from place to place preaching and begging for alms, were ideally placed to be pedlars. The friar carried his wares in his sleeves and was always ready to make a sale. Chaucer tells his readers that he made a fair amount of money in this trade. He gives the impression that he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

The friar also participated in ‘love days’. They’re not what you’re thinking. Instead, they were meetings between the parties to a dispute who wanted to reach a settlement out of court. Sometimes this was with the aim of avoiding going to court at all, and sometimes the love day took place after those involved had appeared in court but before a judgement had been made. The friar was an arbiter, putting him in a position where he could receive bribes if he wished, and we assume that he did so wish. Chaucer doesn’t have a very high opinion of his friar. Perhaps he had suffered at the hands of friars at love days. Chaucer made a bit of a habit of being in debt in later life and there are records of cases against him seeking repayment. Some of those cases would have been settled at a love day and not always in his favour.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer edited by Jill Mann
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

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 Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, The Medieval Church

Medieval Embroiderers


Butterbowden Cope By The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by NotFromUtrecht using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Embroidery was something that every woman brought up in a wealthy household could do.  They sewed purses for their husbands, or table linen or cushions for the household. If they were really accomplished, they might make something for the local church. I think all the women in my novels do embroidery at some point.

Nuns also embroidered. Some of them could get so carried away with it that they were told to return to their books and the singing of psalms.

Embroidery was not just a domestic skill, however, it was also a profession. In the domestic setting, embroidery was done by women. Professionally, it was mainly done by women, but some men were also involved. It looks as if all the designing was done by men.

For 200 years, from around 1150 to about 1350, England led Europe in embroidery skills and designs.  This was the peak of the opus anglicanum ((English work)) style of embroidery and it was in great demand, both in England and abroad. This changed until, around 1400, the quality had disappeared and Flemish and Italian designers and embroiders were pre-eminent.

There are no records of guilds of embroiders at this time, but they, or something like them, must have existed in order to maintain the quality of the work. Whether or not they did exist, there were still some rules that the professionals had to follow. Like the fletchers and bowyers we met a couple of weeks ago, they were not allowed to work by candlelight.

Leading embroiderers worked directly for kings, nobles, bishops and abbots, embroidering clothing, vestments and decorative pieces. Embroidery was not something that could be rushed, not if you were to produce something of quality. During the reign of Edward I, it took four women three and three-quarter years to make the altar frontal for the main altar in Westminster Abbey.

Large objects, such as copes, chasubles, altar-cloths, mantles, and bed and wall hangings were made in workshops by a team of embroiders. Smaller ones, such as bands, mitres, cushions and purses could be made by an embroideress in her own home.

The best embroideries were done with silk thread, and silver and gold thread, the making of which was a skill in itself. Those who could make it were paid more than embroiders. They spun narrow strips of gold or silver around a silk thread. The thread was extremely expensive, so it was attached to the cloth by couching, allowing all of it to be on display. Couching was a technique in which the gold thread was placed on the fabric in the desired shape and held in place by small stitches in silk thread along its length. This is a technique I’ve tried and it’s not easy.

The other main type of stitch used was the split stitch. It’s exactly what you think it is: the needle splits the thread as it comes from the back to the front of the fabric. I’ve only ever done this by accident.

After the Reformation, many church vestments were destroyed so that the precious metals and jewels could be recovered. Very little medieval embroidery has survived and even the Bayeux Tapestry was almost ripped up on several occasions.

Here is a very short video showing the process used in the Middle Ages to create a piece of embroidery.


Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers by Kay Staniland


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 Clothing, The Medieval Church

Medieval Priests


Some time ago I started an occasional series on the various roles in fourteenth-century society. It was so occasional that I didn’t finish it. I don’t promise to finish it now, but I will get to some of the things that I left out.

We’ve spent a lot of time with monks recently, but the medieval church was more than monks. There were many clerics who lived and ministered in various capacities in the secular world and some of them were more secular than others. Today I want to look at priests.

Anyone other than a serf was eligible for the priesthood. Once ordained there was nothing, in theory, to stop them becoming bishops. William of Wykeham was a good example of this in the fourteenth century. His father was a freeman, but he went to school and started work as a secretary, becoming supervisor of Edward III’s building works. When he was almost 40, he was ordained. Four years later, he was made Bishop of Winchester. It is true, however, that few men of humble origins rose so far. They were far more likely to become the priest of a parish not far from where they were born.

There were about 9,000 parishes in England at the beginning of the fourteenth century and each one needed at least one priest. The lord of the manor appointed the rector, who was responsible for the parish, but the rector didn’t always live there. He could hire a deputy, a vicar, to manage the parish in his place. The rector received the revenues from the glebe and the parishioners’ tithes. From these he paid the vicar a stipend.

The glebe was land that was used to provide a living for the rector.  A glebe would, on average, be about 100 acres in size. Like everyone else in the parish, unless it was in a town, the priest would grow crops to eat on some of the land and grow crops to sell on the rest of it. Most rectors paid men to work on the glebe.  Parishioners gave a tenth of what they produced each year to the priest. This might be in the form of money, crops, eggs, milk or animals. This was the tithe. For most parish priests the tithes provided more than the glebe and they were able to sell some of the crops they grew themselves.

If the rector was a local man, he tended to live in the parish and do the work himself. In this instance he was usually the son of a freeman or a craftsman. Absentee rectors were more usually members of the nobility who lived on the income from one or more parishes. It wasn’t uncommon for rectors to have several parishes. As you would expect, some took care to make sure that the work was being carried out properly, while others did not.


Fourteenth Century Priest’s House, Muchelney

Parish priests were very much part of the community they lived in, even though they were distinct from it. They joined in all the village celebrations and activities, and they worked their land like their neighbours. They were different in that they could absolve sins and, as they saw it, ‘make God’ in the mass. They were also supposed to be celibate.

It took a long time for the first Lateran Council’s ruling on celibacy in the first half of the twelfth century to be imposed, but by the fourteenth century it was generally accepted in England that priests weren’t supposed to have wives. Some priests kept concubines, however. It wasn’t until the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century that celibacy was finally enforced.

Another distinction was that members of the clergy were tried in church courts, which tended to be more lenient than other courts. Although priests, like monks, were supposed to be tonsured, most weren’t. There wasn’t really any way to differentiate between a priest and anyone else by the way they were dressed, so priests who were accused of a crime could find themselves in the position of having to demonstrate that they had the right to be tried by a church court. The test was whether or not they could read a passage from the Bible. This wasn’t the easy test that it sounds, as the Bible was in Latin and the majority of priests received little formal education.

The lack of educated priests was tackled by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It took a few decades for its effects to be felt across England, but bishops began to require that their parish priests should know and understand the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins, the seven sacraments and the creeds. They were supposed to preach about these to their parishioners, teaching them how to approach the sacraments. Other duties were catechising children and guiding the morals of their parishioners. Since priests had to look after the glebe, there was always the fear that they would spend most of their time growing food rather than looking after the spiritual needs of their parishioners.

Despite the growing use of instruction manuals for priests since the thirteenth century, there were many complaints at the end of the fourteenth century that parish priests were so ignorant they were leading their parishioners to hell.

A Social History of England 1200-1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies


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 The Medieval Church