Medieval society was seen as composed of three complementary classes. Wrote one, “Some pray, others fight, and still others work”—referring respectively to clergy, knights, and lay people. “These three groups live together and could not survive apart.”

The medieval Catholic church accepted a wide range of religious tastes and expressions, which in the modern world might find places in different denominations.

Many medieval churches were owned privately by wealthy laymen, monasteries, or bishops. The owner sold or passed on the property as he wished, and its revenues went into his pocket. He appointed the priest, had him ordained, and paid him. Many owners gave the parish to a priest as a “living,” who as “rector,” received all or most of the revenues.

The parish rector collected offerings at mass, on the anniversary of a parishioner’s death, at weddings and funerals, and from penitents at confession. Offerings might be in kind: bread for Communion, wax and candles, eggs at Easter, fowls at Christmas.

During some periods, church offices were bought and sold openly, and church officials lived sumptuously—“loaded with gold and clad in purple,” as one critic put it. Money could buy any kind of dispensation, even for receiving stolen goods. The corruption so angered people, they sometimes ransacked monasteries or killed bishops.

Though priests took a vow of celibacy, many had concubines. The practice was often open and accepted, as long as the priest was faithful to one woman. One chronicler tells about a woman who lived with “a right amorous priest for many years and bore him four sons, three of whom became priests.”

The flickering lights of marsh gas were to many people fairies or goblins; fireflies were the souls of unbaptized dead ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.