It is a fashion in these days for some folk to assume The Church of the Middle Ages was there to keep the Common Folk in check with ignorance and superstition built of deliberate falsehoods.
This is quite inaccurate.
In the era under study the overwhelming majority of the clergy were quite as ignorant and superstitious as the Common Folk (and Nobility), the only difference being the Clergy could be so in a Literate and Latin way, thus appearing to be learned.
The Clergy– This was quite simple(ish). In Rome was the Pope who surrounded himself with an aura of mystique by claiming he was inflatable and so could be as big as he wanted to be. After him came cardinals who had special hats, even if they weren’t in fashion. Most common were the bishops who found ways to rule towns, or cities and so didn’t have to follow the teachings of The Bible and were thus quite particular. Anyone who was noble and rich enough could be a bishop or a cardinal. Below this were a whole lot of priests. The ones who were best at Latin worked for the bishops; the rest were expected to deal with the Common Folk, unless they managed to get a job with the nobility or royalty, in which case it was hoped they did as they were told.
Asceticism– Many folk, became so other-worldly with their religion they became monks or nuns and lived in Monasteries or Convents devoted to a life of prayer and meditation. Quite a few folk seeing little in the way of career options in the secular world, did likewise opting for a steady job with board and lodge, even if it did mean getting up at ungodly hours to be godly. If monks and they got fed up of their fellow monks or the walls of the monastery they could become friars and live in the community helping the common people and annoying the priests. If that didn’t suit, the option of being a hermit was available. In these times they were normally known as Anchorites or Anchoresses, lived in small locked or bricked up rooms and were considered so holy that Common Folk paid more attention to them than anyone else and no one was allowed to knock down the doors on the walls if offended by them. Nobles never liked having one in their domain.
The Church and its Place in Society
Within the structure of the nation things where supposed to go like this:
The King ruled the realm because God had said he should.
The Nobles did all the ruling stuff for him because he, The King, said God had told him they should.
The Church would make sure that everyone including The King and The Nobles remembered that it was God who had the final say in matters.
However, because The Nobles were won’t to finalise arguments with sharp bits of steel, therefore many of the higher officers (Bishops etc) of The Church didn’t feel that secure unless they had folk about them who could also use sharp bits of steel. In addition, because kings often didn’t trust nobles particularly if they found them trying out The Throne, kings would often appoint Bishops, etc to help them govern because Bishops etc didn’t want to be kings as that spoilt their chances of being a Pope, Cardinal or at least an Arch. Some kings also would get annoyed if The Church (in the guise of Bishops etc) made public statements to the effect that the king, by God’s standard was doing a rotten job, particularly if nobles began to agree with them.
Small wonder that from time to time everything got quite mixed up.
People were expected, of course, to be Christian. If you were Muslim you could only live in Spain, North Africa or the Holy Land, none of which were, apparently yours, even if you had been born in any of them and could trace your ancestors back several generations. That this status because it been written down in Latin by a pope was all your average Christian needed to know. Due to Idiocy and a failure to understand The Bible everything that went wrong was said to be the fault of The Jews and they were expected to put up with this; unless of course the King wanted to right off debts and seize their property in which case they were expelled.
The European Problem
One of the difficulties shared by royalty, nobility and The Church were the ripples caused by all the hoo-hah debates and arguments over the duties, obligations and authorities of Popes and Kings in France, Germany, etc. This was similar to those carried on in these Isles but even more ill-tempered with armies and sieges involved.
The principal two issues being;
French kings, with some, albeit arguable, justification thought they (and their bishops) knew everything better than anyone else. The pope in Rome tried to deal with this by excommunicating whatever French King was around. But the French King just went ahead and found a pope of his own.
The German kings who believed were so many Germans that a German King should be an Emperor if he wanted to be and so have bits of Italy and thus become Holy. As this meant German kings were closer to The Pope than he would have cared for, popes tended to try and get involved in who was the emperor; this sometimes worked. Other times emperors got involved in deciding who should be pope. They also argued over who had the bigger authority from God and who could tell who to do what.
What with the French and Germans announcing they were kings and who was or wasn’t pope, and The Pope excommunicating everyone, small wonder things became so confusing that on occasions even a pope’s auntie was put in charge.
This was all very unsettling for the folk of these Isles as they never knew when they might be excommunicated. Various attempts were made to settle matters by sending Englishmen over to be pope or emperor, but this was only a temporary measure on account of the large numbers of French, German and Italians already there.
Religious Beliefs and Heresies (Part I) – The Usual Business
As was stated earlier everybody had to be Christian, which was observed in these Isles. People who didn’t either were locked up, burnt, or hung in order to save them. Whereas there were interesting heresies and schisms in other countries, the early decades of this era in these Isles the whole business was very much left up to the individual and so not many folk noticed.
This was annoying for the nobility who were unable to take advantage of the resulting social discord and so seize others’ lands or settle scores under the guise of protecting The Word of God.
The principal problem for The Church was having to deal with serious priests and insufferable Common Folk who wanted to know just what was in the Bible in English and even worse suggesting that too many of the Bishops’ etc were far too worldly with lands, wealth and possibly more than one person in their bedroom.
Another problem faced by The Church was the King who although always believed in God often told Bishops, (and so forth) that since God had placed him (ie The King) on the Throne, who did the Church think it was telling him (ie The King) how to behave?
Religious Beliefs and Heresies (Part II) – A Big One.
A scholarly person John Wycliffe who had been born in the orderly year of 1320 spent many years around Oxford. He seems to have been a fussy sort of fellow as he was never happy with the chairs which the University or Church were at pains to give him. This dyspeptic streak may have been the reason why he said The Church was not doing a particularly good job. Wycliffe felt The Church was too wealthy, too much involved in the government of the country and some of the clergy were having too much fun in life.
Initially this made him popular with much of The Nobility.
By 1377 Wycliffe was effectively reasoning the Bible should be very much in English and had gathered a following who were so obstructive to the daily work of The Church they became known as The Bollards. In this year he wrote De incarcerandis fedelibus which excited a lot of people when he finally translated it into English and explained that a King should rule over a Church and A Pope, and more importantly people didn’t have to listen to the clergy unless the king said they could. The Church would have moved against him but the then current pope the XI th Gregory died in 1378 and several French bishops said they were the next pope which put everything on hold.
This enabled several nobles to encourage Wycliffe who, naturally not being that worldly took the nobles at their word. This might have gone quite well for him but for 1381.
Revolts by Common Folk
Because of The Black Death, Wars with France and other stuff to make the king’s accounts add up, much stress was set upon the Common People to pay lots more taxes. They were already roused by an itinerant preacher John Ball who when not in prison was rolling about the countryside saying Wycliffe was right and coming up with inspired ditties such as
‘When Adam and Eve sat about chattin’
Who had any use of speaking Latin?
So when a self-important government official John Bumptious, upset the folk of Essex by demanding the back taxes at once, a revolt broke out and led by several men called Tyler The Common Folk advanced on London chanting:
‘When Eve picked flowers and Adam sat in a tree
There was no need of an aristocracy’
This change in subject and lack of improvement in verse concerned the nobles. When the commoners reached London and started to loot, burn, pillage and execute, which were exclusive privileges of the nobility, there was a confrontation in which the most important Tyler was killed. The Young King Richard II announced he was now the leader of the Revolt. He listened attentively to the rebels and with great sympathy had them all executed.
Although Wycliffe was not directly involved, he was blamed as being the cause for having a Bible written in English and died in 1384, probably of arguments.
None of this stopped him having followers who kept on turning up years afterwards even when the nobility were trying to concentrate on the best way of having a war over whether Richard II was dead and if so who should be king.
This would be so complex that they quite forgot about religion as an excuse for quite a while, except when it came to massacring Wycliffe’s followers.
Thus it can be clearly concluded The Nobility of The Realm were only ready to listen to bishops, etc when it suited them.
In the next chapter, we shall look at the main reasons for all those woes in the forms of Richard (a II) and Henry (a Bolingbroke).