Historians defined the Middle Ages as the period from the end of the Roman Empire in 476 CE to the beginning of The Renaissance in the 15th century. During this time, the Catholic Church was literally the power behind the throne, appointing rulers, controlling governments, and acting as the moral guardian of nations. As a result, priests in the Middle Ages were central players in society.
Priests, appointed by the king directly or through his bishops, were often treated as nobility because of the role they played. In medieval feudal society, the class structure was very rigid, and those in the lower class, the peasants and serfs, were doomed to stay uneducated and poor.
It was said that medieval society consisted of those who prayed, those that fought, and those who worked. Peasants were the workers, while knights, cavalrymen, and foot soldiers fought, and the clergy, including bishops and priests, prayed and were considered the closest to God.
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Priests In The Middle Ages
Even the Church had its own hierarchy in the Middle Ages. While some clergy was extremely wealthy and politically powerful, others at the other end of the scale were illiterate and poor.
Priests And The Church Hierarchy
As mentioned, the Catholic Church became the center of power and control after the fall of the Roman Empire. The pope was possibly the most powerful figure in medieval Europe. He was able to appoint rulers, dethrone kings, make and enforce laws, and influence every aspect of society.
Below the pope in terms of seniority in the Church were the cardinals and then the archbishops and bishops, often extremely wealthy, owners of magnificent homes, and employers of the villagers and serfs in their diocese. Priests were appointed by the king, acting through the bishops, and were at the next level in the church hierarchy.
They were the most public clergymen, if not the most politically influential, playing a direct role in the day-to-day life of the village or parish in which they lived. Below the priests were the deacons, who assisted the priests at Mass and in the functioning of the Church. Finally, the monks and nuns formed the lowest rung of the clergy, living in monasteries and nunneries in poverty and chastity and devoted to a life of prayer.
The Duties Of Priests In The Middle Ages
Because priests played a leading role in society in the Middle Ages, they were exempted from paying taxes and, while not strictly speaking part of the class structure were considered part of the nobility.
One cannot overemphasize the role the Church played in medieval Europe – through its influence and control over the monarchy, it was effectively the central pillar of government. Bishops owned sizeable portions of land granted as fiefs by the king, and priests were, in effect, their representatives within the parishes and villages of the diocese.
Because of this, priests can be viewed as the first civil servants and had many roles to play. Their duties were vital to the well-being of every member of the community from birth to death and beyond:
- Holding Mass every Sunday for parishioners. In medieval communities, this was a service that everybody attended for religious upliftment but also for social interaction.
- Baptisms of newly born babies, their christening, and later their confirmation
- Marriages of parishioners
- Giving last rites and presiding over funeral services
- Ensuring that the Will of the departed soul was fulfilled without having to use a lawyer
Beyond just holding these church services, the priest’s duties extended to all other aspects of life in the village, particularly in providing some level of education to the community.
While local village priests often had only the most basic education themselves and were at best only partly literate, parish priests may well have been better equipped to teach. All priests, however, were required to set up schools to try and uplift the local population by teaching them rudimentary reading and writing skills.
Priests, being leaders in the community and quite possibly the most literate, were also required to act as administrators for the lord of the manor, attending to title deed duplications, as well as keeping records and accounts of the village’s local government business.
As part of these administrative duties, the priest was obliged to collect taxes from the people, which considering that he was not required to pay tax himself, made him an unpopular figure in the community. But as he was the closest to God, listened to confessions, guided the inhabitant’s moral behavior, and was able to absolve people of their sins, the priest was also held in high regard.
How Were Priests Appointed In The Middle Ages?
While modern-day priests have received training in seminaries and are assumed to have a deep commitment to their beliefs, in the Middle Ages, this wasn’t the case. The clergy was seen as a worthy profession rather than a religious calling, and both royalty and nobility would often appoint members of their families to senior positions in the Church in areas they controlled.
This was often the case with second sons, who were unable to inherit the title and properties from their father and were compensated with these senior ecclesiastical posts.
Another interesting aspect regarding how priests were ordained is that priests were permitted to marry and have children for a period in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Stemming from this liberal attitude, the priesthood of a particular parish could be inherited by the son of the present priest.
Even when marriage was banned for Catholic priests, they continued to ignore the celibacy restrictions imposed on them and had children with “housekeepers” or concubines. Even their illegitimate sons could be ordained as priests after being granted special dispensation by the Church.
The priesthood was also open to members of the lower classes simply because of the number of priests needed in a diocese. A peasant with enough determination could approach the lord of the manor or the parish priest and gain entry into the Church, possibly as a deacon, and subsequently become a priest – education was not a prerequisite.
The method of appointing priests resulted in corruption rearing its ugly head, as wealthy noblemen would “buy” a particular parish for political power and install the person of their choice as parish priest irrespective of his ability to do the job.
What Did A Priest Wear In The Middle Ages?
In the early Middle Ages, priests’ garb was the same as that of laypeople. As they became more influential in their communities, this changed, and it was deemed necessary by the Church that priests be recognized by what they wore.
By the 6th century, the Church began to regulate how priests dressed and decreed that they should wear a tunic covering their legs, in contrast to laymen. This tunic was known as an alb, which was then covered with an outer garment, either a tunic or a cloak when saying Mass. A long shawl covering the shoulders was also part of the required “uniform.”
In the 13th century, priests in England were required by the Church to wear a hooded cape called a cappa clausa to further identify them as clergymen.
How Did Priests Earn A Living In The Middle Ages?
Tithing was the principal form of taxation of the poor, instituted in the 8th century by the Church, which made its collection the responsibility of the local priest. One-tenth of the produce of farmers or tradesmen had to be paid to the priest, who was entitled to retain one-third of the amount collected for his own sustenance.
The balance was paid over to the bishop of the diocese and was used partially by the Church and partly to support the poor. As tithes were usually in kind rather than money, they were stored in a tithe barn until distributed.
The Life Of Priests In The Late Middle Ages
While a few priests in the bigger parishes may have accumulated some wealth, this was not usually the case. Apart from the portion of the tithe they were entitled to, priests usually received a small salary from the lord of the manor in exchange for secretarial work. In order to support themselves, some priests turned to farming to supplement their meager income.
While in the bigger parishes, the priest’s rectory was a substantial stone house, and he may even have had a servant to assist in household duties, many priests lived in poverty, in wooden cabins similar to those of the serfs and peasants. They would keep pigs and chickens on a small piece of land and lived a life very different from the wealthy senior clergy that they served.
Because many priests lived this kind of life, they also, like their fellow parishioners, frequented the same taverns and, despite the twelfth-century celibacy mandate, had sexual encounters, fathered illegitimate children, and were anything but moral, upstanding citizens.
The quality of priests was generally poor towards the end of the Middle Ages, and while the Church continued to play a central role in medieval society, the lack of morality evident at every level, from the Papacy to the priesthood, resulted in disillusion among the steadily more aware population and the eventual birth of the Renaissance.
Priests in the Middle Ages played a central role in the lives of their parishioners due mainly to the enormous influence of the Church in every level of European society after the fall of the Roman Empire. As this control began to wane, the priests’ position in their community also changed. Their lives, while never very privileged, lost a lot of relevance in an increasingly secular world.
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