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Late Medieval Catholicism: Lay Piety and Clerical Theology

A leading question of spiritually-minded people was, "What can I do to be saved?" They undertook good deeds of endless variety, including purchasing indulgences and going on pilgrimages.

Popes, Magnvm bvllarivm Romanvm

Roman Catholic Popes during Martin Luther's lifetime.

The late medieval Roman Catholic theology and practice offered a rich panoply of options to its diverse followers. Collectively, these made up the overwhelming majority of European people, from Scotland to the Balkan Peninsula and from Sweden to Iberia. In spiritual matters, all were governed officially by the bishop of Rome (the pope). In practice, the people venerated local saints, and their tastes in ecclesiastical decorative styles varied. After the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, all were more or less Gothic. Theologians could engage in lively debates over predestination and the Trinity, over realist versus nominalist doctrines, without getting in serious trouble, unless they threatened to attract a sizable body of adherents and disturb the peace of the church. Siger of Brabant taught that there were two kinds of truth. The mystic Meister Eckhart too closely identified the human and the divine. Extreme Franciscans, in imitation of Christ’s propertilessness, refused even to use friaries loaned to them by the papacy. These were taken to task.

Before the great population expansion of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the centers of intellectual life were the monasteries—virtually by definition in the countryside. Thereafter the cities took over that role, with their universities and increased levels of trade. Merchants purveyed goods from beyond their own homeland and demanded a lifestyle and influence commensurate with their status. Urban centers now became the focal points of ecclesiastical administration, many with their own bishops. The bishop’s seat or throne by definition reposed in his cathedral. Such buildings displayed technological advances, such as the pointed arch, learned from the East, and manifested an unprecedented decorative adornment and regional pride. Leading families endowed altars dedicated to saints, and they provided that priests would recite masses for the repose of their relatives’ souls in the afterlife. A leading question of spiritually minded people was, “What can I do to be saved?” They undertook good deeds of endless variety, including purchasing indulgences and going on pilgrimages. In their wills, the well-to-do provided for the poor in their hometown.

Traveling preachers and, later, even the few appointed preachers in towns called the people to repentance. The End of the World would come at any moment, and without genuine regret for sin and confession to an authorized priest, the indulgent would be cast down into the sulphurous pit of hell at the Last Judgment. The Seven Deadly Sins were both sensual and emotional: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Reminders to think on death, the memento mori, were ubiquitous.

The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had laid down at least the outlines of issues that would become bones of contention in the Reformation era yet to come. Its decrees refer to transubstantiation, the priest’s ritual conversion of the Host and Chalice in the Eucharist into the veritable flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. It enumerated the sacraments, and it obligated every Christian to make a complete (detailed) confession at least once a year and receive Communion. It declared the primacy of the pope above all the other patriarchs.

In 1500, Christians were surrounded by references to their culture’s religious beliefs. Every day of the year was named for a saint. However humble village churches were, they included an altar of special sanctity. They portrayed their patron saint, on whose feast day they celebrated their annual fair. Crucifixes bedecked church walls and cottage interiors. Some city walls displayed holy images. The illiterate masses in their specific troubles, along with literate elites in theirs, verbally invoked that holy figure in whose province their problem or their fear lay. They sought the healing incantations, incorporating the Virgin or the Trinity, of cunning men and women. Laboring mothers in their distress sought the aid of Saints Margaret, Anne, and Mary.

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Men of the nobility saw their defining duty as fighting; they continued to envision themselves as bringing a crusade against the entrenched Muslims in the Holy Land to fruitful conclusion. The crusading ideal remained a motivating theme, and a token of religious zeal, well into the sixteenth century, one taken up by Christopher Columbus and Ignatius of Loyola.

The European population declined dramatically by means of the Black Death, the plague that began its recurrent attacks in 1347-1351. After 1450, demographic levels began slowly to recover even though the plague would not depart for another three hundred years. As people of every estate grappled with their mortality, they clung to their belief in God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary. Only these and their saintly confreres could extend to ordinary humans the joys of eternity before the luminous throne of the Most High. The overwhelming majority knew no theology, but they had hope despite disease and war.

To cite text: 

Karant-Nunn, Susan, & Lotz-Heumann, Ute (2017). Confessional Conflict. After 500 Years: Print and Propaganda in the Protestant Reformation. University of Arizona Libraries.

Selected titles from University of Arizona Special Collections:

Johann Altenstaig (–ca. 1525). Vocabularius, Basel, 1515

Jodocus Trutfetter (1460-1519). Epitome, Erfurt, 1507

Johannes de Lapide (1425-1496). Resolutorium, Cologne, 1506

Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471). Imitatio Christi, Strasbourg, 1489

Gabriel Biel (ca. 1425-1495). Epithoma, Tubingen, 1499

Late Medieval Catholicism