Popular piety and the Church's spiritual role 1/2


The Church's spiritual role

The Church was powerful because it provided a link between God and human beings who could only reach heaven through membership of the Church.

The life of the agricultural community and the Church year (liturgical year) fitted well together. The majority of feast days, or holy days, were days when the community would not work but would celebrate together.

Some key event on the liturgical calendar included:   - Advent, preperations for christmas and the farming community slaughtered the pigs and turned them into meats for the year   - Christmas, celebrated the birth of Christ and followed by a number of feast days for the three wise men    - Shrove Tuesday, the last day before lent when the last good meal for a while was eaten    - Lent, began on ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter, and a season of fasting    - Eastertide, the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, lambs were eaten in the traditional feast - Rogation Sunday, the whole community 'beat the bounds' and walked around the parish boundaries carrying banners and the parish cross, bells were rung and prayers said to ward off evil spirits    - All Saints' Day, on 1st November when the dead were remembered

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Lay religious guilds

The wealthy were able to finance the building of personal chantry chaples where a priest would be employed to say masses for the individual or family in perpetuity.

Others joined guilds which provided a chapel and a priest for all those who contributed to the common fund and it would ensure that prayers were regularly said for a dead person's soul and also provided a funeral with a requiem mass.

New guilds and fraternities were regularly formed and individuals often belonged to more than one, they played an active part in religious festivals. They were important because they could determine their place in the Corpus Christi procession.

Membership of a guild not only meant that prayers would be said for the dead but they were also concerned in caring for the living. They provide benefits to members who were in difficult financial circumstances, imposed strict moral codes on their members and required attendance at Guild masses and the funerals of other members.

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Heaven, hell and purgatory

People believed that they were born with original sin and that every time they disobeyed God's laws they would acquire more sin. When a person died they believed they would spend time in purgatory where they would be judged before going to heaven.

Time in purgatory could be reduced through earning indulgences such as going on pilgrimages, praying to saints or touching relics. Wealthier people would sometimes pay people to go on pilgrimages for them. Prayers to saints and masses for the souls of the dead would also reduce time in purgatory.

Time on earth was seen as a preperation for eternal life. Going to heaven meant an eternity spent in paradise in the company of Christ whereas hell means spending eternity tormented by the devil in an inferno from which there was no escape. 

Masses could be chanted in Latin in chantry chapels and prayers could be said for the souls of the dead to reduce their time in purgatory. Good works were all activites that the Chruch acknowledged could reduce time in purgatory. This means by which an individual was able to go to heaven through either faith and or good works is known as salvation or justification.

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People could demonstrate their faith or their penance by going on a pilgrimage.

Some journeys might be lengthy and dangerous and visited tombs of saints such as Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury or shrines built where there had been reported visitation of the Virgin mary such as at Walsingham in Norfolk.

Pilgrims would wear a pilgrim badge to show that they had visited the shrine. The very wealthy would wish to purchase relics of saints as well as praying at the tombs.

The pilgrimage to the relic of the saint would count as an indulgence and was belived to reduce the time a person would spend in purgatory. People would also make pilgrimages to seek a miraculous cure for an illness or disease.

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The seven sacraments

The seven sacraments were key to the catholic faith. They took place throughout a person's life from birth to death.

Baptism -  when children were cleansed of original sin

Confirmation - when young people became members of the Chruch and could take mass

Marriage - when two people were joined together by the priest

Ordination - when a man bacame a priest

Confession - when a person told their sins to a priest and was made to do penance

Mass - the most important sacrament where the priest carries out a re-enactment of the last Supper of Chrust. The priest elevated the host and the wine and through his prayers Catholics believed a transformation occured in which they became the body and blood of Christ, this was known as transubstantiation.

Last rites - when the dying were anointed with holy oil before they died

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The role of the priesthood

The priest was central to the spiritual lives of members of the Church. He was the representative of God on earth and only priests were able to administer the sacraments. The priest reassured the people that, if they came to Church and did their best, God would be kind and forgiving.

In preperation for the annual Easter Mass, it was vital that the individual was purged of his sins and was at peace with his neighbour. The priest would hear confession of his parishioners and was able to forgive their sins on completion of penances. Once the person had been granted absolution then they could participate in the mass and pass the Pax, a symbol demonstrating peace.

Only the priest was able to perform the sacrament of baptism, marriage and last rites. All of these were necessary, not just as rites of passage but as a means by which a person might attain everlasting life.

Most of the population were unable to read and write which meant they relied on the priest to interpret the word of God for his congregation. It was therefore important to the congregation that the priest in their parish was educated and capable.

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The importance of printing

The main development was the growth in literacy amongst the nobility, gentry and merchants, which was the result of the increase in grammar schools. They taught latin grammar to the sons of merchants and the gentry, and the ability to read and write meant entry to one of England's two universities, the church, the legal profession or a merchant. 

Increased literacy was also encouraged by the growth of the pritning press and the availability of books. It was developed in germany in 1450 and a single press could produce 3600 pages a day enabling large-scale production and distribution of books. The first book printed in English was only published in 1475.

Religious books were very popular especially Bibles, alothough they were only in Latin. Books were imported from the continent, often by merchants who traded in woolen cloth. The impact of cheaper and more readily-available books was transformational. It gave people quicker and easier access.

In addition, there was a growing market for narrative tales such as the Canterbury tales and books about King Arthur and the Knights of the round table. 

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