Learn about the medieval religion, the reasons for pilgrimage and the use of astrology.
In medieval England, Christianity was by far the most dominant religion, and the Bible was the most popular book. Religion played an important part in the lives of the people of that time, and was seriously viewed as a pleasurable pastime by the majority.
There were approximately 9,000 parishes in medieval England, and each had one or more parish guilds associated with it. Membership into a parish guild was voluntary, although one was expected to pay an annual fee. Naturally there were more wealthy people than poor in each association, giving each guild a hierarchical structure. Members often spent time praying for those who had passed away recently. Feasts and processions were organized to celebrate religious days, and charity work was encouraged. Each guild was usually formed to honor a particular Saint, and so was named after that Saint, the most popular being The Virgin Mary.
The Christian calendar was of great importance to the ordinary folk of medieval England. It gave their lives structure. The stories and teachings appropriate to each time of year could be shared, and this gave the masses a common purpose for their existence. There were thirty-six separate observances throughout the year, ranging from the circumcision of The Lord on January 1st, to the worship of St. Thomas of Canterbury on December 29th. The large number of days of worship highlights how essential this calendar was in giving people’s lives structure. Also, people would have looked forward to these religious days because it meant no work, which in medieval times could have been extremely strenuous and often dangerous.
The most celebrated time in the Christian calendar was Christmas, as it is in modern Christian culture. It was in the medieval period that folk wanted to establish a definitive date when they could celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. December 25th marked the Winter Solstice, the shortest day in the calendar year. This date was probably chosen because of a yearning for the arrival of spring, the birth of Jesus being seen as a similar symbol of fertility. Christmas day was usually celebrated with a banquet, the centerpiece of which would be a wild boar. Ivy and holly were hung as decorations (these were considered to be symbols of fertility also). People exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day rather than the Christmas day of modern times. Entertainment was attained in the form of acting, singing and the playing of table games such as chess and cards, so even the poorest people could join in the celebrations.
Christmas celebrations continued until January 6th (Epiphany), although in many cases was extended as late as February 2nd, the date of an ancient Pagan festival. This date became known as Candlemas. Worshippers would donate a penny and a candle to the church, and the candles would be used to comfort people in difficult or stressful situations. This giving signified the end of Christmas celebrations in most cases.
Pilgrimage was another area of religion that anybody could undertake. It was very popular and often done spontaneously. The reasons for setting off on a pilgrimage could vary greatly. Some would do it so they could further themselves spiritually; the visiting of a place of religious importance was given great spiritual value. Many people became pilgrims as a form of self-punishment, going on long and arduous journeys. The end result they were trying to achieve would be the same though, spiritual enhancement. Others would go to places of religious importance to seek a miracle cure for an affliction. One such place was the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Folk would travel many a mile to drink the water from the shrine, which was supposed to contain some of St. Thomas’ blood, for its alleged healing properties.
Wealthy people could afford to go further afield in their pilgrimage. Traveling to some of the less accessible areas of the world was deemed to be of a greater spiritual value than relatively local travels. Those held in the highest regard therefore were Jerusalem, The Holy Land, and Rome.
Astrology, although not a part of popular culture, played an important role in attempting to predict courses of events and such. At first it was shunned, because it was thought that admitting the validity of astrology would be denying that God was omnipotent, which would be bordering on blasphemy. However, students at the University of Oxford were keen to try and explain the workings of the natural world through astrology, and eventually it became popular.
The Arabic scheme of astrology became popular in medieval England. It was a particularly elaborate process, and so one had to be well trained to use the scheme. Not unlike the horoscopes of modern days the Arabic scheme was divided into four subcategories. The first, revolutions, dealt with predictions about war, epidemics, and politics. The second, interrogations, was concerned with particular questions, such as whether a person was suitable for marriage or not. The third, elections, tried to ascertain the best times for certain events. Finally, nativities were most like modern day horoscopes, and gave predictions for an individual linked with his/her birth date, and the positions of the stars in the sky. These predictions were taken extremely seriously, with people believing there was some higher force at work, so therefore astrology has been deemed to be an important part of the religion of medieval England.