Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness

Human sin

To appreciate the power the Church wielded in the lives of ordinary people in medieval England, it is important to understand key beliefs about sin and the need for forgiveness.

Sin, in Christian teaching, consists of disobedience to the known will of God. The first example of sin described in the Bible comes in the story of Adam and Eve, who were placed by God in the Garden of Eden. They chose to disobey God and, as a result, were expelled from his presence and condemned to live in a harsh and inhospitable world. [For further information see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam']. 

The Medieval Church inherited and taught the doctrine of original sin, the belief that all human beings share in collective guilt as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the Fall of Humankind, together with an ongoing predisposition to disobey God. Everyone, therefore, needed to be cleansed through baptism, to learn to resist temptation and to live in such a way that, when death came, they would be ready to face God's judgement on their thoughts, attitudes and actions.

The hope of forgiveness 

Wooden cross, photo by Tangopaso, available though Creative CommonsChristianity teaches that, through his death on the cross, Jesus Christ took the punishment for human sin, thus ‘turning around' the effects of the Fall of Humankind, making it possible for individuals to be forgiven, to learn to live in obedience to God and eventually, to reach heaven (See Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace.) The Church has always seen it as being very important to remind individuals of this teaching and to encourage them to respond.

Delivery of Christian truth

There were three central elements on which the medieval Church focused.

The Mass

Celebrating mass (also known as the Eucharist) was an important sacrament. By taking part in this, believers symbolically shared in the victory paid for – and won by - Christ over the power of sin (known as the atonement). Through this they could receive the grace (meaning the undeserved gift) of salvation.

The sermon

Though richer people might own prayer books, knowledge of the Christian faith came, above all, from preaching and teaching, week by week from parish priests. This parish teaching was conducted in English and sometimes in Norman French. There were vernacular retellings of biblical stories and some French and English translations of the Psalms and other parts of the Bible, but few laypeople had direct access to the text of the Bible. It was in sermons that people learnt Bible stories as well as aspects of Christian history, such as saints' lives, and the basic doctrines and moral principles of the faith. Sermons could be very skillful and lively to illustrate Christian teaching.

Sermons had several functions:

  • To educate people about the Christian faith and the Church's rituals and practices
  • To make known the contents of the Bible, the Church's interpretations of the Bible, and also the lives of saints
  • To help people understand the system of confession and to prepare for their confession to their parish priest in a careful way
  • To explain about sin and virtues.


Helping people to confess their sins and receive assurance of forgiveness was the role of the priest. The medieval Church distinguished between venial and mortal sins:

  • Venial sins were relatively small faults and shortcomings. The individual could confess these privately to God
  • Mortal, or ‘deadly', sins were wrong acts committed consciously and deliberately. They therefore placed the soul in serious danger and the Church taught that, in normal circumstances, they could only be forgiven through the sacrament of penance and by confession to a priest.

The Seven Deadly (or Cardinal) Sins

A number of specific sins are mentioned in the New Testament (see Mark 7:21-23 and Galatians 5:19-21). In time, lists of sins considered particularly serious were drawn up and, by the Middle Ages, seven ‘deadly' sins had been identified:

  • Pride (Latin, Superbia)
  • Envy (Invidia)
  • Anger, or wrath (Ira)
  • Avarice or covetousness (the love of riches, Avaritia)
  • Sloth (laziness, also the loss of a hopeful and positive attitude or despair that someone is beyond God's love and salvation, Accedia)
  • Gluttony (greed for (especially rich) food and drunkenness, Gula)
  • Lust, or lechery (Luxuria). 

This list of sins was an important teaching tool in the medieval Church and sermons, poems and wall paintings presented them dramatically and vividly in order to warn people of the danger they posed. The sins were sometimes presented as personifications or as animals. They occasionally underlie characters in literature.

Physical and spiritual sins

Much of Christian theology holds that the greatest sin is pride because it sets a person up against God – and pride was seen as leading Adam and Eve to follow their own judgement, not God's commands. The sins based in the body (lechery and gluttony) were considered less serious than the mental and spiritual sins, such as pride and envy.

Partly this is because a strong current of thought (which can be traced back to the pre-Christian classical world) rated the things of the body as being deeply inferior to the things of the mind and soul. It was, however, believed that being too absorbed in the life of the body and material things was bad for the soul. This attitude was demonstrated by:

Medieval practices to ensure salvation from sin

Medieval Christianity stressed, above all, how vital it was for people to get themselves into a situation in which they were likely to receive God's grace and thereby spend the afterlife in Heaven, rather than being punished for their sins. The Church accordingly designed a set of practices which could help people regularly to repent of sin, receive forgiveness and undertake good works to show their sincerity about wanting to amend their lives.


True repentance was essential for any hope of salvation. More than just feeling sorry about wrongdoing, repentance means the person wants to turn away from undertaking wrong behaviour and actively decides to do so henceforward.


In the medieval Church's ‘routemap' of salvation, true repentance must be followed by confession to a priest. The priest would hear the confession and talk to the penitent to ascertain that they truly repented and resolved to do better in future. The priest then pronounced absolution, declaring that Christ forgave the sins of the truly repentant.


This means an action which demonstrates that someone has repented of their sins. The priest might order a penitent, for example, to do one of the following for a period:

Penance is thus the last part in the chain of processes ensuring forgiveness.

Purgatory: ‘Cleansing' of souls in the next world

Penance was particularly important because of the medieval church's teaching about Purgatory. This was a doctrine that crystallised during the later medieval centuries.

The idea of purgatory was based on the obvious fact that most people are neither extremely good nor extremely evil. Therefore, the Church declared that most people, even if not going to eternal damnation in hell, would not go straight to heaven after death either. Instead, they would spend a period in the spiritual state of purgatory where they could ‘pay for' / atone for sins committed on earth. Only when their souls were thus cleansed could they proceed to the full bliss of heaven.

It was believed that, whilst still alive, people could undertake deeds that would speed either themselves (in the future) or a dead friend or relative through this process. Penance was one such action.


The word means essentially the same as ‘pardons'. Indulgences were promises, issued by the Church, which said that, in response to a person performing certain virtuous actions following confession, he or she would be released from additional penance:

  • Indulgences had initially been offered to people going on crusade in the twelfth century, since they might die before being able to undertake proper penance
  • The systematic use of indulgences only became regularised in the fourteenth century
  • In the late Middle Ages, they were claimed particularly to shorten the time of punishment that a soul spent in purgatory
  • To qualify for an indulgence, people had to confess, receive absolution and then do prescribed good works: for example, make certain prayers, go on a pilgrimage, donate to the upkeep of bridges or to hospitals (the medieval Church played a major role in both those social provisions)
  • However, the idea of simply paying the church's representatives arose as a convenient option. 

The abuse of this system for gain, both by individuals and ecclesiastical institutions, caused great anger and was a common theme for condemnation and satire in Chaucer's period.

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