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 from the Bible > 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, 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. (See Big ideas from the Bible > Judgement; Forgiveness, mercy and grace.) 

The hope of forgiveness 

Christianity 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. The Church has always seen it as 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

MassCelebrating 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 gift) of salvation.


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 sermon

Sermons were used to explain to believers how they should live. In a time when few could read, oral teaching in sermons was central to people's Christian education.

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
  • 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 virtue.

Judgement and purgatory

The religious outlook that medieval citizens took for granted differs in many of its emphases from that of even a devout and well-informed Christian today. People were extremely concerned with the fate of their soul after death. They took seriously the doctrine that everybody would be judged by God when they died. A Christian might be allocated a place in heaven, whereas an extremely sinful person, who had not repented, might suffer in hell. Nevertheless, most people would go after death to a state of ‘cleansing' for their sins. This state was called purgatory

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.

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