Ideas shaped by the Church

The Church's teachings and practices profoundly affected the way in which medieval people saw the environment, human society, history, politics, morality and their own individual place in the world.

The prevailing religious outlook in Chaucer's day

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 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. After such cleansing, the soul went to heaven. There was great emphasis on the need for penitence over wrongdoing and for forgiveness of sins. This would make it possible for a Christian soul to be in a fit state to receive God's grace and the hope of eternal life with God.

Other important elements in medieval Christian teaching and practice included:

  • Virtuous living
  • Avoiding sin
  • Charity towards others.

Medieval illustration of hellHowever, their importance was still dwarfed by the efforts the Church made to try to ensure that everyone understood the importance of confessing their sins. Death and judgement were among the most important themes and images in the medieval world.

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