The relationship between Church and society

Social involvement

The influence of the Church throughout medieval English society was enormous – it regulated almost every area of daily life. Many institutions and practices that are organised by secular, as well as religious, authorities today were entirely run by the Church:

  • Schools and universities
  • Hospitals
  • Provision for the poor and old
  • Many civic and social organisations in towns and villages. 

This influence was frequently beneficial, seeking to promote care for others, but the Church's powers and influence could also be abused for personal gain, as in the case of the Pardoner.

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 significance of sermons

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 and Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale illustrates the way in which lively stories were often used to illustrate Christian teaching.

The audience of The Pardoner's Tale would have been well-informed about beliefs and religious structures, assumptions and practices. They would therefore have responded naturally to references which today may need explanation and footnotes.

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.
However, 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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