Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Medieval Morals

 by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

The church was a great power throughout the medieval age, and on through the Tudor and Stuart periods. But the Puritan standards of the early to mid-17th century stand out as quite distinct from earlier eras. The medieval age was not puritan in its beliefs, and certainly not puritan in behaviour.

Pope Gregory dictating to a secretary
Much contemporary documentation which still survives today was written by priests. Those who liked to keep records often had little else to do during the long quiet hours in monastery life, and who wished to lay down the standards by which they believed the people should live. Now we can read these past diatribes, and we naturally come to believe that the people of the time were forced to live up to such high moral standards, and that the power of the church demanded exactly that.

Yet although it is true that many people felt obliged to attend church far more regularly than is expected now, and it is also true that daily Mass was not an unusual habit for many, I believe it would be quite wrong to accept that the entire population of any country (I write principally of England ) lived continuously in a state of obedience to the church doctrines. Folk were as independent then as they are now, and few people find it easy to obey strict rules during their day to day lives.

The three medieval classes: those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked
Adultery was a sin, but most kings had openly kept mistresses, had illegitimate children which they cheerfully acknowledged, and made no secret of their adultery. What is more, there is significant documentation showing that the brothels of the time were much used by priests and higher clergy. Many brothels were legally licenced, and on the southern shore of the River Thames across from London, the area of Southwark was awash with prostitutes, taverns, and criminal activity.

There exists a hilarious surviving sermon of the time, scribed by the monks, which lists a series of amazingly lurid sexual acts, describing them all as dreadful sins and utterly forbidden. But it is equally clear that quite a number of people had confessed these behaviours, knowing such acts sinful but acting out their desires anyway. Indeed, it was accepted practice of the time to sin as wished, then to confess those sins, pay the price and take the simple punishment, and thus be forgiven. Earlier generations might commit the most serious of crimes and be absolved by riding off to fight for Christianity during the Crusades, and so earn absolute salvation. But that method was long gone during the late medieval period, yet general behaviour most certainly did not improve.

 Medieval illustration of a battle during the Second Crusade
A depiction of a battle of the Second Crusade
In any case, morality of the time came with certain limitations. Toilets (privies) were not common in most houses and even the great castles might have only one or two for the use of the lords. A few public toilets were built in the city, and were much used. However, none of these were enclosed by a door, and were simply open alcoves where seats were erected over holes emptying directly into the moat, the river, or the cess pit. No flush-toilets in those days – and no privacy either. Of course, when no toilet of any kind was available, then folk used a chamber pot – and these were frequently emptied out of the window each morning – to decorate the gutters of the town.

Privacy was very hard to find in other ways too. Most small houses both in town and countryside, had just one room upstairs which served as bedchamber for the entire family. The children would curl up to sleep on the straw pallets or share a truckle bed, listening to the familiar sounds of their parents making love just a few inches away. Even the nobility had little dignity for such matters. True, they could pull the curtains around their four poster beds, but within the same room the pages and other servants would be listening. And at this time, everyone went to bed naked. The films which show medieval sleepers in glorious long nightdresses are not accurate at all. Naked in bed – and in the coffin!

The church was strictly disapproving of common marriage practices, and insisted that only church porch wedding ceremonies were valid in the eyes of God – with God’s law on Earth being the church itself. But this was largely ignored. Most folk committed themselves to a marital union by “hand-fasting” which was a private agreement, needing no clergy and not even witnesses. Even kings – notably King Edward IV – got away with this most improper behaviour. It was perfectly legal after all, however disapproving the church was of such secretive practices.

King Edward IV.jpg
King Edward IV
There also exists evidence showing many folk of the time attended church, but without the respect of pious behaviour. St. Paul’s Cathedral, for instance, also allowed wandering beggars and traders, trays of goods hung around their necks, who continued to do their business in the aisles. People evidently carried on their own conversations during the priest’s sermon, had arguments, wandered off to see what was for sale, and left when bored.

St Paul's - before 1561
However, life was not without attempts to make it comfortable and safe, with severe punishment for treason, murder and theft. There was no common police force of course, but there was the Constable and his assistants, and the Sheriff who oversaw the peace.

But it was when death threatened that folk took their religion most seriously, and with the risk of hellfire and endless wandering in Purgatory, their last confession was considered of absolute importance. The presence of a priest was essential for absolution before death, and no one would lie during that final important confession, believing that they must soon answer to God.

Purgatory -  Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry 1412-16


Barbara Gaskell Denvil was born in Gloucestershire, England but, has now moved to rural Australia.
She has published five  historical novels - Satin Cinnabar which is a crime adventure actually commencing on the Bosworth battlefield, Sumerford's Autumn which is an adventure mystery with strong romantic overtones, set in the early years of the Tudor reign, Blessop's Wife (published in Australia as The King's Shadow) which is a crime/romance set in England during 1482-3 in those turbulent years around the death of King Edward IV, The Flame Eater, a romantic crime novel also set in 1482/3, and a time-slip novel Fair Weather, a highly adventurous mystery  which is set earlier during the reign of King John.
Her new novel The Deception of Consequences is a Tudor mystery - adventure and will be published late February 2017.
Barbara is also an author of fantasy fiction.

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