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During Europe in the Middle Ages, how religious was the "average Joe"? Looking at the large scale politics of the time it seems religion was a major part of the elites' lives, with treaties with the papacy, crusades, excommunications of kings etc. But to my knowledge all this is geared around the upper classes - knights, lords, barons and kings, and was to a large extent realpolitik. Do we have any evidence that peasants were either insincere in their profession of belief (a profession which was compulsory, I'm pretty sure), or at least any lack of interest or ambivalence in organized religion?

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Given that average Joe was all to happy to kill off witches for "consorting with the devil" and/or kill the Jews for "killing our Christ", I'd say pretty religious. – DVK Apr 1 '13 at 3:42
The question is a bit like asking how much the average person today believes that stock markets exist. The possibility that God did not exist was simply not an idea that the average person would have been exposed to. – Lennart Regebro Dec 13 '13 at 17:55
very religious. – Matthaeus Oct 28 '14 at 18:04
In virtually every community, the largest and best structure was the church or cathedral, not to mention the large religious complexes that dotted the landscape. – Oldcat Mar 25 '15 at 19:32

I'm inclined to turn around the assumptions in your question re the powerful vs. the powerless:

IMO the dual powers of popes and emperors did not prevail mainly for spiritual reasons. They were the same stuff as "realpolitik" is still made of: perhaps think of excommunications as U.N. mandates of their days :)

On the other hand, I could imagine that to "average Joes" religion was dearer than to the powerful in their official functions. Why? There was no psychological branch of medicine nor self-help book industry around. I've recently heard that (I think) 26 percent of Americans suffer from some form of diagnosed/treated depression. Now we live in demanding times, but so did folks during the Middle Ages. I am inclined to think that religious institutions served (mainly or also) somewhat vital "worldly" roles then, roles that we tend to underestimate from today's perspective of relatively secure medical care, more enlightened understanding, etc.

So how religious was the "average Joe": well, perhaps (also) "26 percent", or in any case more than we perhaps allow today.

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Afterthought: Nicholas Taleb in a book or interview argued that Medicine for a long time was generally so ill-developed that chances were that a physician's treatment led to further hazards to, not restoration of health (e.g. also very grave with situations in crowded and infected hospitals in the 19th century), and that (only or also) therefore it might have been often rational to visit, say, a temple and thus (by necessity) avoid the doctor :) – Drux Apr 9 '13 at 9:19
+1 for the comparison to modern times. It's worth noting that many "religious" practices from a thousand years ago have strong parallels to modern medical and psychiatric practices: for example, the Catholic practice of confession serves a similar function to modern day therapy sessions, allowing for emotional release through open and regular discussion of what you're going through in your life. It's easy to see how that basic human need, the need to be heard and to express your frustrations which we think of as psychological, was being addressed through religious practice at the time. – Nerrolken Dec 13 '13 at 17:55
@Drux: Are you aware that the popularity of leeching and phlebotomy in Medieval and post-Medieval Europe was due to the greatly beneficial effect it had on hemochromatosis sufferers, for which it remains the best modern treatment, along with blood donation. Hemochromatosis is the world's most common genetic defect; restricted to populations originating in North-West Europe, and is believed to confer a significant resistance to bubonic plague. However, the blood absolutely must be let three or four times a year to relieve symptoms. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 14 '13 at 15:11
@Drux: from the Mayo Clinic: mayoclinic.com/health/hemochromatosis/DS00455/…. Also make sure that blood ferriten is tested, not total iron (that's how my dad died). Ferriten is the key indicator of the disease. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 14 '13 at 22:03
@PieterGeerkens Thx, much appreciated. – Drux Dec 14 '13 at 22:08

I answer pretty much every question here with 'it depends'. This one is no exception: It depends what you mean by 'religious'.

Did the 'average person' believe in a supernatural being? Yes ... 'non-belief' or atheism simply do not exist in the European middle ages. Simply put - absolutely everyone was religious, if you take 'believing in God (or perhaps gods)' as the qualifier.

However if you take 'religious' to mean something more specific - such as regular church-going, or adherence to the strict tenets of the medieval Church, the answer would be very different. At the peasant level, it's pretty well established that Christianity could mix with all manner of other beliefs and superstitions to create something that was far from standard religiosity.

Moreover, the Church did not set great store by attendance at church by the general population. A peasant might be expected to attend Church at Easter or Christmas, but the rest of the year was pretty much optional. (Paying your tithes - not optional, of course).

The main 'business' of the church was not seen as providing a service to the rank and file population, but instead it was the carrying out of masses and prayer in the great monasteries, priories and cathedrals. The religious well-being of the individual was far subsidiary to the interests of the great churches, and parishes and parish clergy quickly came to be primarily tools by which money was syphoned upwards to the canons, prebendaries, deans, archdeacons, priors, bishops and abbots. Saying so is not to criticize the pre-Reformation Church, but rather to simply point out that it was in those offices that society viewed the primary concerns of the church to lie. It is only later generations that have come to see the religious care of the individual as the church's 'main job'.

So another way to answer your question would be to say - everybody was religious, but the majority of people were perhaps hardly more regular churchgoers (or more interested in the Church) than a modern agnostic.

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E.g. certain religious orders such as the Franciscans clearly were providing also services to the poor, and their monestaries were not "great". (Others, such as the Benedictines, had built great monestaries; yet others, such as the Jesuits, educated the elites.) IMO your answer is biased from an agnostic perspective (which I share, BTW), because indeed "it depended" and still "depends". – Drux Apr 9 '13 at 9:07
My point was not to deny the role and importance of orders such as the Franciscans, nor to imply that the pre-Reformation Church 'wasn't doing it's job'. The question was 'how religious was the average person', not 'did the church care about the average person'. The answer to the first question is both 'very' and 'but not in a modern sense'. If you view medieval religion through the filter of our modern concept of individualistic 'person-centric' religion and church-going, it is never going to give you a satisfactory answer. – fred2 Apr 9 '13 at 13:50
Hmm ... I was mainly reacting to your sentence "The main 'business' of the church was not seen as providing a service to the rank and file population, but instead it was the carrying out of masses and prayer in the great monasteries, priories and cathedrals" (or a version without the perhaps crucial qualifier "mainly", which did not catch my attention before). – Drux Apr 9 '13 at 15:09
While this might be true, every village and settlement had its own church building, and often a substantial one....or more than one if the town was of any size. – Oldcat Mar 26 '15 at 20:25

Gorski 2000 seems to indicate part of the problem is the fetishisation of organised religion as an indicator of peasant religiosity and the corresponding privileging of Christian narratives of appropriate religious behaviour in medieval Europe.(Van Engen 1986 in Gorski 2000) The peasantry depicted in all these historiographies was fundamentally religious—what it was not what organised or Christian in comparison to the opinion of the Church. So the answer is "yes, they were fundamentally religious, but your question is wrong as it incorporates unacceptable normative assumptions." Medieval popular cultures were local, Christian, Magical, Pagan, Churched and non-Churched. But fundamentally religious in the sense that a metaphysical determination of reality was constant, and the observation or propitiation of a reality other than the apparent was required.

Gorski supplies a full literature review with critical analysis as of 2000. Any question you may have on the topic will be fully covered in Gorski.

  • Philip S. Gorski (2000) "Historicizing the Secularization Debate: Church, State, and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ca. 1300 to 1700" American Sociological Review (65:1) Special Issue: "Looking Forward, Looking Back: Continuity and Change at the Turn of the Millenium" pp. 138-167 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2657295
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Too much critical theory jargon from this source for my humble taste :) – Drux Apr 9 '13 at 9:13
@Drux Apparently a long-winded and rambling way to make the point that folk religion can be very different from the official religion as represented by canon law, papal bulls and Church art. Which is actually a very good point, so +1. (Though I guess Gorski 2000 was not the first one to have realized that...:) – Felix Goldberg Dec 13 '13 at 17:28

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