Parish life in the Middle Ages (Part 1)

Parish life in the Middle Ages (Part 1)

Frank Mobbs

We may perhaps think that Christians in past ages conducted their lives in much the same way as they do today. We shall see that there are interesting differences between then and now.

I shall attend to Church life in the Latin or Western part of the Church in the thirteenth century. It gives a picture of what was typical for over 500 years in Western Europe.

The parish was very important. Few people ever travelled more than 20 kilometres from their homes in a lifetime. Most walked to their parish church, so there were many parishes. In sparsely populated areas of Poland and Scotland, for example, parishes covered a wide area but most were small. In England and Wales there were 9,500 parishes for several million inhabitants, averaging one parish for every 350 people in rural areas and one for every 200 people in towns. If you visit the old part of Oxford today, you will notice eight churches within a radius of 200 metres. The pattern is repeated in Rome and in hundreds of towns. Imagine a town of 7,000 inhabitants like Ararat, Victoria, having 28 parishes. Remember everyone was a Catholic.

In cities there were too many parish churches. The cathedral at Amiens could hold most of the population, yet there were plenty of other parish churches. Today there is a medieval parish church beside the cathedral in York, England. York had one cathedral, 50 parishes, and two large abbeys for about 10,000 people. In addition to parish churches there were the chapels of houses of religious orders, colleges, and shrines.

One lived out one's life in a parish. Therein one had to attend Mass on Sundays and Feasts, and confess one's sins at Easter. There the dying received the Last Anointing, a common occurrence. Marriage before a priest was not compulsory but, when it happened, the parish priest alone had the right to conduct it.

Parish boundaries were important because taxes and dues fell on parishioners who had rights to sacraments, burials, and blessings within their parish. Parish priests made sure parishioners paid dues to them and not to a neighbouring priest, so disputes were fierce and frequent. To this day members of Church of England parishes ceremoniously "Beat the bounds" on a given Sunday, thus marking the boundaries of a parish.

Each parish had at least one priest and on average, there were five clergy: priests, deacons, sub-deacons, sacristans, and unspecified clerici (clerks). All these clergy had to be supported financially although most were poorly paid. Money came from the land with which the parish was endowed and from tithes and dues paid by parishioners. Payment was compulsory. Landlords also endowed churches, monasteries, and shrines

Often the parish priest (rector) took the revenue from the parish, used part of it to pay a vicar, a priest, to carry out the duties of the rector whilst the rector lived elsewhere. This means that a significant part of parish income did not go to those who did the work. The abuse, known as absenteeism, was condemned by numerous Church councils but persisted into the nineteenth century.

The rector's main income came from land as, like most of his parishioners, he was usually a farmer with interests much the same as theirs: the weather, crops, cattle, pigs, timber and water supplies, ploughing and reaping and crop diseases. And he joined in the sports on Feasts. While hearing confessions was rare, the rector said Mass on Sundays and Feasts, and commonly on week days. Church law required him to be celibate but, with no training in celibacy, observance was difficult.

The education of priests was rudimentary. There were no seminaries so one wanting to be ordained took instruction from another priest or from monks on how to say the Office and Mass and confer sacraments.

As liturgy was conducted in Latin a priest had to memorise carefully the formulae for giving absolution and anointing the sick lest he invalidate the conferring of the sacrament. Parishioners complained that they they had not been absolved because the priest could not recite the formula. Often his only books were liturgical. Using these, most priests gave instructions to laity.

Many priests did not preach because of ignorance so bishops ordered that the words of the Our Father, Hail Mary, the Creed, and Ten Commandments be painted on church walls so that the priest would know them.

A sermon by a university graduate or a friar was a notable event causing people to travel considerable distances to a town to hear sermons. We must keep in mind that most people were illiterate, so a priest seemed to them learned.


With something like a third of all land in the hands of Church corporations (dioceses, parishes, monasteries, friaries, convents) a great deal of wealth was shared by clergy. Income from Church endowments made joining the clergy attractive and would do so for the next 600 years.

Men were ordained by the hundreds after minimum instruction and perfunctory examination, and wealthy candidates were often dispensed from any examination. These worthies commonly were ordained deacon or priest so as to keep certain Church lands in the control of their families.

By the thirteenth century there were universities authorised by popes and governed by bishops, whose students were exclusively clergy. Graduates were notably learned and usually took the top jobs in the Church, or served bishops, lords, and kings as lawyers, administrators, and ambassadors. Some served in town parishes and made quite an impression with their knowledge.

This is the first of a series. Part 2 will be published in the February 2012 AD2000.

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