Religiousness in the Late Middle Ages

Christianity and Traditional Culture in Central and Eastern Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

by Stanislaw Bylina (Author)
©2019 Monographs 174 Pages
Open Access


This book is devoted to the religiosity of the medieval Christian masses in Central and Eastern Europe and its relationship with the traditional cultures of that time. Addressing such topics as the common instruction of the three prayers and the Decalogue, "Christian" magic in everyday life, the Marian devotion, and various images of heaven and eternal damnation, the author never loses sight of his main topic: the complex and powerful interaction between medieval folklore and Christianity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Preface
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • 1 The Catechesis of the Population
  • To Church on Sunday
  • Parochial Schools
  • Whom Did Preachers Teach?
  • The Common Catechesis: Three Prayers and the Decalogue
  • The Image in Service of the Word
  • Instructional Imbalance
  • 2 Attitudes to the Sacred
  • The Duties of Good Christians
  • Prayer and Hymns in Church
  • Prayers of Petition, Prayers of Thanksgiving
  • The Repetition of Prayers
  • The Prayerful Gesture
  • To See and Be Close
  • Penetration by the Secular
  • Blasphemers, Sceptics and Non-Believers
  • 3 Directions and Aspects of Piety
  • The Path to Christ
  • The Marian Devotion
  • People and Saints
  • 4 Folklore under the Influence of Christianity
  • The Church and Folk Tradition
  • Beyond the Influence of Christianity
  • The Content of Annual Rites
  • “Christian” Magic in Everyday Life
  • Magical Words and Texts
  • Divination
  • 5 Christianity under the Influence of Folklore
  • The Natural Environment: Older and Newer Beliefs
  • The Folklorisation of the Saints: Evidence from Syllabic Verse Calendars
  • The Sacred among People
  • The People’s Messiahs
  • 6 The Living and the Dead
  • Fear of Death
  • Concern over the Soul’s Fate
  • Traditional and Christian Beliefs
  • Categories of the Dead
  • Ghosts
  • 7 Imagination and the Afterlife
  • Imagining Heaven—Paradise
  • Visions of Eternal Damnation
  • “The Third Place”
  • Final Comments
  • Bibliographic Information
  • Index

1 The Catechesis of the Population

Let us retreat for a brief moment to the era that preceded the Late Middle Ages. In so doing, we might notice that some historians who have researched the Christianisation of Central and Eastern European societies as a continuous process, unfolding over centuries, estimate that pagan belief systems expired in the twelfth century, at the latest. The eminent Polish medievalist Henryk Łowmiański has asserted that the period in which the seeds of Christianity were first planted in the Slavic lands—a period that closed by the late twelfth century—was marked by: “the full Christianisation, in principle, of wealthy and powerful members of society, of knights, and of medieval burghers,” and that Christianity, “surely penetrated deep into the ranks of the peasantry” as well.1 These assertions are worthy of a certain scepticism, and the body of contravening evidence contains decisions made at Polish synods in the twelfth century regarding obligatory attendance at Sunday and holiday masses, decisions which by no means applied to the entire adult population, but rather only to the representatives of small settlements. Quite clearly, synod decision makers were aware of conditions that prevented the broader population from participating in religious worship, conditions which were, it would seem, not significantly better in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Of course, the very notion of “full Christianisation”, a rather unfortunate term used to describe what in fact was a never-ending process, can and should be the subject of debate.

I raise the issue of how we might evaluate the state of Christianisation in Central and Eastern Europe in the High Middle Ages because it provides a starting point for observations in later centuries, through to the end of the Middle Ages, when, as is often argued, the “processes of Christianisation everywhere ran deeper and broader, in the sense that they reached the widest extent of the rural population.”2 Doubtlessly this is a statement that contains some serious arguments, but it is also one that emphasises the extent to which the Christian religion, in this period, succeeded in taking root in local soils over the extent to which it failed.

At the same time, there is no shortage of scholars who express scepticism in this regard, who highlight the conspicuous superficiality of the Christianisation ←13 | 14→of societies in this region at the end of the Middle Ages, and who also turn their attention to Bohemia, in broad civilizational terms, before the Hussite Revolution. According to the famous Czech historian Františk Šmahel, Christianisation in the fourteenth century, during the rule of Charles IV of the Luxembourg dynasty, encompassed Bohemian lands in their entirety, though it was met almost everywhere in Bohemia (outside of the social and religious elites, of course) by religious knowledge that was, generally speaking, crude and faint, and by resistance from within traditional agrarian culture.3 At this point, it would be appropriate to point out that other areas of Central and Eastern European, areas that remained behind the Bohemians, were also marked by this condition.

We are thus faced with a variety of opinions on these matters, as is often the case when global judgments are made that attempt to explain very different and particular situations. Of course, it is essential that we take into consideration disparities between individual countries and regions, and the lands that belong to them, in various levels of advancement. When estimating the level of Christianisation in a broader population, we must always keep in mind differences in the level of religious knowledge and awareness among, on the one hand, residents of cities (large cities in particular) and, on the other hand, residents of towns and villages. If, as some believe, these differences were great, and if it is true that villagers were consistently poorly prepared in elementary catechesis, then we would need to formulate generalisations about Christianisation in a way that is very complex.

At the same time, we should not forget that even in Western Europe, where countries and provinces were marked by a high level of Christianisation among the broader population, there existed regions populated by common people with very low levels of religious knowledge. One scholar, who examined the results of the missionary activities of Wincenty Ferrar (d. 1419), the famous, charismatic Dominican missionary, pointed out that in one town in Brittany, it was only as a result of Ferrar’s work that the local faithful “learned Pater noster, Credo, to make the sign of the cross, and to use the name of God.”4 What we have here is not an example of an exceptionally backward settlement, because the missionary was himself convinced that one could demand of the common person, beyond ←14 | 15→the above-mentioned skills, only a basic knowledge of the Decalogue: “This is the knowledge of people who live from their labour.” German lands, closer to Central and Eastern Europe, were characterised at the end of the Middle Ages by a relatively high level of religious knowledge in the middle lower social strata, although—as is often the case—highly optimistic judgments are in need of certain adjustments.

To Church on Sunday

This basic problem is tied to the extent to which it was possible for all residents living in the various parts of Central and Eastern Europe to participate in Church instruction. Although the opinion which says that, in the Late Middle Ages, “the faithful existed only as parishioners,”5 is somewhat an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the parish church everywhere was still the fundamental centre of the priesthood, of the duties involved in religious practice, and of the main forms of the faithful’s religious life. In the great majority of the rural settlements that found themselves beyond the reach of the pastoral activities of (most importantly) the Franciscans and the Dominicans, these churches were the only hubs of religious teaching. Let us recall that people’s obligation to attend Sunday mass in their own parish had been imposed much earlier, which no doubt served to integrate the residents of a particular area around their church. The pastoral provisions of the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), which ordered, among other things, that people must go to Easter confession in their own parish, and which, in the face of barriers and resistance of various kinds, were implemented in Central and Eastern Europe only after long delays, nonetheless tightened the bonds between parishioners and their church.

Many factors helped determine the character of these bonds, among the most significant of which was, quite obviously, parish size. In the case of a parish made up of many different settlements, which was typical for much of Central and Eastern Europe, the great distance from home to church often hindered residents from participating systematically in Sunday or holiday masses. It would be difficult to offer a global judgment that could encompass the situation in all of Central and Eastern Europe, but for many inhabitants of these lands, it was certainly more difficult to gain access to the parish church than it was for people living in the countries of Western Europe. In any case, nowhere was it like the situation in the northern regions of Scandinavia (Sweden and Finland), where people ←15 | 16→lived a great distance from the nearest church and managed to attend mass only a couple of times a year, on the most important Church holidays, during which they spent two nights in specially prepared hospices.

If we accept that small parishes created the best conditions for permanent contact with the church for the faithful, although we must also take into consideration the condition of roads and, more generally, topographical and climatic conditions, along with many other factors, there is no doubt in this regard that the inhabitants of Bohemian lands enjoyed a privileged position, given that in the fourteenth century, the size of the average parish in Bohemia did not exceed about twenty square kilometres, which was not much larger than comparable parishes in the well-developed lands of Western Europe. However, we can apply the resulting conclusions about the (generally speaking) good conditions for the Christianisation of Bohemia only to the period before the Hussite revolution, which caused long-term damage to traditional church structures and, more importantly, led to the extermination or the dispersion of priests. Later, in the second half of the fifteenth century, parish structures in both Churches—the Catholic and Utraquist—were rebuilt slowly and with great difficulty. The situation was better in Moravia, where the Hussite movement was relatively weak and old churches survived.

At the turn of the fifteenth century, parishes not much larger than those in Bohemia existed in the Wrocław6 diocese in Silesia; such parishes proliferated in that area over the course of the fifteenth century. The situation in Poland and Hungary was worse than in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. In Poland, parishes often differed greatly in size, especially comparing the small parishes which surrounded Krakow and the larger parishes in the central and eastern parts of the country. Of course, we must take into consideration the fact that some parishes included territory that was wilderness or was sparsely (if at all) populated. Nevertheless, the average large parish in the Archdiocese of Gniezno or the Diocese of Krakow (around 60 km2) suggests that we need to examine the alleged ease with which the faithful had access to their church, particularly in unfavourable winter conditions or during spring floods, when it was difficult to travel by road.

←16 | 17→

The disproportions in parish size are conspicuous in two Hungarian archbishoprics: Esztergom and Kalocsa. In the Teutonic State, the favourable situation in the densely populated Bishopric of Pomesania, with its seat in Kwidzyn, where the average parish consisted of two to three settlements, differed greatly from the neglected regions of the Diocese of Samland, in which a parish could contain several dozen (or more) settlements, and in which the distance to a church would often be great.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (July)
Medieval Poland Folk Culture Traditional Culture Christian liturgy Christian instruction
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 172 pp.

Biographical notes

Stanislaw Bylina (Author)

Stanislaw Bylina (1936-2017) was Professor of Medieval Studies at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. In 1991 he became that Institute’s director. He specialized in medieval Poland, the history of Christianity, and Polish and European culture.


Title: Religiousness in the Late Middle Ages
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176 pages