Friday, May 31, 2013

The Church in Medieval Society

     I write historical romance set in the 830s, and I’m going to share some information about religion during the Middle Ages.
     My newest release is book three in my Evolution Series. The word “evolution” is meant to describe the changes my characters go through as they grow to love each other, and each of the titles describes the hero. The new book is called Vain, so now you have an idea of what Theophilus is like! He cares very much about his looks, but he is also bored and lonely.
     I strive to present the time period realistically. Living conditions were rustic compared to ours, and most people still lived on a subsistence basis. One segment of society that was already strongly separated and amassing a great deal of wealth was the Catholic Church.
     During the Middle Ages in Europe, Catholicism was the only organized Christian religion. The Pope ruled the Catholic Church from Rome, and often exerted influence over the secular rulers of the day, as well. Cardinals were the senior priests of important churches.
     Bishops were extremely powerful in their respective nations and local communities. They were sometimes members of the nobility. A bishop managed the churches within his diocese. He could tax the peasants and collect a great deal of wealth on behalf of the Catholic Church. In the early Middle Ages, a bishop might even have led his own army. Some bishoprics owned vast tracts of land, making these religious organizations quite powerful in secular society.
     Local priests filled a large role in the community. In addition to collecting tithes (in money or goods) to be shared with the bishop and performing mass and the other religious rites most of us are familiar with, priests educated children and often acted as clerks for the government or local nobility since few people could read and write. Priests were allowed to be married during part of the Middle Ages, and when they weren’t supposed to marry, some maintained mistresses or paid fines to the church to be allowed to do so anyway.
     It is hard to know what the uneducated lay people thought of their priests and bishops. Mass was given in formal Latin which parishioners may have understood due to the repetition over their lifetimes. People in the Middle Ages were firmly segregated in class, and the religious class was considered to be even higher than the nobility because they were closer to God. Much like organized religion today, the quality of the religious experience for a community probably depended a great deal on the personality of the priest assigned to it.
     Here are two links for buildings I used in my new book, Vain. The first is Murbach Abbey, which Theophilus passes during a journey. Also, I based the church in the town of Ribeauville on St. Justinus. Most surviving medieval churches have been expanded and altered, but it is still really wonderful to see the buildings that worshipers visited 1,200 years ago.
     I’ve mentioned Theophilus a few times, so here is an excerpt featuring Lily, my heroine, so you can learn a little about her as she attends mass.


     Lily stared up at the clerestory windows, enjoying the flood of bright sunlight in Ribeauville’s magnificent stone church. The light spoke to her of happiness. The two rows of pillars supporting the roof spoke of permanence. The townspeople surrounding her spoke of kinship. The priest spoke of humility, reminding in his thin voice how we must be content with our position in life and not look higher until the day of our eternal reward. Lily thought that was probably good advice for a woman in her predicament.
     She no longer looked farther than her next embroidery stitch. Isolated and alone in her dark shop, she imagined she could just push and pull her needle right into that promised eternity. When she slept, she dreamt of gold thread flowing around her like water. The yellow current carried her and while her mind yelled, Fight! the strands were too strong. They continued to move her, bobbing her like a bit of flotsam among their glistening richness, though she felt nothing. No wetness. No coldness. No fear. In her sleep, she was simply resigned that the river of gold thread was all there was and all that there would ever be. World without end. In saecula saeculorum.
     The priest ended with a Latin benediction most of the congregation did not understand. Lily had purposely chosen to stand in the back corner where she would be least noticed. She waited, watching Arn’s and Belinda’s families work their way toward the exit as one unit. Belinda wore a passable blue tunic and veil that set off her creamy skin. Her rosy lips parted in a giddy smile before she disappeared through the rear door. As Lily approached the same door, the normal noise of post-service fellowship increased with feminine squeals of excitement and masculine laughter. A knot of grinning people surrounded Arn and Belinda.
     Lily saw Cerise lift a clay-stained hand, a silent request for her to wait. Lily pretended not to see, trying to escape, swimming against the stagnant crowd. Cerise caught her elbow gently. “In case you have not heard,” she whispered, “they became betrothed last night. I can say nothing against Belinda. I am sorry for your sake, Lily. I never dreamed you would be left so alone.”
     For as long as Lily could remember, Arn had been the loom she would weave her life upon. Arn had been her choice for her future. That choice had been acknowledged and approved by Cluny and Cerise, Willis and Ramona. The finality of losing him hit her like frigid water, closing on her until she could not breathe.  She had been cast adrift from everything solid in her life. She could not form the words to describe Arn’s desertion, nor did she trust her voice to speak them. She studied Cerise’s pained expression and let her own anguish show, grateful to the soles of her feet for the sheen of tears that grew in the older woman’s eyes. At least someone understood, even if that someone was powerless to help her.
     Lily clenched her jaw and nodded curtly. Cerise nodded back. They separated with a final squeeze of one another’s fingers.
     Lily blanked her face, mouth in a half smile, gaze on the dead grass that surrounded the church. She pretended to feel no more than those dead, dry blades as she wound her way through the crowd that, for the most part, ignored her.
     A man’s voice called her name. The Lord of Ribeauville. He appeared to be inconvenienced. She could not begin to imagine why. She stared at him, almost daring him to say the wrong thing in front of his population. One ill-advised word would have her raving like a lunatic.
     “How is my tunic?” he inquired briskly. “You had made such good progress the last time I saw it, I expected to have the thing worn out by now.”
     He said the right thing. He brought her back to a place she understood while reminding his citizens that a tailor lived among them whom he entrusted with his garment. She rubbed her sore fingertips together, longing for fine wool cloth and the meticulous embroidering work. The Blood of Christ, now her only tether to her pride and her old self. “I am very pleased with it, my lord,” she replied. “Do you wish me to bring it to your house this week for your inspection?”
     “If you are out on other business,” he answered. “Do not make a special trip.”
     “Very well, sir. Thank you.” She hurried away, and later had no memory of her walk down the hill and through the town and into her house. She only knew that another hand’s length of the complex design threaded along the left cuff of her lord’s fine tunic before she slept that night, pressed up tight against the wall and, blessedly, dreamless.


I hope this has intrigued you enough to want to read more of Vain and the Evolution Series available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, AppleKobo, and other vendors. My books are also in print from Amazon and CreateSpace. I have a sweet romance (no cussin’ or hanky panky) called Sass Meets Class set in 1880s Arizona Territory.
If you’d like to keep up with me and my writing pursuits, I write a blog, I am on Facebook, and I tweet @jillhughey.

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