Religion: A Part of Everyday Medieval Life
By Kim Rendfeld
Religion is important to the characters of The Cross and the Dragon because it played a key role in the lives of most medieval folk, who told time by the tolling of the bells for Mass. To ignore it would be literary malpractice.
The faithful believed in the power of prayer, a means along with magic to explain and exercise some control over their world. Need proof? Here are just a few examples I’ve found in my research about life in Carolingian times (eighth- and ninth- century Europe).
- The Royal Frankish Annals are peppered with phrases such as “with God’s help” to describe a victory or “hateful to God” to describe an enemy.
- When Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, took the crown in a coup in 750, he first sought the endorsement of the Church.
- The divine was invoked to protect expensive objects such as books. One scribe wrote: “The book was given to God and His Mother by Dido [of Laon]. Anyone who harms it will incur God’s wrath and offend His Mother.” God’s anger was terrifying enough, but you certainly wouldn’t want to offend His Mother, whom you often asked to intercede for you.
- Saints’ relics were precious. If a nobleman was swearing his fealty, he might touch the golden box with the relics. Saints were to be respected. There is a story of a man being struck dead after mocking a saint.
- One of the most vivid examples of faith is found in the rituals the Franks performed before their war with the Avars in 791. Barefoot priest said litanies for three days, and the Franks abstained from meat and wine or paid alms. King Charles wrote a letter to his queen asking her to make sure the litanies and abstentions were done at home.
Clearly, the Franks wanted God to be on their side, both in this world and the next.
Like us, medieval folk feared death, or rather the afterlife for people who misbehaved. Unlike us, they could not avoid thinking about their mortality. Half of the babies died before age 5, childbirth was so risky expectant mothers were urged to confess their sins before they went into labor, and war and famine were constant threats.
On top of that, clerics did not hesitate to remind the laity of purgatory or the Last Judgment or the devils circling the bed of someone who is dying.
Yet what might strike modern readers, especially Christians whose clergy encourage them to study the Bible, is how knowledge about Scripture lay in the hands of an elite few.
Among the Carolingians, only a few people could read and even fewer could write. Holy books were written in Latin, the language of the Church. The laity, often not the most attentive or polite audience, had to no choice but to rely on the teachings of priests, many of whom didn’t understand Latin, either. So, the folk did not often question the clergy’s authority.
My heroine, Alda, is typical of the Frankish laity. To ensure her husband’s safety, she will follow the common practice of giving him a charmed amulet in addition to praying for his safety. Able to read only a few words, she can recite some Latin prayers but doesn’t know their meaning. And because she has never studied the Bible or other religious writings, she is left vulnerable to a heart-rending choice.
Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholtz with Barbara Rogers
Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riche