by Jonathan Bennett
The usual modern critique of mediaeval religion is of a clerical and scholarly elite attempting to enforce a rigid doctrinal orthodoxy on the vast mass of unlearned laity whose faith is superstitious and theologically dubious at best and pagan at the worst. Necessary to this view is an internal conflict within the mediaeval Church- between the clergy and the laity, orthodoxy and "popular religion", liturgical prayer and lay devotion- a conflict which in fact did not exist. Mediaeval lay devotion was not superstitious- much less was it pagan- but firmly founded on the official liturgy of the Church which formed its core, indeed the center and highpoint of all culture and art of the period. More than that, the faith was made physically manifest in the liturgical rites of the Church- in the words of the seventeenth century English jurist John Selden, "To know what was generally believed in all ages the way is to consult the liturgies".
The liturgy, the embodiment of the Christian faith, was the means through which the laity came into the very presence of God. For the common people this was no theological profundity- it was a simple fact of life as sure, or surer, than the rising of the sun every morning. As the rituals of the Church were holy and possessed of supernatural power anything associated with the sacraments partook of their holiness. The very words of the liturgy, spoken or written, were endowed with power in their own right, regardless of whether or not the Latin was understood; Latin itself, the principal tongue of the liturgy, was a sacred language. The most basic prayers and the forms they took in private- even the simple acts of kneeling and making the sign of the cross- were taken straight from the liturgy. Examined in this light lay devotion was sacramental, it's power and legitimacy derived from the sacraments. The private prayer of the faithful, far from being an act of defiance in the face of the liturgical prayer of the clergy, sought to imitate and extend the august rites of the Church. Popular piety, in it's turn, exerted an influence on the liturgy by bringing new cults of devotions and saints under the protection of the Church through a demand for their inclusion in the liturgical calendar.
The chief object of lay devotion in the late middle ages was the primer (rhymes with thinner) or horae- the book of hours. Its origin was in the practice of some monastics to supplement the singing of the Divine Office with various "little offices" (particularly that of the Blessed Virgin, which would eventually become obligatory for all clergy and religious and then abandoned by the Council of Trent). These were patterned after the Great Office with psalms, antiphons, lessons and collects arranged into the seven (or, if Matins and Lauds are treated separately, eight) liturgical hours, but in much simplified and abbreviated form. The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, composed of the most popular psalms, provided an ideal means for pious laymen to emulate religious devotion, and that the text remained constant day by day (excepting a few, minor seasonal variations) meant that it could easily be bound into a single light volume or even committed to memory. In the hands of the faithful these books added to the Little Office the Office of the Dead, devotions for Mass, an assortment of prayers, litanies and hymns for all occasions, iconography to induce contemplation and the most popular Gospel passages- the opening of the S. John's Gospel, the Annunciation from S. Luke, the story of the Magi from S. Matthew and the closing chapter of S. Mark- complete with rubrics, markings for the sign of the cross, and prefaces granting indulgences. In 1496 a secretary to the Venetian embassy to England wrote of the English faithful, "They all hear Mass everyday and say many Paternosters in public... and whoever is at all able to read carries with him the Little Office of Our Lady; and they recite it in church with some companion in a low voice, verse by verse, after the manner of Religious". Thus did the public liturgical prayer of the Church set the standard for the private prayer of the laity.
Ranging from the cheap and unadorned tomes of the lower classes to great illuminated volumes, slavishly illustrated, gilt and inset with precious stones after the manner of liturgical books, the many extant primers provide a fascinating insight into the "popular religion". Besides providing the essentials for lay prayer the primers were considered as sacramentals themselves- as noted previously, that which drew on the liturgy or had an association with the sacred mysterious became holy, itself an object of veneration. For this reason laymen often swore oaths on their primers, and many contain business contracts and wills alongside the birth, marriage and death records they accumulated as family heirlooms. Literacy being far more widespread in the middle ages than is often thought, it became the standard grammar text for children- most layman, and even women, could read and grasp basic Latin due to the study of their primer. Even those who could not read, let alone understand the Latin, found spiritual benefit in the very presence of the holy words of the text, to which their more learned neighbors were accustomed to append their own prayers and annotations to the margins. The rather simple primer which accompanied S. Thomas More to the Tower- and survives to this day- became filled with marginal notes and Latin commentary on the psalms (his psalter being bound at the back) with his famous prayer "Gyve me thy grace good Lord / To sett the world at nought" scrawled in English across the pages of the Little Office. It is perhaps this very same volume which More, in the style of many of his contemporaries, holds as a prop in his famous painting by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Alongside the more "mainstream" devotions of the primers- the fifteen O antiphons of St. Brigid, the seven penitential psalms, the gradual psalms, the Hours of the Cross, devotions to the Holy Name and the Five Wounds, ect.- one finds, in both the marginal additions and in the actual print itself, an array of texts that- to the modern mind- would at first seem more magical than devotional. Myriad prayers, invocations and litanies of this quality were prefaced by- sometimes elaborate- spiritual and temporal promises. A particularly popular example is the so-called "Charlemagne prayer", which the accompanying legend claims was given to the emperor either by the pope or from Heaven by an angel. The promises made to those who devoutly kept the prayer- which takes the form of an invocation of the Holy Cross punctuated by multiple signs of the Cross- on their person and recited it at need vary greatly from purely spiritual benefits to such temporal effects as the vanquishing of one's enemies (both human and demonic), safety in battle and from thieves, protection from sickness, the curing of epilepsy and ensuring the lives of new-born infants long enough for baptism to be administered. Even the more conventional devotions were accompanied by the same sort of promises alongside the usual indulgences.
Admittedly many of the primer prayers offer a hazy distinction between devotion and magic, but this is far from an indication of superstition or underlying remnants of pagan religion. Rather these echo a worldview lost in the Reformation and Enlightenment which drove a wedge between the spiritual and temporal worlds so closely interlinked in the age of faith. The concepts of grace and providence and the activity of angels and demons were not the vague theological abstractions they seem today. To the contrary, spiritual matters often had quite tangible consequences, the scope of the supernatural embracing the visible world as well as the invisible. No man would doubt the possibility of angelic powers out of Heaven, shades of purgatorian souls or demons from Hell moving about this world, particularly at times and in places of liminality or ambiguity (such as noon, midnight, the solstices or equinoxes, at crossroads, thresholds, in churches or on the boundaries of parishes), or that sin and spiritual decay could cause ill health and the decay of the body. The mediaeval liturgy was the most prominent point of contact between the temporal and the spiritual, an immense and complex pageant of ritual drama culminating in the descent of God Himself upon the altars and the commerce of man with the Divine. As the faith took physical form in the liturgy, Christ- the center of the faith- assumed physical form in the Mass- the heart of the liturgy. It is hardly surprising that the faithful would regard the great theurgic act of the sacring- the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament- as magic in it's highest degree.
The Ambrosian priest Francesco Maria Guazzo, writing from Milan in the early years of the seventeenth century, provides us with an excellent definition of magic which he divides into two basic kinds- natural magic and artificial magic. Of the first we are to understand it was "a gift from God to Adam" and "a more exact knowledge of the secrets of nature": that is to say all manner of lore regarding flora and fauna, medicines and poisons, the bodily humors, precious stones and minerals, the observation of the celestial spheres known to us as astrology and such things. Of the second type, artificial magic, Fra' Guazzo makes a further distinction between mathematical and prestidigital magic: the former, involving the manipulation of "the principles of Geometry, Arithmetic or Astronomy" with the help of natural causes, is what we would know as technology; the latter is "ludicrous and illusory", tricks performed (as they still are) by both entertainers and conmen. Though it would no doubt surprise those of us accustomed to the more puritanical view of the protestants on these matters, Fra' Guazzo makes no attempt to dismiss magic as inherently evil: "Now thaumaturgy and natural magic are in themselves good and lawful, as any art is of itself good. But it may happen to become unlawful: first, when it is done for an evil purpose; second, when it gives rise to scandal; third, when it involves any spiritual or bodily danger to the conjurer or the spectators". Like any tool, it's virtue was dependant on the intent of whomever wielded it- a medicine, in different doses, may be used to deliberately poison a man just as easily as it may be used to cure him- and a distinction was kept between this magic and maleficium, witchcraft (itself a subject far too immense to expound upon here).
To mediaeval man the Devil was all too real and demonic activity unhindered by a rationalistic scientific doctrine, making the whole of the earth a spiritual battleground for his soul. Demons could generate pestilence, raise tempests, assume physical form, attack and even possess the bodies of men. For defense the faithful had recourse to rites of the Church, the liturgy- the domain of God- providing the surest bulwark against Hell's onslaught. Blessings, if not exorcisms in themselves, were very often accompanied by them. The best example to offer here are the rites surrounding the sacrament of baptism. These practically amount to a lengthy exorcism intended to remove the demonic influence attached to the stain of original sin, an effect of the ritual emphasized in the middle ages by the opening of the "Devil's door"- an otherwise unused passage located on the north side of the porch of the church, near the font- during the baptism. The Rogationtide processions constituted an exorcism of the entire parish and, in England, these often featured a banner depicting a dragon at their commencement, borne aloft around the parish boundaries with a long streaming tail; on the last day the dragon standard, shorn of it's tail, was dragged through the dirt. For common use, the liturgy gave many potent articles of spiritual defense into the hands of the faithful. Holy water, blessed salt, blessed icons and candles, the sign of the cross, the Holy Name and the like were so valued because they originated in the liturgy. Many prayers were in imitation of exorcistic rites (though never of the calibre of those used by the priest-exorcist), but any words or forms drawn from the liturgy or based upon it could be effectual if used devoutly- reading the prologue of St. John's Gospel, in Latin, was a popular means of countering demonic activity (among other uses), as were the various scriptural passages where Christ expels demons and grants the apostles authority to do so in His Name.
The Holy Name itself provides a fascinating example of mediaeval devotion. The liturgical rubrics commanded the clergy to bow in reverence at every utterance of the Holy Name, an act of course adopted by the laity and taken beyond the doors of the church where it became the greatest ejaculation, the most binding of oaths, and had (by the very promise of Christ Himself) the power to cast out demons and, by extension, disease, pestilence and misfortune. Such was the devotion to the Holy Name that it was granted a feast (January 2nd) in the 1480s. Certain late mediaeval and Renaissance philosophers, in "Christianizing" the Jewish Cabala (and agreeing with St. Jerome), would conclude that the Holy Name was bound up with the mystery of the Incarnation in completing the Tetragrammaton, the unutterable name of God, by making it utterable and audible- the Word quite literally made flesh. The Tetragrammaton, along with other scriptural and apocryphal names of God, received similar devotion and use, though never to the same extent as the Holy Name.
All this considered, where then may the line be drawn between such lay devotions and superstition? The thirteenth century Dominican inquisitors of Germany, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, offer a clear definition of this boundary, along with a multitude of examples, in the Malleus Maleficarum: superstition is that "which human tradition, without higher authority, has caused to usurp the name of religion" and "undisciplined religion... religion observed with defective methods in evil circumstances". It is clear that mediaeval superstition finds it's origins- like Guazzo's natural magic- in legitimate and pious practice, yet is degraded through ignorant and ungodly use. The faithful would find themselves at odds with the clergy not in the practice of these devotions, but in the abuse of them, their use in a superstitious and unwary manner- no doubt tantamount to sacrilege! However in their devout use, few orthodox clerics would find any disagreement. Even such spiritual writings as The Cloud of Unknowing, so popular amongst the late mediaeval laity, originated in monastic spirituality as supplementary to the liturgy. Again it is difficult- impossible almost- to see any conflict, any distinction between popular and orthodox religion.
Such was the regard of the liturgical rites- that is, as the point of commerce between Heaven and Earth, the embodiment of the faith- that even the most simple of laymen, though separated socially, spiritually and symbolically from the clergy, sought to shadow in his own private prayer the public prayer of the Church. Well then did he understand that at the heart of this lay the great supernatural act in which God descends to man so that man might ascend to God. The reformation undid this mindset, stripping the liturgy of its sacramental power and place at the threshold of Heaven and Earth. External splendor, internal mystery and hierarchical distinctions at once metaphysical, cosmological and social were reduced to the most common of forms and banal of meanings. Beauty and art were denied their highest function. God surrendered His part in the great ritual drama to man. In the Catholic world this work was completed by the Enlightenment and the revolution, which did not wholly destroy the liturgy but degraded it to the status of ritual wallpaper, devoid of any real meaning to the rationalistic mind, and thereafter subject to clerical whim and lay ignorance. Quite simply, a chasm was opened separating God and man which, by his own efforts and through his own tradition, man can never hope to bridge either in his soul or in his culture. Only by reaching back to the ideal which pervaded the Church through the age of faith for an understanding of the liturgy will any truly Catholic worldview be possible.
Posted on the Feast of Ss. Cletus and Marcellinus, MMX
Compendium Maleficarum, trans. A.E. Ashwin, reprint, London 1988
Duffy, Eamon, Marking the Hours Yale University, New Haven 2006
Duffy, Eamon The Stripping of the Altars Yale University, New Haven 1992
Gueranger, Dom Prosper The Holy Mass Baronius Press, London 2005
Lindahl, C. and McNamara, J. (eds) Medieval Folklore, Oxford University, Oxford 2002
Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Montague Summers, reprint, London 1971
Muir, Edward Ritual in Early Modern Europe Cambridge University, Cambridge 1997
Summers, Montague, The History of Witchcraft and Demonology reprint, New York 2007
The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary Baronius Press, London 2008
Yates, Frances The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age Routledge, London 1979