Popular Piety in the Middle Ages: What is Popular?

Popular Piety in the Middle Ages: What is Popular?

By Leonard E. Boyle, O.P.

Florilegium, Vol.4 (1982)

Introduction: From the onset of this paper it should be clear that I do not underwrite the term “Popular piety” as it stands. If, from time to time, I do use it, this, first of all, because it is my title; secondly, and more important, because, as I hope will become evident as I go along, I am using it in its accepted sense, as something over and against a higher or “learned” piety, as happens in the dichotomy so favoured by many scholars: “Foi savante–Foi populaire” and “Official Piety.”

To take the terms “Learned faith” and Popular faith” first. Since the faith in question here is, I presume that gift of God by which one is impeled by God himself to give one’s wholehearted assent to him, then one either has this faith or has not. There is no in-between. And if one has it, there are no grades of possession. From this point of view the faith of the mediaeval peasant, the faith of the ignorant or unlettered, the faith of believers at large, is exactly the faith of the learned, the intellectual, the theologian. All believe in the same God who gives them their belief and the certainty of their belief.

At another level, however, there may be differences. Although the one object of faith for the learned and unlearned is God, the learned, by meditating for example on this object of belief, may be in a position to express better than the unlearned just what that object is perceived to be. But for our purposes, this is beside the point, since it does not at all mean that the learned believe more in God or with greater certainty than do the unlearned. A greater intelligence, in other words, does not make for greater belief, since it is not one’s intellect on its own that provides and certifies an access to the object of belief, but the object itself, God. One may see with greater intellectual clarity that one should believe in God, but it is God who gives the belief, not one’s own power of intellect.

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