Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 36, Issue 4, pp. 327 – 340 (2010)
How much did medieval lay people know about Christianity? Which religious observances were expected of them? Recent studies have often suggested that ecclesiastical expectations of the laity were relatively low overall, even if some laypeople exceeded these basic requirements. For example Norman Tanner and Sethina Watson have argued that although medieval churchmen had high aspirations for the laity, they were also willing to tolerate ignorance, in a pragmatic attempt to keep as many people within the church as possible. This and some other surveys of medieval religion have also suggested that for many medieval Christians, as long as they accepted some core beliefs, religion was more about participating in the rituals than about having a high level of doctrinal knowledge.
While broad surveys like these have often (although not always) emphasised low expectations of knowledge and the importance of ritual, more narrowly focused studies offer a different picture, especially for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Numerous studies of English parishes in this period have shown that at least some laypeople had a good understanding of Christianity as well as participating enthusiastically in parish rituals. By the fifteenth century some wealthier laypeople were petitioning the papal penitentiary for portable altars, private chapels, and the right to choose their own confessor, again suggesting a high level of engagement. However, the sources on which these studies are based, including wills, churchwardens’ accounts, books of hours and the records of the papal penitentiary survive in greatest numbers for the fifteenth century and it is difficult to know how far back to project the picture that they give us.