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Did everyone believe in religion in medieval Europe?

One common idea about medieval Europe was that everyone were firm believers in religion. If you were a Christian (or a member of the smaller Jewish and Muslim communities), then you accepted your faith without question. However, a closer look at the evidence reveals that people in the Middle Ages did have doubts about religion, and even espoused views that we might call atheism.

The basilica of Castelló d’Empuries, in Catalonia, Spain – photo by SBA73 / Flickr

One of the most important studies in this area was published in 1988: “Religious faith and doubt in late medieval Spain: Soria, circa 1450–1500,” by John Edwards made use of records from the Spanish Inquisition to better understand some of the popular views on Christianity.

Edwards examined a “book of declarations”, recorded by Inquisitors in and around the the Castilian town of Soira, which contains 444 statements made by individuals between the years of 1486 and 1502. They detail how 247 men and 71 women were accused of various religious offences. Edwards notes that “the accused cover a wide social range, the largest representation being of craftsmen, artisans, clerics (including both parish priests and friars), notaries, doctors and surgeons, and university graduates. There were also members of noble households, merchants and traders, and a small number of tenant farmers (labradores).” While the Inquisitors were usually looking for problems related to conversos – Jewish people who had converted to Christianity – many of the people had come from families that had long been practicing Catholics.

Edwards explains:

There is a universal dimension to some of the accusations in these statements. They included generalized attacks on Christianity or attacks on specific aspects of the church’s teaching; blasphemy, which moved easily into humour and obscenity; materialistic views about this life and scepticism about an afterlife; a belief in the validity of other religions and the possibility of achieving salvation by following them; and, finally, the use of magic.

Among the most vivid descriptions recorded by the Inquisitors are accounts of blasphemy, many which took place in taverns or during games of chance. For example, in 1494, while playing a game of bowls, Bernaldino Pajarillo angrily cried out, “I reject the whore of a God!”. Six years later a surgeon, Master Bernal, urged on his slowing bowl with the cry, “Get there! Get there! May Jesus Christ never flourish!”. Meanwhile in 1487 Rodrigo, a draper, was said to have shouted while playing pelota, “I don’t believe in God, buggering St. John!”. Another gambler, Lope de Vallejera, who was once a page to the Countess of Denia, was said to have cried out, “I reject the fucking Jewish whore of a God!”

While shouting blasphemy in anger might be taken for granted, the Inquisitors were also told about people who made specific statements attacking their own Christian faith. Edwards writes:

A cleric, Diego Mexias, said in Aranda about 1485 “that there is nothing except being born and dying, and having a nice girlfriend (gentil amiga) and plenty to eat”, and that there were no such things as heaven and hell. The late Pedro Gomez el Chamorro, of Coruna del Conde, expressed similar “materialistic” views in 1500, “warming himself by the fire, annoyed and and fed up with the weather there was and the cold”. His complaints about the weather led him to conclude, “I vow to God, there is no soul”.

… Pedro Moreno, a chaplain, seems to have tired of the conversation of a group who were talking, in conventional terms, about the activities and attributes of the saints. It was said that, “St. Michael held the balance, and St. Bartholomew held the devils in chains and St. Peter had the keys of heaven”, to which the cleric replied, “Yes, in his jock-strap”, and, as the female witness solemnly recounts, “some of those who were there reproached him”

One of the most interesting comments comes from Diego de Barrionuevo, who was accused of saying in 1494, “I swear to God that this hell and paradise is nothing more than a way of frightening us, like people saying to children, ‘Avati coco‘ [‘The bogeyman will get you’]”

The records included accusations against eight men and one woman over their beliefs that Christianity was not the only path to salvation. The woman for example, was a peasant farmer called Juana Perez, who said in about 1488 that “the good Jew would be saved, and the good Moor, in his law, and why else had God made them?”.

In another case from the 1480s, during the Granada war, an argument broke out between a miller, Diego de San Martin, and a farmer called Gil Recio. The miller said to Gil, “Gil Recio, let the water [that is, in an irrigation channel] through to the mill. The people are dying of hunger. O, Saint Mary! What a great drought there is, because there’s no rain”. Gil replied, “How do you expect it to rain, when the king is going to take the Moors’ home away, when they haven’t done him any harm”. Diego replied that the wars by the Christian against the Muslims in Granada was a good thing, but the farmer responded, “How does anyone know which of the three laws God loves best?”.

The Inquisition at Soira also found many instances where conversos were comparing their former Jewish faith with Christianity, and finding the latter wanting. For example a shoemaker named Anton Tapiazo, was said to have mused, “In the synagogue they used to sit on benches and wear their hoods, and how in the church they knelt on their knees and got up again lots of times, and it seemed as though they were playing ‘bobbing up and down’.”

The work by John Edwards is not the only example uncovered by historians that showed medieval Christians could show scepticism and even disbelief over the views and practices promoted by the Catholic church and its officials. After noting studies from other parts of Europe, he concludes:

Medieval evidence thus seems to support the general principle that religious doubt is an intrinsic part of faith. Therefore, even if Febvre was right to argue that “atheism”, in any modern sense, was not an option in the sixteenth century or earlier, it does appear none the less that there was indeed genuine religious scepticism in late medieval and early modern Europe. The question which remains, though, is where and how such an attitude originated. The striking similarity of material from such widely differing regions and periods raises important issues concerning the interpretation of “popular” religion and its relationship to the religion of “elites”.

The article, “Religious faith and doubt in late medieval Spain: Soria, circa 1450–1500,” by John Edwards, appeared in the journal Past & Present, No. 120, which was published in 1988.

See also: Converso Identities in Late Medieval Spain: Intermediacy and Indeterminacy

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