Priests in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
In the middle ages, the clergy and the Church in general were very influential. The kings and local lords appointed members of the clergy including the bishops and priests, and in return, the clergy would play a great role in establishing the rules of the land. Nevertheless, priests in the middle Ages were not as influential as the bishops and archbishops who came from rich families.
The Role of Priests in the Middle Ages
The priests in the middle ages were exempted from paying taxes because their work was considered noble. They provided care for the members of the community and conducted Mass in the parishes. The priest had a special place in society. He presided over baptisms and wedding and he usually was the sole source of education. The priest was in charge of ensuring that the religious occasions and events were observed and he performed the final rites to the dying.
Other roles that the priest played include offering spiritual guidance and absolving the sins of his parishioners. The priests were also in charge of overseeing the manor and passing on messages to the community, from the Pope or bishops.
One of the most important roles played by the priest was establishing and running a local school. This was particularly vital when the kings realized the importance of education in the development of a country and in winning battles. The clergy was charged with the role of educating the local population, even though what they taught was meager and very basic. The educated priests only taught selected students how to read and write in Latin. They also taught religious studies, philosophy and rhetoric.
In addition to teaching and offering spiritual guidance to the community priests in the middle ages were also in charge of streamlining local government processes. As such, they would be appointed as clerks to handle local government transactions, kept records and accounts and duplicated title deeds. It was the priests at this time that pioneered the concept of civil service, which later became an integral part of European society. Priests also presided over business transactions that required a witness to affirm the obligations of both parties to the transaction. Additionally, noblemen would hire priests as their personal secretaries.
Priests in the early middle ages did not dress differently from the local people. However, in the fifth century following the fall of the Roman Empire, the church started to regulate clergy dressing. Priests were then required to don a tunic, also known as an alb, which flowed down to their feet; this would distinguish them from the laymen who dressed in trousers and walked bare feet.
Due to the influential role of the church, this mode of dressing became widespread and took root in much of medieval society. Priests would wrap a belt around their waists and during Mass, they would put on another garment over the tunic. This outer garment would either be a tunic with long sleeves, known as a dalmatic, or a chasuble, a clock without sleeves. The priests also donned a stole, a piece of fabric, over their shoulders. In the 13th century, English priests were required to wear a cappa clausa, a hooded cap.
Together with the bishops, the priests in the middle ages made a living from tithes, a fee that parishioners paid from working in the fields. The total amount of tithe a person would pay would be a tenth of their earnings or their harvest. Thus, peasants would contribute a tenth of their meat and a tenth of their harvest to the church. The clergy would use one third of the contributions for their own upkeep, while the Bishop and the poor in the community would share the remaining contributions. The money that was given to, or collected by the church was used for repairs within the church, for purchasing books and candles.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, priests who served in the parish were generally allowed to marry and to have children. Priesthood in the middle ages was hereditary, so that the priest’s son would take over the church when his father died. Women were not permitted to become priests. The Church attempted to keep priests and bishops from marrying and having children. These attempts to impose celibacy deterred some people from aspiring to become priests.
Many who were already priests and bishops began to live with a “hearth woman” or a concubine, a woman to whom they were not married. Other priests and bishops did not mind paying the fine that the Church had made obligatory if they chose to marry. In effect, the Church required that members of the clergy obtain a license and pay a requisite fee if they marry. Additionally the Church made it obligatory for priests who did not shave their heads as per Roman tradition, to pay a fine.
The structure of priesthood, just like in society had hierarchies. The village priest was lower in the hierarchy. He might be just a local boy who went to the monastery to study religion. There often was no difference between the village priest and the parishioners. Higher on the priesthood hierarchy, was the parish priest who oversaw the church and even though he still interacted with the community, he was viewed as having a higher status. Compared to the village priest and the local parishioners, a parish priest would be more educated, but illiterate nevertheless.
Sometime the bishop would be the priest in a parish too. Such priests were at the top of the hierarchy as they doubled as priests and bishops; they typically came from the noble families, were more powerful, wealthier and more educated than their counterparts were.
In the middle ages, society was divided into three orders. These included those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked. Members of the clergy, including the priest were in the category of those who prayed. The knights, cavalry, infantry and the king’s soldiers were those who fought. The peasants in the farms were those who worked. The priestly category was the First Estate, a more prestigious category than the other two. This is because the priests were considered closer to God than any of the people in the other two categories.
When compared to the local people, the priesthood was given a higher social standing. This generated widespread resentment and sentiments against the clergy who were seen by the community as seeking self-aggrandizement as opposed to securing the wellbeing of the community. The community bitterly criticized priests who fell from grace; they required that because the priest had a higher social standing and was closer to God, he would not succumb to the shortcomings of the layperson.