So what do you do if you’re a Medieval lord with twelve children and not enough land to divide between them all? You give your kids away. That’s right, as I touched on last Medieval Monday in my overview of life as a noble I mentioned that 80% of the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages had been given to the Church as children. Also known as oblates. But before you are tempted to think that this was horrible and cruel of Medieval parents, let’s take a look at exactly what these lucky few could expect from their lives.
If you know anything about the Middle Ages at all you probably know that the Church was one of the most powerful institutions in the world. Which church? THE Church. In the Medieval Western World there was only one church, the Catholic Church. Okay, there were other religions, Judaism and pockets that practiced the older Pagan ways, but for all intents and purposes it was Catholic Church Time. (Though I do want to know that the Medieval Catholic Church is not the same thing as the Modern Catholic Church, but that would take a whole other blog series to explain)
The Catholic Church was like any other kingdom and as such it had power , subjects, and landholding like any kingdom. The feudal system was alive and well within this system. The Church held manors the same way that nobles did. These manors were organized and run similarly to secular manors, only with monks or nuns acting in the place of lords. Villages and peasants belonged to lands owned by abbeys and convents across Europe and served them the way they would serve a noble family. Perhaps even more reliably. Secular leaders would give land and money, as well as goods and children to monasteries because it was vital that the monks and nuns that lived on these lands not be bothered with everyday concerns. Religious men and women had a higher purpose, a vital purpose in the eyes of Medieval people. They needed to pray.
Now I tend to be a Medieval apologist. I am of the firm opinion that life in the Middle Ages wasn’t as bad as most pop-history likes to say it was. I don’t think that people were as dirty or unhappy as some folks have painted them to be. But there is one area where even I can’t make excuses for them. Medieval people were seriously superstitious. Their lives were ruled by supernatural forces. Maybe it was a remnant of ancient times when the Old Ways prevailed and people believed in many gods that controlled all aspects of the natural world. These gods needed to be appeased and celebrated with rituals, practices, charms, and offerings. The only change Christianity brought was to narrow it down to one God … or rather three Gods … and Mary, of course … and the rest of the saints. Not that far removed from Paganism at all. It was so vital to people of all classes of Medieval society to keep these supernatural forces on their side that an entire class of people was required to devote all of their time and energy to prayer. Thus the Religious life was born.
Of course the delicious paradox in this swirl of superstition and devotion is the fact that the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages were the most highly educated and advanced people of the era. Philosophy, science, and medicine all flourished within Religious life. We in the Modern era tend to short-change the vastness of Medieval learning because we know so much more now, but our knowledge was born of the fruits of Medieval labor. It was the religious men and women of the Middle Ages who compiled books of flora and fauna, classifications of natural elements and events, and theorized about astronomical events. Hospitals were parts of monasteries and a great deal was known about herbal cures and, yes, surgery. Monasteries and churches were the centers of the arts in the Middle Ages. Stained glass, painting and sculpture, music and theater were all created and housed for the most part by those in religious life.
So if you had been given away by your parents to a monastery or convent as a child not only would you be “buying” favor with God for their sacrifice, you would have been assured a life full of scholarly, artistic pursuits in a more or less comfortable environment. Yes, you would have had to do your duty and spend a lot of your time praying. Maybe. Not always. Some nobly born monks or nuns spent more time at court or in battle than on their knees in sackcloth in a church. A lot depended on which order you belonged to. And, of course, which era of monasticism you lived in.
I’m sure in past Medieval Mondays I’ve hinted at the fact that the term Middle Ages refers roughly to the time period between the 9th and 14th centuries or around there. But that’s six hundred years. And there was a lot of difference between life in the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, and the Late Middle Ages. Plus the so-called Dark Ages left and the Renaissance began at various different times depending on region. Well, life was smashingly good in the High Middle Ages. Peasants, Nobles, and Churchmen alike had an abundance of wealth and resources during this time. The High Middle Ages was the era of Cathedral-building.
And then the bottom fell out in the Late Middle Ages. And while this wasn’t so good for maintaining the status quo, once things started to go south financially in the Church there was more of an opportunity for members of the lower classes to join monastic life. Where most churchmen before had been of noble birth, by the Late Middle Ages an increasing number were from a variety of social classes. If you wanted to be an upwardly mobile peasant, here was your chance. Why? Because all across Europe churches and monasteries needed an influx of cash and cheap labor. They were slowly going broke. Why were these institutions of the Medieval world, these conglomerates of people who prayed for the souls of everyone else and had the direct ear of God and Mary and the saints in so much trouble?
Because every major town and religious order needed the latest fashion accessory of Medieval life. And building a cathedral was damned expensive….