Medieval Religion - Life in Medieval Days

Religion was a VERY powerful force in medieval life - almost as powerful as the lords and ladies that a peasant owed his land and life to. In some cases religion was more powerful. Churches would own giant tracts of land, and often children who had no other path in life would become a nun, priest or monk in order to stay fed and clothed.

Pretty much all churches in medieval days were Roman Catholic, under the Pope. Every church was led by a priest - a celibate male. He would be tithed a large percentage of every parishoner's income. All villagers would attend every Sunday, and all baptisms, marriages and burials were performed here. Social pressure ensured that every single person went. He would say his "mass" in Latin, but then would give a personal sermon to his flock which related to their current situation.

There were also the segregated communities for monks and nuns. These self imposed orders were generally self contained, but they were not isolated. A nun or monk would not go their entire life without seeing "lay people". Rather, they became centers for their community. Usually nuns and monks learned a great deal about healing and would become the local hospital. Man villagers would go here if they fell ill. Over 400 hospitals in medieval days were run by monks and nuns. Pretty much all lepers of the time were cared for in leper colonies tended to by religious folk. Orphanages were typically run by them.

Nuns and monks would have vast herb gardens full of specialized herbs which they used for their hospitals and work with sick people. They would have large breweries, create specialized liqueurs (like Chartreuse in France) and even make famous perfumes.

If there was not a local tavern in town, the nunnery or monestary would take in travelers to shelter and feed them. People would go traveling to nunneries or monesteraries especially if they had saintly relics. These were of course also locations that starving people would go to if they needed food, to beg for alms.

Nuns were not just "taken in". Remember, nuns had to be fed, clothed, and tended to. Nunneries normally wanted a large "dowry" to take in a woman, even though these women would then "work" for their keep. A nun would go through several stages to ensure she was a good fit for the community.

Like any organization, a nunnery wanted to make sure an incoming woman would fit well within their society, rather than posing a life time of disturbance and grief. The first month was a "postulancy". Then came a full year of "novitiate" before the woman could pledge herself for life. Even then, there was another long four years before she became a full member.

The aim of these stages was two fold. First, if the woman really did not want to become a nun, she would not be forced to. Service to God was supposed to be a chosen path, not a punishment. Second, the community needed to be sure they WANTED the woman in their midst. If the woman was a constant nuisance, and likely to aggrevate the entire nunnery into a state of anger, they would not want the woman there.

Sometimes "excess girl children" with no prospect for marriage would be sent off to a nunnery. Most girls can identify with wanting to get away from their parents, and if they had no other choice, a nunnery might be a fun option. They could learn to read, sit around sewing all day, and hang out talking with friends instead of dealing with the grief of their parents. Also, if they were being pushed into a marriage with an older, obnoxious man, they might well prefer going to a nunnery where they were not going to be harassed and ordered around all day.

Also, widows often would choose the life of a nun, for much the same reason. With their husband dead, the had no source of income any more. A nunnery would ensure they were clothed, fed, and taken care of, and the love of their fellow sisters was something much to be desired.

Nuns generally aimed to live a simple life. Their hair was shorn, so they would not have hair getting in the way of their daily life or inspiring vanity. They would wear a long white cloth to keep their head warm and to represent the hair. A wimple was a white cloth which wrapped around the face and neck, for warmth. The long tunic would be brown, white or black depending on the order. Benedictines would use undyed fabric, a medium brown color. Nuns typically wore a cross to profess their faith.

The person in charge of a given abbey was known as the Abbess.

In general, men had FAR more options than women did. They could apprentice to take on a trade - become a tinsmith, a blacksmith, a carpenter, etc. They could find a woman to wed and simply life off the land. They could become a soldier. Becoming a monk was just one of a large number of career choices for a man to follow. Yes, many men who wanted a quiet, simple life - who would enjoy sitting in a room copying books and drawing pictures - saw this as a wonderful way to pass the time.

Daily Life of a Monk / Nun
These was a strict order to the way an average monk or nun lived. They had a set number of prayers they had to attend to every day, and got relatively little sleep. Remember, their "job" was to pray, to help humanity as a whole survive. They took this very seriously. Their prayers were:

Matins - starting at midnight, could last until dawn

Monks and nuns generally swore off "meat" although fish was allowed. They would typically eat bread and porridge. Depending on their background, their work would be gardening, embroidery, copying books, illustrating books, brewing, carpentry, tending to herbs, caring for the sick, watching over the stables, and so on. Practically any typical task found in a village would also be found at a monastery or nunnery.

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