Popular Piety

An increase in expression of popular piety became prevalent at the end of the 11th century during the call for the first crusade by Pope Urban II - Popular Piety introduction. Popular piety refers to seeking a closer more personal relationship with God that was based off of emotion and love. This emotive Christianity reflected a shift in the attitudes of medieval society that were continuing to change due to other historical factors happening from the 12th through 15th centuries.

The growth of popular piety, the ongoing threat of heresy, the Black Death, and the decline of papal leadership all influenced how medieval people understood their place in Christianity, and how they expressed those feelings. This paper will examine how these developments influenced medieval piety, and will demonstrate how those influences are reflected in several medieval sources. The growth in the expression of popular piety resulted from an emotionless and more rational way of viewing Christianity.

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Instead of basing their Christian views on logic and reason, more people started to base their religion off of faith and emotion. They wanted more individuality and to seek a more personal relationship with God through acts of prayer and devotion. For example, this is reflected when people start to look within themselves and examine their feelings of intention and contrition. Rather than viewing Christ as a judge, they began to view him as a loving figure. People used an emotional focus of devotion by looking within and being introspective to evaluate their feelings on God.

Bernard of Clairvaux said that it did not matter if you were a believer or a non-believer but everyone was “bound to love God for the sake of God” (Bernard of Clairvaux 156). He challenged people to look within themselves and evaluate their relationship with God because in his view, people are bound to God because he “gave Himself to us for no desert of ours” (Bernard of Clairvaux 156). His words reflect the growing attitude that people should seek a more personal relationship with Christ, because Christ deserved the love and faith from his followers that he graciously gave to them with nothing in return.

Another popular movement during the growth of popular piety was the belief in intercessors as a way of becoming closer to God. Jesus, Mary, and the saints were all intercessors between God and Christians because they acted as a channel to divine grace. Bernard of Clairvaux preached the importance of intercessors by stating that the Virgin Mary “beholds the Only Begotten of the Father, bearing His cross” (Bernard of Clairvaux 157). He believed that the Virgin Mary was incredibly important in worshipping Christ, because she carried Christ in her and felt the same suffering that he felt (Bernard of Clairvaux 157).

If one wants to become closer to God, then worship an intercessor, because they are the ones that can bring you the closest to Christ. The introspection into oneself, the seeking of a more personal relationship with God, and the importance of intercessors all influenced people to increase their expression in popular piety and use emotion rather than reason to strengthen their faith in God. The factors contributing to the growth of popular piety were considered positive aspects of Christianity, however popular piety also gave rise to the ongoing threat of heresy.

Many groups deemed as heretical were actually driven by popular piety or disapproval of the church system, which caused them to look towards their own views on Christianity (Bennett 197). For example, the church deemed a group called the Waldensians as heretical because they “condemn all Sacraments of the Church,” such as baptism and marriage and they also believe that the “clergy ought not to have possessions (Waldensians 228). They believed that their group was the only group who provided any true dedication to Christ and they were the only ones who “preserve the evangelical doctrine” (Waldensians 228).

The Albigensians were another example of a group whose views did not coincide with the views of the Orthodox Church. They criticized the Old Testament, the incarnation of Christ, the sacraments, and they believed in reincarnation until salvation was achieved. These were just a few charges against them, but they also had their own church hierarchy made up of “believers” and “perfect,” which posed a significant threat to the Church (Albigensians 230-231). These groups were coming forward largely due to the urbanization that was happening during this time.

The urban movement took the church by surprise and they were unprepared to handle the growing literate society who was starting to form their own ideas and beliefs about Christianity (Bennett 197). These heretical groups reflect changing attitudes towards orthodoxy, because people are now starting to make their own conclusions and look within themselves and not the church to find the true meaning of Christianity. Around the time of the mid 14th century popular piety became extreme as a result of The Black Death.

Many people had different speculations as to why the plague was happening to them, but most of them agreed that it had something to do with God’s anger towards his people. Many of them believed that this horrible disease was “sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities” (Giovanni Boccaccio 303). The Black Death instilled fear in everyone because they were forced to endure the “stench emitted by the dead and the dying” (Giovanni Boccaccio 304).

Since they believed God was punishing them for their sins, people began to continuously perform religious acts in order to gain God’s favor in fear of becoming one of the many corpses they saw on a daily basis. For example, religious processions and extreme acts of asceticism, such as flagellants became popular. Popular piety shifted from normal attempts to achieve a personal relationship with God, to religious acts of desperation brought on by fear of death. After The Black Death, people became much more aware of life and death.

People were accustomed to seeing dead bodies everywhere resulting in a daily reminder of what happens to the body after it dies. This constant reminder of death caused people to incessantly think of what they can do to secure their place in heaven, and unfortunately the Roman Church was not doing anything to relieve them of their worries. The Church was failing people in terms of leadership, which caused people to look elsewhere for spiritual leaders. Christians turned to female mystics to guide them through their spirituality instead.

Female mystics were women who experienced visions from God, were orthodox in their beliefs, and they stressed the importance of an individual union with God in response to a failing church structure. Catherine of Siena is a famous example of a female mystic whose main concern was the reformation of the church. In her letter to Pope Gregory XI, she encouraged him to help the “reform and advancement of the holy Church” and to “make peace with Tuscany, with whom you are at war” (Catherine of Siena 326).

People trusted Catherine of Siena because not only did she want to improve the Church, but she also had a substantial impact in politics by influencing the pope to return to Rome. Female mystics, such as Catherine of Siena, deemphasized the clergy and sacraments placing more of an emphasis on a spiritual union with God. In the past, the Church would have probably deemed them as heretics, but people trusted their words instead, which showed that medieval society was changing their attitudes toward Christianity.

Joan of Arc is another example of a famous female mystic, but her main concerns differed from that of Catherine of Siena. Joan of Arc had a vision from God that said, “it told her that she must come to France,” leading to her main concern which was to drive the English “body for body” out of France (Jeanne d’Arc 335-336). She was concerned with showing nationalism towards France, and felt it was her spiritual duty to assist in any way possible to obtain freedom from the English.

Even though her main concern differed from Catherine of Siena, people still placed the same amount of trust in her because she became a leader when people needed direction. Catherine of Siena and Joan of Arc are great examples of changing attitudes towards Christianity, because people were beginning to place their trust in female mystics instead of the papal clergy for spiritual guidance. Attitudes towards Christianity changed from the 12th through 15th centuries through various historical influences happening during that time.

The increase of emotive spirituality through the expression of popular piety, the questioning of Christian Orthodoxy, the Black Death which influenced changing views of life and death, and the shift from trust in papal leadership to female mystics were demonstrated in the discussion of several medieval sources. These developments influenced different expressions of popular piety, and changing attitudes towards various aspects of Christianity. Kathryn Koenig Medieval Civilization 202, Section 002 Dr. N. Hamonic 18 April 2013 Topic #1

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