A churchman living in east London despairs of his flock. “There are many people who do not believe that God exists, nor do they think that the human soul lives on after the death of the body,” he laments. “They consider that the universe has always been as it is now and is ruled by chance rather than providence.”

It’s a complaint many would make about their congregation – but what might be surprising is that Peter of Cornwall, prior of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, wrote this in 1200.

In the Western mind, history is often seen as linear, one of the strands of which is that there is a continuous trend from ignorance and religiosity towards enlightenment and atheism. It’s assumed that people in the Middle Ages were very Christian. Yet what many of the chroniclers suggest is that men at the time were far less religious than those of the later, early modern period.

They were rarely atheists – the concept only dates from Elizabethan times, although some prominent figures were known to express scepticism. But their attachment to Christianity seems confused and mixed up with folklore. It was only in the late Middle Ages, following the Black Death, that people began to take Christianity and its rules much more seriously.

To make a sweeping statement, medieval people were childlike in their behaviour. Repression was an alien, later concept. Men and women tended to show their emotions, which could swing from laughter to anger, which partly explains why 13th-century Oxford had twice the homicide rate of Baltimore or Detroit today.

This was reflected in their religious practice, too. One preacher, Alexander Ashby, complained that at the solemn moment of Mass, with “the hush as the priest prayed silently before consecrating the Eucharist, a hubbub of gossip and joking commonly broke out among the congregation”. The main reason that Edward the Confessor was considered holy was that he didn’t talk throughout Mass, as most people did in the 11th century.

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