The Role of the Church



The main job of the Church was to get people to heaven.  The priest baptised babies, married young couples, heard confession, gave the last rites to the dying and buried the dead.  He gave people the body of Christ (the bread) at the service of the Mass.  Women who had given birth were made to attend a service to make them 'clean'.

But the Church did much more than simply hold services.  Monasteries and nunneries cared for the old and the sick.  They gave alms (money) to poor people, and looked after travellers (often free of charge).

In the Middle Ages, monks were among the few people who could read and write.  They were important people.  They taught the children of the rich.  They copied books and drew up legal documents.

Poor people went to the priest for advice on their personal problems.  Abbots and bishops acted as advisers to the king.

Few people attacked clerics (churchmen) because they thought God would be angry.  As a result, churches and monasteries were safe places.  People went there for protection.  Criminals could go to a church and claim 'sanctuary' – they could not be arrested.  Monasteries and nunneries sometimes acted as banks, and looked after people's money for them.

The Church also helped to entertain people.  Church festivals and saints' days were 'holy days', when everybody went to church in the morning – and spent the rest of the day enjoying themselves.  Often, the Church held processions, and put on 'miracle plays' which were stories from the Bible acted out in public.

The medieval Church had other functions: for instance:

•  almost all statesmen and diplomats were clerics;

•  many medieval doctors were monks;

•  the village's fire-fighting equipment was often kept in the parish church;

•  as the only person who could read, the priest was the source of most of the current news;

•  the priest was often the person chosen to read out new laws to the villagers.  


Study the Introduction and the Sources, then answer the question sheet by clicking on the 'Time to Work' icon at the top of the page.


The following websites will help you research further:


The Medieval Church

• Mr Donn's Website

• History Learning Site


• Instructive video


1  A Baptism

Many people died young.  People believed that it was important to baptise babies quickly, so that they would go to heaven if they died.


2  Christmas Day Mass

A painting of the Christmas Day Mass church service from the Duc de Berry's Les Très Riches Heures (1416).  The priest reads the service from a book on the altar.  Helping him with the service are two deacons (kneeling beside the altar) and two priests (kneeling behind him).  A choir sings, although they have to share the music!  Can you see the organ?

Two rich women follow the service in their own service books.  The rest of the people watch from the nave, behind a wooden screen.