Lay piety

Meanwhile 'pious and literate' laymen and women were becoming more common in the upper reaches of society. Vernacular works of edification (which could be combined with fictional entertainment, as in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal or in the anonymous Sir Garwain and the Green Knight) were widely available. Lay people could write as well as read. In the mid-fourteenth century a duke of Lancaster wrote an edifying Book of Holy Medicines in Norman French, and Dante could of course write fluent literary Latin, as well as Italian (though this sort of mastery of Latin by laymen would not be common outside Italy in Dante's time). Lay prayer books became plentiful in the late Middle Ages. Books of 'Hours' were the most usual sort, and more of them than of any other kind of manuscript book survive from the medieval period. They are in effect a simplified adaptation of the monastic liturgical office for private lay use. Psalms constitute a large proportion of the text, which is commonly accompanied by pictures. One may speculate that the real function of the books was to encourage attentive meditation on the life of Christ and the Virgin, and on Death: the pictures would stimulate the religious imagination and the muttered words of psalms could have served as a sort of mantra to ward off distraction and focus the mind.

The slow process by which Christianity penetrated Western society had thus gone quite far by the late Middle Ages, so that, as was suggested above, phrases like 'the Age of Faith' are probably more applicable to the end of the period covered by this chapter than to any earlier age of post-Roman Western history. Whether or not late medieval religion was in a healthy state depends on the clinician's criteria, but it was certainly not moribund. In fact the work of Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century may have been made easier by the generally high level of commitment: it was easy to interest people in religious ideas, and more people were more shocked by abuses in the high levels of the Church. The reforms of the Counter-Reformation papacy and the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century would be a commentary on these abuses.

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