Premodern Religion

Paul Lambert Hum 251 Professor Horten 9 / 26 / 2012 The Facade of Pre-Modern Religion During the pre-modern age there was perhaps no larger an aspect of everyday life than religion. Today’s day and age is a stark contrast, as religion has for the most part taken a backseat in importance. From the pre-modern age to now, religion has changed completely. Pre-modern religion held political power locally, and all across Europe. Today religion holds a mostly spiritual power for the truly devout.
This essay will discover the role and importance that religion played in the pre-modern age, and how it permeated the lives of those living in it. In pre-modern times there wasn’t a diverse society like the one we currently live in. In the pre-modern age everybody had their own role in the community. In this feudal society, there was very little opportunity for advancement. Because of the lack of education at this time people only had a few skills, which they would put to use to make a living. Most people were farmers who worked the land most of their lives to provide food for their village, and family.
There were others that had specialty skills, who may have been a blacksmith, or a shoe maker; but what they all had in common was that they were all hard workers, who had hard lives. In a pre-modern village the noble family, or the wealthiest families, would have presided over the village. These nobles would have essentially ruled over the villages and made sure things ran smoothly. About the only chance of becoming something other than a craftsman, or farmer, was to be born into one of these noble families.

If you were privileged you could become a knight, but many of these people would become clergy. These clergy were one of the biggest aspects of the pre-modern society. Each village had a church, and that church was the main center of community life. The priests or clergymen were at the center of this as well. The clergy played the role of intermediary to God. These men were also some of the only educated people around, although their education may have been still somewhat limited. In addition to the church, the clergy would have run the monastery.
Monasteries were multifaceted facilities where the sick in the community could be cared for, the poor fed, and where monks would have studied, and also made copies of books. Clergy would have been at the head of religious ceremonies, as we saw in “The Return of Martin Guerre,” where at his marriage the priest performs the actual marriage ceremony; along with blessing of the bride and groom so that they may be fertile and produce many children. The largest role that clergy would have played though would have been as the spiritual leader of the community.
One of the biggest differences between religion in pre-modern times and today was the public nature of personal religious faith. Today our own personal religious beliefs are usually kept to yourself, unless you are talking with someone close to you, or are having a theological discussion. In pre-modern life everyone was religious, and your religious beliefs were a public matter. At a time when the mass public is so vastly uneducated, the need for counsel with clergy was in high demand.
As we read in the book “Year of Wonders,” the local clergyman, Michael Mompellion, from the beginning of the book, because of his role of clergy, is always being asked for help. In the beginning of the book Anna has to work hard to keep Miss Bradford from bursting into the rectory to seek out the counsel of the Rector, Mompellion. Until the end of the book when we see Mompellion’s true colors show through, he does seem like a very good, level headed, leader for the community.
Although his actual holiness may have been more of an act, due to some of his strange actions throughout the book; it seems that the village may not have made it through the plague without his leadership, both spiritual and actual. Michael Mompellion is the one who first suggests that the village must quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of the plague to other villages. He is the one who stands up to the wealthy Bradford family, warning them of the potential for spreading the plague if they leave the village.
In this confrontation Mompellion is shown to have the best interests of not only the village, but others surrounding by stating “but think of those you are putting at risk…” (110). This is in stark contrast to Colonel Bradford whose family is looked up to in the village doesn’t take the responsibility of staying and setting an example for the rest of them. Colonel Bradford clearly states his main concern, “The colonel replied coldly. “I am merely doing what any man of means and sense must do: safeguarding what is mine. ”(110).
Mompellion is also shown to give tremendous spiritual leadership. Mompellion in his sermon to the village; embraces the plague, as a test from God. He implores the village to view the plague in the same way. Mompellion states that the plague has brought God nearer to the village than ever before, and perhaps as close as he will ever come in all of their lives. Mompellion tests their faith in God here, and even though most of the villagers stay, their behavior afterwards is less than holy. Throughout the book Anna and Elinor Mompellion tend to the needs of the villagers.
The two help with births, and when villagers begin to fall ill, they tend to them until death; and Michael Mompellion tends to their spiritual needs. Michael Mompellion is never cast in the holiest of holies light from the beginning. In the first interaction we see him in he tells Miss Bradford to go to hell. Mompellion also takes advantage of vulnerable Anna towards the end of the book after his wife is murdered, and sleeps with her. Mompellion is seen taking advantage of his position in the community; even what relatively small power he does have, which is very small compared to the Catholic Church of the time.
The Catholic Church played probably the biggest role in religion in the pre-modern age. At the head of this church was the Pope. In the Catholic Church the Pope acted as a king. Cardinals came second in the hierarchy. The power of the Catholic Church saturated the pre-modern day. Although Europe was still made up of many different countries, the Catholic Church essentially over powered the political will of any one country. The Pope especially had an almost unlimited power both politically and religiously. The role of the Pope was to act as an intermediary to God on earth.
This led to the uneducated pre-modern people of the time to blindly follow most if not all commands that came from the Pope. In addition to having the power of a king, the Pope pursued power and wealth as if he were one. Over time the Catholic Church amassed land and wealth. The Pope was anything but holy by taking advantage of his perceived power of intermediary to God. The Catholic Church furthered their power over the pre-modern people by perpetuating a view of God as a brutal enforcer, who dealt out punishment for sin with very little mercy.
The church emphasized fearing God. This kept the people obeying the rule of the church, and the Pope. This rule continued for the most part until the reformation. At this time large gothic cathedrals began to be built. These churches were very tall, with thick stone walls, and large stained glass windows. The cathedrals were designed to give the pre-modern people a sense of the presence of God inside, and a sense of the power and majesty of the Catholic Church by the sheer size on the outside.
Religion played a major role in the lives of pre-modern people in Europe. For whatever reason it may have been; fear of the Catholic Church, or excommunication, a desire to fit in, or just plain old true belief. I believe it was a little bit of all of those factors. But the role of religion in pre-modern life did have several key functions for those clergy in power. It allowed them to be an inspiration to the people they overlooked. In the case of Michael Mompellion, he was the one who kept the cool head in the face of impending danger.
That religious power was also easy to take advantage of, and led to the search for more wealth, land, and political power. By using the people’s belief that the Pope was really chosen by God as his voice on earth, the Catholic Church was able to hide behind their religious office, and make people think they were doing good, when in fact it was only a facade. Works Cited Vigne, Daniel, dir. Le Retour de Martin Guerre. 1982. Film. 11 Sep 2012. Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders. New York: Viking Penguin, 2001. Print. Horten, Gerd. “Pre-Modern Age . ” Concordia University, Portland. 9/5-14/2012. Lecture.

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