Church Life in the Middle Ages

The High Middle Ages appears in history to be a time when people were focused on: building cities, an emerging middle class, monarchies and universities.  Much of the before mentioned activities can be understand by discussing the Pilgrimage Church and Christian Pilgrimages.  This is because “the concept and experience of pilgrimage was so strong in medieval Europe that it fired the imagination of the age and set the tone for travel of all kinds”, notes the scholar Sorabella. (Sorabella, 2000-13)  It was Europe’s need to feel connected with its inherited faith that started to pull it out of the misery and darkness many felt surrounded them on a daily basis.

One of the most unique aspects to emerge in Christianity was the concept of the Christian Pilgrimage and it was during the High Middle Ages when pilgrimages reached their height.  To a faithful person prayers were for asking “for forgiveness, healing, fertility, or anything else” and the prayer “would have a better chance of being fulfilled if they were able to get physically close to a holy object, person, or site.” (Sayre, 2013, p.160)  One such way to do this was through the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, a destination favored by Europeans because it was closer than both Rome and Jerusalem.  Eventually, pamphlet guides were created describing and illustrating “the towns and monuments on the major pilgrimage routes through France and Spain” on their way to Santiago de Compostela. (Sayre, 2013, p.160)


Map 1. The Pilgrimage Routes. (Sayer, 2008)

As a results of this new activity of the faithful going on pilgrimages, a new ‘business’ was established for the Church but it created some problems for the monks.  This problem was how were the existing Church abbeys’ going to accommodate larger numbers of visitors while at the same time allowing the monks to perform their daily activities at the main alter in the choir?  This problem was soon resolved by a new style of architecture known as Romanesque meaning ‘made in the manner of the Romans’, which included creating pilgrimage churches to resemble Basilica Nova.


Fig. 1 Basilica Nova, large rectangular building with rounded extensions called apse. (Sayre, 2013, p. 115)

However, instead of a simple large rectangular building being created, the new style included an ambulatory,  extending out and around the main alter of the choir in the transept and into the apse.  The new pathway allowed the pilgrims to walk on the outskirts of the main areas of the abbey and not disturb the monks.  The newer abbey design, more appropriately termed a cathedral, also starts to resemble a cross.


Fig. 2 Floor plan and interior design of an abbey designed. (Sayre, 2013, p. 161)

Even though the original design of the Roman basilica was changed it was still controversial to use Roman ingenuity because Christians had a long-standing aversion to using any style created by the pagan Romans.  However, the “revival of architectural traditions, reaching back for almost an entire millennium, represents in part a lack of technological innovation rather than a philosophical return to Roman traditions.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 160)  The earliest example of a pilgrimage church made in the new Romanesque style is the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy at Conques, the second church on the route to Santiago de Compostela beginging in Le-Puy (see above map).


Fig. 3 Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy at Conques, Auvergne, France. ca. 1050-1120 CE.  (Sayre, 2013, p. 160)

There were two main attractions of any abbey; the exterior decorations and the relics they housed.  One account by the French Benediction monk Raoul Glaber explains the excessive décor in this way:

“throughout the world, especially in Italy and Gaul (modern day France), a rebuilding of church basilicas [is occurring]…each Christian people striving against the others to erect nobler ones.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 2013)

For this reason, the detail on the western portal of Sainte-Foy at Conques was filled with images of the Last Judgment and divided into two parts, one with angles welcoming the saved and one with demons shoving the damned into hell.

Last Judgement

Fig. 4 Last Judgment, west tympanum (portal arch), Sainte-Foy at Conques, ca. 1065. (Sayre, 2013, p. 162)

Images like these were used to serve as a reminder of the “wretchedness and worthlessness of human beings, their weakness, folly, selfishness, vileness, their crimes, and the sins.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 163)  In a sermon written by Pope Innocent III (papacy 1198-1216) he lists the outcome of a sinful life:

“There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, there shall be groaning, wailing, shrieking and flailing of arms and screaming, screeching, and shouting; there shall be fear and trembling, toil and trouble, holocaust and dreadful stench, and everywhere darkness and anguish; there shall be asperity, cruelty, calamity, poverty, distress, and utter wretchedness; they will feel an oblivion of loneliness and namelessness; there shall be twisting and piercing, bitterness, terror, hunger, thirst, cold and hot, brimstone and fire burning, forever and ever world without end…” (Sayre, 2013, p. 163)


Fig. 5 Detail of Last Judgment, Sainte-Foy at Conques, ca. 1065. (Sayre, 2013, p. 163)

Sainte-Foy at Conques also “housed the relics of Sainte Foy (“Saint Faith” in English), a child who was martyred in 303 CE for refusing to worship pagan gods.” (Sayre, 2013, p.161)  The saints’ bones were enclosed in a reliquary, a container used to house and display relics.  In the case of the reliquary for Sainte Foy, a seated, enthroned female encrusted with jewels, many of the precious stones were gifts provided by pilgrims.


Fig. 4 Reliquary effigy of Sainte-Foy. (Sayre, 2013, p. 161)


It was during the High Middle Ages that profound social changes would be seen in Europe.  Much of these changes can be contributed to the involvement of the Church.  Hiding behind the safety of a monastery wall, seen in the previous years of the Early Middle Ages, was no longer needed.  In many ways, the pilgrim’s route was instrumental in reconnecting the whole of Europe.   The routes allowed for building projects, an emerging middle class, monarchies and universities, as well as, population growth, urbanization, and commercial expansion.


Levack, B. P., Muir, E., Veldman, M., & Maas, M. (2007). The West: Encounters andtransformations. New York: Longman.

Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.

——-, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.

Sorabella, J. (2000-13). Pilgrimage in medieval europe. Retrieved from


About kmjantz

My primary goal is to explore humanities existence to date as we know it. I also create works of art that search to understand and explain why humans die because of diseases has plagued humankind since the beginning of time. Until recently, artistic expression of said search was constrained by religious ideology and scientific understanding. Today modern artists have access to a multitude of scientific technological advancements and enjoy greater creative freedom. For these reasons, my projects combination of artist styles/movements, scientific discovery, folklore, and my own imagination. My overall goal is to introduce viewers to a world so small that most do not think about it until they must due to illness. This goal is accomplished by taking selected microorganisms (thought of as ugly, disgusting, and devastating annoyances) and illustrating them as beautiful symbols of humanity’s co-evolution with nature. Making art can be a way of simplifying complex thoughts and scientific findings imbedded in humanity’s narrative.
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2 Responses to Church Life in the Middle Ages

  1. Third line in the paragraph under the map, Map 1, The Pilgrimage Routes (Sayer, 2008). There shouldn’t be an apostrophe at the end of the word ‘abbey’.

  2. Basically had to mention I’m thankful I happened upon your web

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