Two Medieval Misconceptions

22 November 2022 by Wes Bredenhof

When it comes to the period right before the Reformation, I’ve always had certain notions about what the church was like.  As I’ve read more, I’ve come to realize that some of those notions are generally true, while others are only occasionally true.  Two of those notions have to do with church buildings and the mass.

All the Churches were Ornate

I’m a big fan of Trappist ales.  These beers are brewed at eleven Trappist monasteries, mostly in Belgium and the Netherlands.  For my birthday a couple of years back, I was gifted a lovely book, Trappist Beer Travels: Inside the Breweries of the Monasteries.   While it’s mostly about the beers, the authors do also speak about the architecture of the monasteries and their churches.  All these monasteries and their associated churches are designed with stark simplicity.  These monks didn’t (and still don’t) believe in extravagant ornamentation.  So no stained glass windows, golden ceilings, or outlandish statuary.  These churches could almost be Protestant (apart from the central position of a simple altar). 

This stark aesthetic hearkens back to the origins of the Cistercian order (to which Trappists belong) in the twelfth century.  The main builder of the order was Bernard of Clairvaux, who is frequently quoted by John Calvin in his Institutes.  Bernard was fiercely opposed to the excesses common in Catholic Church buildings of this time.  According to Christopher Brooke (The Structure of Medieval Society):   

…in a famous diatribe Bernard lavished all the arts of Latin rhetoric on a denunciation of the glories of the abbey of Cluny in his day.  Clairvaux – and all the churches of the Cistercian Order while Bernard lived and reigned – had bare walls, windows of plain glass, wooden altars: no images, no stained glass windows, no wall-paintings, no silver or gold or precious stones; all these were regarded as distractions.  The minds of the monks must be turned away from earthly glories to those of heaven. (p.28)

So while it is certainly generally true that medieval Catholic buildings were over the top, it’s not universally true.  Even to this day, Cistercian abbey churches continue to be modest.  Protestants have never had a monopoly on simplicity in church buildings.  Maybe some of the early Protestants even picked up their ideas about simplicity from the Cistercians.  Or maybe they were all drawing from the same source. 

Communion Every Sunday

Prior to the Reformation, how often do you think that the average layperson in the Catholic Church received communion?   If you’re like me, you may have read current Roman Catholic practice back into the past.  In other words, an ordinary believer would receive communion each and every time he or she attended church – typically once per week.  However, it’s not generally true. 

In The Shape of the Liturgy, Dom Gregory Dix explains how there were areas like Rome where, at certain points in the medieval period, lay communion was frequent.  Yet this was exceptional:  “It remained true, broadly speaking, of even later mediaeval religion, that the priest as such was normally the only communicant” (p.598).  For most of the time, the mass was just an event to watch from afar.  Lay people generally only received communion once per year, at Easter.  It wasn’t until after the Reformation that it became common for Roman Catholics to more regularly receive communion.        

In his essay, “Worship in Geneva Before and After the Reformation”, Robert Kingdon says that, prior to the Reformation, there were at least two hundred masses conducted every week in Geneva.  However, of those two hundred and some masses, the laity were allowed to receive communion in exactly zero of them:

Communion for the laity was not a part of the normal Mass.  The elements of the Sacrament themselves were on most occasions offered to the clergy alone.  Only on Easter was every member of the parish welcomed and expected to receive Communion, following a careful season of preparation, including a full and proper confession and then absolution for each person intending to receive the sacrament. (pp.50-51)

So, leading up to the Reformation, the frequency of communion in Geneva for the layperson was once per year, as long as they met the conditions. 

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. 

For one thing, celebrating communion once per year used to be a widespread practice in Scottish Presbyterianism.  It was exported to North America and elsewhere.  Large gatherings for the “communion season” morphed into revival meetings during the Second Great Awakening in America.  I wonder if those Presbyterians may have just carried on with the Catholic practice of the medieval period.

Also, John Calvin was a proponent of more frequent communion, even weekly.  However, he was stymied by Genevan city officials.  I don’t know where I picked it up, but I had the idea that this was because a weekly celebration would be too much like the mass and the city officials wanted to make a clean break.  However, since lay people didn’t participate weekly, that can’t have been their reasoning.  According to Michael Horton in A Better Way, “the conservative city council thought it would be too jarring for a community that was used to infrequent communion” (p.158).  That makes more sense.

How many more misconceptions might you and I still have about the medieval period?  There could be a few!  So, for my part, I’m going to keep on reading and learning what I can.