Hey all, I was reading something on askhistorians (reddit) and the question was: “In medieval England, how “mandatory” was it for everyone to attend church services? Were there punishments for people caught skipping church?”
The answer is as follows:
“The shorter answer is that it kind of depends on what time period. Throughout most of the Middle Ages though, it wasn’t mandatory at all. Mandatory church attendance is a Reformation thing – Calvin supposedly was the first to put pews/ seats into his churches in Geneva so it would be easier to spot who was there and to make it socially harder for people to get up and leave in the middle of the service. Until then – and this is difficult to envision nowadays – the naves of churches were nearly empty. There was no seating at all. Services would be going on at the main altar or in side chapels and the rest of the church would either be (a) empty, or (b) filled with people just milling around. Pilgrims might be visiting shrines, beggars would be asking for charity, townsfolk would be conducting business or just chatting with others or looking on curiously at what was going on at the altars around them – in a language they didn’t speak (Latin), with the priests having their backs turned to the crowd and saying the mass softly but intently to no one in particular.
Through most of the Middle Ages, services were held by and for those who had a connection to God (priests, other religious, certain parts of the high aristocracy, etc.). The rest of the population was unimportant to the process of the mass - the conversation was between God and those who could talk to him and services were performed, like under the Israelites in the Old Testament, so that God would look kindly on the whole community. An individual’s relationship with God was irrelevant, inconceivable, until the late Middle Ages (at the earliest).
This is an excellent collection of primary sources that will get you started on learning more about the actual practice of medieval Christianity.
[Edit]: Some have picked up on my saying that people were “milling around” in the church. I didn’t mean to be flip there but simply to suggest that people would be watching what’s going on, talking with neighbors, chasing children who weren’t paying attention, praying on their own at shrines, etc. Simply that there were a variety of activities.”
This seems very different from missing mass for no reason being a “mortal sin” as I’ve heard. Also, the idea that Catholics sort of copied from Protestants.