Medieval Peasant Catechesis

A typical Protestant accusation against the Church is that Catholics in medieval times withheld the Bible from the populace and did nearly everything in Latin so no one could understand it. I know this isn’t true. But, I am curious, if I were a peasant from the 900s to the 1400s, how would I be catechised? Since the mass was in Latin, how would I know what was going on in the mass?


How would you follow a Spanish OF (or any other language in case you speak Spanish)? Would you try to translate the Spanish or follow the actions of the priest? The same goes for the TLM. There are visual cues that people can follow to know what’s going on.

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Maybe, but following along and actually understanding what is going on are not the same. I realize that not everything needs to be understood by the parishioner, but how did a peasant learn about their faith? I’m not trying to say they didn’t learn, I’m trying to find out how they did so I have an answer when this question inevitably comes up.


I would suggest LITERALLY turning the other cheek to the person you’re arguing with. If medieval peasants were feeling left out as a result of not knowing Latin, why wouldn’t they also feel the sting from not having access to Classical Greek and Roman literature!?!?!?!?!

It seems you are implying someone that someone who cannot read cannot understand the oral language. Is this correct? The Mass goer can hear and understand the words of the priest and understand the language in the homily even if he cannot read.


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That doesn’t address my question. I’m not asking why they didn’t learn Latin. I’m asking how they were catechized. I know the mass is not intended to be the primary source if someone’s catechesis. But many Protestants seem to think that. It would be nice to have an answer to help them understand. Just because a Protestant brings up the question doesn’t mean they are making an accusation. They may be genuinely curious or trying to understand.


You’re putting words in my mouth that were not stated. I never mentioned anything about reading. I’m not sure why I’m receiving such pushback instead of an actual answer to the question. If you cannot provide an actual answer, please do not respond.

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I think that, with the rise of mendicant orders, friars would eventually teach peasants catechesis. Before that, I think the priests would at least do the homily in the vernacular language of the time.

Also, various prayers and devotions were transmitted within families through oral tradition.


Did you not see the question mark?

There’s no suggestion anywhere they weren’t taught - the same as we are today - outside the context of Mass in their own language. Protestants often overlook that because their services and teaching opportunities go hand-in-hand with little to no distinction in some cases. They don’t often realize that the Mass isn’t our primary instruction even today in English.


My apologies, I did not. I read the tone of your response in a way you were likely not intending. I’m just trying to learn how a peasant received catechesis


That’s basically how I figured it worked. I just didn’t know if there was any official process back then or if it was something that varied by location.

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I don’t know for certain, but I would imagine it was a combination of family members teaching the younger members and some limited versions of ‘CCD’ that some of us grew up with. Homilies and sermons were likely longer back then, too, to accomplish some of this - in the vernacular - so in that respect, similar to the Protestant method.


I think that’s an excellent question.

I can’t imagine to tell you the truth. If we’re talking about serfs, how often did they even attend Mass? & as soon as they can walk, they were put to work.

Totally different world back then.

Most of the education was in the home, by parents & grandparents. But how did they learn?

I would ask them how their denomination taught faith during that same era - chances are, their denomination hadn’t been formed. (sorry, I realize this does not answer your question.)

In societies around the world for the majority of history, most knowledge was communicated orally. Orders such as the Dominicans (among other examples) were renowned as preachers. Biblical truths were also frequently communicated through prayers.

To a certain extent, there is really nothing to refute. Most people were uneducated and had a cursory understanding of the faith that could have been tremendously deepened… kind of like the 21st century. Catholics could have done more in the past and we could do much more in the present as well. As a race, we are weak and sinful and generally cowardly.

But don’t let that discourage you too much. The protestant “solution” to this was to Balkanize Christianity into ever-increasingly fractured denominations, and a congregant’s “truth” came from a single preacher who gave his personal interpretations of the Bible. The average protestant over the centuries was no scholar. For the most part, the preacher of their church was like a miniature pope.

They were taught by the preaching of the priest , by their parents, by their surrounding culture etc. In fact, I think there is a quote in the New Testament that says “How else shall the people know about the faith without a preacher?” This is a paraphrase of course. A good preacher is VERY important. Even in our day and age where many of us are literate and have easy access to a ton of information regarding the faith

You don’t need to understand the words of the Mass to profit by it. The Mass is valuable in itself. It’s value and holiness doesn’t depend on whether people understand it or not. At least this is how I understand it. St Joan of Arc was a peasant of the first half of the 15th century in France. She stated in her trial that it was her mother who taught her the Ave, Paternoster, and I think the Gloria. Others in her village also remember her going to Mass and Confession a lot and tending to her sick neighbors. So clearly she knew something about her faith. Even if she, or other medieval peasants, couldn’t explain to you the technicalities of the Sacraments, of the Incarnation, or other things, doesn’t mean that their faith was void. As Thomas A Kempis teaches, faith isn’t about just knowing, it’s about believing and being virtuous.

The homily was in the vernacular. The art of the Church often depicted various scenes from the stories to which they’d be familiar. Just because the people were illiterate doesn’t mean there weren’t oral versions of popular Biblical stories. Anyone generally could take the opportunity to read the Bible, but most people were of course illiterate. Latin was the continental language anyone with an education would learn and all inter-continental business was pretty much done in it. The length of time Latin was used for non Church purposes is longer than most people commonly think. Producing a single Bible cost the equivalent of many thousands of dollars, so Churches did take steps to protect them from harm and theft.

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People attended the Mass in Latin, and just as today even if not fluent in the language, know what is going on in the Mass and can sing Latin hymns and recite the responses required.

People were just as intelligent then as now. Go to an EF Mass for a while, get a missal and start trying to follow it, Pretty soon you will be able to and be reading in Latin for the Mass.

Since I wasn’t around back then and have not studied that part of Church history, as in how the laity were taught back then, I can’t say with 100% certainty. I would make an educated guess though and say they were taught orally through the Priest and their families.

I know you didn’t ask this but I would also point out that Latin was a common language of those that were literate back then, I believe. Also the vast majority, from some of the sources I’ve read, of the peasants were illiterate. So it would not matter what language the Bible was in.

Depending on what specific time frame you were talking about back then, also the Bible took years to produce, they were hand written. They were worth a small fortune also. So the Church/Parish would make them available to the laity but most people did not possess one because of the cost.

Your friend may also mention they kept them chained. This was true in some cases, but was done to prevent theft, because they were valuable. The laity had access to the Bible.

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