I know we have the internet, and before Vatican II we had hand missals, but before then did people know what the prayers said? Around the time of Trent? It would kind of try my faith if I were to find out that people didn’t know what was going on for so long, but a part of me doubts that they had hand missals in the 1500s.
Well the people who spoke Romance languages (like Italian, Spanish, and French) probably could understand the words to a certain extent… at least the parts that were spoke out loud. And even those whose native language was not Latin-based were not necessarily incapable of knowing what the Latin meant.
It’s not as if the people received no religious instruction. What they were taught and understood no doubt varied from place to place, from culture to culture, and from individual to individual. (Anyone who has ever taught a class knows that 25 people in the same classroom can come out with 25 different levels of understanding of the subject matter.)
There were certainly no hand missals to speak of. SMHW is right that speakers of Romance languages, especially Italian, would often be able to understand the gist of things said in Latin. I think, though, that this was more true in the middle ages, and that by the time you reach Trent in the 1560s that ability would have degraded for all but the literate. At the same time over these centuries, you see the rise of the silent low Mass, the silent Canon, and so on – evidence that people weren’t all that interested in continuing to hear it out loud. By 1901, as I’ve noted here, it seems to be well understood that “the faithful outside the Latin countries would as a rule be unable to answer the Salve Regina, and the Ave Maria,” meaning that you could not count on people’s having even the basic ability to engage in even rote recitation of even the most common prayers.
Dom Augustine Thompson’s very interesting book Cities of God: The Religion of The Italian Communes 1125-1325 contains the following remarks about northern Italy at that time in the middle ages:
Italians got the drift of the lessons at Mass when they took the trouble to listen carefully, as admittedly some failed to do. But the pious who did try could get the basic message. The layman Francis of Assisi’s conversion came while hearing the commission of the apostles in Matthew sung at Mass. Latin had enough in common with his Italian to be broadly understandable, even if Francis had to get some clarifications on particulars from the celebrating priest after the service. With relatively little instruction and effort, decent comprehension was possible. Even writing simple Latin prose was not beyond the capacity of laypeople with a modest education. Throughout the communal period lay Italians composed hymns, prayers, and saints’ lives in Latin ‘‘as if it were a spoken language.’’ The council fathers meeting at Grado in 1296 ordered that deacons use no fancy or melismatic intonations in their reading of the Gospel, because ‘‘these impeded the understanding of the hearers and so the devotion in the minds of the faithful is reduced.’’ Note that it is the faithful’s attention, not the clergy’s, that concerns the council. The fathers restricted elaborate tones to the chanting of the genealogies of Christ on Christmas and Epiphany and ‘‘to the first Gospel chanted by a newly ordained deacon.’’
One can imagine that things would have been very different in, say, Germany or England.
As to hand missals, it seems that they only came into use around 1930 or so. Read my post here; before that time, through the 1800s or so, people would have devotional handbooks that contained various prayers, reflections on the Mass, and so on, but not the text of the Mass itself in the way that we’re accustomed to, with all the ribbons and the flipping back and forth.
My guess is no. Thus the reason for bells and other rituals because the people did not understand the Latin. I am a fairly traditional and conservative Catholic and I have no problem with some of the basic responses being in Latin. But I don’t like when the majority of the congregation does not understand what is being said. I also don’t like having to read during my worship. That being said, I am a fairly traditional and conservative Catholic.