In the twenty-first century religion is a matter of personal preference, and many people have no belief at all. In the twelfth century most people believed fervently and the Church dominated not only the religion but also much of the public life, politics, and culture of Wales, as of other European countries.
Church leaders today may become well known in their sphere, but wield very little actual power, whereas in the twelfth century the bishops and abbots of the Church were among the rulers’ wealthiest and most influential leaders. They were a crucial source of potential support in men and money at a time when the Normans and the Welsh were still very much against one another and vying for land and castles.
We tend to think of the Middle Ages as an ignorant time, but the higher the status, the more educated a man was likely to be, especially in the Church. Leading clerics were much the best-educated men of the age and indispensable to princes as advisers and administrators. The Church, too, was the focus of profound regional and national loyalties. It ultimately sanctioned the exercise of all religious and secular authority; and, most importantly, controlled the means of salvation in the world to come – a world intensely real to most men and women.
Religion was the bedrock of daily life. A constant round of worship and supplication in Latin was maintained in all cathedrals and monasteries, and on a lesser scale in parish churches. On Sundays and holy days, and in monasteries every day, mass was offered. The Church commemorated Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, and the other Christian festivals and presided at all the great milestones of life: birth, marriage, and death. It encouraged pilgrims to visit holy places, where they venerated saints and their relics, and sought health and succour for themselves, their animals and crops.
Public health, charitable giving, solemnising of agreements, and disposal of property after death, were the preserve of the Church. So was most of such education as was available. At the ecclesiastical scriptoria scribes painstakingly copied and preserved manuscripts and stored them. Spearheaded by the vigorous and reforming papacy of the age, the Church and its clerics were confident of their own elevated and sacred mission and eager to assert it.
Such all-pervading influence made it vital for lay rulers to enlist or coerce the aid of the churchmen in all their major acts of policy. In Wales, since the end of the eleventh century, the Church had been extensively used by Norman kings, barons, and archbishops of Canterbury to overcome native resistance. Bishops of Welsh dioceses had been compelled to acknowledge Canterbury’s overlordship. Continental-type monasteries of the Benedictine and Augustinian orders had been introduced into newly-established Norman boroughs and endowed with possessions formerly belonging to the Welsh Church.
Against this, Welsh princes endowed Cistercian monasteries like Strata Florida or Aberconwy, and tried to prevent Welsh bishops from bowing to Canterbury’s rule. Instead they sought to establish St Davids as an independent province in the Church.
[adapted from The Twelfth-Century Church in Wales by Glanmor Williams, in A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Knightly]
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz