Weird History

How The Medieval Catholic Church Frightened Parishioners Into Obedience  

Cheryl Adams Richkoff
12.7k views 10 items

The medieval Catholic church was a mixed bag of corruption, persuasion, and fear-mongering. There are a number of scary historical facts about the Catholic church, many involving the use of intimidation and coercion against the faithful in an effort to - oddly enough - keep them faithful. Plus, this was a time when the majority of people were illiterate and highly superstitious, making it that much easier for the church to manipulate the population and make them ever dependent upon the church.

Representations of people's greatest fears appeared often in the art and architecture of churches, in illuminated manuscripts, and even in one of the most powerful pieces of literature from the period - Dante's Inferno. Catholicism in medieval Europe held a level of power and influence over the population that is almost unimaginable today. In fact, most people were so frightened that they would pay huge sums of money just to stay in the good graces of God, and the church.

A "Hell Mouth" Over The Church Door Welcomed Parishioners
A "Hell Mouth"... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list How The Medieval Catholic Church Frightened Parishioners Into Obedience
Photo: Juliana Lees/Wikimedia Commons

No visitor to a medieval church or cathedral today would be overly shocked by the frightening sculpted images appearing just over the church entryway. But we have to remember that most people who were alive during the time that the church was establishing itself were uneducated, illiterate, prone to superstition, and lacking any awareness of the awesome digital graphics we have today.

In other words, most medieval people were at the very least taken aback by depictions of the "hell mouth," a ferocious beast devouring sinners during the Last Judgment. It was a very popular and successful trope for the church, and was the very first thing parishioners would see before entering the sanctuary. The message was clear: behave and obey, or this is what will happen to you.

Save Your Family From Purgatory And Give A Child To The Church
Save Your Family From Pu... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list How The Medieval Catholic Church Frightened Parishioners Into Obedience
Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Medieval church-goers seem to have been quite concerned about how much time they would end up spending in purgatory. Of course, they could donate money or goods to the church and attend services faithfully, or even purchase a certificate that proved they had bought some time out of heaven's waiting room, but there was still one other thing they could do to ensure a direct flight to heaven: donate one of their children to the church.

No, this is not about human sacrifice. Since the church clergy was supposed to be celibate, they needed to find ways to recruit new nuns, priests, and monks from the general population. Plus, gathering them while they were still young was obviously preferred, as the church would then have time to mold the youngsters into whatever the church wanted them to be. 

In an era of large families with too many mouths to feed, giving a child to the church could prove beneficial to all involved. Certainly the child would eat better, stay cleaner, and receive a better education. The parents would also save money since they would no longer have to bear the costs of feeding and raising the child, and the clergy would continue to grow as well. The truth of the matter, though, is that families really were so poverty-stricken that they often had no choice but to give up one of their own to the church.

What did the children think? That depends. Certainly it must have been glorious to have enough to eat, a warm place to sleep, and an education. Yet, many children were victimized by church leaders in a number of inappropriate ways, and not everyone who is raised to be a monk or a nun is passionate about the career path. There are plenty of accounts detailing the misery experienced by some who were trapped in clerical orders through no fault or choosing of their own.

Crying and Bleeding Statues Sent Dire Warnings
Crying and Bleeding Stat... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list How The Medieval Catholic Church Frightened Parishioners Into Obedience
Photo: Alan/Wikimedia Commons

To modern eyes, a weeping statue simply means that there is a crack somewhere, or that the "tears" were deliberately placed. Maybe there is a water hose inside the statue, just behind the eyes. A "bleeding" statue probably just means that something is leaky or rusty. Right?

Even today there have been reports of crying and bleeding statues, and there remain those individuals who believe the tears are not only real, but have been sent by Christ, his Father, his Mother, or a saint. Some of these same people also report seeing Jesus in sunsets, potato chips, and grilled cheese sandwiches. 

Back in the medieval days, though, with an overwhelmingly illiterate and superstitious population to impress, weeping and bleeding statues were viewed as a portent of something sad or evil about to take place, which was quite useful in encouraging continued obedience.

The Faithful Could Buy Their Way Out Of Hell Or Purgatory
The Faithful Could Buy T... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list How The Medieval Catholic Church Frightened Parishioners Into Obedience
Photo: Fran├žois-Marius Granet/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

During the medieval era, the faithful could actually buy forgiveness from the church - no sordid offense was denied forgiveness if enough money was involved. You could even purchase pardons in advance, should you have a nefarious plan in the works. It was all rather convenient for those who could afford it, and the church raked in massive sums of gold and silver.

At the time, most people were also quite religious and believed that hell and purgatory existed. As a result, one of the biggest moneymakers for the church focused on those seeking to buy a way out of purgatory - for themselves and their deceased loved ones. The thought of parents and grandparents languishing far from heaven was simply too much for many to endure, so people of all socio-economic backgrounds would scrape together whatever they could to pay the church. Once payment was received, the worshipful were even given a certificate to "prove" that grandma would get to heaven a few hundred years early!