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Religious Life

Religious life was very important for medieval people. The parish church in particular was a focal point of spiritual and secular life, a symbol of harmony and strength. The present parish church in Grantham was built over four centuries, and was a source of great local pride. It is late twelfth century to sixteenth century, but also has some eleventh century fragments. The church would have been brightly decorated, including wall paintings inside depicting Bible stories.

The fact that people could be tried for religious crimes in special courts demonstrates what an enormous part religion played in people’s daily lives.

There were many pagan traditions and beliefs that were interwoven with medieval Christianity. The movement of stars and planets were held to be very influential on people’s lives, and on this basis fortunes were told by means of horoscopes.

‘Handlyng Synne’ is a poem that was written by Robert Manning (or Robert of Bourne) between 1303 and 1317. It is a guide to priests about instructing their parishioners, and about how to hear confession. But it is also much more than that, as it tells us a lot about medieval life and beliefs in south Lincolnshire.

To help make it more accessible to parish priests and parishioners it was written in English, rather than Latin. Robert used local stories, folklore and culture to help get his Christian message across, and he tried to make it as entertaining as he could so that as many people as possible would read it.

He also used lots of local examples of stories, to make the poem relevant to his audience, and these tell us that there was probably a different dialect spoken in the south of Lincolnshire, and the barrier seems to have been the River Witham. South Lincolnshire, it seems, had far more in common in language and culture with its neighbouring counties to the south, rather than the north.

The social positions of the characters in his stories are often commonplace too, like dairy farmers and midwives, which would help ordinary people relate to his message.

The poem is also very interesting in that Robert clearly has a pre-occupation with witchcraft and the ‘black arts’, which was reflected across the whole of Europe at that time. He counts all kinds of superstitions and local traditions as witchcraft. For example, he really disapproved of the tradition of laying meat at infants’ heads (we don’t know why people did that), and of fortune-telling by looking into the subject’s thumbnail or a crystal. In fact he disapproved of just about anything that was unorthodox and aligned it with paganism. So he could use this as a tool to get people to conform to conventional Christianity. It seems that at that time the Christian church in Europe felt rather vulnerable, and needed to make sure that anything that they felt could threaten the Christian church was viewed very negatively by the population.

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Last updated: 3 March 2011

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