In every great religion ritual is as necessary as creed. It instructs, nourishes, and often begets, belief; it brings the believer into comforting contact with his god; it charms the senses and the soul with drama, poetry, and art; it binds individuals into fellowship and a community by persuading them to share in the same rites, the same songs, the same prayers, at last the same thoughts.

The oldest Christian prayers were the Pater noster and the Credo; toward the end of the twelfth century the tender and intimate Ave Maria began to take form; and there were poetic litanies of praise and supplication. Some medieval prayers verged on magic incantations to elicit miracles; some ran to an importunate iteration that desperately overruled Christ’s ban on “vain repetitions.”67 Monks and nuns, and later the laity, from an Oriental custom brought in by Crusaders,68 gradually developed the rosary. As this was made popular by Dominican monks, so the Franciscans popularized the Via Crucis, or Way or Stations of the Cross, by which the worshiper recited prayers before each of fourteen pictures or tableaux representing stages in the Passion of Christ. Priests, monks, nuns, and some laymen sang or recited the “canonical hours”—prayers, readings, psalms, and hymns formulated by Benedict and others, and gathered into a breviarium by Alcuin and Gregory VII. Every day and night, at intervals of some three hours, and from a million chapels and hearths, these conspiring prayers besieged the sky. Pleasant must have been their music to homes within their hearing; dulcis cantilena divini cultus, said Ordericus. Vitalis, quae corda fidelium mitigat ac laetificat—“sweet is the song of the divine worship, which comforts the hearts of the faithful, and makes them glad.”69

The official prayers of the Church were often addressed to God the Father; a few appealed to the Holy Ghost; but the prayers of the people were addressed mostly to Jesus, Mary, and the saints. The Almighty was feared; He still carried, in popular conception, much of the severity that had come down from Yahveh; how could a simple sinner dare to take his prayer to so awful and distant a throne? Jesus was closer, but He too was God, and one hardly ventured to speak to Him face to face after so thoroughly ignoring His Beatitudes. It seemed wiser to lay one’s prayer before a saint certified by canonization to be in heaven, and to beg his or her intercession with Christ. All the poetic and popular polytheism of antiquity rose from the never dead past, and filled Christian worship with a heartening communion of spirits, a brotherly nearness of earth to heaven, redeeming the faith of its darker elements. Every nation, city, abbey, church, craft, soul, and crisis of life had its patron saint, as in pagan Rome it had had a god. England had St. George, France had St. Denis. St. Bartholomew was the protector of the tanners because he had been flayed alive; St. John was invoked by candlemakers because he had been plunged into a caldron of burning oil; St. Christopher was the patron of porters because he had carried Christ on his shoulders; Mary Magdalen received the petitions of perfumers because she had poured aromatic oils upon the Saviour’s feet. For every emergency or ill men had a friend in the skies. St. Sebastian and St. Roch were mighty in time of pestilence. St. Apollinia, whose jaw had been broken by the executioner, healed the toothache; St. Blaise cured sore throat. St. Corneille protected oxen, St. Gall chickens, St. Anthony pigs. St. Médard was for France the saint most frequently solicited for rain; if he failed to pour, his impatient worshipers, now and then, threw his statue into the water, perhaps as suggestive magic.70

The Church arranged an ecclesiastical calendar in which every day celebrated a saint; but the year did not find room for the 25,000 saints that had been canonized by the tenth century. The calendar of saints was so familiar to the people that the almanac divided the agricultural year by their names. In France the feast of St. George was the day for sowing. In England St. Valentine’s Day marked the winter’s end; on that happy day birds (they said) coupled fervently in the woods, and youths put flowers on the window sills of the girls they loved. Many saints received canonization through the insistent worship of their memory by the people or the locality, sometimes against ecclesiastical resistance. Images of the saints were set up in churches and public squares, on buildings and roads, and received a spontaneous worship that scandalized some philosophers and Iconoclasts. Bishop Claudius of Turin complained that many folk “worship images of saints; … they have not abandoned idols, but only changed their names.”71 In this matter, at least, the will and need of the people created the form of the cult.

With so many saints there had to be many relics—their bones, hair, clothing, and anything that they had used. Every altar was expected to cover one or more such sacred memorials. The basilica of St. Peter boasted the bodies of Peter and Paul, which made Rome the chief goal of European pilgrimage. A church in St. Omer claimed to have bits of the True Cross, of the lance that had pierced Christ, of His cradle and His tomb, of the manna that had rained from heaven, of Aaron’s rod, of the altar on which St. Peter had said Mass, of the hair, cowl, hair shirt, and tonsure shavings of Thomas à Becket, and of the original stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments had been traced by the very finger of God.72 The cathedral of Amiens enshrined the head of St. John the Baptist in a silver cup.73 The abbey of St. Denis housed the crown of thorns and the body of Dionysius the Areopagite. Each of three scattered churches in France professed to have a complete corpse of Mary Magdalen;74 and five churches in France vowed that they held the one authentic relic of Christ’s circumcision.75 Exeter Cathedral showed parts of the candle that the angel of the Lord used to light the tomb of Jesus, and fragments of the bush from which God spoke to Moses.76 Westminster Abbey had some of Christ’s blood, and a piece of marble bearing the imprint of His foot.77 A monastery at Durham displayed one of St. Lawrence’s joints, the coals that had burned him, the charger on which the head of the Baptist had been presented to Herod, the Virgin’s shirt, and a rock marked with drops of her milk.78 The churches of Constantinople, before 1204, were especially rich in relics; they had the lance that had pierced Christ and was still red with His blood, the rod that had scourged Him, many pieces of the True Cross enshrined in gold, the “sop of bread” given to Judas at the Last Supper, some hairs of the Lord’s beard, the left arm of John the Baptist….79 In the sack of Constantinople many of these relics were stolen, some were bought, and they were peddled in the West from church to church to find the highest bidder. All relics were credited with supernatural powers, and a hundred thousand tales were told of their miracles. Men and women eagerly sought even the slightest relic, or relic of a relic, to wear as a magic talisman—a thread from a saint’s robe, some dust from a reliquary, a drop of oil from a sanctuary lamp in the shrine. Monasteries vied and disputed with one another in gathering relics and exhibiting them to generous worshipers, for the possession of famous relics made the fortune of an abbey or a church. The “translation” of the bones of Thomas à Becket to a new chapel in the cathedral of Canterbury (1220) drew from the attending worshipers a collection valued at $300,000 today.80 So profitable a businessmen-listed many practitioners; thousands of spurious relics were sold to churches and individuals; and monasteries were tempted to “discover” new relics when in need of funds. The culmination of abuse was the dismemberment of dead saints so that several places might enjoy their patronage and power.81

It is to the credit of the secular clergy, and of most monasteries, that while fully accepting the miraculous efficacy of genuine saintly relics, they discountenanced, and often denounced, the excesses of this popular fetishism. Some monks, seeking privacy for their devotions, resented the miracles wrought by their relics; at Grammont the abbot appealed to the remains of St. Stephen to stop his wonder-working, which was luring noisy crowds; “otherwise,” he threatened, “we will throw your bones into the river.”82 It was the people, not the Church, that took the lead in creating or swelling the legends of relic miracles; and the Church in many cases warned the public to discredit the tales.83 In 386 an imperial decree presumably requested by the Church forbade the “carrying about or sale of” the remains of “martyrs”; St. Augustine complained of “hypocrites in the garb of monks” who “trade in members of martyrs, if martyrs they be”; and Justinian repeated the edict of 386.84 About 1119 Abbot Guibert of Nogent wrote a treatise On the Relics of Saints, calling a halt to the relic craze. Many of the relics, he says, are of “saints celebrated in worthless records”; some “abbots, enticed by the multitude of gifts brought in, suffered the fabrication of false miracles.” “Old wives and herds of base wenches chant the lying legends of patron saints at their looms … and if a man refute their words they will attack him … with their distaffs.” The clergy, he notes, have rarely the heart or courage to protest; and he confesses that he too held his peace when relic-mongers offered to eager believers “some of that very bread which Our Lord pressed with His own teeth”; for “I should rightly be condemned for a madman if I should dispute with madmen.”85 He observes that several churches have complete heads of St. John the Baptist, and marvels at the hydra heads of that undecapitable saint.86 Pope Alexander III (1179) forbade monasteries to carry their relics about seeking contributions; the Lateran Council of 1215 prohibited the display of relics outside their shrines;87 and the Second Council of Lyons (1274) condemned the “debasement” of relics and images.88

In general the Church did not so much encourage superstitions as inherit them from the imagination of the people or the traditions of the Mediterranean world. The belief in miracle-working objects, talismans, amulets, and formulas was as dear to Islam as to Christianity, and both religions had received these beliefs from pagan antiquity. Ancient forms of phallic worship lingered far into the Middle Ages, but were gradually abolished by the Church.89 The worship of God as Lord of Hosts and King of Kings inherited Semitic and Roman ways of approach, veneration, and address; the incense burnt before altar or clergy recalled the old burnt offerings; aspersion with holy water was an ancient form of exorcism; processions and lustrations continued immemorial rites; the vestments of the clergy and the papal title of pontifex maximus were legacies from pagan Rome. The Church found that rural converts still revered certain springs, wells, trees, and stones; she thought it wiser to bless these to Christian use than to break too sharply the customs of sentiment. So a dolmen at Plouaret was consecrated as the chapel of the Seven Saints, and the worship of the oak was sterilized by hanging images of Christian saints upon the trees.90 Pagan festivals dear to the people, or necessary as cathartic moratoriums on morality, reappeared as Christian feasts, and pagan vegetation rites were transformed into Christian liturgy. The people continued to light midsummer fires on St. John’s Eve, and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection took the pagan name of Eostre, the old Teutonic goddess of the spring. The Christian calendar of the saints replaced the Roman fasti; ancient divinities dear to the people were allowed to revive under the names of Christian saints; the Dea Victoria of the Basses-Alpes became St. Victoire, and Castor and Pollux were reborn as Sts. Cosmas and Damian.

The finest triumph of this tolerant spirit of adaptation was the sublimation of the pagan mother-goddess cults in the worship of Mary. Here too the people took the initiative. In 431 Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria, in a famous sermon at Ephesus, applied to Mary many of the terms fondly ascribed by the pagans of Ephesus to their “great goddess” Artemis-Diana; and the Council of Ephesus in that year, over the protests of Nestorius, sanctioned for Mary the title “Mother of God.” Gradually the tenderest features of Astarte, Cybele, Artemis, Diana, and Isis were gathered together in the worship of Mary. In the sixth century the Church established the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven, and assigned it to August 13, the date of ancient festivals of Isis and Artemis.91 Mary became the patron saint of Constantinople and the imperial family; her picture was carried at the head of every great procession, and was (and is) hung in every church and home in Greek Christendom. Probably it was the Crusades that brought from the East to the West a more intimate and colorful worship of the Virgin.92

The Church herself did not encourage Mariolatry. The Fathers had recommended Mary as an antidote to Eve; but their general hostility to woman as “the weaker vessel” and the source of most temptations to sin; the timid flight of monks from women; the tirades of preachers against the charms and foibles of the sex—these could hardly have led to the intense and ecumenical adoration of Mary. It was the people who created the fairest flower of the medieval spirit, and made Mary the most beloved figure in history. The population of a recovering Europe could no longer accept the stern picture of a god damning the majority of his creatures to hell; and of their own accord the people softened the terrors of the theologians with the pity of the Mother of Christ. They would approach Jesus—still too sublime and just—through her who refused no one, and whom her Son could not refuse. A youth, says Caesarius of Heisterbach (1230), was persuaded by Satan, on the promise of great wealth, to deny Christ, but could not be induced to deny Mary; when he repented, the Virgin persuaded Christ to forgive him. The same monk tells of a Cistercian lay brother who was heard to pray to Christ: “Lord, if Thou free me not from this temptation, I will complain of Thee to Thy mother.”93 Men prayed so much to the Virgin that popular fancy pictured Jesus as jealous; to one who had deluged heaven with Ave Marias He appeared (says a pretty legend), and gently reproached him: “My mother thanks you much for all the salutations you make to her, but still you should not forget to salute me too.”94 Just as the sternness of Yahveh had necessitated Christ, so the justice of Christ needed Mary’s mercy to temper it. In effect the Mother—the oldest figure in religious worship—became, as Mohammed had prophetically misconceived her, the third person of a new Trinity. Everyone joined in her love and praise: rebels like Abélard bowed to her; satirists like Rutebeuf, roistering skeptics like the wandering scholars, never ventured one irreverent word about her; knights vowed themselves to her service, and cities gave her their keys; the rising bourgeoisie saw in her the sanctifying symbol of motherhood and the family; the rough men of the guilds—even the blaspheming heroes of barracks and battlefields—vied with peasant maidens and bereaved mothers in bringing their prayers and gifts to her feet.95 The most passionate poetry of the Middle Ages was the litany that in mounting fervor proclaimed her glory and besought her aid. Images of her rose everywhere, even at street corners, at crossroads, and in the fields. Finally, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in the noblest birth of religious feeling in history, the poor and the rich, the humble and the great, the clergy and the laity, the artists and the artisans devoted their savings and their skills to honor her in a thousand cathedrals nearly all dedicated to her name, or having as their chief splendor some Lady Chapel set aside as her shrine.

A new religion had been created, and perhaps Catholicism survived by absorbing it. A Gospel of Mary took form, uncanonical, incredible, and indescribably charming. The people begot the legends, the monks wrote them down. So The Golden Legend told how a widow surrendered her only son to her country’s call; the youth was captured by the enemy; the widow prayed daily to the Virgin to redeem and restore her son; when many weeks passed without response, the woman stole the sculptured Child from the Virgin’s arms and hid Him in her home; whereupon the Virgin opened the prison, released the youth, and bade him: “Tell your mother, my child, to return me my Son now that I have returned hers.”96 About 1230 a French prior, Gaultier de Coincy, gathered the Mary legends into a tremendous poem of 30,000 lines. Therein we find the Virgin curing a sick monk by having him suck milk from her douce mamelle; a robber who always prayed to her before embarking on his thefts, was caught and hanged, but was supported by her unseen hands until, her protection of him being perceived, he was released; and a nun who left her convent to lead a life of sin, returned years later in broken repentance, and found that the Virgin—to whom she had never omitted a daily prayer—had all the time filled her place as sacristan, so that none had noted her absence.97 The Church could not approve of all these stories, but she made great festivals of the events in Mary’s life—the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Purification (Candlemas), the Assumption; and finally, yielding to the appeals of generations of the laity and of Franciscan monks, she allowed the faithful to believe, and in 1854 bade them believe, in the Immaculate Conception—that Mary had been conceived free of that taint of original sin which, in the Christian theology, lay upon every child born of man and woman since Adam and Eve.

The worship of Mary transformed Catholicism from a religion of terror—perhaps necessary in the Dark Ages—into a religion of mercy and love. Half the beauty of Catholic worship, much of the splendor of Catholic art and song, are the creation of this gallant faith in the devotion and gentleness, even the physical loveliness and grace, of woman. The daughters of Eve have entered the temple and have transformed its spirit. Partly because of that new Catholicism feudalism was chastened into chivalry, and the status of woman was moderately raised in a man-made world; because of it medieval and Renaissance sculpture and painting gave to art a depth and tenderness rarely known to the Greeks. One can forgive much to a religion and an age that created Mary and her cathedrals.

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