During the Middle Ages, the clergy and the Church were very influential. The kings appointed members of the clergy including the bishops and priests, and in return, the clergy would play a great role in establishing the rules of the land. Priests in the Middle Ages were not as influential as the bishops and archbishops who came from rich families.
Priests in the early middle ages did not dress differently from the local people. However, in the fifth century following the fall of the Roman Empire, the church started to regulate clergy dressing. Priests were then required to don a tunic, also known as an alb, which flowed down to their feet; this would distinguish them from the laymen who dressed in trousers and walked bare feet. In the 13th century, English priests were required to wear a cappa clausa, a hooded cap.
The Role of Priests in the Middle Ages
The priests in the middle ages were exempted from paying taxes because their work was considered noble. They provided care for the members of the community. The priest had a special place in society. He presided over baptisms and wedding and he usually was the sole source of education. The priest was in charge of ensuring that the religious occasions and events were observed and he performed the final rites to the dying.
One of the most important roles played by the priest was establishing and running a local school. This was particularly vital when the kings realized the importance of education in the development of a country and in winning battles. The clergy was charged with the role of educating the local population, even though what they taught was meager and very basic. The educated priests only taught selected students how to read and write in Latin. They also taught religious studies, philosophy and rhetoric.
The priests in the middle ages made a living from tithes, a fee that parishioners paid from working in the fields. The total amount of tithe a person would pay would be a tenth of their earnings or their harvest. Thus, peasants would contribute a tenth of their meat and a tenth of their harvest to the church. The clergy would use one third of the contributions for their own upkeep, while the Bishop and the poor in the community would share the remaining contributions. The money that was given to, or collected by the church was used for repairs within the church, for purchasing books and candles.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, priests who served in the parish were generally allowed to marry and to have children. Priesthood in the middle ages was hereditary, so that the priest’s son would take over the church when his father died. Women were not permitted to become priests.
Compared to the village priest and the local parishioners, a parish priest would be more educated, but illiterate nevertheless.
In the middle ages, society was divided into three orders. These included those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked. Members of the clergy, including the priest were in the category of those who prayed. The knights, cavalry, infantry and the king’s soldiers were those who fought. The peasants in the farms were those who worked. This is because the priests were considered closer to God than any of the people in the other two categories.