The Middle Ages are known as a time of greater religious belief and spirituality than our modern times, at least in terms of Western Christianity. The massive influence of the Church on politics and society and thought indicates that religion was at this time stronger than it is today.
For a writer of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages this assumption has huge implications. It would indicate that most of ones characters, whether educated or not, would have a deep belief in the teachings of the Church – unless of course they were a heretic with divergent beliefs to the orthodox.
Most of the evidence that I have read indicates that atheism or agnosticism was not really a factor. People believed in God full stop, but how they believed might vary.
But what did they believe and why?
I think most of living today who are atheists or agnostic assume that the nearly total belief in God was due to a number of possible reasons:
1. People were less educated and didn’t have the intellectual tools to think through their belief
2. People were oppressed by a Church authority that controlled accepted beliefs
3. Lack of scientific advancement meant that man had little way of understanding nature except as a creation of a God or gods
However, I think we are perhaps misguided if we think in these terms.
From the research I have done recently the evidence seems to indicate more fundamental reasons for acceptance of religious belief, and also perhaps its fading away in the modern age. The reasons, I think, point to the paucity of medical knowledge and the needs people had for gods, Gods, saints or demons to intercede for them.
I plan to discuss this in more detail in 4 further posts. The posts will be:
2. Medical knowledge in the Middle Ages and Natural Science
3. The nature of popular belief in the Middle Ages
4. Tension between popular and intellectual belief
5. Effects of the Reformation on belief