Piety in the Middle Ages

Disclaimer: This is not one of my most authoritative posts. The initial idea came from my early grad school notes, which is why the big ideas are marked as coming from my professors and not from books. I may not be of great use in answering questions, but if you have some, send them in and I’ll do my best. I’m never afraid to admit it when I don’t know an answer.

Hildegard von Bingen writingThe word “piety” comes up often in medieval literature classes. I’ve probably used it often on this blog. However, in my first medieval literature class, one of the first lessons my professor gave us was to be careful with how we used the word. The way we use the word in modern English was a bit different from medieval usage.

The OED cites the first use of the word “piety” in 1325. However, in this sense, the word means “feeling or showing pity,” “mercy,” or “compassion.” “Piety” in a religious sense, meaning “reverence and obedience to God,” doesn’t appear until 1500. (The OED is unclear on the origins, but says that the Anglo-Norman pieté and Middle French piété, meaning “godliness,” occurred in “mid 13th cent. or earlier.”) “Pious” as an adjective of the latter meaning didn’t occur until 1450.

According to my professors, personal piety is a rather late phenomenon, around 14th-15th C. Before then, the tradition of Classical Rome was followed with piety being a civic duty. This, my professors said, was why Socrates got in trouble—he wasn’t dealing with personal issues, but social ones. Heresy was a social problem in the Middle Ages for the same reason—religion was not considered a primarily personal affair.

I think it’s safe to say that the majority of today’s Christians consider it important to develop a proper personal relationship with God. If you were to hop in the TARDIS and ask medieval people if they had good relationships with Jesus, they would likely be confused by the question. It would take some explaining. Note that all of the above information is concerning society as a whole. You will see writings of a passionate personal religious nature from mystics, but that’s a different topic.

Julien of Norwich holding a crossConsider the type of person whom we would consider most likely to have a healthy personal relationship with God: a cloistered monk who spends his days alone save for God. Salvation of one’s soul is one’s own duty, but such a monk’s lifestyle decision would be highly motivated by the desire to protect the community’s spiritual well-being with his prayers. Likewise, a good lord should care for and protect the people that God has placed in his charge. If he fails to do so, it is not just negligence, but a sin. Proper attention to his station is not just a social duty, but a religious one. A lazy peasant is not just one who fails to do his work, but sins against his community by not performing the labor to which he is suited. (Note that for the latter two examples, I mean people who have knowingly failed to do the duties that are within their abilities and not those who are assigned duties they cannot possibly complete.)

According to my professors, the end of the 14th C is when authors begin to explore the passion of personal piety in their writings. Many were female mystics, such as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). An individual would be highly unlikely to claim the authority to establish anything new about belief or behavior. When you do see an individual doing such things, he’s dealing with community ideas, community concerns, or a reiteration of ideas which already existed.

Other Terms

The medieval vocabulary a number of related terms for which we use “piety” today:

devoted: reverential in religious exercises
Godly: observant of God’s laws
good: worthy of approbation from a religious point of view
gracious: characterized by divine grace
holiness: spiritual perfection or purity
purity: spiritually pure, sinless
right: straight or unfaltering, especially in spiritual matters
sely: spiritually blessed, enjoying the blessings of God


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