Ever wonder why there was such a proliferation of Saints Days and Holy Days… or holidays as they came to be called… in Medieval Times? Were they just some reason to bring out the relics? The pieces of the True Cross? The Spear of Destiny that pierced Jesus’ side… and was miraculously found on the eve of destruction… thus turning the tide in the Holy Land that led shortly to the conquest of Jerusalem? Were they just some trumped up reason to parade the erstwhile bones of heroic Saints? Locks of hair from virgin Saints? Before the fearful people? To scare the Hell out of them for just a few day. Cow them into submission. Something approaching sanctity… howbeit ever so briefly….
Or… was there something more to it….
The relics and the bones of saints, etc. were physical proof of God’s greatness here on Earth. Saints relics proved to those who chose not to be even try to be saints themselves that at least God loved ordinary men and women enough to send someone empowered to help their lowly lives through their miracles. They didn’t know Germ Theory, so people couldn’t catch cholera from drinking contaminated water: they were cursed by the Evil Eye. They didn’t have Science, so kids couldn’t have seizures: they were possessed by demons- because everyone knew that Satan prowled around like a roaring lion from the stained-glass pictures of stories in the church windows. They may not be able to read, nor could they understand the Latin Mass, but they could view the pictures. Angels and demons and magic were VERY real to them, simply because there were no other rational explanations for the horror that surrounded them in their daily lives. Children died VERY frequently. The average life expectancy was around 40.
But… Holy Days served a different function: the demonstrated the power of God… and his love for the commoner… to the nobles. And THAT became very important. On Holy Days… commoners got a break from at least some of their daily chores. And… they could not be wantonly slaughtered. On Ordinary Days a lord had the right to do anything he so desired to his subjects. He could disembowl them and used their intestines to warm his cold feet, if he so desired. And that is recorded. When nobles waged war on one another, they would send out bands of raiders to kill serfs, but also to steal livestock and loot and burn and destroy food sources and economic engine of their enemy. Of course, that all disproportionately affect the poor serfs. If someone was going to eat, it was going to be the nobles and the clergy. If someone was going to starve, that was going to be the serfs. They would be fed right after the animals… who were considered more valuable. The serfs were also sent out to be slaughtered in battle as a prelude to any action by the much more well-protected knights. That was the problem with the English longbow- it allowed ignoble serfs to kill even armored nobles. Therefore it was outlawed.
Perhaps I should explain what outlawry was at that time. An outlaw did not necessarily have a price on his head. He had any price that would have placed on the head of anyone who killed him removed. He was on his own, living outside the safety of the laws… and outside the Communion of the Mother Church…. So if he died, he was damned. And the only people with whom he could consort were other desperate outlaws. Of course, there were also some powerful people outlawed. Robber barons and Border Reivers and that sort. Men who made their living robbing and stealing and killing their political or racial enemies. For political reasons, they tended to be left alone by one side- because they were essentially a partisan army. A group of political terrorists. The forest rangers who kept the hunting preserves safe for the king and his nobles to get meat for their tables, also tracked down the Border Reivers. That’s why bloodhounds were called slewe hounds or Sleuth Hounds. Bloodhounds were legally protected. If anyone killed or injured a bloodhound inside a house to which a criminal had been tracked- that was considered proof of complicity and treason… and not only the person involved in the act, but everyone else in the household… would sacrifice their lives.
I should perhaps deal with one other misconception here quickly: suspected witches were not burned at the stake at this point in history. That was later during the Witch Trials. That punishment was reserved for Traitors. And unrepentant heretics, I suppose.
If you’ve made it with me this far… please allow me to paint you a little picture to bring this into perspective. Americans- and the rest of the civilized world to a greater or lesser extent- are appalled by the wanton slaughter being carried out by radical Sunni and Shi’a muslims against not only their enemies, but also within their own ranks. People beheaded… and left out to be eaten by jackals and rot… for the crime of smoking cigarettes. Our civilized cultures consider such acts extreme. We don’t know history. That was just the way the world was before the Church intervened and civilized the way we acted. Before the Church intervened to teach that the life of every man had value, and that every woman and child should be protected. The reason that knights spent the night before they were dubbed or received the accolade (the ceremony of knighting) was because chivalry was born in the Church. (Some fraternities retain some similar traditions before initiation.)
The modern concepts of human rights or natural rights… came straight out of the Church. The Theological Doctrine of Transubstantiation was a HUGE part of that, because if the nobles did not believe that the wafer and the wine actually became the Body and the Blood… and that gave Communion the power to save… then they had absolutely no reason to come to heal…. So when the political winds shifted… and the best interest of the king no longer aligned with the best interest of Mother Church… the king was sorely tempted to break faith and leave communion….
Without the intervention of the Church… Western Civilization would never have become civilized. The Christian Church defined Western Values and the values enshrined in our Constitution.