Thinking Medieval - The First Estate

The First Estate holds the medieval world together. The Church is present in every part of life. If you are using a medieval-ish setting, you need a Church of some kind, and it needs to be front and centre in your designs. Making a parody Church, or an evil Church, or even a capital-E-Evil Church is... kind of boring. Remember, it's people all the way down.

This post feels like a nightmare exam question. "Please discuss the history of the Christianity in Europe between 400 AD and 1400 AD. Points will be deducted for obvious omissions. You may use both sides of the sheet of paper." I'm going to focus on the structure and results of Church doctrine, not its origins, and wherever possible I am going to avoid jargon or specific terms. I'm trying to cover 1000 years of history in a very broad way; some details will be lost, ignored, or oversimplified. If you're writing a setting guide, make sure it's comprehensible to people who go "Who's the guy on the sticks? Is he the same guy who was in the shed earlier on?", and doesn't require a supplemental volume or two.

source unknown

What does the Lord Require of You?

Who are you?

This world, this life, is temporary. Your flesh is mortal, but your soul is immortal. For some ancient crime you are damned and will suffer eternal torments after your death. There is only one path to avoid eternal torment, one path to salvation, and it is through the Church. The path is narrow and lined with many dangers, but it is the only path. The priests of the Church are your guides.

The Lord

The medieval hierarchical worldview requires an ultimate power, and that ultimate power is divine. At the very top of the structure, above everyone (literally, in most cathedrals, altars, frescoes, etc.) is the Lord. Devotion is similar to feudal loyalty; prayer similar to the relationship between a liege and a vassal.

[The supplicant] was addressing the King of all the earth by a title which you used in talking to kings, the Spouse of his soul by a title which wives used in talking to their husbands, the eternal Father by a title sons used in talking to their fathers, the Giver of all good things by the title you used in talking to a stranger, if you wanted to get something out of him. The word wasn't just a form of address; it meant something to him.
The Latin word for Lord, which (as you perhaps know) is Dominus, meant, literally, the owner of slaves. [...] The lash, the branding-iron, crucifixion-those were the punishments which the lord could deal out to his slaves at the time when the Bible was written. And it is that kind of atmosphere which we have somehow to recover before we can realize, even remotely, what is meant when we say we believe Jesus Christ is our Lord.
-The Creed in Slow Motion, 1949, Ronald Knox

Since the Lord is unknowable and almost unapproachable, more human intercessors, the Saints, were often the focus of prayers and rituals instead. Every day had a Saint, every Saint had a story, and every story had an important moral lesson.


The three headings below are taken from Micah 6:8, a verse not often used in medieval sermons, but which works very well here.

To Seek Justice

Justice as Law
Laws might be written by Kings and enforced by nobles or court officers, but the justice of a case was determined by divine intervention. Members of the First Estate were also immune to many forms of secular justice, and could rely on courts and protections of their own. While a bishop might act as a judge, he would also act as an arbiter, a skilled negotiator, and a neutral advisor. Many peace treaties between warring states were written by cardinals and bishops. Justice, in some cases, meant defying the secular order and barring the church door to Kings and armies. The right of sanctuary, modified by age and custom, was always present.

The Church had a strong interest in maintaining law and order, but they also had a desire for the higher ideals of law. Partially from inherited Roman traditions, partially from the holy books, and partially from literacy and philosophy in general, the Church had a better sense of the intent and function of a law than most secular rulers. The direct intervention of the clergy was also a feature of most trials.

Justice as Truth
The Church is the sole keeper of the Truth. This is a capital-T-Truth, and a very precious thing. It is also an infectious concept. Once you've caught the Truth, any challenge to that Truth must be met. Truth cancels tolerance, or at the very least significantly strains it.

And this is a problem, because the world is messy and disorganized, because the holy books are mangled and half-allegorical and half-historical, and because if two different people have different Truths they will fight to the death. Just saying, "Ah, well, if my opponent is wrong he'll suffer for it later" isn't enough. Heresy, the incorrect Truth, must be exterminated. It's a condition of having a Truth of your own.
If somebody says to you, “Of course, your own country’s rule in the Colonies is every bit as brutal as German rule in Poland", you don’t reply, “Oh, really? I dare say it is". You care furiously about a statement like that. You may not have the facts at your fingers’ ends, but you are not going to let a statement like that pass without examination. It would alter your whole idea of what the world is like if you thought a statement like that could be true. And it has, or it ought to have, the same sort of effect, if somebody tells you that some article of the Christian creed isn’t true. The same sort of effect, only much worse. Because if you thought that, it wouldn’t merely alter your whole idea of what the world was like; it would alter your whole idea about this world and the next, about what life means and why we human beings have been put into the world at all. If you really believe a thing, it becomes part of the make-up of your mind; it lends coherence to your thought, colour to your imagination, leverage to your will. It matters enormously; to lose your belief would dislocate your whole life. 
-The Creed in Slow Motion, 1949, Ronald Knox
To defend the Truth, the Church created doctrine, much as designer creates patch notes or FAQs or revised documents. Doctrine is also created by an examination and codification of existing beliefs, often in extraordinary and tedious detail. The Nicene Creed might seem like a simple text, but it's like an aircraft safety manual - every line is written in blood and tears. It's a document built on compromises, arguments, and the thinnest possible differences... but the Truth allows no differences. 
It doesn't do to say that heresy produces the development of doctrine, because that annoys the theologians. But it is true to say that as a matter of history the development of doctrine has been largely a reaction on the Church's part to the attacks of heresy.
All these riches, then, of her theology the Church has acquired, one might almost say, like the British Empire, in a fit of absence of mind. She was so busy scrapping with the heretics that she wasn't conscious of saying anything she hadn't always said; and yet, when she had time to sit down and look about her, she found it took ten minutes to sing the Credo instead of three.
-The Hidden Stream, 1952, Ronald Knox
Occasionally, secular rulers who were tired of endless bickering and obscure feuds tried to solve theological issues with decrees. It very rarely worked. The unhappy attempt of King Chilperic (539 - 584) to resolve the Arian heresy (and all other related heresies at once) is an excellent example.
At this same time King Chilperic published a decree that we should make no distinction of Persons in the Holy Trinity, but call it simply God, for he maintained that it was unseemly that we should speak of a Person in the case of God, as if He were a man of flesh and blood. He affirmed that the Father was the same as the Son, and that the Holy Ghost was the same as the Father and the Son. "That was how He appeared to the prophets and the patriarchs," he said, "and that is how He was considered in the Law." He ordered these pronouncements to be read to me and he added, "That is my decision, and you and the other doctors of the Church must make it an article of your own faith."

"Most pious King," I answered, "you must give up this ill-founded belief, and follow that which the Apostles and after them the other Fathers of the Church have handed down to us, that which Hilary and Eusebius taught and which you yourself confessed at your baptism."

The King was very angry. "It is clear," he said, "that what Hilary and Eusebius taught is the very opposite of what I believe."

My answer was as follows: "You must make sure that your personal belief offends neither God Himself nor His saints. You must accept that in their Persons the Father is different from the Son and the Son different from the Holy Ghost. It was not the Father who was made man, nor the Holy Ghost, but the Son, who was the Son of God, so that for man’s redemption He might be accepted as the Son of man and of the Virgin. It was not the Father who suffered the Passion, nor the Holy Ghost, but the Son, in order that He who was made flesh in the world might become a sacrifice for the world. What you say about the Persons must be interpreted spiritually, not physically. In these three Persons there is thus one glory, one eternity and one omnipotence."

King Chilperic was annoyed by what I said. "I will put these matters to men who are more wise than you,’ he answered, ‘and they will agree with me."
"Anyone who is prepared to accept your proposals will not be a wise man but a fool," I replied. He gnashed his teeth, but said no more. A few days later Salvius, the Bishop of Albi, arrived at court. The King had his views propounded to him and begged him to say that he agreed with them. As soon as Salvius heard the proposals he rejected them with such violence that if he had been able to reach the paper on which they were written he would have torn it into shreds. King Chilperic was forced to change his mind.

-Historia Francorum, 584, Gregory of Tours
Poor King Chilperic. Like many people online, or people in any age, he was trying to resolve a problem he didn't fully understand and discovered, rather suddenly, that he was in over his head. The competing parties were too entrenched to accept a simple compromise... because the compromise was not, after all, very simple. The Truth cannot be changed. Doctrine is like an snail shell - the snail can't unmake it.

Justice as Fairness
Divine justice, through the medium of ordeals or supernatural punishments, was seen as impartial. Men could be bribed or threatened, but God was above trickery. He could see through any lie and unravel any mystery. It was comforting to know that, even if you were punished unjustly, the rewards waiting for you after death would more than compensate for any present pains.

Hours of Catherine of Cleves

And Love Kindness

Kindness as Charity
The Church was charitable, but perhaps not quite as charitable as modern standards would prefer. The distributed semi-communal structures of rural medieval life helped neighbors avoid starvation. When disasters came, the Church could do very little; priests were in as much danger as anyone else. But in a thousand small ways, the Church assisted the poor. Hospitals - more shelters for the dying, the ill, and the poor than places of healing - and leprosia were endowed by rich patrons, but supported by priests.

The medieval worldview supported gifts but almost discouraged charity. All relationships and exchanges had to be reciprocal. "Giving something away for free" or "asking nothing in return" was a very unusual idea, often specifically noted, and one that the Church both supported and discouraged. Donations to the Church were made with the expectation of some return: spiritual benefits, constant prayers, the construction of a monastery or icon or window, etc. Spiritual labour was very real; prayers were subsidized for the benefit of all souls. Monks praying in isolation were not idle. But free charity, without an exchange, was also supported by the Church, though it was often used as a way to raise the prestige of the donor.

Kindness as Peace
The Church demanded that wars between co-coreligionists cease. No idea was more widely mocked by the reality of the middle ages. Everyone fought everyone all the time, despite the best efforts of the horrified clergy. The "Peace and Truce of God" was one attempt to convince the war-loving Second Estate to put away the sword and focus on the actual enemies of the Church. The Crusades were another. Neither really worked. The Third Estate might prefer peace, but the Church idealized it... but did not extend that ideal to anyone outside the Church.

Even within the Church, ideal was far from realized. Violent bishops and warrior monks were surprisingly common. Priests followed armies into battle and led services before a charge. Feuding Cardinals hired mercenaries; Popes excommunicated cities for not following military orders. The realities of the middle ages clashed with the ideals of the Church, and the sword all too often won.

Kindness as Love
Love was a pillar of Church doctrine, but it was a love of God, not of other mortals. This world was fleeting; better to love God than to waste time with other temporary acts. There were tales of Saints who loved poverty and charity, but very few who truly loved the poor. The nature of love, and the perpetual struggles with reality, tormented the First Estate. Many devout members of the First Estate spoke of an physical love, sometimes very clearly, sometimes in more vague terms. A formal education in the Church brought an initiate into contact with the ideals of love and charity at the very least; their practice varied enormously, but they were at least mentioned.

Illustration of a Procession and Mass in a Nunnery, "Traité de la Sainte Abbaye", 1290

And Walk Humbly With Your God

Humility as the Denial of the Self
The demands of the Church are paradoxical. Renounce life. Renounce your body. Seek joy in humility, in submission, in obedience. Ignore this world and focus on the afterlife. Many of the instincts we think of as natural - warmth and comfort, food, the esteem of one's peers, desire for beauty, sex, trust in one's senses - were seen as unnatural impositions and faults.

The Church demands its initiates take vows of celibacy and separate themselves from the rest of the world. Some retreated further, to monasteries, nunneries, and hermitages.
Some of those men have been shut up there for thirty years. In all that dreary time they have not heard the laughter of a child or the blessed voice of a woman; they have seen no human tears, no human smiles; they have known no human joys, no wholesome human sorrows. In their hearts are no memories of the past, in their brains no dreams of the future. All that is lovable, beautiful, worthy, they have put far away from them; against all things that are pleasant to look upon, and all sounds that are music to the ear, they have barred their massive doors and reared their relentless walls of stone forever. They have banished the tender grace of life and left only the sapped and skinny mockery. Their lips are lips that never kiss and never sing; their hearts are hearts that never hate and never love; their breasts are breasts that never swell with the sentiment, “I have a country and a flag.” They are dead men who walk 
-The Innocents Abroad, Chapter LV, Mark Twain
While the souls of the rich and militant might be in danger, there was never a question to the Church that the poor but pious required extra attention. The charity of the Church both assisted the impoverished and, in some ways, exalted them. Just as chivalry demanded the knight be courteous, faithful, and honorable in battle, the Church demanded its initiates be poor, humble, and self-denying.

In practice, of course...
In the upper ranks, property and worldly offices absorbed the prelates, to the neglect of care for the diocese. Because the Church could offer to ambitious men a career of power and riches, many who entered it were more concerned with material than with spiritual reward. “Fear of God is thrown away,” lamented Brigitta in Rome, “and in its place is a bottomless bag of money.” All the Ten Commandments, she said, had been reduced to one: “Bring hither the money.” 
Conscious of its failings, the Church issued streams of orders reproving profane dress, concubinage, lack of zeal, but it was tied to the things of Caesar and could not reform at the root without destroying its vested interests.

-A Distant Mirror, 1978, Barbara W. Tuchman

Humility as a Societal Goal
The ideal was humility and denial, and some managed to make it a reality. For many, however, the Church was a path to riches, power, and personal glory. Many bishops were from noble families, and carried on behaving like nobles even while performing their sacred offices. They kept falcons, wore gold robes, managed retinues of servants, and owned vast tracts of land in their own name or on behalf of the Church. Cardinals were called "Princes of the Church" and they knew it. Local priests were humble by necessity. In disordered times, parish tithes dropped to nothing. Priests abandoned their stations, took up humble professions, or demanded payment for minor services and indulgences.

The popular conception of humility (rather than the stringent demands of a few hair-shirt-wearing angry monks), seemed to be "humility for the humble, in society's order." The Third Estate should be humble... because they were the Third Estate. The Second Estate did not need to be quite so humble, and the First Estate, owing to their close communion with God, needed less humility altogether. Come the approach of death, however, and even the most inveterate reprobate of a bloodthirsty baron would call out for a priest, a hair shirt, and ashes, and die in the clothes of a humble monk.

If living humbly and righteously was too difficult, penance and alms could still provide a path to salvation. Since the most humble, impoverished, and unworldly monasteries were considered the most fashionable and useful, dying nobles donated huge sums and acres of land to them. A famously pious order might survive a generation or two; after that, piled with the "things of Caesar", they slipped into comfortable luxury. Some monasteries were, famously, dens of debauchery, sin, and casual wealth. For every Fontevraud, established with lofty ideals, a hundred nunneries were accused of being brothels (although how accurate that is, given the invective of the time, is difficult to say).

Humility as Patience
Any belief system has to answer the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" For the Church, with an omnipotent, omniscient, yet sympathetic and loving God, this question is difficult to evade. God can't be incompetent, petty, or disinterested. The usual excuses don't apply.
The primary answer is another classic inversion. Suffering is not evil or harmful. In fact, it was to be desired for the purification of the soul. All events were part of an unknowable plan and a divine order.
Inspired by those records and examples, we should endure our persecutions all the more steadfastly the more bitterly they harm us. We should not doubt that even if they are not according to our deserts, at least they serve for the purifying of our soul. And since all things are done in accordance with the divine ordering, let every one of true faith console himself amid all his afflictions with the thought that the great goodness of God permits nothing to be done without reason, and brings to a good end whatsoever may seem to happen wrongfully. 
- Historia Calamitatum, 1132, Peter Abelard
How much of this was believed or understood by most people in the middle ages is... difficult to evaluate. Services were performed largely in Latin. Most people attending did not understand most of what was going on, let alone the reason for it, beyond the bare essentials.
Even so, communion and confession, which were supposed to be observed every Sunday and holy day, were on the average practiced hardly more than the obligatory once a year at Easter. A simple knight, on being asked why he went not to mass, so important for the salvation of his soul, replied, “This I knew not; nay, I thought that the priests performed their mass for the offerings’ sake.” For northern France it has been estimated that about 10 percent of the population were devout observers, 10 percent negligent, and the rest wavered between regular and irregular observance.

-A Distant Mirror, 1978, Barbara W. Tuchman
Still, over and over, in sermons, letters, and commentaries, the Church reminded the suffering to endure and accept their lot. Humility meant acting without question and accepting your position in the order of the world.

The De Brailes Hours, 1240

I Could Have Sworn This Was A Gaming Blog?

How can you use this in your games?
1. Make a medieval-ish Church. There's only one Around Here (there might be others in Foreign Parts). Steal as much as you'd like from the real world, but feel free to change it up. We've discussed the core elements here. The rest is set dressing.

2. Focus on the application of the four concepts above: Demands, Justice, Kindness, and Humility. How does your Church manage them? What does it require? How does it fail?

3. Contradictions. The medieval Church is a tower of opposites. It exalts humility while wearing gold robes. It denounces violence and calls for war. Take anything "natural" and select the opposite, them slide backwards from there. Make your theology messy, but don't burden the players with it. They get the barest summary - it's all a standard medieval churchgoer could offer.

4. Above all else, support faith in your games. Don't make it a joke or a sideshow. An answered prayer should be mysterious or properly miraculous. If the wrath of God descends on the PCs they should really fear it, and not just because it does 2d10 lightning damage. Faith is a wonderful source of story hooks, illogical decisions, confusion, torment, and controversy. It's perfect RPG fuel. Your PCs don't have to be faithful - there's pretty good evidence most people weren't anywhere close to fanatical - but they do need to react to faith in some way.

5. You can add all sorts of weird things like official relic thieves and exorcists and cathedrals that take three centuries to build and nobody will blink.

Finally, if you do want a crash course in Catholic theology, you could do far worse than Ronald Knox's series of sermons for Catholic schoolgirls, "The Creed in Slow Motion". They're wonderfully written and very witty, and though you'll probably want to argue with the author, bear in mind that he's been dead for 60 years. And if you want to argue with me about it, you're reading the wrong blog.


  1. This feels very gamable. It also feels very applicable to the real world, today. It casts some behaviors that are not Christian in a new light. Thanks.

  2. Wait! I read the following in the Amalric wiki page: "simply kill everyone, as God would sort it all out later."
    To the game be medieval, it must have an afterlife with judges and stuff. As you have said "Your flesh is mortal, but your soul is immortal."
    People could fear death but even more than that people fear afterlife. Something like "I must confess my sins before I die but I don't want to confess right now".

    1. Correct. The very simple idea is that you are judged after death and go to an eternal reward or an eternal punishment.

      You can read more about doctrines of confession here: http://www.cin.org/liter/knoxcreed26.html
      And about judgement here: http://www.cin.org/liter/knoxcreed16.html

      But the main thing is that PCs should probably confess before going into a dungeon, just in case. Pre-battle prayer and communion are very traditional. Dungeons are very deadly. It also gives players a great excuse to make a dying speech.

      Actually, I should edit my Death and Dismemberment table to include that.