Everyone knows that religion has crumbled since medieval times when all Europe walked secure in faith and grace. […] [But] in recent years a number of religious historians have assembled evidence that the medieval masses were, in fact, remarkably irreligious, at least in terms of religious participation […]. Andrew Greeley (forthcoming) has summarized these historical conclusions with characteristic succinctness:

    „There is no reason to believe that the peasant masses of Europe were ever very devout Christians, not in the sense that we usually mean when we use these words. There could be no deChristianization as the term is normally used because there was never any Christianization in the first place. Christian Europe never existed.“

The celebrated medieval piety might have characterized the nobility, but religious participation among the medieval populace seems to have been very low. Jean Delumeau (1977) has concluded that the middle ages weren’t even Christian in any meaningful sense of the term, but that the peasants were simple spirit worshippers whose folklore included some Christian content. Similarly, Jane Schneider (1990) described the religion of medieval Europe as „animism,“ noting that Christian saints made up only a portion of the supernatural creatures with whom the peasants bartered for protection and favor. The reason for this state of affairs was that the peasants were essentially ignored by the medieval Church which, according to Greeley, lacked the resources „and perhaps the motiviation to catechize (if that be the appropriate word for the time) the peasant masses.“ As Paul Johnson (1976) noted, the Church typically made little or no effort to reach peasantry, at a time when nearly everyone was a peasant […]

In their study of popular religion during the Middle Ages, Rosalind and Christopher Brook (1984) noted that an extensive survey of surviving parish churches accross Europe revealed the typical church to be „a small box with a tiny chancel, the whole being no larger than a moderately large living room in a modern house.“ The Brookes emphasize the intimacy this made possible between priest and parishioners during mass, but these tiny churches are also indicative of widespread indifference. Given that most medieval parishes covered a substantial area, it would have been impossible to cram more than a small fraction of the population into such quarters.

In his classic work, Religion and the Decline of Magic, the British historian Keith Thomas (1971) noted that in late medieval times „it is problematical as to whether certain sections of the population [of Britain] at this time had any religion at all“ and „that many of those who did [go to church] went with considerable reluctance.“ When the common people did show up in church, often under compulsion, they so misbehaved „as to turn the service into a travesty of what was intended“ according to Thomas. Presentations before ecclesiastical courts and scores of clerical memoirs report how „members of the population jostled for pews, nudged their neighbours, hawked and spat, knitted, made coarse remarks, told jokes, fell asleep, and even let off guns“ (Thomas 1971). Church records tell of a man in Cambridgeshire who was charged with misbehaving in church in 1598 after his „most loathsome farting, striking, and scoffing speeches“ had resulted in „the great offence of the good and the great rejoicing of the bad“ (quoted in Thomas 1971). A man who issued loathsome farts in church today surely would not draw cheers from part of the congregation in any British church, not even if he accompanied his efforts with scoffing speeches.

But it wasn’t only the masses who failed to measure up to our cherished image of medieval piety. In 1551 the Bishop of Gloucester systematically tested his diocesan clergy. Of 311 pastors, 171 could not repeat the Ten Commandments and 27 did not know the author of the Lord’s Prayer. Similarly, in 1547 Archbishop Giovanni Bovio, of the Brindisi-Oria diocese in southern Italy, found that most of his priests „could barely read and could not understand Latin“ (Gentilcore 1992). […] In fact, many priests failed to perform their pastoral duties — „there were often no priests to celebrate mass or perform extreme unction“ (Gentilcore 1992).

From: Rodney Stark and Laurence R. Iannaccone, A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the „Secularization“ of Europe. In: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 241 f.