Saving the Sinners: The Medieval Church and the Laity

Tutor: Sethina Watson

Module type: MA Option

Module code: MST00062M


In the later twelfth century the church turned, with new vigour and imagination, to the salvation of the laity. Where once it had fostered salvation through retreat from worldly temptation it now asked what did it mean to be a Christian in the world?

Bishops, theologians, lawyers and laity all played a part in asking and answering this question. This module will explore how they identified workable ideals for lay life and new structures to carry these out. It will place the great Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 at the centre of a century of reform and its challenge of implementing grand ideals on a local level. Examples from England and Northern France will illustrate how the pastoral church engaged the laity and to get to grips with the major sources and approaches for studying the later medieval church.

Out of this century of reform emerged the later medieval church; its problems (and solutions) illuminate the rationales that underpinned them. This is an exciting moment to study the church (and faith): a new generation of scholars are breaking apart old views of institutions (by seeking a social history of the church), of records (by challenging the relationship between ideas and objects) and of law and government (by questioning networks, place, communication and accountability). You will make use of these new approaches to ask new questions of what once seemed conventional material.

Learning outcomes

Upon successfully completing this module, you should:

    • have an understanding of the ideals, problems and innovations behind pastoral reform
    • be familiar with the structures of the medieval church, especially its systems of decision-making, communication, and administration
    • recognise the major primary sources for the study of the later medieval church, including legislation, sermons, scholarly texts, bishops’ registers, court records, and confessors manuals
    • have an appreciation of the major areas of study, debate and the key methodological problems in approaches to the laity and pastoral care.

Preliminary reading

    • Sarah Hamilton, Church and People in the Medieval West 900-1200 (Pearson Education, Harlow, 2013).
    • John Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (Bloomsbury, London, 2005).
    • Ian Forrest, Trustworthy Men: How Inequality and Faith made the Medieval Church (Princeton University Press, 2018).
    • Brenda Bolton, Innocent III: Studies on papal Authority and Pastoral Care (Aldershot, 1995).