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Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness

Human sin

To appreciate the power the Church wielded in the lives of ordinary people in medieval England, it is important to understand key beliefs about sin and the need for forgiveness.

Sin, in Christian teaching, consists of disobedience to the known will of God. The first example of sin described in the Bible comes in the story of Adam and Eve, who were placed by God in the Garden of Eden. They chose to disobey God and, as a result, were expelled from his presence and condemned to live in a harsh and inhospitable world. [For further information see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam']. 

The Medieval Church inherited and taught the doctrine of original sin, the belief that all human beings share in collective guilt as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the Fall of Humankind, together with an ongoing predisposition to disobey God. Everyone, therefore, needed to be cleansed through baptism, to learn to resist temptation and to live in such a way that, when death came, they would be ready to face God's judgement on their thoughts, attitudes and actions.

The hope of forgiveness 

Wooden cross, photo by Tangopaso, available though Creative CommonsChristianity teaches that, through his death on the cross, Jesus Christ took the punishment for human sin, thus ‘turning around' the effects of the Fall of Humankind, making it possible for individuals to be forgiven, to learn to live in obedience to God and eventually, to reach heaven (See Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace.) The Church has always seen it as being very important to remind individuals of this teaching and to encourage them to respond.

Delivery of Christian truth

There were three central elements on which the medieval Church focused.

The Mass

Celebrating mass (also known as the Eucharist) was an important sacrament. By taking part in this, believers symbolically shared in the victory paid for – and won by - Christ over the power of sin (known as the atonement). Through this they could receive the grace (meaning the undeserved gift) of salvation.

The sermon

Though richer people might own prayer books, knowledge of the Christian faith came, above all, from preaching and teaching, week by week from parish priests. This parish teaching was conducted in English and sometimes in Norman French. There were vernacular retellings of biblical stories and some French and English translations of the Psalms and other parts of the Bible, but few laypeople had direct access to the text of the Bible. It was in sermons that people learnt Bible stories as well as aspects of Christian history, such as saints' lives, and the basic doctrines and moral principles of the faith. Sermons could be very skillful and lively to illustrate Christian teaching.

Sermons had several functions:


Helping people to confess their sins and receive assurance of forgiveness was the role of the priest. The medieval Church distinguished between venial and mortal sins:

The Seven Deadly (or Cardinal) Sins

A number of specific sins are mentioned in the New Testament (see Mark 7:21-23 and Galatians 5:19-21). In time, lists of sins considered particularly serious were drawn up and, by the Middle Ages, seven ‘deadly' sins had been identified:

This list of sins was an important teaching tool in the medieval Church and sermons, poems and wall paintings presented them dramatically and vividly in order to warn people of the danger they posed. The sins were sometimes presented as personifications or as animals. They occasionally underlie characters in literature.

Physical and spiritual sins

Much of Christian theology holds that the greatest sin is pride because it sets a person up against God – and pride was seen as leading Adam and Eve to follow their own judgement, not God's commands. The sins based in the body (lechery and gluttony) were considered less serious than the mental and spiritual sins, such as pride and envy.

Partly this is because a strong current of thought (which can be traced back to the pre-Christian classical world) rated the things of the body as being deeply inferior to the things of the mind and soul. It was, however, believed that being too absorbed in the life of the body and material things was bad for the soul. This attitude was demonstrated by:

Medieval practices to ensure salvation from sin

Medieval Christianity stressed, above all, how vital it was for people to get themselves into a situation in which they were likely to receive God's grace and thereby spend the afterlife in Heaven, rather than being punished for their sins. The Church accordingly designed a set of practices which could help people regularly to repent of sin, receive forgiveness and undertake good works to show their sincerity about wanting to amend their lives.


True repentance was essential for any hope of salvation. More than just feeling sorry about wrongdoing, repentance means the person wants to turn away from undertaking wrong behaviour and actively decides to do so henceforward.


In the medieval Church's ‘routemap' of salvation, true repentance must be followed by confession to a priest. The priest would hear the confession and talk to the penitent to ascertain that they truly repented and resolved to do better in future. The priest then pronounced absolution, declaring that Christ forgave the sins of the truly repentant.


This means an action which demonstrates that someone has repented of their sins. The priest might order a penitent, for example, to do one of the following for a period:

Penance is thus the last part in the chain of processes ensuring forgiveness.

Purgatory: ‘Cleansing' of souls in the next world

Penance was particularly important because of the medieval church's teaching about Purgatory. This was a doctrine that crystallised during the later medieval centuries.

The idea of purgatory was based on the obvious fact that most people are neither extremely good nor extremely evil. Therefore, the Church declared that most people, even if not going to eternal damnation in hell, would not go straight to heaven after death either. Instead, they would spend a period in the spiritual state of purgatory where they could ‘pay for' / atone for sins committed on earth. Only when their souls were thus cleansed could they proceed to the full bliss of heaven.

It was believed that, whilst still alive, people could undertake deeds that would speed either themselves (in the future) or a dead friend or relative through this process. Penance was one such action.


The word means essentially the same as ‘pardons'. Indulgences were promises, issued by the Church, which said that, in response to a person performing certain virtuous actions following confession, he or she would be released from additional penance:

The abuse of this system for gain, both by individuals and ecclesiastical institutions, caused great anger and was a common theme for condemnation and satire in Chaucer's period.

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1Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. 2And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. 3For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. 4And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. 5Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? 6He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 7Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. 8For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. 9And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. 10For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: 11But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. 12And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; 13Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye. 14And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: 15There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. 16If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. 17And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable. 18And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; 19Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? 20And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. 21For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: 23All these evil things come from within, and defile the man. 24And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid. 25For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: 26The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. 27But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. 28And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs. 29And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. 30And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed. 31And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis. 32And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. 33And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; 34And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. 35And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. 36And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it; 37And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.
1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus 2and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the market-place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, 'Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?' 6He replied, 'Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ''These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.' 8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.' 9And he continued, 'You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10For Moses said, 'Honour your father and mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.' 11But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) - 12then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.' 14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside you can defile you by going into you. Rather, it is what comes out of you that defiles you. 16If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.' 17After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18'Are you so dull?' he asked. 'Don't you see that nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you? 19For it doesn't go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body.' (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20He went on: 'What comes out of you is what defiles you. 21For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and defile you.' 24Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. 26The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27'First let the children eat all they want,' he told her, 'for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.' 28'Lord,' she replied, 'even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.' 29Then he told her, 'For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.' 30She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 31Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. 33After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man's ears. Then he spat and touched the man's tongue. 34He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, 'Ephphatha!' (which means 'Be opened!'). 35At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosed and he began to speak plainly. 36Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37People were overwhelmed with amazement. 'He has done everything well,' they said. 'He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.'
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  • Today's New International Version
1Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. 3For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. 5For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. 6For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love. 7Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? 8This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you. 9A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. 10I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be. 11And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. 12I would they were even cut off which trouble you. 13For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. 14For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 15But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. 16This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. 18But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. 24And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. 25If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. 26Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.
1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. 7You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9'A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.' 10I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will have to pay the penalty, whoever that may be. 11Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished. 12As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! 13You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians. 2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship. 3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind.
1. The action of forgiving; pardon of a fault, remission of a debt. 2. Being freed from the burden of guilt, after committing a sin or crime, through being pardoned by the one hurt or offended.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
According to Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament), Adam is the first human being, made in the image / likeness of God, placed in the Garden of Eden and given dominion over the earth.
According to the book of Genesis in the Bible the first woman, said to have been created by God out of Adam's rib, to be his companion.
The place described in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which God placed his first human creatures, Adam and Eve.
State of disobedience to - and alienation from - God believed to have characterised human beings since the Fall of Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve's act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden described in the Old Testament Book of Genesis which led to estrangement from God for them and their descendants.
The immersion in or pouring over of water, in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to signify the washing away of away of sin. Baptism in Christian churches marks the acceptance of the baptised child or adult into the church.
The act of tempting or something that entices an individual to do wrong. In the Bible, can come from a person's internal desires or from an external evil force such as the Devil.
1. Wisdom. 2. A decision about guilt, and / or the passing of sentence by the person presiding over a court of justice. 3. In the Bible, God's verdict on human behaviour especially on the Day of Judgement at the end of time.
The beliefs, doctrines and practices of Christians.
1. Instrument of execution used in the Roman Empire. 2. The means by which Jesus Christ was put to death and therefore the primary symbol of the Christian faith, representing the way in which he is believed to have won forgiveness for humankind.
(c. 4 BCE- c. 30 CE). The founder of Christianity, whose life and teaching are described and interpreted in the New Testament. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew 'Joshua'. He was also given the title 'Christ', meaning 'anointed one' or 'Messiah'.
In many religions, the place where God dwells, and to which believers aspire after their death. Sometimes known as Paradise.
The central religious service of the Roman Catholic Church, incorporating praise, intercession and readings from scripture. The central action is the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest.
An act of remembrance in which Christians consume bread and wine in the way that Jesus demonstrated at the Last Supper before his betrayal and death.
Religious ceremony which symbolises receiving an inward spiritual grace.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
1.To set right or compensate for a wrong done. 2.The bringing together (reconciling) of man and God through the offering of a sacrifice which acknowledges human wrongdoing.
Undeserved favour. The Bible uses this term to describe God's gifts to human beings.
In the Bible, salvation is seen as God's commitment to save or rescue his people from sin (and other dangers) and to establish his kingdom.
Communication, either aloud or in the heart, with God.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
The delivery of Christian teaching in the form of a sermon.
Area with its own church, served by a priest who has the spiritual care of all those living within it.
A person whose role is to carry out religious functions.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
A talk which provides religious instruction and encouragement.
In the New Testament the term is used of all Christians but gradually came to describe an especially holy person.
The teaching on the beliefs of a religion, usually taught by theologians or teachers appointed by their church.
A person whose role is to carry out religious functions.
Relatively trivial sin which was not a deliberate act of will; could be confessed privately to God.
The fact that all created beings will inevitably die.
To admit wrongdoing. In Christian practice, confession often forms part of communal worship; in addition formal confession may be made privately to a priest.
The spirit which gives life to a human being; the part which lives on after death; a person's inner being (personality, intellect, emotions and will) which distinguishes them from animals.
Religious ceremony which symbolises receiving an inward spiritual grace.
An act expressing repentance.
A 'testament' is a covenant (binding agreement), a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people. The New Testament is the second part of the Christian Bible. Its name comes from the new covenant or relationship with God.
Going without any food (and sometimes drink) for a specified period.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
Religious festivals and events in the Christian year
The beliefs, doctrines and practices of Christians.
Undeserved favour. The Bible uses this term to describe God's gifts to human beings.
The act of turning away, or turning around from, one's sins, which includes feeling genuinely sorry for them, asking for the forgiveness of God and being willing to live in a different way in the future.
The act of turning away, or turning around from, one's sins, which includes feeling genuinely sorry for them, asking for the forgiveness of God and being willing to live in a different way in the future.
In the Bible, salvation is seen as God's commitment to save or rescue his people from sin (and other dangers) and to establish his kingdom.
An individual who confesses guilt and desires to seek forgiveness, especially the forgiveness of God.
The formal declaration of God's forgiveness, pronounced by a priest.
A journey to a sacred place made for religious reasons. 2. In Christian thought, the journey of the believer through this world towards heaven.
Going without any food (and sometimes drink) for a specified period.
Charitable giving to the poor.
1.To set right or compensate for a wrong done. 2.The bringing together (reconciling) of man and God through the offering of a sacrifice which acknowledges human wrongdoing.
'Holy wars' occurring from 1095 - 1291. Most were focused on 'liberating' the Holy Land from Muslim control but they were also undertaken against 'heretics' in Western Europe.
In traditional Roman Catholic doctrine, an 'antechamber' to heaven, a place between Heaven and Hell, where the souls of those dead who are not damned, but not yet fit for heaven, go to be purged (purified) of their sins.

Essentially the hymn book of the Jerusalem temple, expressing the whole range of human emotion, from dark depression to exuberant joy; many attributed to David.