Ain’t Misbehavin’: How to Behave in the Church and Churchyard

ChurchIn the section on sloth in his Instructions for Parish Priests, John Mirk (fl. c.1382-1414) suggests that parishioners should be questioned during confession about their behaviour in and around the church:

Hast þou come to chyrche late
And spoken of synne by þe gate?
[…] Hast þou letted any mon
Þat to chyrche wolde haue gone?
(BL Royal MS 2 B 1)                                             Hast þow spoken harlatry
Wythynne chyrche or seyntwary? (p.36)

[Have you come to the church late, and spoken of sin by the gate? Have you hindered any man that wished to go to church? Have you spoken harlotry within the church or sanctuary?]

GossipA major part of the priest’s job was to ensure that the church remained a sacred space at the heart of the community. Being late for church or hindering anyone else who wanted to attend was sinful (as I discussed in my earlier post on a medieval proverb) and indulging in ‘harlatry’ (ribald or obscene speech) at the churchyard gate or within the church itself endangered the very sanctity of the space by polluting it with profane language.

[BL MS Royal 6 E VII, men talking]

Mirk expends considerable energy on good and bad behaviour in the church in his Instructions. And the reason for this is as follows:

For cryst hym self techeth vsSt Helen's Abingdon
Þat holy chyrche ys hys hows,
Þat ys made for no þynge elles
But for to pray In, as þe boke tells;
Þere þe pepulle schale geder with Inne
To prayen and to wepen for here synne. (p.9)

[For Christ himself teaches us that holy church is his house, that it is made for no other thing but to pray in, as the book tells; there people shall gather within to pray and to weep for their sin]

Mirk is referring here to the most important idea of the church, drawn from Genesis 28:17, that it is the house of God and the gate of heaven. It is a sacred space (as I discussed in an earlier post), in which the congregation gather to pray and to perform penance for their sin.

But this did not mean that it was a perfect space without sin. As Mirk’s Instructions demonstrate, the congregation needed to be reminded continually about how to behave in the church and therefore safeguard the sanctity of the space.

So what did Mirk encourage the parish priest to teach to his congregation?

3et þow moste teche hem mare
Þat whenne þey doth to chyrche fare,
Þenne bydde hem leue here mony words,
Here ydel speche, and nyce bordes,
And put a-way alle vanyte,
And say here pater noster & here aue. (p.9)

[You much teach them further that when they go to church, bid them to leave their many words, their idle speech, and foolish amusements, and put away all vanity and say their Pater Noster and Ave Maria]

First, he must encourage the laity to swop their idle speech for the two most important prayers that every medieval Christian must know, the Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer) and the Ave Maria (Hail Mary).

Having controlled their tongue, parishioners should then discipline their bodies. They should not stand or lean against a pillar or wall in the church, they should kneel upon the floor ‘and pray to god wyth herte meke / to 3eue hem grace and mercy eke’ [pray to God with meek heart to give them grace and mercy]. When the gospel is read they should stand, when the bell is rung for at the elevation of the host (when the consecrated bread is held up by the priest during the mass), they should kneel and say the following prayer:

Ihesu, lord, welcome þow be,Host
In forme of bred as I þe se;
Jhesu! For thy holy name,
Schelde me to day fro synne & schame. (p.9)

[Jesus, lord, you are welcome in the form of bread as I see you. Jesus! For your holy name, shield me this day from sin and shame]

(Elevation of the Host, BL Egerton 1070)

Seeing the consecrated bread during the Mass had real benefits for parishioners. Mirk explains that on the day that the host is seen, the parishioner will not lack food, idle words and oaths will be forgiven, and sudden death will be avoided! The sacred sight of Christ’s body in the host is a powerful form of protection.

Having detailed good behaviour in the church, Mirk then warns against bad behaviour in the churchyard, a space that was frequently used for secular purposes in the late Middle Ages, as Mirk’s comments indicate:

Also wyth-ynne chyrche & seyntwary
Do ry3t thus as I the say,
Songe and cry and such fare,
For to stynte þow schalt not spare;
Castynge of axtre & eke of ston,
Sofere hem þere to vse non;
Bal and bares and suche play,
Out of chyrch3orde put a-way. (p.11)
[Within the church and sanctuary, do as I say: singing and shouting and such behaviour, you should not spare to discourage; do not suffer your parishioners to throw axle-trees or stones, playing at ball or barres and such games, out of the churchyard put them away]

The followBalling marginal note appears in the Bodleian library manuscript Douce 103 of Mirk’s Instructions, detailing additional games that should be banned: ‘danseyng, cotteryng, bollyng, tenessyng, hand ball, fott ball, stoil ball & all manner other games out cherchyard.’ [dancing, playing quoits, bowling, tennis, hand ball, football, stool ball]

Mirk’s text and the marginal note gives us a fascinating insight into different types of medieval games. ‘Castynge of axtre’ was a game which involved throwing an axle-tree (the bars to which the wheels of a cart were attached) and ‘barres’ is a form of the game ‘prisoner’s base’ or tag. In the marginal note, stool ball is a cross between cricket and baseball, and ‘tenessyng’ is tennis, which in the Middle Ages was a kind of handball. The Walters Art Museum had an exhibition called ‘Checkmate! Medieval People at Play’, pop over to their website for some great images of medieval games and further information on the sports mentioned here.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite manuscript images of games: monks and nuns playing baseball in Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

Baseball in the Middle Ages Rivalry in sports is not just something of our time. Nor is baseball. Both date back to at least the fourteenth century, when this image was made. What is less likely encountered in a baseball game today are the teams: monks vs nuns. The scene is from the margin of a medieval page, the location used to make fun of people. The manuscript contains a romance, popular among the medieval nobility. Somewhere, someone in a castle had a good laugh about these religious men and women playing ball.  Pic: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264 (14th c). Browse the entire manuscript here. More enjoyable marginal drawings like this are found in this Tumblr post.


John Mirk, Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. Edward Peacock, Early English Text Society o.s. 31 (1868)

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