Nation & World

Religion in the vernacular

6 min read

Nicholas Watson traces the decline of the clergy and the rise of the laity

In 1215, Pope Innocent III convened the Fourth Council of the Lateran, a religious convocation that laid out to hundreds of bishops, abbots, priors, and Christian patriarchs 70 new decrees. One enjoined the clergy to stop frequenting taverns, engaging in trials by combat, hunting, and practicing what might be called noncelibate habits.

But to Harvard English professor Nicholas Watson, this medieval religious council was also the occasion for the church’s first debate over teaching theology.

Should the church embrace its longstanding monastic ideal, and keep the learning of theology the province of a few men versed in Latin? Or should it teach every Christian at least a little, and in English or other vernacular tongues?

To Watson, a Radcliffe Fellow this year, the 1215 church council marks the start of a captivating period of English literary history. At the other end of the temporal frame is the English Reformation, which followed a final break with the Roman church.

He sees it as an age in which English emerged as a major language and universities began and flourished, and an age in which vernacular religious texts abounded. Today, he added, those texts are a scholarly key to understanding secularized England.

In a nation where early medieval Christianity was “an elite, small-group religion” with an emphasis on contemplation and theory, said Watson, came the ascendancy of what he called “spiritual mediocrity,” where religious instruction took place in the vernacular. In turn, said Watson, “the Christianity of western Europe reinvented itself” into a place where monasticism had been “swept away” in favor of instructing the laity.

Watson’s talk was drawn from thoughts on a book he has under way and will continue at Radcliffe, “Balaam’s Ass: Vernacular Theology and the Secularization of England, 1050 to 1550.”

Balaam’s ass, he said, is not just a biblical prophet’s stubborn talking donkey (though one who can see angels), it is a “figure” for the vernacular. It represents the plain, direct, concrete language of ordinary people, which contains what Watson called “the prophetic resources of the inarticulate.”

In the end, the Christian church decided, in effect, to admit a donkey into the stable of its theological horses. What emerged was “vernacular theology,” a transformative blend of Christian teachings and the common tongue. Watson revived the phrase (first used in the 16th century) in a landmark 1995 study on cultural change in late-Medieval England.

When combined, the two words “vernacular” and “theology” contain liberating connotations of accessibility, free expression, and even democracy.

But in the 13th century, translating theology into the vernacular presented a pedagogical problem. How do you teach an English-speaking, largely illiterate population even the rudiments of Christian teachings, which had been for centuries couched only in Latin?

Well, “rhythmic English semi-prose,” for one, which underlay the pedagogical trick of rote learning, said Watson. He read from one example, the “six thinges” from “The Lay Folks’ Catechism,” based on a 1281 syllabus. The 12 articles of faith, the Ten Commandments, and other prescriptive lists were all summarized in catchy verse. Priests read the “six thinges” to their congregations four times a year, an exercise that took 25 minutes. Lay people were also required to memorize them, or be punished for sinning.

“Repetition and counting” were the keys here, said Watson. He read in musical Middle English the section on the Third Commandment, which requires both the “lered and lewed” (“learned and unlearned”) to keep the Sabbath.

“Six thinges” had a theological underpinning too, he said, showing that eternal salvation is based on knowledge and reason, and not behavior.

To gain that “bliss that nevermore ends,” said Watson, quoting from “six thinges” in translation, “knowledge and reason” — qualities lost in the Garden of Eden — could only be regained by study.

For much of the Middle Ages, salvation had been presented in “small-group terms,” he said, as the sole right of the educated elite. Vernacular theology was an attempt to “squeeze through” into paradise those without learning.

The concept of purgatory was another way for the unlearned to squeeze into paradise, Watson pointed out later. The ignorant could simply bide time in the afterlife in a sort of waiting room to heaven.

“Six thinges” was “practical and comprehensive” in 1281, said Watson, but by 1510 was the stuff of parody. That was the year of the anonymously authored “How the Ploughman Learned His Pater Noster,” a satire on learning by rote.

Watson told the story of a ploughman (farmer) and a priest. The ploughman knows a lot about practical matters, but cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer, and refuses to memorize it. But he agrees to memorize the names of a succession of poor men who visit him for gifts of corn, in return for the priest’s promise of a higher price for his grain.

So the first poor man, named “Our,” arrives. Then the second, named “Father,” and so on, until after one exhausting night the ploughman has memorized what — when strung together — is the Lord’s Prayer.

“Six thinges” and the story of the ploughman are far apart in time and intent, but both illustrate that literacy was a “moral skill before it was a practical skill,” said Watson. By the 18th century, he said, literacy would become what it is today, “a secular, and economic, ideal.”

The vernacular theology of Medieval England was a battleground of two broad religious views of salvation. The “perfectionist” view held that only the few, and the intensely educated — like the monks of old — could be saved. The “universalist” view — more tolerant, open, and flexible — held that even “mediocre” (uneducated) Christians could be saved.

Occasionally, expressions of the universalist view seemed not just tolerant, but radically inclusive, said Watson.

To illustrate, he read a passage from William Langland’s visionary narrative poem “Piers Plowman,” written around 1380, in which a feminized Christ bade all — Muslims, Jews, and fallen Christians alike — to “souke for sinne salve [remedy] at his breste.”

But how revolutionary was medieval vernacular theology — that is, how much did it influence the modern era?

Watson is not prepared to say, but in the end did assert that it was a “potent and under-recognized phenomenon” that deserves more investigation.