In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lay Piety

  • Introduction
  • Reference Resources
  • Primary Sources
  • Demons and Apparitions
  • Gender and Women
  • Miracles and Wonders
  • Parish Life and Church Maintenance
  • Piety in the Family and Household
  • Religious Minorities
  • Religious Space, Time, and Environment
  • Saints and Angels

Renaissance and Reformation Lay Piety
Kathryn A. Edwards
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0072


Lay piety is an admittedly imprecise term that points to two important aspects of Renaissance and Reformation religious life. By “lay” it distinguishes the bulk of Europe’s population from the clergy, that is, the 5–10 percent of the population who took special religious vows (such as poverty, chastity, and obedience) to representatives of the institutional Church or who held special offices within various churches. Such clergy, or “clerics,” therefore, had spiritual and ministerial responsibilities and, at times, enjoyed a distinct legal status. “Piety” designates the outward expression of religious belief. Thus, “lay piety” refers, most obviously, to the religious practices and, by implication, faith of those who were not clergy—at least 90 percent of the population of Renaissance and Reformation Europe. Yet, lay piety did not exclude clergy. Not only did clergy sometimes play key roles in pious rituals, but the clergy and laity shared many practices and beliefs. Clergy and laity could be members of the same family, and they interacted in households, clubs, and offices. Although clerical training, especially university education in theology, could lead to different understandings of piety and the clergy engaged in some distinctive pious activities, many male and female “religious” shared a spiritual culture with laymen and women. That culture’s pious manifestations were as diverse as the population itself, and they were embedded into many aspects of daily life, including family relationships, judicial practice, science, education, and even peasant revolts. Given the common conviction that God was immanent and the world superenchanted, most activities could have some spiritual component. Regulating such piety was central to all the 16th- and 17th-century reform movements, and, by the end of the 17th century, religious rites and activities became the primary way by which individuals identified heretics and fellow believers. This article emphasizes commonly accepted expressions of lay piety rather than the extensive writings about clerical perceptions of, and attempts to dictate, it, although in some cases clerical arguments form part of a book’s analysis. Also omitted are themes such as apocalypticism that influenced lay piety but that modern scholars have written about primarily from a clerical perspective and using clerical sources.

General Overviews

Many studies of the Renaissance and Reformation include some aspect of lay piety, and synthetic works often present changes in piety as marking fundamental transformations in society and culture. Thomas 1971 provides one of the earliest and most influential interpretations connecting religious and socioeconomic developments and integrating historical and anthropological methods. A veritable scholarly industry has since developed to test Thomas’s theses in other locations or through more focused regional or thematic studies. Bossy 1985, Scribner 1987, and Delumeau 1990 also show the influence of anthropological and sociological methods and develop influential interpretations for the period as a whole, albeit presented in different formats: Bossy 1985 is an essay, Scribner 1987 a series of scholarly articles, and Delumeau 1990 a comprehensive national study. In the 1990s syntheses continued to experiment with different analytical parameters and styles in order to best depict pious attitudes and practices and their historical context and significance. In Duffy 1992 the emphasis is on late medieval and Reformation England and the debates specific to that nation, while Marsh 1998 shares the same time and place but is more interested in presenting a comprehensive survey of practices and their folkloric complements. Niccoli 1998 situates lay piety within a continuum of religious life occurring over several centuries. Recent debates have highlighted lay piety itself as a discrete historical topic. Walsham 2008 links piety and disenchantment to nuance traditional perspectives that often suggest a linear religious progression.

  • Bossy, John. Christianity in the West, 1400–1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    Classic treatment of the social effects of the Reformation. Focuses on the transformation from a communal piety emphasizing repression of the seven deadly sins to a more individualistic piety stressing the need to uphold the Ten Commandments. Argues that, in the process, social cohesion is transformed and even breaks down, fundamentally eliminating any conception of a European Christian commonwealth.

  • Delumeau, Jean. Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th–18th Centuries. Translated by Eric Nicholson. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.

    Synthesis and expansion of ideas underlying several previous books that argued for a late medieval and early modern culture of fear. Here Delumeau describes how such fears produced a culture obsessed with sin and guilt, especially the difficulties of salvation. His documentation is primarily from intellectuals, but both he and later scholars have projected his thesis onto early modern society as a whole.

  • Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400–c. 1580. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    Centerpiece of a contentious debate in English history over loyalty to the medieval church. Duffy argues for widespread popular devotion to traditional piety and gradual acceptance of the Reformation and marshals extensive evidence in support of the durability of many pious practices. His theses about gradualism and the communal nature of late medieval piety have been widely cited in scholarship about other regions.

  • Marsh, Christopher W. Popular Religion in Sixteenth-Century England: Holding Their Peace. London: St. Martin’s, 1998.

    Although not an especially profound analysis, this book provides the most comprehensive discussion of early modern pious practices in a manageable size. Worth using as an introduction to appreciate the diversity of lay piety.

  • Niccoli, Ottavia. La vita religiosa nell’Italia moderna: Secoli XV–XVIII. Rome: Carocci, 1998.

    One of Italy’s leading scholars of popular piety here summarizes her extensive knowledge. Aspects of lay piety are interwoven with more institutional and theological debates in such a way that the sometimes oblique relationships among the three are clarified.

  • Scribner, Robert W. Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany. London: Hambledon, 1987.

    Outstanding collection of articles by one of the most influential scholars of early modern Germany and European piety. Articles treat broad theoretical questions (chapter 3, “Oral Culture and the Diffusion of Reformation Ideas” [pp. 49–70]) and narrower topics (chapter 7, “Preachers and People in the German Towns” [pp. 123–144]). Model for the study of lay piety in its diverse forms.

  • Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

    Pioneering and comprehensive analysis of popular piety in early modern England. Argues for a transformation from a communalist to individualist spirituality. His definitions of “magic” and “religion” and the causal relationship among England’s socioeconomic evolution, cultural guilt, and challenges to traditional piety have been disputed, although many summaries turn his complex ideas and extensive data into caricature. Foundational work.

  • Walsham, Alexandra. “The Reformation and the Disenchantment of the World Reassessed.” Historical Journal 51.2 (2008): 497–528.

    Cogently summarizes the “disenchantment thesis” of Max Weber, which has recently reemerged as a central theoretical issue in discussions of early modern piety, and use by later scholars of Weber’s thesis. Argues against the progressivism and presumed rationalism of Protestantism. Suggests seeing transformations in piety as more cyclical or oscillating phenomena and accepting cultural and religious inconsistencies.

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