This was an age in which faith and the Church were the cornerstones of people’s lives. The great theologian of the age, Saint Bernard, once said ‘in the midst of the flashing spears and flying darts of enemies raging on all sides’. He was referring to all the hazards of life – and finally death as the last enemy. People realised that they would not live long in this world, and that they were on their way to the goal God had set for their lives. What did they think about what governed their existence? What did they experience when they went to church?

The dead lay in the churchyard, awaiting resurrection on the last day, and there was a close relationship between the living and dead. People with faith pray for each other while they live in this world, and Medieval man did not wish to stop doing so when someone died.

The dead were buried facing east, and the preferred layout of churches was with the entrance in the west and the alter in the east. The congregation worshipped facing the sunrise, since Christ had said that he was the light of the world, and they believed that he would return from the east on the last day.

People were well aware that the church was a holy building. This is where the communion wafers, the body of the Lord, was kept after mass, and they entered his house with reverence and respect.

There was a formal celebration on the consecration date every year, and the priest often used these celebrations to help the congregation to interpret the church building. One of these sermons has been preserved in the Old Norwegian Homily Book (Gammelnorsk homiliebok):

‘Just as the church is built up of many separate parts, Christendom is also made up of many different people … The sills of the church are symbols of God’s apostles, for they are the beams supporting the whole of Christendom … The floor boards are symbols of the humble who bow their heads, even when they are praised …’

A sermon like this provided plenty of food for thought during the services, which were conducted in Latin. People nonetheless understood the gist of services, as the priest had to preach in the native language at least once a month and teach them the key teachings of Christianity. It was his duty under ecclesiastical law to explain the purpose of the sacraments – the holy rites that protected and strengthened people throughout their lives.

The priest was also tasked with making people understand the power of the cross of Jesus. An Old Norse text says that

‘Our roots are by this cross, and from it we take our strength. When we falter, it is our brace, when we fear God it is our shield. As our compass in the desert, it shows us the way, and hides what is behind us. The fruits of the cross are our joy, and in the shadow of the cross we will one day find rest.’

The main alter featured the crucified Jesus. Most churches also had an alter on their northern side, dedicated to Mary. She was the first to believe, and Jesus performed his first miracle at Mary’s intercession. One of the main points for Saint Bernard was that Mary reminds us of the significance of Christ.

In the south, churches would often have an alter dedicated to John. There were many other saints; friends and guides – and their feast days marked the church’s liturgical calendar. On their journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death here in this world, people could go where the holy men and women had gone before them – guided by their example, strengthened by their faith and protected by their prayers of intercession