Layout, Terms & Church Use

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3 The Church; components and use by parishioners and clergy - Part One

It is hard today to imagine just how much the parish church dominated peoples' lives in the medieval period. The church as much as the seasons dictated villagers' and townsfolks' lives and activities. The church was involved in secular matters as well as religious matters. Whether or not the people had a deep seated religious conviction, (and from the money spent on parish churches and services some at least had deep religious feelings), there was only one Church. Its festivals marked the changing seasons, it took its share, the tithe, of all produce harvested, however meagre. To be excluded from the church meant social exclusion as much as spiritual deprivation. With such a close relationship between the church and parishioners it is worth considering just how they used 'their' churches.

Although we know of changes to liturgy, the calendars of festivals and saints' days and other matters pertaining to the church services, (from papal letters, bishops' registers and correspondence, and the more mundane accounts of churchwardens from the 15th century), we actually know very little of how the people moved around within the church or used the church and its spaces. Some knowledge can be surmised from the shape of the building and what we know of the order of services, but we do not know with absolute certainty how people behaved in, and used, their churches in the medieval period.

The Churchyard to the Porch.

Out in the countryside the church was usually surrounded on all sides by the graveyard, or on at least 3 sides. Parishioners entered the churchyard through the lych-gate, (from the Anglo-Saxon lich or lic = corpse). This gate marked the boundary between unconsecrated ground, and the consecrated land of the churchyard. The bearers could rest their load of the coffin or shroud-wrapped corpse on the coffin-stool or lych stone, while the priest performed part of the funeral service, before the funeral party continued to the church. There are many old lych-gates existing today and hundreds of Victorian replacements - but their position is unchanged.

The churchyard was important for more than burials. In many cases, the churchyard as well as the church, and all the area and buildings enclosed by the boundary wall or fence, was the sanctuary area. Once within such a designated area, someone fleeing from justice or from a mob was safe for a specified length of time. If the right of sanctuary was broken, the Church and secular justice could impose severe penalties on those who had offended and taken or harmed the person in sanctuary. Penalties could involve public humiliation for the offender, as happened in Bristol in the 14th century. Where the churchyard/graveyard was separate from the church, any sanctuary rights would normally only apply to the church itself. Not all churches provided sanctuary.

The churchyard was also used as a meeting place and for recreation purposes. In 1287 the Synod at Exeter ordered that the parish priests should ban dances, sports and the performance of plays in the churchyards. This was hard to comply with, for many naves were too small to allow the performance of miracle plays and accommodate the audience, so it was common for the play to be performed in the churchyard. Once the churches were enlarged by wealthy patrons in later years the problem was solved. Less religious activities such as archery, ball games, wrestling and even cock-fighting continued to take place in the churchyards, as well as fairs and markets, particularly those held on saints' (or holy days). While the higher authorities objected to the fairs, (e.g. the Statute of Winchester 1285), on the grounds that the noise disturbed the holy services, the practice continued; no doubt many impoverished parishes were grateful for the income from the rental of the stall spaces. Such activities were possible in the churchyards in medieval times, because it was not yet common practice to mark burials with gravestones. Sometimes simple wooden crosses might mark a fresh grave, or a small stone would be used, but these would not hinder the use of the churchyard as a public space. The wealthiest might be buried within the churches, either below ground or in 'chest' tombs set against the side walls or in the wings or transepts.

Not until the end of the 1500s did it become usual for the wealthy to buy a plot of land in the churchyard for their family burials and to use large gravestones to mark the name and dates of the deceased buried below, or use chest tombs such as those found at Painswick. Painswick, Glos., has a large variety of chest tombs, all dating from after the Reformation; the wealth of the townsfolk, from the wool trade, 'allied' with the local limestone, meant that elaborately carved chest tombs became commonplace in the churchyard. Most other churchyards have at least one or two examples of chest tombs, e.g. there are several arranged in a row in the churchyard of Long Ashton church, on the outskirts of S. Bristol.

The churchyards were used over and over again for burials. As it was unusual for people to be buried in coffins, but in shrouds, it was possible to do this. Burials normally started close to the south wall of the church, and the ground toward the south boundary was gradually used up. When the boundary was reached, they simply started using the area close to the church wall again. It was this re-use of the same space, over and over again, that accounts for the level of the churchyard frequently being higher than the floor of the church. The northern part of the churchyard was less popular and often strangers, paupers or criminals were buried here in medieval times.
In many churchyards the remains of a free standing stone cross can be seen, although often all that is left is the circular steps at the base and the bottom of the stone shaft. The cross at Mark was restored in the C19th but gives an idea of the original. There is a large one at Wraxall church in Somerset. Many were wholly or partially destroyed during the Civil War in the C17th.but there are still some fine examples, such as those at Bishop's Lydeard, Somerset, or Ashleworth, Gloucester. The stone crosses vary greatly in appearance and in age. (The cross at Altarnun, Cornwall, is possibly C6th, the time of the Celtic missionaries). The crosses often marked the centre of the churchyard, although this can be hard to confirm, some having been relocated during their lifetime, and in many cases the size and shape of the churchyard has been enlarged and altered. The crosses had a function in the great processions of the church year, particularly on Palm Sunday. Indeed , the crosses are sometimes called 'Palm Crosses'. Public announcements were often made from the steps of the cross.
  In towns there were stone crosses outside the churchyards, as well as within. The cross in the grounds of St. Augustine's Abbey, Bristol, (now the Cathedral grounds of College Green) was used for official public sermons to the mayor, town councillors and members of the public. There was also a cross at the crossroads in the centre of some towns, used by itinerant or local friars for sermons, and for more civic, secular announcements and activities.

Some churchyards contain buildings, although often these are school rooms of later date. The remains of the school room can still be seen on the north side of the churchyard at Wraxall, Som., and dates from the C18th. Earlier buildings were often the priest's house, as at Elkstone, Glos. This dates from the C14th., although the present house is largely of the C16th when it was enlarged and remodelled.

Once through the lych-gate, a path led the parishioners to a porch, usually the south porch. In many churches the north door or porch was only used to carry a body out to the graveyard for interment. Nowadays some churches use the north porch as the main entrance to the church, (e. g. Long Ashton or Mark in Somerset, or St. Michael on the Mount in Bristol), but we cannot know if this was so in the medieval period. All except the smallest churches had some form of porch since the 13th century, even if it was only a rudimentary roof covering, providing minimal shelter for social gatherings at the church door. Other porches may have had walls, but few had a door to the space. By the 14th century many of these porches were substantial enough to have acquired a room above them. Sometimes the porch construction cuts across the top of the doorway mouldings, showing it is a more recent addition.

In the towns, matters were slightly different. Churches were much closer together, their church/graveyards were not necessarily at the side of the church. let alone surrounding the church as in the country parish. In Bristol, the priest of St. John's church had to walk up a street and through the Tailor's Guild courtyard to reach the little graveyard. St. Mary le Port and Christchurch did have their graveyards against one side of the church, but the graveyards were surrounded by tenements and inns. However, like country churches, town churches also had porches with rooms above them. The abbots of Cirencester had constructed a 3 storey porch on their church in the market place in Cirencester, whence they conducted their secular business, (they were involved in the lucrative wool trade amongst other things), and Wedmore also has 3 storeys. In most churches, the room above the porch was used for storage of important parish papers, or as a school room, or even as lodging for a sexton.

Porches were used for secular business. Meetings to discuss parish or communal matters would be held here. Business documents could be signed and witnessed here for the literate, or verbal contracts made in front of witnesses for the illiterate. Stone benches were often built along the side walls by the 14th century, for the comfort of the aged or infirm. Godparents took the vows here before carrying the child into the church for immersion in the font at baptisms. Until as late as the 16th century part at least of the marriage service was conducted here. In earlier medieval times the service was conducted wholly at the church door. In the porch, to the right of the door into the church, was the stoup of holy water. Parishioners would dip their right hand into this and then cross themselves, to symbolise their baptism.

©2009 University of the West of England, Bristol
except where acknowledged
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