Layout, Terms & Church Use


4 The Church; components and use by parishioners and clergy - Part Two

The Door.

The south door of a church is often large, sturdy and very heavy. It may be surrounded by ornate and deep bands of mouldings. Romanesque doors often have a tympanum above the door, often showing Christ seated in majesty. The south door (the main entrance) was usually the most magnificent of the doors into the church. Constructed of two layers of wood, extra strength is provided by the boards of one side often being horizontal, the other vertical. The hinges are often extended into long straps which carry across the width of the door, again providing extra strength. These metal straps were sometimes embellished by being wrought into dragon or monster shapes in earlier examples, or later into the formalised leaf shapes seen in the carvings within the church. By the 14th century many doors had wooden carvings attached to them, replicating the patterns of the window tracery. Sometimes it s possible to see the original handmade nails still in the woodwork of a medieval door. 

West End.

Inside the door, in the west end of the church, stood the font, used for the baptism of all infants. Many of these date from  the Norman period, and being of massive and sturdy construction there was no need to carve new ones in the 13/15th centuries. Indeed some churches still have Anglo-Saxon or Norman fonts in use today. These early fonts are often crude bowl-shaped tubs of stone, with crude but lively carvings of figures. It is possible that so many have survived, despite their rough shape and appearance in churches otherwise modernised and beautified in the Gothic style, because they were held in veneration. (Harold was said to have sworn the oath passing his right of kingship over England to William of Normandy over a font, which also secretly contained saints' relics; William, Harold and the churchmen witnesses obviously thought the use of the font gave extra validity to the oath).

When new fonts were made, either for new churches or as replacements, they gradually became higher, facilitating the immersion process. 12th century fonts tend to have a squat shaft and a base similar to contemporary pillars. Octagonal bowls became fashionable in the 13th century, supported by a ring of slender shafts, again reflecting the architectural style of the period. By the 14/15th century font design was complex. Known as the 'chalice' form the bowl, still octagonal, stem and base were arranged as one complete design. Simpler forms were often decorated by incised quatrefoils, while more ornate versions could have a buttressed stem and figures and emblems sculpted on it. The base also is decorated with mouldings and is often mounted on a step. The 14/15th century produced some beautifully carved wooden font covers, often copying the shape of a spire. Earlier covers were often a simple board cut to fit into the bowl. After the Reformation covers returned to the board type, but often with baroque style decoration. Covers were used to keep the fonts clean and to stop anyone stealing the holy water for any sacriligious use.

As the villagers passed the font to enter the nave for services, they would separate, men occupying one side of the nave, the women the other. The priest celebrated mass daily, and the Church encouraged everyone to attend each service. In practice the demands of work, whether in town or out in the fields, meant that at most, mass was attended on Sundays, the more important saints' days and Christmas and Easter.

The nave would look strange to our eyes. Only the wealthier churches would have floors that were tiled or covered in flag stones. Most, particularly those out in the small villages where there was only a small and poor congregation, would have a beaten earth floor. All churches, whatever their floor covering, would have straw or rushes on the floor, to soak up mud from shoes. The churchwarden's accounts of St. Ewen's and of All Saints' churches in Bristol list payments for sweeping out the church and providing new straw and rushes.

It is often stated that medieval churches had no seating in the naves. This was probably true in the earlier medieval period, even into the 15th century in the poorest churches, but certainly the higher social classes expected to sit through a service, separated from their servants and workers. In the towns, the annual 'sale' of seats in the churches provided a useful income for the churches. Some seats were more favourably positioned than others, and their price reflected this; In 1427 at All Saints', Bristol, the price of a seat ranged from 6 pence to 20 pence. St. Ewen's also charged a variety of rates for seating.

Dogs were allowed into churches, from medieval times to more recent times. Some churches paid for a dog-catcher to control unruly dogs, but by the 17th century the problem was so bad that Archbishop Laud of Canterbury ordered all churches to erect railings around the altar to keep it safe from dogs defiling its sanctity. Most churches retain altar railings, some still having the original 17th century rail.

At the east end of the nave was the chancel arch and beyond it the chancel, the area containing the altar, and where the laity were not allowed to enter. The priest celebrated mass at the altar in the chancel, with only a few of the congregation able to see what was happening. Some churches have small oblique openings at the side of the chancel arch. These are called squints and enabled a few of the congregation (or church attendants) to peer through to observe the religious mysteries taking place at the altar in the chancel.
Until the end of the 12th century the chancel arch was often narrow and the chancel itself was either an apse or a square ended small projection. During the 13th/14th centuries, many chancels were lengthened, and sometimes the arch was widened. Why this was done and how the extra space was utilised we do not know, but for over 3 centuries the chancel remained long. The lancet windows changed to fine traceried windows, with stained glass wherever finances allowed. Extending the chancel allowed a 'priest's door' to be cut into the south wall. The extra length allowed, in the wealthier or more important parish churches, the introduction of seating, useful when a church acquired chantry priests. It was a popular practice for people to leave money in their wills to a church, to pay for a priest to say regular masses for the deceased's soul. In churches in wealthy towns, with large well-to-do congregations, several priests could be employed in a church, and they had to be accommodated, during services, in the chancel. This led to the introduction of seating, sedilia and choir stalls, in the chancel. The sedilia, (Latin sedile = seat or bench), are made of stone and are placed on the south wall of the chancel and were for the use of the officiating priest and deacon. The piscina, (Latin piscina = swimming pool or fishpond), the little sink and drain that passed through the church wall to the consecrated ground outside, was often set in a niche as part of the sedilia range. It was used to wash the sacred vessels used in the mass and ensured that the water which had touched the holy objects was disposed of on consecrated ground. (Other altars around the church, in the transepts or wings, would often have their own piscina, and can sometimes suggest where an altar was sited in a side chapel). The choir stalls were usually of wood and were used by other priests attending, but not officiating at the services; these would help the celebrant in singing and chanting the service. Some quite modest churches have elaborately made choir stalls. This may mean that the church in medieval times served a parish of greater financial importance than it does now, or that when a local monastery was closed during the Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and Edward VI, some benefactor bought up the stalls of the monastery to adorn his parish church.

Lengthening the chancel would have meant that the priest celebrating the mass would have been a very long way from the congregation, except for those actually taking communion. (Although people were encouraged to attend services frequently, actually taking communion was less frequent, often only 3 times a year). The longer chancel may have been used to more completely separate the communicants from the rest of the congregation, kept the other side of the chancel arch; making the communicants seem 'special'. Perhaps they approached the altar in a more ceremonial, processional manner. We do not know, and can only guess. It was also at this time that, where possible, churches were adding transepts, which widened the area immediately in front of the chancel arch. Is it possible that more of the service was conducted at the entrance of the chancel than at the altar itself?

In many churches which were enlarged during the later medieval period, the chancel seems small and old-fashioned compared to the remodelled nave. This was because although the upkeep of the nave and tower was the responsibility of the parishioners, the chancel was the responsibility of the priest. While the parishioners grew wealthy, particularly in the wool and cloth areas of East Anglia, the Cotswolds and Somerset, the income of the parish church and the priest remained small, and in real terms, shrank. The priest could not afford to upgrade the chancel as his parishioners could the nave. At Yatton, Som., the chancel is small compared to the rest of the church which was enlarged and remodelled in the Perpendicular style. At Northleach, Glos. the building of the clerestorey in the C15th dwarfs the earlier chancel. Sometimes a wealthier priest would rebuild or enlarge or beautify his chancel, or the parishioners would include it in their plans, but the out-of-scale, small or plain chancel is quite common.

The widened chancel arch necessitated the use of the rood screen, which ran across the width of the entrance, giving privacy when needed. A door in the screen was kept locked, only being opened when a service was in progress. (The Rood was the figure of Christ on the cross, and usually supported by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist). These screens could be of wood or stone, and varied in style from the most open filigree to an almost solid 'wall'. The screens were usually painted in brilliant colours and gilded. The screen allowed the congregation to watch the actions of the priest at the altar, almost as if they were witnessing rather than participating in the service. It must be remembered that few, if any, of a country congregation and only a minority of a town congregation would understand any of the words of the service, as it was conducted in Latin. Only at set times of the year, when the priest preached on the sacraments, or the 10 Commandments, the Articles of Faith, the 7 Deadly Sins etc., or delivered a sermon on a matter of importance, such as a crusading call, would English be used in the church. Generally, sermons were few in churches, until later medieval and Tudor times. It is little wonder that the travelling friars, preaching in the open, in English and frequently, drew such large audiences. 

The north wall of the chancel housed the aumbry, a cupboard in which was kept the sacred vessels used in the mass. Churches lucky enough to own a relic might keep it in a reliquary, safely locked away in the aumbry. The east wall of the chantry, and of the church, housed the reredos, underneath the window. This could be a devotional picture, of Christ, the Virgin Mary, favourite saints or an incident in the Bible, simply painted onto the wall. As churches accumulated wealth this could be replaced by hangings, carved wooden panels, or a row of stone niches containing statues of saints. Wealthy patrons often donated the reredos to a church, it being a highly visible gift, which advertised their desire to adorn their church and gain spiritual blessings, and was evidence of their generosity and wealth. Sometimes, instead of the reredos, the church had a diptych or triptych - freestanding 2 or 3 panelled paintings. The Wilton Triptych is a well known example of this.

The paintings on the walls and the pictures in the windows would have kept the people interested and instructed them in the Bible stories at the same time. A most popular painting was a graphic depiction of the day of Judgement, usually sited over the chancel arch; a constant reminder of the fate awaiting anyone who faltered in their Christian faith! Another painting, apparently common to all churches, was that of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, but who also gave protection from death for that day to all who saw him. It was usually sited on the north wall opposite the main entrance to the church; it was thus visible to all who looked into the church seeking reassurance of safety that day. In town churches there were frequently paintings, statues and altars dedicated to a local guild's patron saint. The weavers of Bristol held their guild services at Temple church in Redcliffe, Bristol, where they had an altar dedicated to the patron saint of weavers, St. Katharine.

In the medieval period the lectern, the desk used to either for reading out the Gospels or to support the music when a church had a choir, was not sited in the nave as it is nowadays, but was placed in the chancel. Many lecterns took the form of an eagle, its back and outstretched wings supporting the Book. The eagle was the symbol of the evangelist, St. John, the most revered of the Gospel writers. All things in a church were steeped in symbolism, some of which we do not fully understand.
Processions were an important part of religion in medieval times. The guilds used to process through the streets on their way to the guild services, carrying candles and a statue or paintings of their patron saints. On Corpus Christi day, all the clergy, guilds, town council and friars would process together around a town, carrying the Host and the church crosses with great reverence. On Palm Sundays, the priests would lead their parishioners around the churchyard re-entering the church through the west door, the only time this was used. This procession taught the story of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Easter was a time of high drama for several days in the churches, as the events were enacted to remind the congregation of the resurrection. It was from such clerical drama and ceremonial that the miracle plays evolved.

When moving around the church, look for the tombs within it. The most important ones will be nearest the altar. After the Reformation a transept would sometimes be 'taken over', effectively becoming a family mausoleum. Earlier tombs were set into the church floor, with a slab of stone on top, laid flush with the floor. They usually had a cross carved on them, and possibly a symbol of the deceased's life, e.g. a sword for a knight. Sometimes a metal sheet, similarly decorated, was set over the tomb. Metal monuments were cheaper than a stone carving, so a wider range of people used them. By the 13th century the fashion had changed and box tombs appeared. These are large tombs with a carved effigy, often life-size, on the top. Such effigies are very stylised in their execution. The deceased is always shown with their hands together in prayer. A knight would always be shown in full armour, and any heraldic devices were always shown in full. These effigies, when new, would be painted in bright colours. The sides of such tombs usually had carved figures on them, either angels or the deceased's children. During the 1300s, the styles became slightly more relaxed and varied, and possibly were a more accurate depiction of the deceased. Canopies were sometimes built over the tombs and some of these have extremely fine examples of the latest style of vaulting in use at the time; these are usually found in the larger parish churches.

Susan Marshall





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