Medieval Churches and Monasteries

Apart from the manor, the church was the main focus of community life. Church parishes were usually the manor villages.

The parish priest was appointed by the lord of the manor and was given a house. He was obliged to carry money for alms with him, keep up the church, and provide hospitality to travellers.

Priestly Duties. The priest was usually a commoner by birth, though serfs were tied to the land and were not allowed to become priests. The priest officiated at church services, weddings, baptisms, funerals, and visited the ill. He earned his living from the income for parish lands, fees for services, and tithe money.

Tithing. Tithing was a system whereby each person was expected to give 1/10 of their earnings to support the church. The tithe income was divided up evenly between the parish priest, the church maintenance fund, the poor, and the bishop.

Uses of the Church. The chancel (where the altar is) belonged to the lord. The nave and the tower belonged to the people of the parish. Manor courts were often held in the nave, and tenants came there to pay their rent, or scot. A free meal was given to those who paid their scot, hence our term, "scot free".

The church tower occasionally served double duty as the priest's residence and often was built to be defended in times of trouble. School was held in the church porch or in a room over it. The church's role went far beyond religion; it was the centre of village community life.

Gifts of barley to the church were common. The church reeve would hare the barley brewed into ale and sold to raise money for the upkeep of the church. The term "church ale" is still used today to describe fund-raising for the church.

Church Services and Plays. Originally, people stood in the nave to hear the church service. Pews were not introduced until the 15th century. Because few could read, Biblical stories were often acted out for the congregation in the form of miracle plays. These plays evolved into cycles or collections, beginning with the Creation and ending with the Last Judgement.

The plays were performed in the churchyard or porch. In the 15th century morality plays appeared, in which moral ideas combatted (e.g. Virtue vs. Vice).

Church Markets. In the 12th and 13th centuries markets were often held in the churchyard, though this practice was officially banned in 1285. A special hut, or Tolbooth, housed a court which regulated the affairs of the market. In time the Tolbooth became a permanent fixture of the Town Hall.

Monasteries were the other main form of church presence. They were self-contained enclaves where monks or nuns chose to live a simple life of prayer and work. At least that was the theory. In practice monks at least were often criticized for their laxity and concern with worldly affairs.

The first monasteries adhered to the Benedictine Rule, established by St. Benedict in the 6th century. In the early 12th century the Cistercians, under St.Bernard of Clairvaux, advocated a return to simplicity and a rededication to simplicity in monastic life and in the architecture of the church buildings themselves. Cistercian monasteries were established in remote areas to emphasize this ideal. Today they are the among the most interesting and evocative ruins of the Middle Ages.

Monks and Books. At Gloucester Cathedral, which was originally a Benedictine monastery church, can be seen the carrells, or individual study nooks, built into the cloister. There the monks would study their precious books. As the numbers of books increased with the advent of the printing press, special library rooms were built, usually over the cloister walk. These were long narrow halls with booths for reading set at right angles to frequent windows. Books were chained to the desks for safety.

Friars. Friars first appeared in the 13th century. They were clergy not attached to any particular parish, and indeed had no visible means of support. They rejected the monastic ideal of seclusion, and went to live among townspeople and survived by begging. These mendicant friars were enormously popular, much more so than priests or monks, who were often seen as rich and indolent. The main orders of mendicant friars were the Dominicans and the Franciscans.

English Parish Churches

There are few sights that evoke "Englishness" more than that of a slumbering parish church. Cathedrals in England span only about 400 years of English history and cultural influence (with the exception of a very few modern cathedra, which don't evoke much of anything).


Parish churches, on the other hand, tell the tale of some 1300 years of English history and social change. The humble parish church is an integral part of English social life and culture.

The oldest surviving parish churches in England date to about 670 AD (Brixworth and Escombe). At that time 3 distinct classes of churches were built; "cathedral" churches, "collegiate" churches, and local churches/private chapels built by individual Anglo-Saxon thegns (lords).

Cathedral churches were not cathedrals in the modern sense, but "mother churches" from which the first missionary priests went out to preach Christianity to the pagan inhabitants in a particular region.

Collegiate churches, also known as "old minsters" were daughter houses of the cathedral churches; a sort of second level regional missionary church.

Churches, or chapels (only later called "parish churches"), were generally private foundations, established by thegns, bishops, lay societies, or even an association of parishioners.

Churches were often located on pre-Christian sites of spiritual significance, taking advantage of people's existing devotion to a particular place. Worship was carried on in the same place, just with a Christian orientation. Speaking of orientation, churches are nearly always oriented so that the main altar is at the east end of the church, facing Jerusalem, and, not coincidentally, the rising sun. Even if the altar end of the church is not literally in the east, it is called the "east end". In theory at least, the east end of an English parish church could face west!

The origin of the English parish is murky. The term originally meant an administrative district. When the term "parish" was first applied to the church, it meant the territory of a bishop, what we would today call a diocese.

It is speculated by historians that parish boundaries were originally those of Saxon manors. The extent to which the church parish and the local lord's authority overlapped is apparent when you consider that before the Norman invasion one of the accepted ways of becoming a thegn was to build a church, especially one with a tower (the tower was a defensive measure against the threat of Danish invaders).

The thegn could install a priest of his own choosing, change the priest at will, even dismantle the church if he saw fit!

The chancel of the church was the domain of the priest, and the nave "belonged" to the parishioners. Each was responsible for the upkeep of their domain. This helps explain the curious architecture of some early parish churches, particularly in Norfolk and Suffolk, where the chancel is built of carefully squared stone, and the nave of much cheaper flint.

The distinction between chancel and nave led to the development of rood screens to mark the division between the domain of the priest and that of his parishioners. These screens, usually of wood, but sometimes of stone, became extremely elaborate. Many were destroyed under the Reformation and the later Puritan influence. Only a few of the early screens remain, as at Stanton Harcourt (Oxon), and Bramfield (Suffolk).

One point to remember is that there was no seating in churches at that time. People attending a service stood in the nave. Luckily, it was not until much later that long sermons became popular (see below), so the parishioners did not have to suffer long!

The floor plan of southern Anglo-Saxon churches was based on the traditional Roman basilica, with an eastern apse, no transepts, western entrance, and aisles. Good examples survive at Brixworth (Northants), Wing (Bucks), and Worth (Sussex).

In the north the Celtic influence led to churches that were narrow, tall, and rectangular, with doors on the sides.

Curiously, despite the triumph of the Roman church over the Celtic one, it was the Celtic model that became the norm for parish churches in England. The Normans rebuilt many of the earlier Saxon churches, in the process destroying much of the regional differences in favour of a more unified Norman "look".

Early Norman churches were aisless, with a central tower, and built to a cruciform plan (i.e., they were shaped like a cross, or like a small t).

Medieval parish churches were usually plastered inside and out. Vivid picture were painted on the interior plaster to illustrate Biblical scenes for the illiterate popluation. Statuary was also richly painted. Sadly, very little of the original plastering or painting remains today, so it requires a strong imagination to picture how the churches would have looked 1,000 years ago.

Before the Great Plague of 1348-50 the growing population necessitated more space inside parish churches, so many churches added aisles at this time.

The most notable parish churches of the late medieval period are the so called "wool churches" common to the Cotswolds and East Anglia. These are churches endowed by the newly rich class of local merchants thriving on England's wool trade.

Many of these magnificent buildings, such as Thirsk (Yorkshire), Northleach (Gloucestershire), and Lavenham (Suffolk), are like mini-cathedrals, complete with fanciful carvings, elaborate ornamentation and funereal monuments inside the church.

The Tudor era saw one important change; it was under the influence of Elizabeth I that preaching long sermons became popular. And by long, I mean loonnnnng - 2 to 4 hours was not uncommon. This meant that the victims, ... er attendees, needed to sit to listen, so pews became standard in the naves. The preacher needed a lectern, and more often, a pulpit. So the pulpit was added to the nave also. Most of the pulpits you see in parish churches today date from the Tudor period, or later.

The Tudor period saw the end of the great church-building era. Far fewer churches were built from this point to the present day, the most prominent (architecturally speaking) being the Classical motif of the Stuart and Georgian period, and the Gothick Revival of mid-Victorian times.

Most new parish churches were built in the ever-growing cities, where the expanding urban population necessitated new parishes. Most notable here is London, where the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed most of the medieval churches (and gave a young architect named Christopher Wren quite an opportunity to evolve a new classical style of church).

In the modern era there is more religious freedom, and with the subsequent splintering of Christian sects, and the introduction of more non-Christian religions into England there are few new parish churches built. And those that are may be interesting to their parishioners but to few others. Some of the old churches that once served prosperous villages have fallen into disuse and been abandoned as population shifted. Many of these churches are now being looked after by the Redundant Churches Fund.

Most parish churches are open to visitors. Just walk in (and dress warmly if you plan to do this a lot - they can be chilly even on the warmest days). Many churches have placards or handouts giving details of the building history and pointing out its architectural features. These small gems of living history give a much better sense of England and its culture than do the grandest cathedrals, and they're usually free. Just drop some small change in the donation box by the door.

Life in a Medieval Monastery

Early monasteries originated in Egypt as places where wandering hermits gathered. These early "monks" lived alone, but met in a common chapel. By the fifth century the monastic movement had spread to Ireland, where St. Patrick, the son of a Roman official, set out to convert the Irish to Christianity.

The Irish monks spread Christianity into Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. St. Ninian established a monastery at Whithorn in Scotland about 400 AD, and he was followed by St. Columba (Iona), and St. Aidan, who founded a monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumbria.

Celtic monasteries. These Celtic monasteries were often built on isolated islands, as the lifestyle of the Celtic monks was one of solitary contemplation. There are no good remains of these early monasteries in Britain today.

The Benedictine Rule. The big change in this early monastic existence came with the establishment of the "Benedictine Rule" in about 529 AD. The vision of St. Benedict was of a community of people living and working in prayer and isolation from the outside world. The Benedictine Rule was brought to the British Isles with St. Augustine when he landed in Kent in 597 AD.

The Different Orders. Over the next thousand years a wide variety of orders of monks and nuns established communities throughout the British Isles.

These orders differed mainly in the details of their religious observation and how strictly they applied those rules. The major orders that established monastic settlements in Britain were the Benedictines, Cistercians, Cluniacs, Augustinians, Premonstratians, and the Carthusians.

The first buildings of a monastic settlement were built of wood, then gradually rebuilt in stone. The first priority for rebuilding in stone was the chancel of the church. This way of proceeding meant that the rest of the monastery was at risk of fire, which accounts for the fact that many of the monastic remains you can visit today are in the later Gothic style of architecture.

Daily Life. Although the details of daily life differed from one order to the next (as mentioned above), monastic life was generally one of hard physical work, scholarship and prayer. Some orders encouraged the presence of "lay brothers", monks who did most of the physical labour in the fields and workshops of the monastery so that the full-fledged monks could concentrate on prayer and learning.

The Daily Grind. The day of a monk or nun, in theory at least, was regulated by regular prayer services in the abbey church. These services took place every three hours, day and night. When the services were over, monks would be occupied with all the tasks associated with maintaining a self-sustaining community.

Abbeys grew their own food, did all their own building, and in some cases, grew quite prosperous doing so. Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx, both in Yorkshire, grew to be enormously wealthy, largely on the basais of raising sheep and selling the wool.

Learning. Throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval period the monasteries were practically the only repository of scholarship and learning. The monks were by far the best educated mermbers of society - often they were the only educated members of society. Monasteries acted as libraries for ancient manuscripts, and many monks were occupied with laboriously copying sacred texts (generally in a room called the scriptorium).

Illuminated manuscripts. In the areas where Celtic influence was strongest, for example in Northumbria, the monks created "illuminated" manuscripts; beautifully illustrated Bibles and prayer books with painstakingly created images on most pages.

These illuminated manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospel (now in the British Museum), are among the most precious remnants of early Christian Britain.

The Abbey hierarchy. The abbey (the term for a monastery or nunnery) was under the authority of an abbot or abbess. The abbot could be a landless noble, who used the church as a means of social advancement. Under the abbot was the prior/prioress, who ran the monastery in the absence of the abbot, who might have to travel on church business. There could also be a sub-prior. Other officers included the cellerar (in charge of food storage and preparation), and specialists in the care of the sick, building, farming, masonry, and education.

Pilgrims. One of the main sources of revenue for monasteries throughout the medieval period were pilgrims. Pilgrims could be induced to come to a monastic house by a number of means, the most common being a religious relic owned by the abbey. Such a relic might be a saint's bone, the blood of Christ, a fragment of the cross, or other similar religious artefact. The tomb of a particularly saintly person could also become a target for pilgrimages.

Pilgrims could generally be induced to buy an isignia which proved they had visited a particular shrine. Some popular pilgrimage centres built hotels to lodge pilgrims. The George Inn in Glastonbury is one such hotel, built to take the large number of pilgrims flocking to Glastonbury Abbey.

Decline of the monasteries. Monasteries were most numerous in Britain during the early 14th century, when there were as many as 500 different houses. The Black Death of 1348 dealt the monasteries a major blow, decimating the number of monks and nuns, and most never fully recovered.

When Henry VIII engineered his break with Rome in the 1530's, the rich monastic houses were one of his first targets. A few of the abbey churches near large centres of population survived as cathedrals or parish churches (for example Canterbury Cathedral, Durham Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey), but those that were isolated, including almost all the Cistercian monasteries, were demolished. Throughout the Tudor and later periods these shells of buildings were used by local people as a source of building material.

Feudalism and Medieval life

Feudalism. The social structure of the Middle Ages was organized round the system of Feudalism. Feudalism in practice meant that the country was not governed by the king but by individual lords, or barons, who administered their own estates, dispensed their own justice, minted their own money, levied taxes and tolls, and demanded military service from vassals. Usually the lords could field greater armies than the king. In theory the king was the chief feudal lord, but in reality the individual lords were supreme in their own territory. Many kings were little more than figurehead rulers.

Feudal Ties. Feudalism was built upon a relationship of obligation and mutual service between vassals and lords. A vassal held his land, or fief, as a grant from a lord. When a vassal died, his heir was required to publicly renew his oath of faithfulness (fealty) to his lord (suzerain). This public oath was called "homage".

A Vassal's Obligations. The vassal was required to attend the lord at his court, help administer justice, and contribute money if needed. He must answer a summons to battle, bringing an agreed upon number of fighting men. As well, he must feed and house the lord and his company when they travelled across his land.

This last obligation could be an onerous one. William the Conqueror travelled with a very large household, and if they extended their stay it could nearly bankrupt the lord hosting them. In a few days of Christmas feasting one year William and his retinue consumed 6,000 chickens, 1,000 rabbits, 90 boars, 50 peacocks, 200 geese, 10,000 eels, thousands of eggs and loaves of bread, and hundreds of casks of wine and cider.

A Lord's Obligations. On the lord's side, he was obliged to protect the vassal, give military aid, and guard his children. If a daughter inherited, the lord arranged her marriage. If there were no heirs the lord disposed of the fief as he chose.

Manors. Manors, not villages, were the economic and social units of life in the early Middle Ages. A manor consisted of a manor house, one or more villages, and up to several thousand acres of land divided into meadow, pasture, forest, and cultivated fields. The fields were further divided into strips; 1/3 for the lord of the manor, less for the church, and the remainder for the peasants and serfs. This land was shared out so that each person had an equal share of good and poor. At least half the work week was spent on the land belonging to the lord and the church. Time might also be spent doing maintenance and on special projects such as clearing land, cutting firewood, and building roads and bridges. The rest of the time the villagers were free to work their own land.

Food and Drink. The fare at the lord's table was as full of variety as the peasant's was spare. Meat, fish, pastries, cabbage, turnips, onions, carrots, beans, and peas were common, as well as fresh bread, cheese, and fruit. At a feast spitted boar, roast swan, or peacock might be added.

Wine or ale was drunk, never water, which was rightly considered suspect. Ale was the most common drink, but it was not the heady alcoholic drink we might imagine. It was thin, weak, and drunk soon after brewing. It must have had little effect on sobriety. Fruit juices and honey were the only sweeteners, and spices were almost unknown until after the Crusades.

Table Manners. Meat was cut with daggers and all eating was done with the fingers from trenchers, or hollowed out husks of bread. One trencher was used by two people, and one drinking cup. Scraps were thrown on the floor for the dogs to finish. There were no chimneys, and the fireplace was in the middle of the hall. Smoke escaped by the way of louvres in the roof (at least in theory).

House Layout. In the early medieval period the centre of life in castles and manors was the great hall, a huge, multipurpose chamber safely built upon the second floor. These halls were dimly lit, due to the need for massive walls with small windows for defense from attack. In the 14th century the hall descended to the ground floor, and windows grew in size, indicating increased security. The solar, or family room, remained on the first floor. It became the custom for the family to eat in the solar, leaving the great hall to minor guests and servants.

Hall life decreased as trade increased. Trades specialized and tradesmen and women moved out of the hall. The communal life of the hall declined and families became more private. Manors sustained fewer people as trades separated from the manor community.

The Peasant's Life. Villages consisted of from 10-60 families living in rough huts on dirt floors, with no chimneys or windows. Often, one end of the hut was given over to storing livestock. Furnishings were sparse; three legged stools, a trestle table, beds on the floor softened with straw or leaves. The peasant diet was mainly porridge, cheese, black bread, and a few home-grown vegetables.

Peasants had a hard life, but they did not work on Sundays or on the frequent saints' days, and they could go to nearby fairs and markets. The lot of serfs was much harsher.

The Serf's Life. Although not technically a slave, a serf was bound to a lord for life. He could own no property and needed the lord's permission to marry. Under no circumstance could a serf leave the land unless he chose to run away. If he ran to a town and managed to stay there for a year and a day, he was a free man. However, the serf did have rights. He could not be displaced if the manor changed hands. He could not be required to fight, and he was entitled to the protection of the lord.

The Catholic Church was the only church in Europe during the Middle Ages, and it had its own laws and large coffers. Church leaders such as bishops and archbishops sat on the king's council and played leading roles in government. Bishops, who were often wealthy and came from noble families, ruled over groups of parishes called "diocese." Parish priests, on the other hand, came from humbler backgrounds and often had little education. The village priest tended to the sick and indigent and, if he was able, taught Latin and the Bible to the youth of the village.

As the population of Europe expanded in the twelfth century, the churches that had been built in the Roman style with round-arched roofs became too small. Some of the grand cathedrals, strained to their structural limits by their creators' drive to build higher and larger, collapsed within a century or less of their construction.

Monks and Nuns
Monasteries in the Middle Ages were based on the rules set down by St. Benedict in the sixth century. The monks became known as Benedictines and took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their leaders. They were required to perform manual labor and were forbidden to own property, leave the monastery, or become entangled in the concerns of society. Daily tasks were often carried out in silence. Monks and their female counterparts, nuns, who lived in convents, provided for the less-fortunate members of the community. Monasteries and nunneries were safe havens for pilgrims and other travelers.

Monks went to the monastery church eight times a day in a routine of worship that involved singing, chanting, and reciting prayers from the divine offices and from the service for Mass. The first office, "Matins," began at 2 A.M. and the next seven followed at regular intervals, culminating in "Vespers" in the evening and "Compline" before the monks retired at night. Between prayers, the monks read or copied religious texts and music. Monks were often well educated and devoted their lives to writing and learning. The Venerable Bede, an English Benedictine monk who was born in the seventh century, wrote histories and books on science and religion.

Pilgrimages were an important part of religious life in the Middle Ages. Many people took journeys to visit holy shrines such as the Church of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Canterbury cathedral in England, and sites in Jerusalem and Rome. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a series of stories told by 30 pilgrims as they traveled to Canterbury.

Following 1000, peace and order grew. As a result, peasants began to expand their farms and villages further into the countryside. The earliest merchants were peddlers who went from village to village selling their goods. As the demand for goods increased--particularly for the gems, silks, and other luxuries from Genoa and Venice, the ports of Italy that traded with the East--the peddlers became more familiar with complex issues of trade, commerce, accounting, and contracts. They became savvy businessmen and learned to deal with Italian moneylenders and bankers. The English, Belgians, Germans, and Dutch took their coal, timber, wood, iron, copper, and lead to the south and came back with luxury items such as wine and olive oil.

With the advent of trade and commerce, feudal life declined. As the tradesmen became wealthier, they resented having to give their profits to their lords. Arrangements were made for the townspeople to pay a fixed annual sum to the lord or king and gain independence for their town as a "borough" with the power to govern itself. The marketplace became the focus of many towns.

Forming Town Governments
As the townspeople became "free" citizens, powerful families, particularly in Italy, struggled to gain control of the communes or boroughs. Town councils were formed. Guilds were established to gain higher wages for their members and protect them from competitors. As the guilds grew rich and powerful, they built guildhalls and began taking an active role in civic affairs, setting up courts to settle disputes and punish wrongdoers.

The new merchant class included artisans, masons, armorers, bakers, shoemakers, ropemakers, dyers, and other skilled workers. Of all the craftsmen, the masons were the highest paid and most respected. They were, after all, responsible for building the cathedrals, hospitals, universities, castles, and guildhalls. They learned their craft as apprentices to a master mason, living at lodges for up to seven years. The master mason was essentially an architect, a general contractor, and a teacher.

The First Companies
The population of cities swelled for the first time since before the Dark Ages. With the new merchant activity, companies were formed. Merchants hired bookkeepers, scribes, and clerks, creating new jobs.

Printing began in 1450 with the publication of the Bible by Johannes Gutenberg. This revolutionized the spread of learning. Other inventions of the time included mechanical clocks, tower mills, and guns. The inventions of Leonardo da Vinci and the voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century contributed to the birth of the Renaissance.

Few serfs were left in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages, and the growing burgher class became very powerful. Hard work and enterprise led to economic prosperity and a new social order. Urban life brought with it a new freedom for individuals.

Most people in the Middles Ages wore woolen clothing, with undergarments made of linen. Brighter colors, better materials, and a longer jacket length were usuallysigns of greater wealth. The clothing of the aristocracy and wealthy merchants tended to be elaborate and changed according to the dictates of fashion. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, men of the wealthy classes sported hose and a jacket, often with pleating or skirting, or a tunic with a surcoat. Women wore flowing gowns and elaborate headwear, ranging from headdresses shaped like hearts or butterflies to tall steeple caps and Italian turbans.

Most of the holy orders wore long woolen habits in emulation of Roman clothing. One could tell the order by the color of the habit: the Benedictines wore black; the Cistercians, undyed wool or white. St. Benedict stated that a monk's clothes should be plain but comfortable and they were allowed to wear linen coifs to keep their heads warm. The Poor Clare Sisters, an order of Franciscan nuns, had to petition the Pope in order to be permitted to wear woolen socks.

The first thing to be said about any Priest who lived 1000 years ago was that he was basically a normal everyday person, who was possessed with the same emotions, vices and social mores as anyone else who lived back then. However pious, there were times when he too aspired to higher status, wielded his influence to his own ends etc. His rank was equivalent to that of a Thegn, which goes a long way to explain peoples reverence to priests even to this day.

All this may give the impression that they were all bad. Not so. Because they lived in the community, you could expect your parish priest have been more worldly than his Monastery bound colleagues. It is also quite likely that he was married- an aspect that the church conducted infrequent 'witch-hunts' about since the married state was seen to be at odds with a truly pious life(There was also the danger that any offspring of the priest would be due some land upon his death, thus reducing the Churches holdings).

It was quite common for the youngest son in a family to enter the church, so that the eldest could by tradition inherit the farm and the middle son would then be free to see to other family duties (such as hob-knobbing with the ruling family, becoming a semi-professional soldier, or trading abroad). The daughters had by and large just one destiny in life, and that was to become wedded to hopefully a wealthy man of influence. Even in the earlier part of the twentieth century entering your son for the church was still regarded in many countries as a means of ensuring that he received a good education if your family could not afford to pay for it.

The priest held regular services at the church. In the unlikely event that there was no church in the area he would have held them at the site of a newly dedicated plot for a church, or where a standing cross had been erected. Your presence at service was expected, not optional. Throughout the year, additional services would occur for festivals and the celebration of a number of saints days. These too would require your presence. And the religious year would be scattered with baptisms, marriages, and funerals where the priest would officiate. At all times, the Priest was the person to whom the locals would look for advice and arbitration (the thegn of the locality could be elsewhere or indeed be the 'other' party). In times of famine, which were all too often, (especially in the early winter months), the Priest was a spiritual shoulder to lean on. If the case of hunger was great, there was a chance he might be able to assist.

At an appointed time of year, your local priest would collect the tithes that were due. This was another opportunity to see his flock and keep up with the gossip. The tithes, in addition to funding the church and Priest's activities, would also be used to maintain the fabric of the local church and help the poor of the district.

Depending upon the size and influence of the parish, the priest may have also run a 'school'. This is not the kind of school that taught all of the village's children, but one that taught selected individuals to read and write Latin. These people then ensured that aspects of government and transactions were dealt with. This included keeping records, duplicating deeds, diplomas etc, and keeping accounts. They became known as Clerks and Clerics, a term that was at that point fairly interchangeable. This gave rise to the 'civil service' that became so dominating later on. Priests were also often 'employed' by wealthy noblemen in the capacity of personal secretary. Another less well documented task the priest performed was to act as a witness to business that needed no formal records other than the reliable witness of a highly regarded member of the community.

Although there was no question as to the reality of God and the lawful activities of the Church on Gods behalf, the symbol we regard today as representing Christ was a rare thing. Crosses as pendants were very, very infrequent, and if one looks at finds from archaeological contexts, one could suppose that they were not even the norm.

The Church could be said to have been a powerful and influential force and as a great landowner was not averse to some deeds of self interest in order to preserve its assets. Bishops and Archbishops were appointed from popular priests without any formal training and the king often had a say in who was elevated and to what. As today appointments could still be made on merit or for deeper political reasons.

Doom Pictures

After St. Christopher, the Doom or Last Judgement was probably the subject most commonly painted in the Medieval parish church. The standard placing is above the Chancel Arch, because of the symbolism associated with the division between Nave and Chancel. This division within the Church, (considered both as actual building and as the Body of Christ) separated the priest’s domain in the chancel from that of the people in the nave, but it also symbolically marked the greater divide between the Church Militant (here on earth) and the Church Expectant (the souls in Purgatory), from the Church Triumphant in Heaven. But this placing is only standard, not invariable, and many Dooms are elsewhere in medieval churches; West Somerton, represented here, is one such.

The word ‘Doom’ in this context carries in itself no sense of disaster, or of eternal damnation; it is the ‘time of trial’, the blinking of an eye between time and eternity in which the individual soul’s fate is sealed, irrevocably. The Risen Christ, often showing the Wounds of the Crucifixion, always presides, usually at the centre of the painting. The Virgin Mary is usually
present as she was at the Crucifixion - at Christ’s right hand and often kneeling in supplication for the souls awaiting their sentence. St. John the Evangelist is commonly found, again often as a kneeling intercessor like the Virgin. There are usually attendant angels, and sometimes Apostles (St. Peter is the most frequently found) and other Saints as well. The Instruments of the Passion - Cross, Scourge, Pillar of the Scourging, Crown of Thorns and so on - sometimes appear, often ‘presented’ to the onlooker by angels.
Below all this, individual souls rise, usually naked, from their graves and are shown entreating Christ and his Intercessors to save them. The long-haired woman beside the trumpeting angel above is shown doing precisely that.

In most cases the aftermath of the Judgement is shown, with groups of souls departing for ever to Heaven (generally on the left [north] or to Hell, on the right [south]). These scenes are often painted on the north & south nave walls immediately before these form a right-angle with the chancel arch wall. Saved souls may appear standing in line to be met by St. Peter before passing into the apartments of Heaven beyond. Conversely, the damned proceed to Hell, assisted by devils and all the paraphernalia of Medieval hell-depictions, including, almost always, the Hell Mouth shown as the literally-painted gaping mouth of a Leviathan-like whale or sea creature.

The Weighing of Souls may be included as an integral part of the Doom, but some Weighings of Souls have either lost their Dooms or were presented as detached, if not actually separate, subjects from the first - Rotherfield, Slapton and South Leigh, (on these pages) are examples. Christ’s agent here is St. Michael, holding the scales or balance in which individual souls are weighed against their sins. The Virgin may intervene on behalf of an endangered soul by putting her hand on the balance or her rosary in the scale-pan, as at Slapton. The links in the table below will take you to this and the other Dooms/Weighings here

Visions of the Last Day in medieval art generally tend to owe more to non-Biblical apocalyptic writing than they do to the difficult symbolism of Revelation or the Book of Daniel. Probably the best example is the Prick of Conscience window at All Saints, York, narrating the events of the Last Fifteen Days of the World as found in the work of St. Jerome and that attributed to Richard Rolle of Hampole. But the Doom gave the medieval church-painter ample opportunity for imaginative graphic depiction of the end to which all flesh must come. This is not a subject that gives much scope for elegance or even for the pathos found in some other painted stories. Many English Dooms are quite crudely painted, and none even begin to approach the terrifying implacability of Michelangelo’s Judging Christ in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, although paintings not dissimilar to those here were of course part of Michelangelo’s heritage too. But no doubt the Doom in the English parish church was quite awesome enough, so far as the medieval parishioner was concerned.

Paintings on Church walls

Probably as soon as internal church walls began to be covered with smooth plaster the habit of painting on them began; even in Saxon times there were a few stone churches and some of these must have had paintings. For all practical purposes though, wall painting in the English church dates from after the Norman Conquest, and a few 11th century paintings still survive.¹ In later centuries there was much stylistic development, and this continued down to the English Reformation, where the story effectively ends in successive waves of iconoclastic destruction. From the start the materials were of the simplest - the universal use of the earth pigments red and yellow ochre reflects the fact that they were widely available. Together with black and white these, variously mixed to provide a surprisingly wide range of shades, form the basic palette. Blues are rare - the stable pigment ultramarine made from lapis lazuli cost more than gold leaf, and even cheaper blues were costly. Green, usually a copper salt, is sometimes found, and occasionally the brighter but thoroughly unstable red, vermilion.
Some underdrawing seems to have gone on, but after that the paint went straight onto the prepared wall - preparation in this case being limited to a coat of sizing material, usually based on casein or a thin skim of lime plaster. True fresco, where a fresh area of wet plaster is worked on immediately after application, is extremely rare in the English parish church, although there are two examples (Ickleton and Copford) in these pages.

The subjects painted come mainly from Christian history, although some secular scenes appear and there is much decorative painting - scrollwork, flower and leaf patterns, and so on. ‘Christian history’ in the Middle Ages, though, involved a great deal more than the Christian story as narrated in the New Testament. There are examples on these pages of the ‘accretions’ which clustered around the Gospel accounts and were firmly believed in as historical fact, such as the story of Longinus. Although specific parallels between what was preached in the church and the stories that appeared on the walls are hard to track down, the painted wall clearly had much the same didactic intention as the sermon - in other words to teach Christian truth as it was understood, and to improve people’s behaviour through moral instruction and example. Some very specific examples of the latter - the ‘Moralities’ have survived, and there are several on this site. By contrast, in fact, paintings of Christ’s earthly ministry, including the Miracles, are now very rare indeed, and seem always to have been so.
The old idea that early church wall painting in England (or indeed elsewhere) is best described as ‘primitive’, or ‘naive’ needs to be resisted. These descriptions no doubt owe something to the post-Enlightenment aesthetic that saw such paintings as evidence not merely of Popery, but of crude vulgarity as well. Later on, Victorian sensibilities, more kindly but still reductively, added ‘quaint’ to the list of epithets, and this is still found in older books on the subject. What matters here is what was missed as a result - namely an understanding of what the anonymous painters of these walls were trying to do, which was certainly not to daub haphazardly because only the sacred content mattered. One has only to see the evidence, as the 15th century wore on, of painters trying to figure out mathematical perspective by eye, and almost managing it, to realise that although they may have been less talented than the painters of the Continental Renaissance, or the English cathedral painters, or the manuscript painters, they were no less serious in intention.

Passion Pictures

The painted Passion Cycle, like the Passion sequences that were a vital part of the English Mystery Play cycles, tells, in narrative sequence, the story of Christ’s Passion and death, sometimes continuing to the Resurrection and beyond. Several of them are represented here; some are shorter and less comprehensive than others; they span almost three centuries; they are all battered to some extent by time.
The general source for the painted Passion Cycle is the Bible, specifically the four Gospels, but there are other sources too, such as the various apocryphal gospels and the famous Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, all of which had acquired, in the popular mind at least, the same authority as the Biblical accounts. It is always difficult if not impossible to be certain which (anonymous) painter used which source - in all probability the true source was other paintings and a tradition-hallowed understanding of the story which needed no book-reference. Perhaps the best example of this kind of ‘accreted’ source in action is the story of Longinus, the blind Roman soldier who gave the crucified Christ the death-blow with his lance and was instantly healed of his blindness by the spurting blood. The incident is found in English Passion Cycles more often than not.

In the 14th century virtually everyone in England believed in God. People thought that if they behaved according to the teachings of Christ, they would go to heaven. Most people had to work very hard and they knew that they could die at any time from disease or starvation. A belief in a better life in heaven was very comforting.

The priest was a very important person in the village. As most people could not read, they relied on the village priest to explain what was in the Bible. The priest also gave church services, visited the sick and helped those in trouble. For a small fee, the priest also performed other services. He christened them after they were born, married them and at the end of their lives carried out their burial service.

The village priest was appointed by the lord of the manor. When Gilbert Hughes died of the Black Death in 1349, Ralph, Earl of Stafford selected Robert Honebergh as his replacement. Honebergh died a few weeks after being appointed and Stafford's next choice was Alfred de Constydde.

Alfred de Constydde was Yalding's priest for the next 46 years. The village priest played an important role in persuading people not to rebel against the feudal system. Priests like Alfred de Constydde told the serfs that feudalism was God's wish and that their position as serfs had been determined by the sins of their ancestors. The serfs were encouraged to believe that their low status was both a punishment and a form of trial. The way that they reacted to their role as serfs would decide whether they went to heaven or hell.

St. Peter and Paul's Church was the most important building in Yalding. The altar stood in the chancel, and like most churches it was placed against the east wall. The reason for this was that when the priest faced the altar he was looking towards the Holy Land. The Church service was in Latin so although the words were familiar the villagers did not know what they meant. West of the chancel was the nave. This is where the villagers stood or knelt during the church service. There were a few seats in the nave but they were for the Earl of Stafford's family. As the Earl of Stafford rarely attended
services at Yalding Church, these seats were usually occupied by Thomas de Edenbridge's family. Thomas de Edenbridge became the estate bailiff after the death of John Giffard in 1366.

The walls of the church were covered in bright paint. These pictures illustrated stories from the Bible and were messages to the villagers from the Church on how God wanted them to behave. It was common for churches to have paintings on the wall that attempted to show what heaven and hell was like.

People in the 14th century believed they could buy their way to heaven. The rich made large donations of money to the church and the poor paid tithes. The tithe was a form of tax. Every harvest the villagers gave 10% of their produce to the church. About 25% was kept by the priest. In times of shortage, this would be used to feed the poor. The rest was sold and the money went to either the Bishop whose diocese the village was in or to Rome.

In the 14th century, all Christians in Europe belonged to the Catholic Church. The leader of the Catholic Church was the Pope who lived in Rome. The Pope was God's representative on earth and every so often he issued rulings on how people should behave. For example, people were expected to confess their sins to the local priest. Failure to do this would prevent entry into heaven. The Pope drew up a list of sins to assist priests dealing with confessions. The first sin listed was the failure to pay tithes. The next two dealt with those people who were late in paying tithes or did not supply the full amount.

The payment of tithes helped to make the Church very rich and vast amounts of money was spent on building churches and cathedrals. Some Christians were very critical of the way the Church spent its money. Francis Bernadone, a member of a rich family in Italy, gave away all his possessions. He claimed that Jesus had said that all priests should live a life of poverty. Dressed in the clothes of a beggar, Francis travelled through Europe taking the message of God to all those who would listen. Soon others followed his example, and these priests, who became known as Franciscans, began arriving in England.

The Catholic Church became concerned about the Franciscans' influence over the serfs. Pope John XII, who was Head of the Church between 1316 and 1334, announced that anyone who claimed that Jesus had lived in poverty was a heretic and would not go to heaven.

Traditionally historians and scholars, as the general public, have referred to medieval society as a 'feudal' society; today the word 'feudal' is frowned upon (as a word it only came into use in the eighteenth century). Feudal often connotes a simplistic and rigid social structure, and medieval society was anything but. Social structures tended to vary from region to region, even manor to manor, and the social web of loyalties and support was incredibly complex. Having said that, now I'm going to revert to the simplistic again in order to explain the basic functioning of medieval society!

Basically, medieval society was divided into three 'estates' or 'ranks'. These estates were defined by the main priorities of medieval life: spiritual consolation; physical protection; and food. When you get down to it, spiritual consolation (having someone explain to us how the world works), physical protection and having enough food to eat are the basic requirements of any society.

The First Estate:

The first and most important estate was the clergy, or the overall organisation of the Church. In medieval Europe (until 1517) the only Church was the Catholic Church.

The Church was extraordinarily powerful - its teachings and its control permeated almost every aspect of life. Today the Church is almost entirely separate from our daily lives; then it touched almost everything. Medieval Europe was an illiterate, pre-scientific age - people interpreted everything almost always in religious, superstitious or magical terms - and superstitious, religious and magical are often one and the same thing.

At the top of the first estate, the clergy, was the pope, the elected leader of the Catholic Church. The Pope considered himself God's representative on earth - causing a fair amount of friction with secular monarchs who didn't like having the pope tell them what to do. Immediately beneath the pope were the cardinals, who were appointed by popes, and who in turn elected popes from among themselves. Then came archbishops and bishops - who controlled archdioceses or dioceses - then abbots or abbesses, who headed the monastic orders. These combined to make what was known as the higher clergy, who were the most politically powerful and richest of all clergy (while making up at most only some 10% of all clergy) .

The lower clergy were far larger group, made up of students at universities (as the universities were, by and large, controlled by the Church all students took some form of minor holy orders), simple parish priests (that is, priest of a local church), monks, friars and nuns of various orders.

All clergy generally swore the usual three vows usual to most Christian religious orders of the day: they swore to remain chaste, to remain poor (not to collect worldly goods), and to be obedient. However, many of these religious orders became increasingly rich as the medieval period wore on - many of the high clergy lived as princes - and many monks lived lives of great wealth and often laziness and corruption.

The corruption could, at times, be extreme. For example, the Church investigated a Norman convent in the late 1200s, and this is what the report states:

Johanna kept going out alone with a man named Gayllard, and within a year she had a child by him. The subprioress is suspected with Thomas the carter, her sister Idonia with Crisinatus, and the prior of Gisorcium is always coming to the convent for Idonia. Phillipa of Rouen is suspected with a priest of Suentre ... Margurita [is suspected] with Richard de Genville, a cleric; Agnes with a priest of Guerreville ... All wear their hair improperly and perfume their veils. Jacqueline came back pregnant from visiting a certain chaplain who was expelled from his house as a result of this. Agnes was suspected with the same chaplain. Ermengard and Johanna beat each other. The prioress is drunk almost every night.

The medieval Church was very rich, although this wealth was distributed only among the higher clergy. The Church obtained its income from tithes (a levy of 10% on all household produce or income), from land (the devout often willed land to the church in the hope of escaping Purgatory ... by the fifteenth century the Church owned roughly a third of all land in western Europe), and from charging for services (baptisms, funerals, marriages and so forth) and granting dispensations for breaking Church law.

The lower clergy, particularly the parish priests, were ill-educated and often illiterate, and did not partake in the wealth of the Church while the higher clergy lived lives of great luxury and corruption. Although medieval Europeans were generally extremely devout there was also a widespread anti-clericalism: why was their salvation in the hands of either ill-educated buffoons or corrupt potentates?

The Second Estate:

The second estate was composed of the nobles in any given country: the warriors, the politically powerful (who constantly fought with the clergy for ultimate political and economic power within any one state).

The knight or noble's main role in life, the very reason for his existence, was military action - war. This extract from a troubadour's song of the 1100s illustrates this preoccupation perfectly:

(This is adapted from Marc Bloch, Feudal Society,vol 2)

I love the gay Eastertide, which brings forth leaves and flowers; and I love the joyous songs of the birds, re-echoing through the [forest]. But also I love to see, amidst the [fields], tents and pavilions spread; and it gives me great joy to see, drawn up on the field, knights and horses in battle array; and it delights me when the scouts scatter people and herds in their path; and I love to see them followed by a great [number] of men-at-arms; and my heart is filled with gladness when I see strong castles besieged, and the [walls] broken and overwhelmed, and the [knights] on the bank ... with a line of strong stakes, interlaced .... Maces, swords, helms of different hues, shields that will be riven and shattered as soon as the fight begins; and many [men-at-arms] struck down together; and the horses of the dead and wounded roving at random. And when the battle is joined, let all good men of lineage think of naught but the breaking of heads and arms; for it is better to die than to be vanquished and live. I tell you, I find no such favour in food, or in wine, or in sleep, as in hearing the shout, "On! On!" from both sides, and the neighing of steeds that have lost their riders, and the cries of "Help! Help!"; in seeing men great and small go down on the grass ... in seeing at last the dead, with the ... stumps of lances still in their side.

About the only unconvincing aspect of this song is that few knights would have been able to express themselves so ably. Very few knights could read or write, especially before the 1200s. Of what use the book when fighting?

Education of the knight started about the age of seven when he was sent to live with the family of another noble in order to learn the skills of the warrior. (In the belief it would prove detrimental to keep him at home where his parents' love might get in the way of a good knightly training; besides, exchanging sons in this way strengthened the relationships between noble houses.)

The young boy began his career as a page, serving his noble master and caring for his clothes, armour and weapons. In the noble household, the young boy, sometimes called a page, began the long road towards knighthood by learning how to help his master dress, serve him at table, carve his meat, pour his drink, and care for his master's weapons and armour and horses. If he did well, by 14 he would join the ranks of the squires, playing a more active role in the household, and learning military skills.

This is a medieval French description of part of the squire's training:

Now cased in armour, he would practice leaping on to the back of a horse; anon, to accustom himself to become long-winded. And enduring, he would walk and run long distances on foot, or he would practice striking numerous and forcible blows with a battle-axe .... In order to accustom himself to the weight of his armour, he would turn somersaults while clad in a complete suit of mail, with the exception of his helmet, or would dance vigorously in a shirt of steel; he would place one hand on the saddle-bow of a tall charger, and the other on his neck, and he would vault over him .... He would climb up between two ... walls that stood four or five feet [apart] by the mere [strength] of his arms and legs, and would thus reach the top, even if it were a tower, without resting in either ascent or descent .... When he was at home, he would practice with the other young esquires at lance-throwing and other warlike exercises, and this continually.

The squire acted as an assistant to the knight he was assigned to, looking after his horse and armour, and taking part in the war itself as a lightly armoured cavalry man. The squire would usually follow his master's progress fairly carefully during combat, and would rush to help the knight if he had fallen from his horse.

A squire could gain knighthood in many ways. If he came from a high-ranking family, his elevation to knightly status was virtually routine by the time he reached 20 or 21. Other squires had to wait until they could afford the horses and equipment each knight required, or until they had impressed a king with some notable act of bravery. In the normal course of events, however, squires would be knighted in elaborate rites, that were, as for the ceremony where the page was elevated to squire, deeply religious in nature.

First the squire for knighthood was bathed - the bath symbolizing the washing away of his sins - for the squire had to begin his life as a knight without any stain upon his character, clothed with honesty and goodness. Then he was dressed in a white cloth shirt, which, lying next to his skin, was to remind the knight that he must keep his flesh from every stain imaginable if he wished to enter heaven. Over this he donned a crimson robe, reminding the knight that he had to pour out his blood in order to serve and defend God and the Church. Over his legs he drew brown silk hose, and the brown silk was to remind the knight of death, and the earth where he would inevitably rest. Reminders of his inevitable death were to keep him from pride. Around his crimson robe the knight placed with a narrow belt to remind him to shun the sins of the flesh. In the church he was invested with the articles of the knight - the gilded spur, to give him courage to serve God; the sword, to fight the enemy and to 'protect the poor people from the rich'. Finally he received a symbolic blow of the hand (sometimes the sword) on the shoulder or the head, 'in remembrance of Him who ordained you and dubbed you knight.'

There was a rite in which the knight could be 'un-knighted', if you will, if, in some manner, he broke his vows or embarrassed his feudal lord in such a way that punishment was deemed necessary. Placed on an outdoor stage, the knight was stripped of his armour, which was broken into pieces and thrown at his feet, while his spurs were tossed upon a dunghill. His shield was tied behind a carthorse and dragged through the dust. His war-horse's tail was cut off. The knight, now only wearing a cloth shirt, was carried to a church on a litter like a dead body, where a burial service was read over him - he had lost his honour, and was now looked upon as a corpse. Presumably, if he had misbehaved himself so badly, his feudal lord would have also done something far more practical, like bestowing his lands upon a more worthy knight.

In any western medieval society the Second Estate, the nobility, controlled the larger proportion of wealth and political power. Between them, the first and second estates controlled virtually all of the wealth and power in Europe, although by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the urban professional classes, such as merchants, were rapidly gaining in wealth.

The Third Estate:

The Third Estate consisted of everyone else within society, and that was mainly rural peasants (roughly 80-90% of any given population). Towns and cities in medieval Europe were tiny - a large town might have two to five thousand people ... anything over that was extraordinary. Although there were merchants and professionals, they didn't have as much wealth, power or respect as they tend to do now.

The majority of peasants in western Europe lived within the manorial system and were bonded in various degrees to a local lord (or, more properly, they were bonded to the land itself). In return for enough land to feed himself and his family a peasant worked on the lord's land for a specified portion of each year, and might pay him some form of tax in the form of goods. The bonds and services due a lord might not be particularly onerous - on one English manor a woman gave to her lord one flowering June rose each year in return for her land - or they might be crippling - in some parts of central Europe peasants had to work their own land at night as they spent most days of the year working their lord's land. Basically, the further west the lighter the bonds of serfdom.

A manor typically consisted of a village (composed of peasant households clustered together in crude homes around the nucleus of a church, mill, blacksmith shop, wine press, & other facilities), the lord's castle (or alarge and often well defended house — the manor house), the surrounding agricultural land — mostly open fields, forests and wasteland (which mostly belonged to the lord), and a large amount of land that was usually referred to as the commons — common land open to all to graze their animals on, gather firewood from, trap, fish and hunt from, and land from which a small amount of swamp grass or hay could be mowed to help feed the few animals kept over winter. The land owned by the lord and reserved for his personal use was usually called the demesne — (demean) from which we get our word domain. The glebe was land reserved for the church.

The church itself sometimes acted as the village hall, and might well have been used on festival days for drunken feasting — or worse. The entire unit, the manor, usually provided the daily needs of those who lived on it (except for items like spices, salt, or iron — items the peasants learned to do without), the fields provided the crops used for food and clothing. A typical manor had about 900-2000 acres of farmable land. 1/6 to 1/3 of the farmland, usually the best, was reserved for the lord. The rest of the land was divided between peasant families — so that each family, depending on the manor, had between 5 to 30 acres, depending on their status.

The peasant's holdings — strips — were not in one compact lot but divided into long strips of about one acre each to ensure that each peasant family had some good farmland and some bad farmland. A peasant's strips were normally spread randomly between the two or three fields of the manor. All the fields were open, and fences were only used to divide the farming fields from the rest.

The peasants' year revolved almost entirely about the cycles of seasons, land and Church. They rarely left their land, they rarely looked forward further than the next harvest. They lived in a tiny geographical world, often not ever travelling more than twenty miles away from their birthplace during their lifetime. Anything further than twenty-odd miles away was an unknowable world.