Churches in the Middle Ages: An introduction

Magista Nicolaa de Bracton

When one thinks of churches in the Middle Ages, the image that usually springs to mind is one of the great Gothic cathedrals--Chartres, Notre-Dame, Canterbury, or Westminster Abbey--soaring testaments in stone to the Church ascendant which built them. However, most towns were not seats of bishoprics, and cathedrals for most lay at the end of pilgrimage routes, hours or days away; the parish church was the one they considered "theirs". Parish churches shared much of the same symbolism as their grander cousins, but on a smaller scale. For most medieval people, the parish church lay at the spiritual centre of their community, especially before the development of guilds and town councils; and it would often be the parish church which gave rise to these institutions, as we will see later in this article.

What does this phrase "centre of the community" mean? How often did people go to Mass in the Middle Ages? We in the twentieth century commonly measure piety--and devotion to the Church--in terms of how often one attends services. I doubt whether a medieval person would have done likewise. The ideal of medieval religious life was the monk, practitioner of the contemplative life, free to meditate on higher things, set apart from the world and its temptations. And there were also the realities of medieval life--backbreaking labour for the majority of the population, who, even if they were exempted from manual labour on Sunday, generally used the day to attend to their own homes and gardens. Weekly attendance at Mass was likely a perquisite of the rich. There is no indication in most of the practical theological manuals that it was expected, although it was certainly encouraged at any time one felt a spiritual need. The times when one was most likely to attend services, no matter what oneıs class, was on the major festivals (or festa ferienda ), which the whole community generally celebrated. And after 1215, all were expected to make yearly confession, usually before Easter, when even the poorest and most lax generally attended Mass. Regular attendance or not, we have ample evidence for the spirituality of medieval Christians, both outside and inside the church walls. And the money spent on these structures over the years points to both great faith and civic pride amongst the populace.

From community to community all across Europe after the Christian conversion and before the Reformation, medieval people could feel united by a more-or-less common faith. And each church drew upon the same basic theology and iconography, such that a Christian in England who traveled to Italy would feel comfortable in a church there, surrounded by familiar symbols. To make a blatantly modern parallel, itıs like going to a McDonaldıs in a foreign country--even though those around you may be speaking in a foreign language, there is something distinctive about McDonalds' architecture, Ronald McDonald is ever-present, and you can always get a Big Mac. In the case of churches, you see much similarity in their architecture and furnishings, Christ and his saints are always represented, and the Mass was said daily in the same language--Latin--that was used back home.

Architectural historians often divide Western church architecture into two broad categories: Basilicas and cruciform churches. The basilica form evolved out of Roman civic architecture, having formerly being used for public audience places for magistrates. Generally, a basilica is rectangular in shape and has no transepts. Columns, not piers divide off the side aisles and the side walls are not reinforced. Finally, there is an apse at the far end, which contains the high altar. This style of architecture marked most early Christian churches, and continued to be used to some extent throughout the Middle Ages, especially in Italy. With the development of the Romanesque and later, the Gothic styles, cruciform churches came to dominate. As the name suggests, these churches are generally shaped like a cross. In these churches, the high altar is placed at the far end (or "top") of the cross, beyond the choir or chancel (where the staff of the church sat during Mass) and the crossing of the transepts (or "arms" of the cross). In both styles of churches, there are usually a number of side chapels--sometimes as little as a niche devoted to a particular saint, sometimes a whole separate room. There is often an important chapel beyond the high altar in major churches, and sometimes very large separate chapels (usually to Our Lady) are a part of cathedral complexes.

This is all very grand when applied to cathedrals, but what about parish churches? Many were simple: single or two-celled (nave and chancel) structures, containing no side aisles at all and niches for side chapels--if they existed at all. Such small churches need not provide extensive seating for a church staff, although each church usually kept a special chair for the bishop to use should he attend. As time passes, these simple churches often add "arms" and become cruciform churches of a more squat variety; sometimes towers for bells or porches at the west end (the "entrance") are added. Parish churches are especially likely to have sections dating from a number of periods, resulting in interesting mixes of architectural styles. What else would one find in a parish church? Church statutes set forth a set of furnishings each church was expected to have: One chalice of silver or silver-gilt, a cup (or ciborium) of silver or pewter to hold the Host during the Eucharist, a pyx to display the consecrated Host and another for the unconsecrated bread; a pewter chrismatory for holy oils, along with a censer and an incense boat, three cruets, and a holy water vessel; one fixed stone altar with cloths, canopy, and frontal; one stone font for baptisms; two statues--one of the patron saint, the other of the Virgin Mary; candlesticks (including one for the Paschal candle and processional candlesticks), two great crosses (one portable, for processions), a nuptial veil for marriages, a pall for coffins, bells (including handbells for processions), a lantern to carry before the priest when he visited the sick or dying; at least two sets of vestments; and books: a manual for the offices, an ordinal (for the offices throughout the year), a missal (words and order of the Mass), a collect book for prayers, books of saints' legends, a gradual for the music, a troper for other services not covered in the other books, a venitary for the psalms said at matins, an antiphoner for the canonical hours, a psalter, a hymnal, copies of the statutes of the synods; ---and a big chest to hold everything! How elaborate these basic furnishings were depended on the church; in the later Middle Ages, guilds devoted to maintaining the church furnishings became very common, each church vying with the next to outdo each other in the splendor of the vessels and vestments, far outstripping the bare minimum listed here. The care of these items was entrusted to church wardens (usually laymen), who along with caring for the furnishings also administered money for memorial masses and bought supplies for the church. As one might expect, by the 16th century these wardens were very important and powerful members of the community, taking responsibility for fundraising and poor relief, as well as encouraging folks to leave the church money in their wills!

The iconography of church decoration also became to be fairly standard, although, of course, great variation could be expected depending on the size of the church and the period in question. Central, of course, was the high altar, often elevated on a dais and adorned with a canopy, and the great cross suspended above. Three oil lanterns, signifying the three persons of the Trinity and their constant presence, were suspended above the altar and kept lit at all times. In larger churches and cathedrals, this sanctum sanctorum would be shielded from the chancel by a rood screen ("rood" being an archaic English word for "Cross"), often ornately decorated with scenes from the life of Christ or the saints; the cross, however, was still visible above the screen. If at all possible, churches were oriented so that the altar was in the eastern end of the church-- the rising sun being equated with the resurrection. The entrance at the west end of the church, conversely, was often decorated with scenes of the Last Judgement. As was mentioned before, the patron saint of the church and the Virgin Mary each rated a major statue placed in a niche at the front of the church at the very least. Churches with transepts often dedicated the eastern, or "top" arm, to either the Virgin or the Patron, usually the former, unless the Virgin rated her own separate chapel, often termed a "Lady Chapel". Larger churches would likely have a number of chapels in the east and west transepts and the side aisles devoted to various saints. Most churches would also have either stained glass windows or painted walls--or both--recounting the lives of the saints, the life of Christ, or the stories of the Old Testament fathers. In all cases, great effort was made not only to make churches places of beauty, but also a pedagogical experience for those who came to them in an age where Bibles were a luxury item, available only to the wealthy and literate. The later acts of many Protestant churches to whitewash the walls and remove the stained glass and statuary can only signify a new era; with the invention of the printing press, the Bible became widely available for the first time, and the Protestants wished to encourage their flocks to read it, rather than looking at what they saw as ornamental frivolity while in church.

Copyright 1996, Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.