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The truth about chapels in churches

28 May 2008

The term ‘chantry’ is usually misapplied, says Nicholas Orme


The Medieval Chantry Chapel: An archaeology
Simon Roffey

The Boydell Press £40 (978-1-84383-334-5)
Church Times Bookshop £36

“IN MY Father’s house are many mansions.” The same could be said of medieval churches, which were buildings of several rooms, not single spaces as they tend to be used today. Chancels and naves were divided by archways or rood screens. All but the smallest churches acquired porches, aisles, transepts, and chapels; and these, too, were often defined in some way.

Chapels in churches are commonly known as chantry chapels. This is a misnomer. A chantry was an endowment to maintain a priest to say mass every day for the souls of living people or dead. Only a small minority of chapels in churches had priests of this kind, for the good reason that there were far fewer chantry priests even than churches, let alone than the chapels within them.

Rather, such chapels had a range of functions. Some were private areas for gentry; others belonged to religious guilds, or housed the images and cults of saints. Although they had altars, many of these can rarely have been used for mass; and then it would have been chiefly by the clergyman of the church, not a special chantry priest.

Simon Roffey describes his study of these chapels as an archaeology, and in this respect it is a good one. He has examined a great many of them in the parish churches of southern England, and writes informatively about their locations, structures, decorations, and furniture. The book is provided with useful plans and photographs.

Unfortunately, these strengths are not matched by those of a historian. Few written primary sources have been used. He has not considered the essential point of chantry priests’ numbers, which are ascertainable from clergy-taxation records. He gives little attention to guilds — a far commoner presence in parish churches than chantries.

Not convincing, either, is his grand theory: that altars in churches are placed so as to be seen from one another. It lacks a liturgical context, and sometimes involves re-siting them away from east walls.

Sadly, this book threatens to perpetuate the view that all church chapels were chantry chapels, rather than leading us to a more judicious understanding of the variety of activities in medieval parish churches.

Canon Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

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