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Going to Church in Medieval England, by Nicholas Orme

by
01 October 2021

Katherine Harvey reads an investigation of what happened in church

ANYONE who has ever spent time in one of England’s many medieval churches, whether as day-tripper or worshipper, has surely wondered what it was like to visit one of these atmospheric buildings in the Middle Ages. In Going to Church in Medieval England, Nicholas Orme, Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University, sets out to answer this question. Focusing on the years between 1200 and 1500, he introduces us to the church buildings and their contents, the priests and the parishioners, and the acts of worship in which they participated.

At the heart of the story are the priests who staffed the parishes of medieval England. Given that there were approximately 9500 churches in England by 1200, they were extremely numerous — and, unsurprisingly, some were better than others. John Schorn, a 14th-century Buckinghamshire rector who supposedly cast the devil into a boot, was widely venerated as an unofficial saint.

At the other extreme, when the Dean of Salisbury visited the Berkshire parish of Sonning in 1222, he found that six out of the seven priests employed there were gravely deficient in their knowledge of song and grammar, and one was unable even to explain the meaning of key prayers.

Parishioners were similarly varied. In theory, every adult was supposed to attend church on Sundays and on feast days. For millions of medieval people, regular churchgoing must have been an important part of their daily lives, and all the main events in their lives, from cradle to grave, were accompanied by religious rituals. Attending mass was a spiritual experience, supposed to protect mass-goers from disasters such as blindness and sudden death — although the fate of Sir John Heveningham, a 15th-century Norfolk knight who had attended three masses on the morning he died, would seem to challenge this belief.

On the other hand, the ecclesiastical records are full of parishioners who engaged in inappropriate behaviour — men brought their dogs and hawks to church, and women who were concerned only to show off their best clothes. Others stayed away, such as Robert Bockham, a Colchester barber who was prone to “lurking at home” to shave his clients’ beards when he was supposed to be in church.

AlamyThe medieval chancel screen in Attleborough, Norfolk, and above it a wall-painting of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, in one of the photos that appear in the book

Some elements of the medieval experience of going to church were very different from our own: the use of Latin, for one thing, and the fact that most people communicated only once a year, at Easter. But there is much that is familiar, from clerical complaints about churchgoers who fell asleep during dull sermons to fears over the security of the church and its contents.

Even concerns about Sunday shopping seem to be nothing new, since, in the early 13th-century, Archbishop Stephen Langton ordered priests in his Canterbury diocese to remind the faithful that they should not go to market on Sunday morning. Indeed, many familiar features of the modern church, from pews and parish halls to choirs and churchwardens, were late-medieval innovations.

Much, of course, remains unknowable, especially the thoughts and feelings of ordinary priests and parishioners. Yet, if Orme’s book lacks the emotional force of Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, it is still hard not to feel that much was lost at the Reformation (although some things certainly changed for the better — there would, one assumes, be little enthusiasm for a revival of the pre-Reformation baptismal ritual in which the priest touched the baby’s ears and nostrils with his own saliva).

For those seeking to understand better this long-distant world, Orme is an authoritative and accessible guide, and this exhaustive and lavishly illustrated study is a must-read.


Dr Katherine Harvey is Research Fellow in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London.

 

Going to Church in Medieval England
Nicholas Orme
Yale £20
(978-0-300-25650-5)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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