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When pews were first put in

01 October 2021

Were they ever filled? Nicholas Orme explores the evidence about churchgoing in medieval England


A congregation in Münsterhof, miniature from the Chronicle of Ulrich von Richental, 1420/30, printed in 1483

A congregation in Münsterhof, miniature from the Chronicle of Ulrich von Richental, 1420/30, printed in 1483

LOOKING at the rows and rows of seats in an English church, some of them dating back to the 15th century, invites questions. Why so many? Were they ever all filled, apart from an occasional wedding or funeral? The assumption is that they were full on Sundays, at least up to 1689, while parish-church attendance was compulsory. We tend to visualise an age of faith, especially up to the Reformation: a “world we have lost”.

There were, indeed, larger medieval congregations than today. Churchgoing was a valued social occasion when, especially in the countryside, there were few others. But the rows of seats are also misleading. They were put in so that people would have their own seats rather than take whatever was available. The congregation was laid out in an order of social precedence: gentry or merchants in the chancel or side chapels, yeomanry or citizens in the front of the nave, and lesser folk behind them.

They were almost all there on Easter Day, which, up to 1549, was a compulsory day of attendance to receive one’s single annual communion. Christmas and Whit Sunday were also obligatory days, although their congregations seem to have been a little smaller.

Attendance on an ordinary Sunday in medieval England was another matter, however. Contemporaries were clear that many people were absent. A succession of archbishops and bishops raged about the fact. The poet Alexander Barclay wrote in 1508: “the stalls of the tavern are stuffed with drinkers when in the church stalls [you] shall see few or none.”

Bishops’ visitations and church-court proceedings regularly called people up for not attending. But time and effort were needed to enforce the verdicts. One senses that only the worst offenders got in trouble, and probably those who were obnoxious in the community for other reasons.

It was easy to claim illness, and even the Church had to allow exceptions. Shepherds were with their flocks, fishermen out on the sea. Merchants, travellers, and harvesters could all claim exemption. There was no requirement for children. On a normal Sunday, therefore, not everyone was in church.


FOR those who were, what happened there? Who determined what went on in church? Had you consulted any cleric, from the Pope down to your parish priest, the answer would have been “the Church”, meaning the organisation. Its laws and liturgy laid down what should be done. The laity were not consulted on this. It was their duty to obey the laws and attend the liturgy.

The reality was somewhat different, however. Let us go back to seating. No medieval church pronouncement ordered the provision of seating in churches other than for the clergy. General seating was a lay invention. It seems to have begun with the nobility and gentry who wished for comfort in the parts of the church which they occupied. This desire spread downwards to the congregation during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Having a seat not only gave you comfort: it secured personal space and helped with rising and kneeling. The emphasis on social hierarchy meant that, in the end, churches had to provide general seating so that all would be placed by rank.

But seating also affected worship. It imposed a degree of uniformity. You could not stand and block your neighbours’ view, for example. Lay people were unknowingly preparing churches for the static, instructive services of the Prayer Books.


The needs of the congregation made other changes to the liturgy. One we have considered: the introduction of English. Another was a demand for frequent masses. People with some leisure and a church close by them liked to attend mass daily. The clergy were not required to provide this every day, but only on Sundays and festivals.

Nevertheless, they were pressed to do so, and in visitations one encounters complaints about the lack. This led to the church authorities’ ordering clergy to say mass more often, at least three times a week.

Then, by the later Middle Ages, there was the popularity of polyphony. Originally, church services were sung to plainsong, but by 1400 the private chapels of the king and the aristocracy were also performing polyphonic antiphons and masses, especially to honour the Virgin Mary.

The fashion spread to monasteries, collegiate churches, and ordinary parish churches. Money was found, through lay benefactions or parish fund-raising, to provide organs, instructors, and choirs of men and boys. Such choral music was again the outcome of lay demand as much as clergy direction.

This lay dynamic is true of most church history. It was landowners who largely founded our parish churches, and they and wealthy merchants who built the structures that we see, and it was the wishes of ordinary people to attend church, or to stay at home to relax or to work, which determined how many places in the seating would be occupied on a medieval Sunday. They can rarely ever have been wholly filled.


WHAT happened in a medieval church? Even today, it is hard to answer this question. Liturgists of the future will have a problem in reconstructing modern worship from millions of weekly booklets, most of which will not survive.

For medieval England, the answer at first seems simple. Church law required parish churches to follow the liturgy of their metropolitan cathedral. In England, this meant York and Canterbury, but Canterbury was a monastic cathedral. Its services were not suitable for parish churches and were, indeed forbidden for usage there.

In southern and midland England, the practices of Salisbury Cathedral — the Use of Sarum — came to be followed in most places from the 13th century (except in Hereford diocese, where Hereford Cathedral was influential). Liturgical scholars have assumed in consequence that what Salisbury and York did was done in parish churches.

This was only partially true, however. Collegiate churches and large parish churches in towns such as Boston or Doncaster had the resources to imitate the grand staged services of Salisbury and York. Most churches did not. They had to scale down the ceremonial considerably. Moreover, cathedrals worked with little concern for a congregation, whereas in a parish church there were pastoral considerations. Parishioners needed to understand the service and to be involved with it.

To reconstruct what happened in ordinary churches needs patient research into visitation records and unofficial liturgical material, which clergy wrote into copies of the cathedral Uses. The result is illuminating. Parish services were both simpler in performance and more adventurous in their outreach.

The most surprising discovery is the use of English in what we have taken for granted were Latin masses celebrated on Sunday mornings. Mass began with a procession in which the congregation was aspersed with holy water. English words were said or sung while this happened: first a verse, reminding people of their baptisms, and then lines from Psalm 51, “Have mercy upon me, O God”.

English returned in the middle of the mass. The priest read out the calendar for the following week (which might involve fasting and church attendance). Banns were called, excommunications were pronounced, and indulgences were advertised.

The pulpit was the place for these announcements. It was not much used for sermons before the Reformation, since clergy were required to preach only four times a year. If they did so more often, they were likely to use John Mirk’s helpful Festial, which provided a short English sermon for every Sunday and festival day.

Most commonly, the pulpit was used for the bidding prayers. These, again partly in English, were said for the leaders of the Church, the king, the governing orders, the people, special needs, and, finally, those parishioners who paid to have their names read out.

The climax of the mass followed, with the prayer of consecration and the elevation of the wafer and chalice. When the congregation received communion on Easter Day, they were treated to an exhortation in English and were led through a general confession in English, just as they would be in the Reformation Prayer Books of 1549 and thereafter.

On an ordinary Sunday, they were given only fragments of a loaf, blessed by the priest when mass was over. Here again, there was an English text to be said or sung, explaining that this was reminder of Christ’s sacrifice.

Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University. His book
Going to Church in Medieval England is published by Yale University Press, and reviewed here.

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