Discover how England's medieval churches were places of solace and sanctuary, socialising and schooling in this review of Professor Nicholas Orme's talk.

If you should go haring across the English countryside by bike or car, or are simply on a long stroll, you will undoubtedly be met by the sight of a historic parish church. Churches connect the fabric of our landscape, they are part of the patchwork of fields, lanes, villages, towns and cities. Even John Betjeman remarked that when “a church has been pulled down the country seems empty or is like a necklace with a jewel missing.” Although the churches that pepper our landscape today may be visited and used in a very different way to that of our medieval antecedents, the history of their construction and of the communities that thrived within them, remain as precious reminders of our social past.

We were delighted to invite Professor Nicholas Orme, emeritus professor of history at the University of Exeter, to proffer a greater insight into the history of England’s churches as intellectual, musical and prayerful hubs frequented by parishioners of old.

Throughout the medieval period, an adult parishioner was expected to attend services regularly, to pay tithes and involve themselves in the maintenance of the church building. Although there were no regular Sunday collections, the head of each household would tender a small offering of money (usually a penny) during celebrations, such as Christmas day (25 December), Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter), Lammas day (1 August) or at Patronal festivals, which are related to the feast day of the church’s saint.

Professor Orme warned that one would “lose face greatly by being absent” and that the “church authorities [could] take action against” those who avoided this social obligation. This did not apply to children, however, who comprised a good quarter of the population, and others who could be spared attendance included Shepherds, cowherds, and fishermen. While some excused travellers and tradesmen, on their way to sell goods on a Monday morning, as well as farmers and peasants, who were gathering their crops in the summer, there were people who did not want to go to church. Although there is little evidence of this in Hertfordshire, there are records of local church courts who prosecuted people for their persistent absence. Not everyone was pious and many had distinctive views about the church. Indeed, the peasant’s revolt of 1381 here, in St Albans, saw an enthusiastic movement against the domination of the abbey and the insistence that corn should be ground at the abbey mill.

During religious festivals, crowding and congestion was most prevalent. People of importance had their Easter communion on Maundy Thursday to avoid the crush, while their servants would attend on Easter Eve, as they would be required to prepare for the ensuing celebrations on Easter morning. At these times, parishes would share fantastic feasts, especially after fasting masses, when parishioners would anticipate their hunger for a fresh picnic after mass. Meat was abstained from during the rogation days but, unlike Lent, there was no bar on eggs, butter and cheese. One popular dish was a flan, either savoury or sweetened with honey. More practically, figs were had on Good Friday to avoid indigestion. Despite the duty to fast, it seems that drinking was allowed, especially during processions in which fields were blessed. One disapproving Protestant writer of 1554 complained that the Parish clerk often left his cross behind and the priest his gospel book and both “scant found the right way home, so much were they misled with the spirit of the buttery.” In other words, they were intoxicated by ale.

Besides festivities oriented around the church, Professor Orme elucidated on the use of the church space; namely, the divide between the chancel, in which the majority of services were conducted by the clergy, and the nave, where the laity congregated. There was an insistence, internationally at this time, that the church, as a body, was different from the lay kingdoms and principalities of Europe. Attempts to keep the laity out of the chancel were unsuccessful, however, marriages could be held there and the gentry often desired a visible manifestation of their importance.

Professor Orme also pointed out that certain practices such as preaching, which was not common before the Reformation, redefined the use of fittings, such as the pulpit which was mainly used for announcements and asking for prayers. It was only after the mid-1500s that they were used by priests to read out a homily.

Although practices within the church have changed dramatically throughout time, as Professor Orme shed light on the parish church as a source of solace and sanctuary, socialising and schooling, each example channelled the narratives of nobility and ordinary members of the laity and brought stories to the surface of parishioners in the medieval times that do not seem so different to churchgoers today.

Written by Isabelle Lepore, Learning and Events Assistant.