Witnessing the Medieval English Parish Church

Meg Bernstein
PhD Candidate, UCLA
Kress Fellow, The Courtauld Institute of Art

Since taking up a research fellowship at a single-subject institution last year, I’ve perhaps become a little too comfortable in my material-oriented art historical world. The Ecclesiastical History Society’s postgraduate colloquium in March was a welcome opportunity to widen my disciplinary boundaries.

john winchester.jpg
St John the Baptist, Winchester (Hampshire), arcade c. 1200, aisle walls 2nd half of 13th century

My paper, ‘The British Aisles: Lateral Expansion in English Parish Churches, 1150-1250’ discussed the development of parochial buildings, particularly the addition of north and/or south aisles to an existing church, in addition to making a phenomenal pun. While liturgical processions and population growth are commonly cited as reasons for this addition, I argued instead that the desire for conspicuous display, which mirrored contemporary social hierarchies, and the dissemination of the doctrine of Purgatory were the motivations for building aisles.

St Peter and St Paul’s, Chaldon (Surrey), Ladder of Purgatory painting and south aisle, c. 1200

During my presentation, I referred to one document, a chantry certificate from Sleaford in Lincolnshire from 1271; in passing, I mentioned that this is important for my research because it is one of only a tiny handful of documents from the thirteenth century. After, I had several conversations with people in history departments who were in awe of this statement. The paucity of documents clearly made them nervous, though for art historians, proceeding on material evidence beyond or even in place of documents is par for the course.

Shortly after the conference, with these questions about the presence and conspicuous absence of documents in mind, I heard a preview for S-town, a new podcast from This American Life. The host’s introduction to this story about corruption, crime, and the odd characters of Bibb County, Alabama, felt strangely familiar to me from my work on little-documented parish churches, so I’ll share it here.

“When an antique clock breaks, a clock that’s been telling time for 200 or 300 years old, fixing it can be a real puzzle. If a clock like that was handmade by someone, it might tick away the time with a pendulum, a spring — with a pulley system, it might have bells that are supposed to strike the hour, or a bird that’s meant to pop out and ‘cuckoo’ at you… there can be hundreds of tiny, individual pieces, each of which needs to interact with the others precisely. To make the job even trickier, you often can’t tell what’s been done to a clock, over hundreds of years. Maybe there was damage that was never fixed, or fixed badly. Sometimes, entire portions of the original clock would go missing, but you cannot know for sure because there were rarely diagrams of what the clock was supposed to look like. A clock that old doesn’t come with a manual, so instead, the few people left in the world who know how to do this kind of work often rely on what are called ‘witness marks ‘to guide their way. A witness mark could be a small dent, a hole that once held a screw, these are actual impressions and outlines and discolourations left inside the clock, of pieces that might have once been there. They are clues to what was in the clockmaker’s mind, when he first created the thing. I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening, you’re constantly wondering whether you spent hours going down a path that will probably take you nowhere, and all you’ve got are these vague witness marks which might not even mean what you think they mean. So at every moment along the way, you have to decide if you’re wasting your time — or not.”

Sadly, I’m not an antiquarian horologist. I also can’t claim to solve murders based on reading architecture, but this description resonated with me because it describes very well the feeling of reading buildings– watching out for “fake outs” by Victorian restorers, and the “witness marks” left by medieval masons and other people who made interventions in the building in the successive centuries. Because I work on parish churches before the 15th and 16th centuries when documentation became more standard, including churchwardens’ accounts, my primary ‘documents’ are the buildings themselves. If I uncovered a document explaining why, when, and how a parish church was built and by whom, I’d of course be thrilled, but the truth is that there’s something very satisfying about putting a building on the stand for cross-examination. It’s not uncomplicated—most medieval parish churches have been in continuous use for a millennium. Very rarely has a church totally escaped either medieval rebuilding after the thirteenth century or the enthusiastic hand of Victorian restorers. Images were removed or defaced by the iconoclasm of the Reformation. Thirteenth-century tomb slabs become the place for the post-Mass tea and coffee, emptied tomb niches are convenient spots for radiators, and I once saw a renovation plan for a church recently that proposed installing central heating in the sedilia.


All Hallows, Gedling (Nottinghamshire), c. 1300 tomb slab, first quarter of 21st century coffee pot
St Botolph, Boston (Lincolnshire), early 14th century

What I try to do involves peeling back the layers of history to determine what a given building looked like in the twelfth or thirteenth century, and what factors motivated the community to shape their church in that way—searching for witness marks, and assessing their reliability.

Reading a building means engaging in above-ground archaeology, determining how a building was altered over time through close looking at the stone. Very few parish churches were built ex nihilo in my period—for the most part, these were buildings adapted over time. Styles of window tracery, moulding profiles, column types, and their capitals can all be used as evidence to determine an approximate date. I am interested as I mentioned earlier in the development of aisles and what they were used for. Perhaps even more reliable than the chantry document, which states what its authors wanted, are the frequent location of piscinas in aisles.

Swaffham prior n aisle.jpg
St Mary, Swaffham Prior (Cambridgeshire), north aisle piscina, 14th century

A piscina, a mural niche with a drain, is needed for near every altar for the appropriate disposal of sacred ablutions and cleaning of liturgical vessels—any extra consecrated wine, even the tiniest drop, must be disposed of on holy ground, and piscinas drained underneath the church.

St Andrew, Isleham (Cambridgeshire) two south aisle piscinas, 14th century

Although the chantries were suppressed in the Reformation and altars removed, the reformers couldn’t very well move something set into the wall. Therefore, we can locate spots where altars existed, and use stylistic analysis to ascertain when they were added.

If clerics and royalty can be likened to the often comparatively well-documented buildings they commissioned—castles and cathedrals, monasteries and chapels—then the lower classes (the majority of the population), are, like parish churches, poorly documented. However, by cobbling together studies of architectural fabric, below-ground excavation, landscape archaeology, and other such evidence, we can form a better picture of the social history of the English village in the high Middle Ages.

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