Candlemas: An Extract from ‘The Stripping of the Altars’

In The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy recreates lay people’s experience of religion in the pre-Reformation church, showing that late-medieval Catholicism was neither decadent nor decayed, but a strong and vigorous tradition.

In this extract, Duffy explores the feast of Candlemas, the festival commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

Candlemas, the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary or, alternatively, of the Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple, was celebrated forty days after Christmas, on 2 February, and constituted the last great festival of the Christmas cycle. The texts prescribed for the feast in breviary and missal emphasize the Christmas paradoxes of the strength of the eternal God displayed in the fragility of the new-born child, of the appearance of the divine light in the darkness of human sin, of renewal and rebirth in the dead time of the year, and of the new life of Heaven manifested to Simeon’s, and the world’s, old age. [1] Celebrated as a “Greater Double” – that is, of lesser solemnity only than the supreme feasts such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, but of equal status to Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, and All Saints – its importance in the popular mind is reflected in the fact that it was one of the days on which, according to the legend of St Brendan, Judas was allowed out of Hell to ease his torment in the sea.[2] The Purification was marked by one of the most elaborate processions of the liturgical year, when every parishioner was obliged to join in, carrying a blessed candle, which was offered, together with a penny, to the priest at Mass. The candles so offered were part of the laity’s parochial dues, and were probably often burned before the principal image of the Virgin in the church.[3] An account survives from fourteenth-century Friesthorpe in Lincolnshire of a row between the rector and his parish because on the day after Candlemas “maliciously and against the will of the parishioners” he took down and carried off all the candles which the previous day had been set before the Image of the Blessed Virgin, “for devotion and penance”.[4] The blessing of candles and procession took place immediately before the parish Mass, and, in addition to the candles offered to the priest, many others were blessed, including the great Paschal candle used in the ceremonies for the blessing of the baptismal water at Easter and Pentecost. The people then processed round the church carrying lighted candles, and the “Nunc Dimittis” was sung. Mass began immediately afterwards with the singing of verses from Psalm 47, “We have received your mercy, O God, in the midst of your temple.”[5]

The imaginative power of all this for the laity is readily understood, for the texts of the ceremony are eloquent evocations of the universal symbolism of light, life, and renewal, themes which were carefully expounded in Candlemas sermons.[6] But there was more to the appeal of Candlemas than mere symbolism, however eloquent. The first of the five prayers of blessing in the ritual for Candlemas unequivocally attributes apotropaic power to the blessed wax, asking that “wherever it shall be lit or set up, the devil may flee away in fear and trembling with all his ministers, out of those dwellings, and never presume again to disquiet your servants”.[7] Here, undoubtedly, lay one of the principal keys to the imagina-tive power of Candlemas over lay minds. The people took blessed candles away from the ceremony, to be lit during thunderstorms or in times of sickness, and to be placed in the hands of the dying.

Whose candelle burneth cleere and bright, a wondrous force and might. Doth in these candelles lie, which, if at any time they light, They sure believe that neither storm nor tempest dare abide, Nor thunder in the skie be heard, nor any divil spide, Nor fearfull sprites that walk by night, nor hurt by frost and haile [8]

The Tudor jest-book, A Hundred Merry Tales, tells the story of John Adoyne, a Suffolk man who unwittingly terrifies his neighbours by wandering around the town in his demon’s costume after a local religious play. The squire, on being told that the devil is at his door, “marvelously abashed called up his chaplain and made the holy candle to be lighted and gat holy water” to conjure him away.[9] The beliefs suggested in the jest were no laughing matter. The Golden Legend has a story of a devout woman who, unable to attend the Candlemas celebrations at her local church, was granted a dream vision of a heavenly celebration of the Candlemas liturgy, in which Christ was the priest, assisted by the deacon saints Laurence and Vincent, while a company of virgins sang the Candlemas antiphons. The Blessed Virgin herself led the procession and offered a candle. Angels gave the dreamer a candle to offer in her turn to the priest, according to custom, but she refused to part with so great a relic: the angel tried to wrest it from her grip, and she awoke to find the broken stump in her hand. This piece of holy candle was henceforth reverenced as a “a grete jewel, tresoure and a relyck”, so that “alle the seke whomever it touchid afterward were there-through hole delyvered”. This story, almost invariably included in Candlemas sermons and vividly illustrated at Eton and in the Winchester Cathedral Lady Chapel series of frescos of the miracles of the Virgin, was clearly designed to impress on congregations the solemnity and importance of the Candlemas observances, and the rewards of devotion to the Virgin. But the celestial candle-stump must also have provided a paradigm for lay perception of the holiness and power of the candles, the “highly prized sacramental” which they took away from the ceremony.[10] Not surprisingly, the distribution of these holy candles, and the empowerment of lay people against hostile and evil forces which they represented, tended to override every other aspect of the feast in popular consciousness, so much so that the clergy might make a point of distinguishing between popular usage and the official character of the feast – “this day is callyd of many men Candylmasse. But that is of non auctorite, but of custom of folke.” [11] This clerical suspicion of “custom of folk” is understandable, since according to the author of Dives and Pauper the laity were capable of diverting such sacramentals to nefarious ends: witches were known to drop wax from the holy candle into the footprints of those they hated, causing their feet to rot off.[12] Of course none of the scriptural passages associated with the Feast of the Purification makes any mention of candles. The imagery of light in the ceremonies was derived from Simeon’s song, in which the child Jesus is hailed as “a light to lighten the Gentiles”. The Golden Legend made it clear that the processional candles on the feast were carried to represent Jesus, and underlined the point with an elaborate exposition of the significance of wax, wick, and flame as representing Jesus’ body, soul, and godhead, an exposition invariably taken over into Candlemas sermons.[13] In lay consciousness, however, the annual procession with candles, far from remaining a secondary symbolic feature, invaded and transformed the scriptural scene. In late medieval paintings of the Purification like the Weston Diptych, in the Order of St John Museum, St John’s Gate, London, the setting is clearly a parish church and the scriptural figures, including the child Jesus Himself, carry candles, like good fifteenth-century parishioners, as they do in the Purification scene in the window at East Harling. Similarly, in the Chester Purification play Mary offers the scriptural doves, but Joseph declares to Simeon

A signe I offer here allsoe of virgin waxe, as other moo,
in tokeninge shee hase lived oo in full devotion.[14]

Mary and Joseph and Anne made a “worshipful processioun” to the Temple with the Child, according to the Candlemas sermon in the Speculum Sacerdotale, a phrase which reveals the extent to which popular liturgical observances had come to shape perceptions of the scriptural event which they commemorated.[15] The Candlemas ceremonies help to emphasize a distinctive feature of late medieval liturgy, one which brings it close to the prac-tice of private meditation. This tradition, embodied in such works as the Meditationes Vitae Christi, stressed the spiritual value of vivid mental imagining of the events of the life of Christ, especially his Passion, to “make hym-selfe present in his thoghte as if he sawe fully with his bodyly eghe all the thyngys that be-fell abowte the crosse and the glorious passione of our Lorde Ihesu”.[16] This search for spiritual communion with God through vivid picturing of the events of Christ’s life and death was, of course, evolved as part of an individual and intensely inner spirituality. But it came to be applied to the liturgy itself, and to be seen as the ideal way of participating in the Church’s worship. The pious lay person at Mass was urged to internalize by such meditation the external actions of the priest and ministers. The early sixteenth-century treatise Meditatyons for goostely exercyse, In the tyme of the masse interprets the gestures and movements of the priest in terms of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and urges the layman to “Call to your remembrance and Imprinte Inwardly In your hart by holy meditation, the holl processe of the passyon, frome the Mandy unto the poynt of crysts deeth.”[17] The effect of this sort of guidance was to encourage the development of representational elements in the liturgy and to set the laity looking for these elements. The Candlemas procession and ceremonies, enacting the journey up to Jerusalem and Mary’s offering in the Temple there, were ideally suited to such an understanding of the working of liturgy, and this was certainly an element in their popularity with lay people. Margery Kempe tells how at Candlemas

whan the sayd creatur be-held the pepil wyth her candelys in cherch, hir mende was raveschyd in-to beholdyng of owr Lady offeryng hyr blisful Sone owre Savyowr to the preyst Simeon in the Tempyl, as verily to hir gostly undirstondyng as [if] sche had be ther in hir bodily presens.

This inner contemplation was so intense that, beholding it and

the hevynly songys that hir thowt sche hard whan owr blisful Lord was offeryd up to Symeon that sche myth ful evyl beryn up hir owyn candel to the preyst, as other folke dedyn at the tyme of the offeryng, but went waveryng on eche syde as it had ben a drunkyn woman.[18]

Margery’s response was characteristically extreme, but in essence her expectation of the liturgy was very much that of her neighbours, and there is no reason to think that the “hevynly songys” were anything other than the liturgical chants for the day, sung with all the splendour and resources which a great urban church like St Margaret’s, Lynn, could command. The Candlemas ceremonies were designed to summon up the scenes they commemorated, and the quest for the visionary vividness which made Margery unsteady on her feet lay behind the tendency in late medieval England to elaborate and make more explicit the representational and dramatic dimension of the liturgy.

There were limits to how far this process could be carried within the formal structure of the liturgy itself, so the Candlemas ceremonies generated para-liturgical and dramatic elaborations. The gild of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Beverley, founded in the 1350s, moved from liturgical re-enactment to dramatic impersonation. Each year on the morning of Candlemas the gild assembled at some place distant from the church. One of their number, “qui ad hoc aptior invenietur”, nobly and decently dressed and adorned as the Queen of Heaven, carried a doll in her arms to represent the Christ child. Two other gild members dressed as Joseph and Simeon, and yet another two dressed as angels carried a candelabrum or hearse of twenty-four thick wax lights. Surrounded by other great lights, and to the accompaniment of “music and rejoicing”, they processed to the church, the sisters of the gild immediately after the Blessed Virgin, followed by the brethren, two by two, each carrying a candle of half a pound weight. At the church, the Virgin was to offer her Son to Simeon at the high altar, and then the gild members, one by one, offered their candles and a penny apiece.

There is no explicit mention in the gild certificate of a Mass, but it is very unlikely that this would have taken place without one. The Beverley gild of St Helen, which mounted a similar costumed procession and tableau of the finding of the Holy Cross once a year, and whose gild certificate very closely resembles that of the Candlemas gild, made their offerings at a Mass: the presumption must be that the Candlemas tableau was part of a procession and Mass.[19] But at any rate, what we have here is clearly an elaboration and extension of the parochial Candlemas celebrations, encouraging an even deeper or more immediate sense of imaginative participation in the biblical event by gild members than that offered by the prescribed liturgy. And the observances of other Candlemas gilds, even where they lacked the mimetic elements of the Beverley ceremony, must have served similarly to heighten and internalize the themes of the parochial liturgy. Margery Kempe’s intense imagining of the scriptural scene may well be connected with the activities of the Candlemas gild which we know functioned in her parish church.[20]

Nevertheless, it is the liturgical celebration which shaped and defined such gild observances, and the same centrality of the pattern of the liturgy is evident in a number of the surviving Corpus Christi plays of the Purification. In the East Anglian Ludus Coventriae play of the Purification, for example, Simeon receives the child Jesus with a speech which is simply a literal verse rendering of the opening psalm of the Mass of the feast. While he holds the child in his arms, a choir sings “Nunc Dimittis”, almost certainly to the Candlemas processional music. Joseph distributes candles to Mary, Simeon, and Anna, and takes one himself. Having thus formed, in the words of the Speculum, a “worshipful processioun”, they go together to the altar, where Mary lays the child, and Joseph offers the temple priest five pence. For the audience, the whole play would have been inescapably redolent of the familiar Candlemas liturgy, and in essence an extension of it.[21]

Deliberate evocation of the Candlemas liturgy is even more obvious in the Digby play of Candlemas, where, after Simeon has received the Child and expounded the “Nunc Dimittis”, Anna the prophetess calls together a band of girls, and forms them up:

Ye pure Virgynes in that ye may or can, with tapers of wax loke ye come forth here and worship this child very god and man Offrid in this temple be his moder dere.

Simeon, as priest, takes charge

Now, Mary, I shull tell you how I am purposed:
to worshipe this lord / I will go procession;
ffor I se anna, with virgynes disposed,
mekly as nowe, to your sonys laudacion.[22]

Mary and Joseph agree and they all process in order “abought the tempill”, the virgins singing “Nunc Dimittis”, again almost certainly to the liturgical setting for the Candlemas liturgy. At the end of the procession Simeon preaches a little sermon, comparing the candle, wax, wick, and flame, to Christ’s body, soul, and divinity. This is a homiletic commonplace, found in the Golden Legend and from there in Mirk’s Candlemas sermon, and so a staple in Candlemas homilies in parish churches up and down the country. Anna then urges the maidens to follow her

. . . and shewe ye summe plesur as ye can, In the worshipe of Iesu, our lady, and seynt Anne.[23]

She then leads the company in a dance. This and the final dance of virgins to the accompaniment of minstrels, with which the play concludes, takes it beyond the scope of liturgy, but not perhaps worlds away from para-liturgical observances like those of the Beverley Candlemas Gild, which, the gild certificate states, were to conclude “cum gaudio”. What is beyond argument, however, is that the spectrum of Candlemas observances evident in these sources testifies to a profound and widespread lay assimilation and deployment of the imagery, actions, and significance of the liturgy of the feast. And the introduction of a “folk” element into the Digby play, in the form of dances “in the worshipe of Iesu, our lady, and seynt Anne”, serves to warn us against underestimating the links between liturgical observance and the “secular” celebratory and ludic dimensions of lay culture at the end of the Middle Ages.[24]

About the Book

The Stripping of the Altars is a prize-winning account of the pre-Reformation church, recreating lay people’s experience of religion, showing that late-medieval Catholicism was neither decadent nor decayed, but a strong and vigorous tradition. For this new paperback edition, Duffy has written a new introduction reflecting on recent developments in our understanding of the period.

‘A mighty and momentous book: a book to be read and re-read, pondered and revered; a subtle, profound book written with passion and eloquence, and with masterly control.’
J. J. Scarisbrick, The Tablet

‘Revisionist history at its most imaginative and exciting. . . . [An] astonishing and magnificent piece of work.’
Edward T. Oakes, Commonweal

‘A magnificent scholarly achievement, a compelling read, and not a page too long to defend a thesis which will provoke passionate debate.’
Patricia Morison, Financial Times

‘Deeply imaginative, movingly written, and splendidly illustrated.’
Maurice Keen, New York Review of Books

About the Author

Eamon Duffy is a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and the author of The Voices of Morebath, Fires of Faith, Marking the Hours, Saints and Sinners, and Ten Popes Who Shook the World.


1. Missale ad Usum Insignis et Praeclarae Ecclesiae Sarum, ed. F. H. Dickinson, 1861–83,
cols 696–706; Breviarium ad Usum Insignis Ecclesiae Sarum, ed. F. Proctor and C. Wordsworth,
1882–6, III cols 131–48.

2. Mirk’s Festial: a Collection of Homilies by Johannes Mirkus, ed. T. Erbe, EETS, 1905,
p. 80.

3. Though not always: the Candlemas wax offering at Spelsbury in Oxfordshire was burned
before the Trinity. See J. Cox, Churchwardens’ Accounts, 1913, p. 164.

4. D. M. Owen, Church and Society in Medieval Lincolnshire, Lincoln Record Society,
1971, p. 111. This seems also to be the reason for the third exemplum given by Mirk in his
Candlemas sermon, a conventional story of a wicked woman saved from Hell by the fact that,
despite her evil ways, she had maintained a candle before the image of the Virgin in a church;
there is no other link with the Candlemas feast.

5. Missale, cols 696–703.

6. Speculum Sacerdotale, ed. E. H. Weatherly, EETS, 1935, pp. 24–9.

7. Missale, col. 697.

8. Barnabe Googe, quoted in R. T. Hampson, Medii Aevi Kalendarium, I n.d., p. 156.

9. A Hundred Merry Tales, ed. P. M. Zall, 1963, p. 69.

10. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints as Englished by William Caxton, ed. F. S. Ellis,
1900, III pp. 25–6; Festial 60–1: Speculum Sacerdotale, pp. 28–9; L. Eisenhofer, The Liturgy
of the Roman Rite, 1961, p. 228; M. R. James and E. W. Tristram, “The Wall-Paintings in
Eton Chapel and the Lady chapel of Winchester Cathedral”, Walpole Society, XVII, 1929,
pp. 1–44.

11. Speculum Sacerdotale, p. 25.

12. Dives and Pauper, ed. P. H. Barnum, EETS, 1976, I pp. 162–3.

13. Golden Legend, III p. 23; Festial, p. 60; Speculum Sacerdotale, p. 28.

14. The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansku and D. Mills, EETS, 1972, I p. 209.

15. Speculum Sacerdotale, p. 28.

16. C. Horstmann (ed.), Yorkshire Writers, 1895, I. p. 198.

17. Tracts on the Mass, ed. J. Wickham Legg, Henry Bradshaw Society, XXVII, 1904, pp.
25–6, and see below pp. 118–23.

18. Book of Margery Kempe, p. 198.

19. Candlemas gild certificates are printed in Karl Young, The Drama of the Medieval
Church, 1933, II pp. 252–3; summarized, with that of St Helen’s gild, in L. Toulmin-Smith,
English Gilds, EETS, 1870, pp. 148–50.

20. V. B. Redstone (ed.) “Chapels, Chantries and Gilds in Suffolk”, Proceedings of the Suffolk
Institute of Archaeology, XII, 1906, p. 25: this is a reference to the Candlemas gild at
Bury St Edmunds, which processed to the Lady altar in St James’s church on Candlemas. For
the Lynn Candlemas gilds see H. F. Westlake, The Parish Gilds of Medieval England, 1919,
nos 243–5, 280. For other Candlemas gilds see also nos 9 (Great St Mary’s, Cambridge), 93
(Castor, Lincs.), 147 (in the church of St Benedict, Lincoln), 168, 169 (Spalding, Lincs.), 310
(Outwell, Norfolk), 337 (Upwell, Norfolk), 461 (unnamed, but in Yorkshire).

21. Ludus Coventriae or the Plaie Called Corpus Christi, ed. K. S. Block, EETS, 1922,
pp. 167–9.

22. The Digby Plays with an Incomplete Morality, ed. F. J. Furnivall, EETS, 1896, pp. 18–23.

23. Golden Legend, III p. 23; Festial, p. 60.

24. The “Anna” of the play is not Anna Propheta, but the Lord’s grandmother, with whom she
was sometimes identified. The Digby play was performed on 26 July 1512, the feast of St Anne.

Share this

You must be logged in to post a comment