Going to Church in Medieval England by Nicholas Orme – 50 Years in 50 Books

Going to Church in Medieval England is a detailed account of parish churches and churchgoers in England, from the Anglo-Saxons to the mid-sixteenth century. It was first published in 2021. A complete guide to medieval churches, Nicholas Orme’s comprehensive study explores the role of churches at the heart of English religious and social life in the Middle Ages and the sixteenth century.

In this blogpost, part of our 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Nicholas Orme reflects on how the combination of a research career spanning 60 years and a personal interest in liturgy led to the writing of Going to Church in Medieval England.

Article by Nicholas Orme

When did I first get interested in churches? We were not a church-going family and our local churches were Victorian ones, dismissed in those days as modern and uninteresting. The subject only opened up to me when I was eleven and started to go to Bristol Cathedral School. The school was a struggling one with poor resources and mostly uninspiring teaching, but it had one star feature. It occupied the buildings of a medieval monastery, and the school assemblies every day were held in the cathedral.

Bristol Cathedral is often underrated. But its eastern half is a spectacular medieval ‘hall church’, unusual in England and reflecting Bristol’s trading ties with Germany and the Netherlands. I can only recall one occasion when we were taken into the cathedral to study it (and then only the stained glass), but clearly the art and power of the building took hold of me. I became aware of both the past and the religious past. Ever since then, I have been church crawling: going into any church that I pass, especially medieval ones, to the irritation of my family when they are with me. They stay in the car, while I make swift forays inside.

For a long time for me, as for most people, it was the general atmosphere of churches that drew me in rather than churches as a subject to be studied. Churches are different from secular buildings. Many have an aura of mystery and spirituality which is both striking and elusive. It took me a long time to get beyond the doorway of visiting churches into understanding their true nature. Although I started to do research after graduating, aged twenty-one, my research was on social not religious history. I began with the history of medieval schools – a subject that has interested me all my life – and from schools I went on to study childhood. This led me to write three books that Yale has published: Medieval Children (2001), Medieval Schools (2006), and Tudor Children (2023).

The Lady Chapel of Bristol Cathedral.
Photo by David Illif. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

However, you cannot understand medieval social history without using the records of the English Church. You need to plough through diocesan church records and parish church records, and in doing so you pick up a good deal of what was going on in religious history as well. Meanwhile, in another part of my life, I was getting involved in churches in a different way: by helping to organise services. I was a server at Exeter Cathedral, taking a lowly part in the great rituals that happened there, and later on, after having a family, I helped to organise and lead family services in small rural churches.

This introduced me to another world: the world of liturgy. What does a service try to create, and what methods does it use to do so? Very few people nowadays are able to engage with liturgy: the study of Church services. Liturgy, like drama, is meant to be acted, and not many historians go to church to see it and understand it. Medieval worship was in Latin, and the texts in which it was laid down are hard to understand. Most of those who study religious history find it easier to ignore services and to concentrate on more accessible topics: organisations, buildings, and people.

Experiencing liturgy and performing it, however, raised for me a new series of issues about churches. Although much is written about their ancient buildings and furnishings, studying these alone is like eating the shell of a nut or the peel of a fruit rather than the material inside it. A medieval church was meant to be used. Its shape and its features – chancel, nave, transepts, aisles, chapels, porches, and tower – were designed for a purpose. Each element was needed for some reason. And every medieval church was used for worship on a daily basis. Clergy were required to say morning and evening prayer inside the building, and local people came to church on Sundays and festival days.

I began to feel that churches needed to be explained in terms of their usage, rather than simply discussed in terms of their buildings. What did a clergyman do in a service? Who, among local people, came to his services (or preferred not to come)? What was presented to the congregation? What did they absorb from the service? What did they do while it was going on? These are difficult questions to answer. There are no surviving attendance figures or accounts of services as they actually happened. The evidence is widely and thinly scattered across thousands of records: often records about other things that occasionally cast some light on church-going.

Here my other work turned out to be useful. I had been reading church records for decades and knew the kinds of places to look for references to church services and those who did, or did not, attend them. I began by studying two counties: first Cornwall, then Devon. I reconstructed what churchgoing was like in them, and how services went on. Having mastered one region, I was ready to take on the whole of England.

I planned a book that would provide the reader with a complete guide to medieval churches within one pair of covers. I began by explaining how England became Christian: at first under the Romans and later the Anglo-Saxons. Then I traced how churches came into existence. The earliest were minsters: larger churches with several clergy, serving wide areas. Later, in the 900s, smaller parish churches appeared of the kind with which we are familiar. Thousands of small free-standing chapels were founded too, most of which have disappeared but some can still be seen in manor houses and in the countryside.

Villagers on Their Way to Church, circa 1550 by Simon Bening. Getty Museum Collection.

The next task was to describe the clergy who took services and the buildings in which they did so. What were the different parts of the church used for? Then it was the turn of the congregation. Who went to church and how often? What did they do in church – sit, stand, or kneel? Did everyone go? The answer is ‘no’. All adults were meant to go, but not everyone was devout, and many people preferred to use their Sundays for other purposes. In theory the Church could enforce attendance and punish the absent, but as with all laws, it was difficult to do this in practice and might end up causing more antagonism than it was worth. Occasional attendance had to be tolerated.

The heart of my book is three chapters on the liturgy. I tried very hard to make this difficult subject as simple as possible. One chapter explains what happened in church during a single week. The next takes the reader through the Church year and shows how services changed from Advent through Christmas, Lent, Easter, and the rest of the year. Finally I dealt with the services that the Church provided for people during the major events of their life: christening after birth, confirmation, marriage, sickness, and death.

I ended with a chapter on the Reformation. Between 1549 and 1559 major changes were made to the insides of churches and the services that went on. Worship was simplified. Rituals were reduced to a minimum. Images, wall-paintings, and vestments disappeared. Services were now in English, not Latin. Many historians have studied these changes and nearly all have emphasised the contrast, the break, between Catholic and Protestant worship. I believe that there was continuity too. Services still took place at the traditional times in the traditional buildings, and people sat in the seats where they were accustomed to sit. Much of the past remained, especially in services like christenings, weddings, and funerals, where people continued to follow folk customs around the actual services.

A student recently said to me, ‘Tell me, where can I find all the material on this subject?’ I answered, ‘It’s quite simple. Start collecting when you are nineteen, and when you get towards eighty, write it all up while you still have time.’ Going to Church in Medieval England is really my autobiography: the record of what I looked at and thought about, during my research career of more than sixty years.

About the author:

Nicholas Orme is emeritus professor of history at Exeter University. He has written more than thirty books on the religious and social history of England, including Medieval ChildrenThe History of England’s Cathedrals, and Going to Church in Medieval England, which was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize.

About the book:

Going to Church in Medieval England
Nicholas Orme

An engaging, richly illustrated account of parish churches and churchgoers in England, from the Anglo-Saxons to the mid-sixteenth century

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Also by Nicholas Orme:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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