Professor Nicholas Orme – Going to Church in Medieval England

Going to Church in Medieval England
History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

In a new podcast for the History Reclaimed Book Prize Nicholas Orme, Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University tells us how he has spent a life-time – in fact 60 years – writing his new book “Going to Church in Medieval England”.

History Reclaimed
History Reclaimed
Professor Nicholas Orme – Going to Church in Medieval England
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The book has surprisingly captured the public imagination bringing together the history of the buildings, the people, the worship, and telling the story of how the Church was used. Parish churches were at the heart of English religious and social life in the Middle Ages and the sixteenth century. Professor Orme sets out who went to church, who did not attend, how people behaved there, and how they—not merely the clergy—affected how worship was staged.

The book provides an accessible account of what happened in the daily and weekly services, and how churches marked the seasons of Christmas, Lent, Easter, and summer.

Professor Orme told History Reclaimed: “I wanted to bring together these three different parts as they tend to be studied apart. Medieval worship is very little studied, with much being written in Latin, and it would be a mistake to think that everybody was devout. Some people where but like us some weren’t”.

Professor Orme started thinking about this book in 1962, when he was 21. In the meantime he has also authored other books on Medieval Education and Medieval Childhood, and The History of Cathedrals, but the process for this one sped up during the first Covid19 lock-down when he couldn’t go to his local library, the Bodleian in Oxford so he started doing more research online.

He explains: “It has been a bit like reconstructing a Roman villa with bits all over the place, so you are hunting around for the bits. This is what has deterred people in the past. If you look at any one source, you will not find out very much. The book improved during the first Covid lock-down, I could not go to the Bodleian library, I was stuck at home with nothing to do except for trawling the internet for books available online. I read very unlikely sources, and gradually the snippets added up and I was able to add more detail to my book.”

Professor Orme charts how people did take their animals to Church, dogs and even Hawks, as Hawks were a symbol of social status. Wearing your best clothes and coat was another example of the importance people placed on going to one of the three Sunday services held in Churches. As was the seating arrangement with more important families seated at the front. Bell ringing was also important but then all the bells were rung loudly at once, rather than as now, in a Change Ringing sequence.

There were three services people were expected to attend a Matins at 8 am and Mass at 9 am and Evensong at 3 pm. “It is doubtful if people went to all three, but they would go to Matins and Mass. There was not much else to do on a Sunday. They went to baptisms and funerals, but marriage did not have to be done in Church,” he explains.

Surprisingly, Professor Orme says that the Reformation in the 16th Century didn’t change as much as might have been expected with the transition from Catholic to Protestant services because the Church still needed people to attend.

He explains in the podcast: “The people themselves insisted on a lot of things continuing that they were used to. When you think about worship in Church it is not just about the words that are spoken or listened to it’s also about where you sit, it’s who you meet, it’s how it fits into your day and those things were not affected by the Reformation. Seating in Church by then was allocated by social rank. The most important people were in the best seats in the Chancel and the front of the Nave. Going to church was very much about exhibiting your social status and the Reformers were very careful not to interfere with that at all. There would have been a lot of opposition if they had tried to do that”.

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History Reclaimed

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