Home > 1 > The c1200 parish church problem

The c1200 parish church problem

It strikes me with greater and greater force that the coming of Gothic is but an element in what makes the (broadly defined) 20 yrs either side of 1200 so remarkable. There is also a crystallisation of a series of attributes for the ‘great church’ which include some pretty radical reactions from previous norms: abandonment of the apse, abandonment of both galleries and crypts: these are big changes, and the resulting ‘great church’ canon would remain more or less unchanged until the Reformation.

And then there is the scale of the changes in parish churches, which if anything are even greater. This is hard to quantify, but surely a very signficant percentage of these buildings had been re/constructed in the previous 50+ years or so – say, c1120-c1160, that is, not so very long – only for the vast majority to have their chancels enlarged and apses in the process demolished, and then two aisles added within a couple of decades of each other.

I’ve been reading Peter Draper for elucidation, and he’s right, the aisles – surely the most counter-intuitive of these changes (though the universal flattening of the E wall is equally remarkable in its way) – must  reflect new levels of demand for altar space: more priests in the average parish (no altar should have more than one mass a day), more memorial masses; though the evidence is lacking.

What he doesn’t seem to emphasise is the revolutionary scale of the change over such a short period, especially as such a very great many of these churches seem to build one aisle only to rest a few years and then decide to build another. I would love to quantify these statements.

And all of this hand in glove with a new style; and if this is a mini-building boom does it also help explain the relative stasis of style itself from the first decade of the C13 for several decades: as with Perp (but not with Romanesque?) a building boom that was so widespread and at such a ‘low’ level may have encouraged the adoption of an architectural ‘standard’ that could be replicated in many places; perhaps especially if liturgical correctness is one of the motivators of the era.

It’s a very good standard, too, and like Perp emphasizes decorum over ostentation: a graceful and appropriate and easy-to-reproduce setting for sacred events. The sense that Lateran IV is as much a reaction to powerful currents as a catlyst for them is everywhere here.

What Draper does emphasize, and he’s quite right and why hadn’t one thought of it before, is that the installation of standard, pre-designed stone altar fittings is part of this building boom. If there were sedilia and piscinae before this, they were rare as anything; now they were put in in such numbers that an amazingly high number of good c1200/1240 egs were put in and subsequently never replaced.

Likewise, grand s doors and grand fonts are often an emphasis, only here the features themselves are not new: what is new is the rejection of the Romanesque fad for figure scuplture on them.  Yet here the picture is less emphatic: showpiece fonts and doors seem to have been the only *essential* stone furnishings of the C12 church, and where very often kept throughout the many changes of ensuing centuries, the doors on occasion even being moved outwards when new aisles were constructed. So the fact that their c1200ish equivalents are bereft of figure sculpture – geometrical patterns, stiff leaf, en delit shafting, rich moulding is the norm – is not a rejection of the past in the same way that the death of the apse is. Nor are they as widespread – churches with two c1200 apses and 1200 features in the e end often retain magnificent C12 doors, fonts, even chancel arches?…

More anon, I’m sure…

  1. James Peddle
    February 6, 2014 at 12:28 am

    Regarding piscinas I was reading
    TODAY Issue 30, January 2003 (http://www.ecclsoc.org/ET.30.pdf p42)
    which offers an explanation:-

    “Until the early 12th century it appears that many piscinas were possibly freestanding wooden or stone pillars, connected to below floor drains or soakaways, but from the 12th century onwards purpose-built niche piscinas were being constructed in chancel walls. This change was not down to hygiene, but was a reflection of the changing beliefs. Once it was accepted that during Mass the Eucharist transformed bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, then the preparation and cleaning of the vessels used and the disposal of unused materials achieved new levels of importance and ceremonial. Interestingly increasingly better educated and trained clergy may well have been the driving force for this change at a parochial level, but the possibility that some parishioners were well-informed about the theological debates of the day should be considered too.”

  2. February 6, 2014 at 10:00 am

    I don’t know how we can judge the level of theological debate among ordinary people in the C12/C13. But I’ve no doubt the sudden appearance of stone fixtures associated with the mass — sedilia, a row of throne-like seats for the priesthood, as well as piscinas — fixtures which then became standard features of churches for centuries — is a significant phenomenon. It’s surely not a coincidence that the doctrine of Transubstantiation was promulgated from 1215: everything about these changes — longer chancels, fittings that say ‘priests need thrones’ and ‘every scrap of physical interaction between wine/Host and priest is highly significant’ — suggests to me that a new intensity of feeling about the miraculous/magical significance of the Eucharist is abroad, and arguably spreading before 1215. Whether this comes from the top ie the church or the bottom ie the congregation (or both) is beyond recovery.

    Incidentally, modern-day Catholics point out to me that the prime purposes of the piscina is a ritual washing of the hands before performing the Eucharist, and things like rinsing out the chalice afterwards are merely other functions in comparison.

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