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Parish church problems

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

I probably should have had my mind on higher things during the Christingle service in our local parish church, but it only takes a few waterholding bases and a hint of reticulation in the east window to make my mind wander…

This, it must be stressed, is a very ordinary building; over-restored, and entirely lacking in really notable features. Yet it struck me that the church exemplifies a whole series of problems that are common to a great many parish churches. It may be that these problems are beyond solution, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to address them. Each relates in important ways to the wider project of understanding medieval architecture; each applies to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of standing buildings across this country (… and how one would love to know whether and how they can be mapped onto comparable buildings in other countries).

So, what are these ‘parish church problems’, at least as they currently present themselves to me?

1) Origins Our village has a (partly) pre-Conquest name; the church stands on a pronounced rise that might suggest a long period of activity on the site before it was constructed. The oldest dateable part of the building is late C12, late in the 2-300-year period of parish creation; and one could make a good argument for our parish having been carved from a much larger parish or minster territory whose epicentre was in another village two miles to the south. So when was a religious building first created on this site? Where there preceding Christian sites elsewhere in the vicinity? What kind of structures, architecturally, preceded the current one?

2) Site The precise location of parish churches vis a vis other elements in the landscape, especially centres of settlement and power, can change radically, making a superficial analysis of the modern landscape a poor guide to that in which the building was created and developed. This is particularly true of our church, which is distinctive, if by no means unique, in one way: it stood adjacent to a small priory whose mother house lay in Normandy. And there is much about its site that raises questions. The presume site of the priory cuts the church off from the village; indeed the village’s primary feature may be the wide curve of the priory site, which today contains nothing but the manor house and its gardens, rather cut off from the main focuses of settlement in the modern village itself. And the church is even further from the village. So was its main function originally monastic? And did that emphasis change when the priory was dissolved, in the early fifteenth century? These are pretty specific issues, it must be admitted, and in many ways the most interesting aspect of the building, but the general question of sites and their developments remains of potential interest in almost every location.

3) Development over time By this I don’t mind the simple fact of development, which is a given; more the patterns of it. When was the greatest parish church building boom? The mid C12? The late C15? How do the patterns of when and where resources were devoted to parish churches relate to the comparable patterns for great churches? The latter, at least can be reconstructed – I do so in my book – but establishing a comparable picture for parish churches is rather more of a challenge, given the lack of documentation, and the extent to which one phase of development tends to obscure another. Something like this can, however, be done for my church: an apparent new-build of the later C12, resulting in a nave, two narrow aisles, and a square-ended chancel; the tower is unknown. A substantial refurbishment in the C14, possibly including a tower, and a wholesale updating of the chancel: possibly only, however: the one completely diagnostic surviving feature, the east window, may be C19. And then a Perp-ification: all the other surviving windows, all the parapets, a clerestory, widened aisles, a porch, a tower: the result is a building whose bones precede the C15 but which visually is externally entirely of that century. The timing in our churches case is particularly interesting vis a vis the dissolution of connections with its mother house – which was replaced by an English Royal college; yet the architecture that results is no different from many standard parochial churches.

4) The late C12 a particularly interesting subset of this. It is of course a period of the greatest significance in great churches: this is when galleries and crypts and apses are abandoned, when east ends and axial Lady chapels begin to be created everywhere, and when gothic emerges. Comparably radical developments are hinted at at parish churches: a great many new east ends here, too; but what is one to make of the countless buildings that contain two arcades, one (often the north?) a decade or two later than the other, or perhaps just more plainly detailed, and built contemporaneously and with little mutual co-ordination?

5) Dull Decorated a particularly undemonstrative brand of C14 architecture is frequently encountered. Formulaic tracery: reticulated, or triple lancets cusped and placed under an arch. Arches with simple detailing: little more than double-chamfered mouldings, sometimes given a wide wave; the only firm clue to date is the lack of capitals, and the fact that a C15 attempt at the same thing would feature different arch profiles (for example). This overlooked brand of Decorated is disturbingly common – my churche’s chancel arch and tower arch both fit the bill, and arguably the much-redone windows and simple sedilia in the chancel, too. It is also hard to date confidently, raises worrying questions about style – can one really be sure it is C14 at all? – and undermines received wisdom about the aims and concerns of architecture between the death of stiff leaf and the birth of the panel.

6) Understanding Perp Dull Decorated exists in a context where there are a great many other models for how architecture can be. Early English is only ‘fixed’ for a couple of decades. By contrast the Perp ‘makeovers’ that so many churches – including mine – underwent can be extraordinarily formulaic. There are, for example, a couple of Perp/reticulated tracery types (and associated detailing) that can be seen replicated in countless churches across the country. Is the date range for these really a wide as it seems, ie late C14-Reformation? If so, where does the burden of change really lie, and is the apparent dominance of Perp really as great as it seems, or merely a side-effect of architectural repetition over a long period?

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