Book - Going to Church in Medieval England

Book cover - painting of a mediaeval church

Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize, Tony Cross read Going to Church in Medieval England by Nicholas Orme...

This is the second book from the Wolfson History Prize Shortlist I've read. The first, Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann, was a more populist book as opposed to a more academic history book. Going to Church in Medieval England is a much more academic read. It is the sort of book that a general reader can enjoy but I suspect you'd have to be interested in the subject to pick it up.

Before I say anything else I should pause here and remind you all that I am not a professional historian. I have a history degree (from 1992) and an ongoing interest in history. I can't pretend to know whether Nicholas Orme has made any egregious errors of fact or interpretation. All I can do is offer an amateur reader of history books' opinion. With that in mind let us begin.

Orme has written this book to tell the story of the Churches of England:

“The following book sets out to tell their story and that of their clergy and congregations from Augustine’s arrival to the final establishment of a Reformed Church of England under Elizabeth I in 1559."

The book is topped and tailed chronologically. The first chapter covers 'Origins and the Parish' and the Chapter 8 is 'The Reformation' but the middle of this Medieval historical sandwich is topic led - The Staff of the Church, The Church Building, The Congregation, The Day and the Week, The Seasons of the Year, and the Life Cycle - and is flits around through time. This is a helpful way to put this book together. It's impossible, I think, to do it in some tell a simple chronological story. The chapters connect with each other though so that you get as full a picture as possible of what life in a Medieval Church was like.

There are, of course, gaps. Medieval history is full of gaps, especially in documentation. A lot of the examples come from people who broke rules because their stories are recorded. We also have the traditional problems of history the bias of surviving information towards the wealthy and well-connected and the visibility of men over women. Plus, as Orme himself points out in the final chapter, children are almost entirely missing from this story. So, like a lot of Medieval history (and history in general perhaps) Orme must rely on educated guesswork occasionally to fill in gaps. What Suzanne Lipscomb calls "critical fabulation"* I have no problem with this when what is being suggested is being buttressed by references and research.

Orme does a great job of pulling all the different disciplinary threads together into one big picture. He says in his introduction that this fractured approach means it a collective history of Churches hasn't really been done before. Orme should be applauded for doing so here. I'm sure specialists will find things to criticise. After all, to get this book down to a manageable length Orme must have had to be miserly with his examples.

This book is packed with information, which might seem like an obvious thing to say but I'm saying it anyway. I learned a lot. Reading this book will familiarise you with words and concepts you've never come across before - antiphons, censing, aspersing, pyx, feretory and churching to pick a handful. Churching is the rite/ceremony women who had given birth underwent on returning the Church. The rest I will leave you to look up. It also had never occurred to me that worship in early Churches was done standing up. There weren't chairs. Unless you bought your own - or had your servant bring it. I'd always assumed pews (or similar) were there from day one. There's lots of revelations like that throughout the book.

I found the most interesting chapters to be those on The Church Building and the three chapters that look at the calendar and life cycle. The Church Building chapter will be of use to me the next time I'm visiting Churches. Here might be a good point to note that the book has lots of great photographs and illustrations. I might have to go back through it to make a list of various churches to visit.

The chapter on the Reformation was also particularly interesting, concentrating as it did not on the political changes but the actual practical changes - to the buildings, their furniture, their staffing, and the liturgy.

It is worth a read if Medieval Churches and history are your cup of tea, but not perhaps one for the general reader (and maybe it wasn't meant to be.) But having said all of that I enjoyed it and I can't pretend Medieval Church history was high on my list of subjects I'm fascinated by.

* In How Can We Recover the Lost Lives of Women from What is History, now? Edited by Helen Carr and Suzanne Lipscomb.

The Wolfson History Prize recognises and celebrates books which combine excellence in research with readability. This year, the 50th anniversary, the shortlist is as follows:
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