The church as sacred space places the reader at the heart of medieval religious life, standing inside the church with the medieval laity in order to ask what the church meant to them and why. It examines the church as a building, idea, and community, and explores the ways in which the sanctity of the church was crucial to its place at the centre of lay devotion and parish life. At a time when the parish church was facing competition for lay attention, and dissenting movements such as Lollardy were challenging the relevance of the material church, the book examines what was at stake in discussions of sanctity and its manifestations. Exploring a range of Middle English literature alongside liturgy, architecture, and material culture, the book explores the ways in which the sanctity of the church was constructed and maintained for the edification of the laity. Drawing on a wide range of contemporary theoretical approaches, the book offers a reading of the church as continually produced and negotiated by the rituals, performances, and practices of its lay communities, who were constantly being asked to attend to its material form, visual decorations, and significance. The meaning of the church was a dominant question in late-medieval religious culture and this book provides an invaluable context for students and academics working on lay religious experience and canonical Middle English texts.

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Reading sacred space in late medieval England

The introduction establishes the methodology for reading sacred space in Middle English literature through an examination of the fifteenth-century text ‘The Canterbury Interlude’, in which Chaucer’s pilgrims arrive at Canterbury Cathedral, visit the shrine of Thomas Becket and argue over their interpretation of the stained glass. The chapter explores the relationship between texts, buildings, visual art, and lay practice in the production of sanctity and sets up the theoretical framework for discussing the church as sacred space. The chapter argues that sacred space is performative and must be made manifest, with reference to Mircea Eliade’s concept of the hierophany, and suggests that sacred space is a powerful tool in the negotiation of social relationships. Finally, the chapter discusses sanctity as a form of symbolic capital in an increasingly competitive devotional environment.

in The church as sacred space in Middle English literature and culture

This chapter examines the ritual for church consecration and the paradigm that it sets up for the construction and interpretation of sacred space. The performance of the liturgical ritual unites building, community, and scripture, purifying and consecrating the space as an ideal location for the communal worship of God. The chapter establishes key practices for the creation and maintenance of sacred space, including procession, purification, and the consecration of liturgical objects, and examines the continued relevance of the consecration ceremony for the identity of the parish community, in evidence from dedication sermons.

in The church as sacred space in Middle English literature and culture
Consecration, restoration, and translation

This chapter examines the production and promotion of sacred space in the Middle English church foundation legend, The Book of the Foundation of St Bartholomew’s Church. The first half of the chapter explores the renewed relevance of the original twelfth-century Latin text, translated into Middle English during the restoration of St Bartholomew the Great, and shows how the text’s catalogue of miracles reinvigorates the sanctity of the church at an important moment in its history. The second half of the chapter examines the text’s representation of the foundation of the church and the characteristics of sanctity established by the miracles and by the text itself. Finally, the chapter shows how the text places St Bartholomew’s at the centre of a competitive map of Christendom in which the church is more than a match for its sacred neighbours, both in London and further afield.

in The church as sacred space in Middle English literature and culture
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Pastoral care in the parish church

This chapter argues that the profane challenge posed by lay misbehaviour and sacrilege in the church paradoxically strengthens sacred space. Sermon exempla from the literature of pastoral care (e.g. Mirk’s Festial, Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne) show how devils and demons assist in the cleansing of the church from profane contamination and the chapter argues for the integral relationship between violence and the sacred, focusing on the punishment of sinners and on the sacrificial blood of Christ, depicted in lyrics and wall paintings. The chapter reassesses the relationship between church art and sermon exempla and argues for a symbiotic relationship that presents the material church and its devotional objects as living, breathing actors in the drama of salvation. The performance of narrative exempla animates the visual depictions of angels, devils, and saints in the church who come to life to protect and fight for their sacred spaces.

in The church as sacred space in Middle English literature and culture
Placing the people at the heart of sacred space

This chapter examines the debate over the relationship between the church building and its community in orthodox and Lollard texts. The chapter begins with the allegorical reading of church architecture in William of Durandus’s Rationale divinorum officiorum and the Middle English What the Church Betokeneth, in which every member of the community has a designated place in the church. The chapter then discusses Lollard attempts to divorce the building from the people by critiquing costly material churches and their decorations in The Lanterne of Liȝt, Lollard sermons, and Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede. The chapter concludes by examining Dives and Pauper in the context of fifteenth-century investment in the church, both financial and spiritual, and argues that in practice church buildings were at the devotional heart of their communities.

in The church as sacred space in Middle English literature and culture
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The epilogue discusses the depiction of the church as a sacred space in the Middle English carol By a chapel as I came. The chapel has a multisensory, dynamic sanctity, and is presented as the house of God and all his saints. The epilogue concludes by showing how this mode of sanctity can still be experienced in the modern world by describing a visit to the church of St Botolph’s, Slapton, to examine the wall paintings and by discussing modern material replicas of church architecture, including the Lego Durham cathedral and the ‘Woolly Spires’ knitted churches project.

in The church as sacred space in Middle English literature and culture