On a recent visit to Romsey Abbey I was reminded once again of how wrong my view of life in the Middle Ages is. When I went into the abbey I saw that the walls were just grey stone and it’s easy to assume that they’re unchanged since the church was built in the twelfth century, but that’s not the case.
Most churches would have had a depiction of the Last Judgement painted on a wall that could easily be seen. This would have shown Christ enthroned deciding who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Hell would be shown as a dreadful place, and the demons leading the damned souls into it usually had sharp teeth and claws with which they tormented their victims. Heaven would be full of light, and the blessed would be led there by beautiful angels. This was supposed to make the parishioners consider their eventual fate.
Wall painting in the Chapel of St Mary, Romsey Abbey
This wall painting is from the Chapel of St Mary in the abbey and is thought to represent the life of St Nicholas. It is from the late thirteenth century. Nicholas lived at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth centuries. He was made bishop of Myra and is said to have been one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed in 325. The colours are faded now and it’s hard to imagine how bright the whole church must have been when all the walls, columns and ceilings had just been painted. A church was considered unfinished until the painting was complete.
Not all wall paintings were there for instruction. Sometimes decoration was just decoration. The ribbed vault and the pillar shown below were painted just because all the stone in the church was covered in plaster and then painted. The effect of all the colour on top of the size of the building itself would have struck those inside it with awe. Although wealthy people decorated their own homes in a similar way, frequently with secular as well as religious images, poor people did not. Their homes would have been dull and drab. For them, coming into the abbey would have been a very different experience from their everyday life.
Painted ribbed vault, Romsey Abbey
Paintings were almost constantly being updated as tastes changed or a new patron took over a church. They were not considered permanent.
Painted pillar, Romsey Abbey
In England the paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation, but most were destroyed by the Victorians. Instead of exposing the pictures by removing the whitewash, they preferred to expose the stone by removing the plaster onto which the paintings had been painted. This was, of course, very far from the intentions of the medieval builders, who had gone to great lengths to cover over the stone, which was no more than the skeleton of the church, even when it had been beautifully cut and dressed.
I was recently writing a scene in a novel in which the main character appears to become unwell during mass. His worried friends cast around for reasons why he might not be himself and one of them suggests incense as the cause, as it’s some time since he has attended mass. Then I had the dreadful thought: would there have been incense during mass in Calais in 1367? A lot of my research (and these posts) starts in this way.
Incense was in use long before the fourteenth century in the Middle East and is recorded in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. It was used in the Temple in Jerusalem and was one of the gifts brought by the magi to Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel. In the book of Numbers Aaron and Moses used it stop a plague, and people hoped that it would have the same effect during the Black Death and later plagues. It is a spice or gum that gives off a sweet smell when burned. This is usually achieved by placing it on burning charcoal.
The use of incense in the western church is recorded from the sixth century. The smoke as it rises up symbolises the prayers of the earthbound parishioners rising up to Heaven and the sweet smell represents the sweetness of those prayers to God.
These days, if we’re used to the idea of incense in church at all, it’s usually as dispensed via a small hand-held thurible, or censer. These are usually shaped like a ball and made of metal, with perforations to allow the smoke to escape. There is a lid through which the charcoal and incense can be inserted. Thuribles hang on chains which the thurifer holds. The thurifer is the name of the acolyte or altar server who holds the thurible. When the thurifer swings the thurible the smoke, with its attendant smell, is released. Fourteenth century thuribles were very similar, although some were much more elaborate. Rather than being spherical some were representations of churches and the perforations were in the shape of windows.
Perhaps the best-known thurible in the world is the huge one in Santiago de Compostela cathedral – the Botafumeiro. Botafumeiro is Galician for thurible. These days the Botafumeiro is 1.6m tall and looks like a very large urn. It’s suspended on ropes from the ceiling of the cathedral and it takes 8 men to set it in motion. You can see a video of it here. The current censer dates from the nineteenth century, but (smaller) censers have been swung from the ceiling here since the eleventh century, according to tradition. Millions of pilgrims must have been awed by the sight over the years, but that’s a story for another post.
This lovely view was what presented itself to me while I was sitting in my pew on Christmas morning. It was my first time inside this twelfth century church in rural Shropshire, but I don’t think it will be my last. I thought I’d share it with you in lieu of a normal post, given the busyness of the season.
Technically the church is a chapel of ease, which means it was built for parishioners who live a long way from the parish church. In this case it was for the wealthy family living in the village in 1132. It’s about a mile to the parish church in Morville.
It’s a tiny church, with the pews wide enough to take only three (if large) or four (if small) people, but it’s easy enough to imagine it without the pews and with its medieval congregation standing around.