Richard Taylor uncovers evidence that shows how and why our parish churches came to play such a crucial role in the everyday life of the Middle Ages.
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The peal of church bells rang out across medieval Britain.
You got up, prayed and worked to their sound.
The Christian Church influenced almost every waking hour.
From cradle to grave, it gave rhythm to your days,
to your weeks, and to your year.
And so medieval churches are bustling with life,
often in ways that you would not expect.
By the Middle Ages, the Church had come to embrace every aspect of life.
I'm Richard Taylor.
I write books about the meaning of Britain's churches.
I believe we've forgotten how to read the language of these buildings.
But, if we care to look, we can connect directly
with our ancestors' deepest hopes and fears.
I'll be looking at medieval wall paintings, carvings,
angels and demons,
to discover just how the Church came to permeate everyday life so completely.
Churches originally served
to shelter the altar, the focal point
for the most important Christian ceremony - the Eucharist.
The early churches were often simple and crudely built.
But the medieval period was a golden age of church construction.
Building techniques and artistry soared to new levels.
From the 13th to 15th centuries,
impressively decorated churches like this rose up all over Britain.
The interiors were recreating Heaven on Earth,
and what better way to evoke that heavenly world than with angels?
Many churches have angels in them, but none are quite like Blythburgh.
The angels here are hovering over the heads of the congregation.
Every one is as different as the people underneath them -
their faces, their hands, their hairstyles.
Originally, these would have been painted in green and black
and covered in gold leaf.
And the impact, especially for people who didn't see
highly decorated images in their day-to-day lives,
must have been overwhelming.
I love the way their wings are thrown apart.
And on every one there's a crown, a golden crown.
I wonder if people would have picked their favourite angel back then
and felt that they were watching over them.
This glimpse of Heaven inside the church
contrasted with the difficult and devilish world outside.
Life was seen as a battleground between good and evil.
Malign forces were constantly at work
to cause mankind suffering and destruction.
Life in the Middle Ages was lived on a cosmic scale.
"Invisible devils surrounded you," said one writer,
"as numerous as the motes of dust on a sunbeam."
Bad harvests were the work of the devil,
so was illness, so was violent storm.
But the forces of darkness trembled before the forces of good,
and it was through the Church and its teaching
that you could obtain protection and sanctuary.
The Church offered this protection
from cradle to grave, and it started
with a key rite of passage - baptism.
The font is the focus of this ceremony -
so important that you'll find one in pretty much every church.
I'm on my way to a very special example.
The beauty of this one is that it's going to illustrate
everything that a font is for,
and the story that lies behind the ceremony of baptism.
This is a very simple little church.
Well, it meets you as soon as you walk through the door.
I've seen pictures of you,
but this font is bearing down and crushing
the bodies of three figures,
although this is the only one that's still entire.
The idea is that the very act of baptism
is crushing the evil spirits. Whether this is an evil spirit,
or whether this is a man who's locked in the chains of sin.
He's actually got a bit of a look of resignation on his face.
The font would have been filled almost to the brim.
The priest would have taken the infant
and plunged them into the water,
the idea being that you wanted to cover
every inch of the child's skin,
so that there was no way in for the devil.
You can see the signs that this font once had a lid, with a lock.
The holy water was thought to have mystical powers.
Font covers were used to prevent people from making off with it,
for magical rituals, lucky charms, or to sprinkle on their crops.
The covers became works of art in their own right.
This is the baptism of Christ.
What you've got going on here
is the figure of John the Baptist here,
the figure of Christ in the middle being baptised in the River Jordan.
He's slightly bandy legged, actually.
And the hand of God
descending from on high,
and the spirit of God descending on Jesus.
This is an image of the beginning of it all, where it all began.
Although this is a very early medieval font
and a very early image of the baptism of Christ,
it's an image that you'll find on fonts everywhere.
The fact that you can drive through the Herefordshire countryside,
open the door and find something like this
standing in front of you is just extraordinary.
It wasn't only newborn children
who were taken under the wing of the Church.
There was also a special ceremony called churching,
for mothers who had survived the ordeal of childbirth.
The medieval ceremony is long gone,
but remarkably, here in Ranworth
in Norfolk, evidence of it survives.
"Sorry, the church is closed this morning."
St Helen's is famous for its saints.
It was believed that the saints had suffered on Earth
and were therefore sympathetic to human pain.
In one area of the church, they are exclusively female,
and this is where the ceremony of churching took place.
So the women of the parish would have come here,
perhaps, as a kind of special area for themselves.
Yes. They would.
And it's probably here that they would be churched as well
after giving birth
because this is a very important ceremony in the Middle Ages
which we don't think much about now.
Women would come here to be cleansed and then go back into the church,
and the church would be also, of course, receiving the child after baptism.
These beautiful images of mothers and children radiate maternal love.
But who are the women in these paintings?
It's very female, all women.
Here is St Mary Salome with her two children.
Then we have the Virgin Mary with Christ
and then Mary Cleophas with her brood of four.
So it's a very fertile family, and they're all little boys,
which of course would appeal very much in the Middle Ages.
Then you have the patron saint of childbirth, St Margaret.
She protects women throughout childbirth and at the time of delivery.
During their term, would they have been conversing,
if you like, with these saints?
Yes, very much so. Because, you know, if you have a stillbirth, for example,
your risk of death is very high.
So you'd come here and you'd pray at this time -
-"Please make the child healthy."
-You know, "Make the birth go well."
No blood transfusion, no epidurals, no gas and air.
Nothing that, you know, we just assume.
So it's a big risk and something that you need constant help with.
As I understand what these were for, I find it incredibly moving
just to be standing here, where so much took place,
in terms of people's hopes and their fears, and then their celebrations.
Yes. I mean, we are in the steps of generations of women
who have come here with their hopes of survival,
their hopes of dynasty, their hopes of happiness in the future,
which is no different from our own today.
I think it really brings to us very forcibly
our connection with the historic past.
-They're people like us.
As the medieval period progressed,
people became more and more captivated by the saints.
They filled churches with their images.
There are hundreds of saints, each one uniquely distinctive.
Here at St Helen's is one of the country's finest collections.
Let's see if we can identify some of them.
Oh, well, this is St George, the patron saint of England.
You easily spot St George because he's got the dragon at his feet
that he's just about to whack its head off with the sword.
I'm going to take a pop, without really having looked at this,
but you often get the 12 apostles if you have this number of...
Yes, one, two, three, four, five, six... 12 of them.
So these are going to be the 12 disciples who followed Jesus,
and each of them has got their own emblem, their own attribute.
St Andrew was martyred, so it's said,
on an X-shaped cross,
which is the basis of the flag of Scotland.
The disciple with the spear is St Thomas - "Doubting Thomas".
And the spear was the instrument that he was martyred with.
One aspect of the saints is, sometimes attributes that they had
lent themselves to become patron saints of particular professions.
In St Thomas's case, he was "Doubting Thomas", so therefore had
poor spiritual eyesight, and so he became
the patron saint of opticians.
Oh, this is St Peter.
And St Peter is portrayed
with a pair of keys in his hand.
But they're not any old keys,
these are the keys to the Gates of Heaven.
The saints inside a church are there to comfort and reassure.
But the decoration on the outside of the building
almost seems designed to fill you with fear.
Gargoyles may have been intended to contrast
the wicked world outside the church, with the Kingdom of Heaven inside it.
But they also tap into a long root of portraying monsters
on the outside of buildings to scare off evil.
A sort of scarecrow or scare-devil, if you like.
Gargoyles were originally functional.
As rainwater cascaded from the roof of the church,
you wanted to throw it clear from the church
so that it didn't soften the foundations,
and so long spouts were built from the guttering.
Masons had fun with this and carved them into long monsters,
and soon these gargling monsters covered the whole church.
These carvings are in part fanciful decoration, but they also tap into
people's worst fears - the fear of the devil and of damnation.
To the medieval mind, the image of Hell
as a burning pit of fire was an absolute reality.
Men and women were preoccupied
with escaping Hell, by securing entry into Heaven.
And to do that, how you lived was all-important.
In the 13th century, the Church set out formal codes of behaviour
which ordinary people should learn and live by,
including the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins.
The medieval Christian was expected
to know the Seven Deadly Sins by heart.
And in an age when very few people could read,
the Church had to find other ways to drum these lessons into people.
I'm in Hessett, in Suffolk,
to see a very rare surviving example of the kind of paintings
that once would have covered Britain's medieval churches.
This must be the wall painting.
Here it is. Seven Deadly Sins.
And it's a tree with the devils down at the bottom.
-Yes. Can you see what they're doing?
They've got a two-handed saw
and they're cutting through the trunk of the tree.
-You can see the tree's growing out of the mouth of Hell.
-So it is.
-That's where it's going to end up.
It's all about to go pear-shaped!
So all of the people are heading for a fall, in other words.
-They are, absolutely.
-..is always the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins.
So I'm going to go for Pride being the finely dressed man
at the top of the tree.
He's very trendy, and he's got that lovely feather in his cap,
strutting his stuff at the top of the tree.
And who's the man on the right with the raised stick?
-He's Wrath or Anger.
And he's got a weapon which he's brandishing
and sort of raging and fuming.
The next one down?
The next one down was the one they had a lot of trouble
with actually depicting, because it's Envy.
I think he's just sort of clutching his belt and pointing.
So I think he's just sort of
looking at the Joneses over there and wishing he had what they'd got.
I'm going to go for Lust at the top.
Is that the pair...in embrace?
Yes, they're having a bit of a kiss and a cuddle there, nose to nose.
They're at the top.
-Avarice. Love of money.
What was the purpose of paintings like this, what's the purpose of the Seven Deadly Sins?
They're not just about conveying information,
they're about helping you to change your life.
And because it's using humour, and using satire,
and using a bit of threat, it's engaging with all your emotions.
So it's going to lodge in your memory.
I'm struck by how much warmth there is in them,
how much humanity.
But these weren't just a question of people going,
"You shall not be proud," and, "You shall not be envious."
People aren't idiots now and they weren't idiots then,
and people aren't terrified into behaving well.
But they can be persuaded,
they can be cajoled and they can be laughed, if you like, into behaving.
The unexpected humour and humanity of the wall paintings
shows the real vitality that characterised the Church's teaching.
And that love for life wasn't confined to wall paintings.
You can find it in the most surprising places.
I've come to the Church of St Laurence in Ludlow,
trying to find something
which sees medieval life sweeping into the church.
What I'm looking for is hidden away,
right in the church's most sacred area.
Where we are, are in among the choir stalls.
And these are what are known as "misericords".
These misericords or "mercy seats", fold up to reveal a small wooden shelf
that allowed the clergy to take the weight off their feet
during a long service, while still giving the appearance of standing up.
I've always understood, but I've never had the courage to try this.
But if you were to start nodding... nodding off to sleep
and your body were to start slumping forward...
..then that would happen
and, um...you'd be rather embarrassed.
It's what is revealed underneath the seats which is truly remarkable.
The carvings are wonderful in their exuberance and detail.
But the biggest surprise is their subject matter.
Oh, he's delightful.
This is a man,
sitting by the fireplace, in the middle of winter,
with his cooking pot.
On the other side, you've got these two hanging carcasses,
which are his food to keep him going for the winter.
It's like a little snapshot of what life was really like
in the Middle Ages.
What have we got under here?
Oh, hello. They're not holding back, you see, in these misericords,
on a bit of nudity when they want to use it.
This is a bare-breasted mermaid.
As well as being bare breasted, she's a little bit plump.
You can see a little muffin poking out around the top of her fish scales.
There may be a warning here against
beautiful women and their wiles, luring men onto the rocks of sin.
What about here?
What's going on here,
is that you've got...
an ale wife here, half naked.
No, she's not even half naked, she's completely naked.
And she's still got her ale jug clasped in her hand.
You've got a demon with a long list of her sins,
and she is being hauled off to Hell for giving short measures of ale.
You can't really argue with that!
And this is a drunk,
bent over his barrel, lolling forward with the effort of it all.
These were never intended for public consumption.
Ordinary men and women simply wouldn't have seen them.
These images were there as entertainment and instruction
for the clergy.
Clearly, they weren't quite so po-faced as we might imagine.
You find morality, yes, but not dominating, not bullying.
You find fantastical creatures,
you find lives, from the bawdy to the sacred.
They really did fill their churches with life.
In many medieval towns and villages,
the church was their only public building.
Things took place in the nave, the main body of the church,
that you wouldn't expect in a consecrated space -
plays, games and gossip.
But it was another area of the church,
which today we often overlook,
that was an even greater focus for everyday life - the porch.
Most churches have one, some grand, like this one at Eye.
And some simple, like this one in Bradford-on-Avon.
It's this impressive entrance at Walpole in Norfolk,
that I've come to explore.
This is a fabulous church porch.
It was here that sacred met secular.
In the church porch, contracts were sealed,
wills signed and debts repaid.
And sometimes, unidentified corpses were laid out to be claimed.
This is a double-decker porch, meaning that it's got two floors,
one over the other, because a lot of business was conducted upstairs.
I think this is going to be the way.
People in the Middle Ages were a lot smaller than I am.
Ah! What a pretty little room.
Now a Sunday school, this would once have housed the church court.
I'm standing in the very space where generations of parishioners
would have played out the drama of their lives -
everything from the trying of petty offences,
to the settling of disputes.
The business of the church courts in a place like this
were hugely important for the community.
One thing that was regulated then,
far more than now, in some ways,
was slander, libel against your neighbour,
because your reputation was everything.
If someone impugned your honesty,
well, perhaps you could never do business again.
If someone accused you of drunkenness, that was very serious.
And if someone accused you, particularly a woman, of inchastity,
well, that had huge implications for you and your family.
And so the courts spent huge amounts of time
regulating these claims by one villager against another.
So the inside of the medieval church bustled with life.
But it was outside, in the churchyard,
a space that today we associate with the dead,
where people really let their hair down.
After the mass on a Sunday,
sports and games would be held here by the villagers.
Archery contests, wrestling matches and fairs were held here too.
And then there were the church ales,
when great tubs of beer would be brewed up,
and food and drink sold for the upkeep of the church.
On these feast days,
scenes of drunkenness and brawling were a regular occurrence.
But there was increasing disquiet about the use of consecrated ground
for these entertainments.
And so in 1509, here at Fressingfield,
a separate building was erected right on the edge of the churchyard,
to allow the eating and the drinking and the fun to continue.
These buildings were once commonplace.
They were known as church houses.
The bequest that left this building for the Church said it was doing so
for the greater reverence of God, and it's now a pub.
And so began a happy relationship
between the village church and the village pub.
And who knows, maybe your local pub was once a church house like this one,
its origins deep-rooted in the church,
which stood at the heart of every village.
I've explored some beautiful churches,
and I've looked beneath their surface
to unpick the stories they tell.
Our medieval ancestors filled their churches
with a vivid sense, not just of
the cosmic world of angels and demons,
but of the world around them -
humorous, warm and animated.
The people who built and decorated these buildings may be long gone,
but if you know how to read them,
their churches are still brimming with life.
But among all these images of life, there are also images
of sorrow and of death. But not just of death.
The bells that summoned you to church would also sound
as your soul passed over into what was coming next.
And it was on this that the greatest energy and imagination was spent -
the life of the world to come.
Next time, I'll discover how medieval churches began to reflect
a growing preoccupation with death.
I'll see how doom paintings, chantry chapels,
and scenes of pain and anguish
were all designed to prepare for a life beyond the grave.
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Richard Taylor uncovers evidence that shows how and why our parish churches came to play such a crucial role in the everyday life of the Middle Ages. He looks at how humorous wall paintings and intricate carvings were used to teach moral lessons and how carved angels in such spectacular churches as Blythburgh, Suffolk, were used to create a heaven on earth.
Taylor finds out how rites such as baptism and the largely forgotten ritual known as the 'churching of women' offered people protection from the cradle to the grave. And he discovers how - even today - the local pub may have an unexpected bond with the parish church.