People

Church in the Middle Ages

How did churches get their distinctive design?

Going to church in the early Middle Ages was a bit like going to a football match today – people came to watch as supporters, not to join in. The priest offered mass (communion) for the people at the altar, taking the bread and wine to remember Jesus’ death on the cross. The ordinary people only took the bread and wine once a year at Easter, having first confessed their sins with the priest. There were no hymns to sing, not usually a sermon to listen to, and not even anywhere to sit. Instead the people came to church each Sunday and stood to watch the priest – and to talk to their friends!

So that the community could use the building for other things the church was mostly empty of special furniture, much like a modern community centre or village hall.

In the late Middle Ages (from 1400 onwards) a separate church house was built in every parish to be used as a community centre. The church building was now used only for worship and special furniture could be added.

In church services the Bible readings and sermon became important, so a pulpit was built from which to preach, with a lectern made to hold the Bible. Now there were pews to sit on.

A screen or sheet divided the people’s part of the church (nave) from the part used by the priest (chancel). This screen often had a rood on its top – a big carving of Jesus on the cross with his mother Mary, and St. John on either side. Many churches were also given bells to call the people to worship.

Brightly painted statues and carvings, stained glass windows, murals on the walls and the priests richly embroidered robes all filled the church building with a riot of vivid colour.

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