Medieval Churches

A very important aspect of any church in medieval England was its architecture. The theory was that the more beautiful and ornate the architecture, the more the building would be seen as praising God. The Church as an institution directed huge sums of money into the building of its churches, especially as evidenced by the cathedrals constructed in York and Canterbury.

Medieval churches and cathedrals were magnificent structures funded by the vast amounts of money that the Church amassed, especially from the poor working class. Over the years, many churches had extensions and additions built. The year that an addition was built can be determined by the style of building.

An example is York Minster, which has a number of sections. One section was added between 1080 and 1100, with another major section added between 1220 and 1253, and a third expansion undertaken between 1291 and 1360. The central tower was built between 1407 and 1465. Every section of the building is influenced by the architecture and style of its particular era; hence, various parts of the building look different.

The largest and most magnificent cathedrals in England were built during the reign of William the Conqueror. Other than Worcester Cathedral, the cathedrals were administered by Norman bishops, hence the Normandy style of architecture can be seen in those cathedrals that were built during William's reign. Norman architecture is credited to the ancient Romans and is therefore sometimes called Romanesque.

One of the dominant features of Norman architecture is its round shape and the use of large stones. It is believed that the reason for the large stones was due to labor difficulties. The churches were built by unskilled Saxon laborers, who used very crude tools, such as chisels and axes, and lacked stonecutting skills.

The walls of medieval churches were made mainly of a layer of stone placed on the outer surfaces, with sand, stone and rubble used to fill in gaps between the layers. Pillars were built the same way, hollow in the center and filled with rubble. The doorways of Norman medieval cathedrals and churches were made of concentric arches, which abated into the thickness of the wall and were highly decorated.

In addition, the church windows were rather small, admitting little light. The reason for the small windows was because the architects realized that if they opened up large windows, the walls would be unable to support the weight of the heavy roof. In order to support the roof of the church, medieval architects scattered large pillars throughout the building. In this way, the weight of the roof was dispersed, and the walls did not bear the entire weight of the roof.

The ceilings of Norman medieval churches were domed, thereby evenly distributing the weight of the roof over the pillars, since the main points of the domes rested on top of the pillars. Three main styles of domes were used: cross, barrel and rib. Most churches built after the Norman period adopted the Gothic style of architecture.

During medieval times, the church was the focal point of community life. The lord of the manor appointed the parish priest, who was also given a house to live in. The priest officiated at all services, baptisms, weddings, funerals etc. He earned his living from tithes and fees for his services. Under tithing, each person was taxed ten percent of his earnings to support the church. The church administrator also raised funds for the church through the Gifts of Barley, during which he would brew barley into ale and sell it to pay for the upkeep of the church.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

FREE! Historical Studies of Church-Building in the Middle Ages: Venice, Siena, Florence
Charles Eliot Norton.
Harper & Brothers, 1880
FREE! Gothic Architecture in England and France
George Herbert West.
G. Bell & Sons, 1911
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "The English Cathedral" and Chap. 3 "The French Cathedral"
The Gothic World, 1100-1600: A Survey of Architecture and Art
John Harvey.
B. T. Batsford, 1950
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Cathedral Gothic"
Medieval Architecture in Western Europe: From A.D. 300 to 1500
Robert G. Calkins.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Architecture in Britain: The Middle Ages
Geoffrey Webb.
Penguin Books, 1956
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "The Earliest Churches"
Gothic Architecture
Paul Frankl.
Penguin Books, 1962
Mediaeval Russian Churches
Samuel Hazzard Cross; Kenneth John Conant.
Mediaeval Academy of America, 1949
FREE! Churches and Castles of Medieval France
Walter Cranston Larned.
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895
Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries
Whitney S. Stoddard.
Westview Press, 1972
Stained Glass of the Middle Ages in England and France
Lawrence B. Saint; Hugh Arnold.
A. & C. Black, 1925
Liturgy and Architecture
Peter Hammond.
Columbia University Press, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Ancient Churches and Modern Needs"
Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley
Richard Kieckhefer.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Late Medieval Beverley: Traditional Churches in a Traditional"
Stuart and Georgian Churches; the Architecture of the Church of England outside London, 1603-1837
Marcus Whiffen.
B. T. Batsford, 1948
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "The Gothic Revival"
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