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The History Of A Parish Church History Essay

The church had many roles in the Middle Ages and so was closely involved in serving the community, it can therefore tell us a lot about the history of the community. In the middle ages the church was a vital part of peoples’ lives. It had a number of actions to perform, for example all children were baptised, mass was held every Sunday, people were married here, and laid to rest here. It was there from the start of your life all the way through until the end. Unlike today the church also had other important jobs such as providing a shelter for travellers for example those on pilgrimages, although inns did begin to be used more frequently. The church or the monastery nearby would also be the only place people could go as it acted as the only hospital. It is therefore not surprising that the church was the largest and most powerful organisation in England. In terms of land it owned 1/3 of all land. [2] The church also employed many people in a parish so was an important source of income, for example clergy and clerics but also judges as the church had its own law courts. Unlike today the church had a very central role in peoples’ lives. ‘All Medieval people be they village peasants or towns people believed that God, Heaven and Hell all existed. From the very earliest of ages, the people were taught that the only way they could get to Heaven was if the Roman Catholic Church let them’. [3] Therefore the church was very important to them. There were also saint’s days, tithe gatherings, parish fundraising activities, building maintenance and theatre productions. Biblical stories were often acted out for the congregation in the form of miracle plays. These plays evolved into cycles or collections, beginning with the Creation and ending with the Last Judgement. Therefore there were many activities which then created relationships within a parish with the parish church at the centre.

You can learn about the community the parish church served from the architecture. The architecture of the parish church helped it perform its many roles. It was built to be a machine for worship. The architecture was a lot like cathedrals but just on a smaller scale. How it was decorated on the inside helped to provide visual aids for sacraments, many of the congregation would have been unable to read. But the architecture did not only portray spirituality but also patronage and piety were shown in the architecture. Some clues still exist and survived the reformation. When looking at any buildings from the past it will have been altered by time so there may be very little resemblance to its original state, however we can still learn a lot from them and as with parish churches can study the impact these buildings would have had on peoples’ lives. The parish church was often located on previous Christian sites that were significant spiritually. The church itself was usually orientated so that the east end faced Jerusalem, although even if this was not the case it would still be called the east end in a parish church.

Church archaeology is both old and new as a discipline. Church archaeology has many misconceptions. An archaeologist is someone who excavates from ancient remains. Up until the First World War, ecclesiastical studies were the most rapidly advancing branch of British archaeology. But after the turn of the twentieth century the great wave was over, however the devastation World War II caused paved the way for medieval archaeology. [4] Church archaeology is old because it was long ago in the twelfth century when archaeologists/antiquaries were recording evidence. But it is only recently in the past 20 or thirty years that there has been a full scale study of ecclesiastical buildings. Much has been written in recent years about the community and medieval England. It can be seen as a group of people co operating in the business of life. The greatest deficiency in the histiography of the parish is that we tend to view it in isolation and not in the context of its surroundings. Beat Kumin attempts to break out of this pattern and think of the people at the time.

Also by studying parish churches we can learn about the community it served by looking at church wardens accounts. These are the records of the laity’s parochial income and expenditures. Fraternity and community were very much medieval values. Although there was never the ideal, membership within the parish shared goals and created a community. Some even felt so drawn to their parish that even once they moved away they still maintained contact. For example, Stephen Foster. ‘In his will, he left his parish £20 for new vestments’ and ornaments’. [5] The deep attachment of a medieval man to his parish church was in part responsible for the survival of them. It is therefore interesting to learn that about 300 churches of the pre conquest period survive in whole or in part. [6] The religious aspect of the parish and the effect on the peoples’ lives is as expected. The Priest held regular services at the church. The peasants were expected to attended, then throughout the rest of the year there would be festivals and saints days which they were also expected to go to. Throughout the year the population had to attend baptisms, marriages, and funerals where the Priest would officiate. The Priest was the person to whom the people would look for advice and the solving of any local disputes. In times of famine the priest could be turned to and leaned upon and in some cases be able to help, he and the parish church were the focal point of a community bringing it together.

It is also important to remember that the church did not just have a spiritual impact on people’s lives, it went beyond religious affairs. The parish served as a focal point for rural and urban populations so was therefore a focal point in the community and affected peoples’ lives daily. It encompassed all aspects of day to day life. As I have mentioned monasteries could be used as a place to stay or to care for the sick but the parish church itself also had different purposes and so even more of an impact. People did not only go along for religious teaching but also for entertainment and used the church as a meeting place so it was central to the community. The English parish church even more than the cathedral was closely connected with the community. It is surprising to find that the parish church could often be the place where drunkenness and parties would take place within the community. It played a part in the secular way of life, for example, ‘in the 16th century a preacher complained that “many country folk come together on certain days of the year and hold feasts within the church, and thus with a surfeiting and drunkenness they do profane the sanctuary of god”’. [7] Then at certain festivals such as Christmas and Easter parish feasts known as church ales took place in the nave of the church. Fairs and markets were often held in the church. We can learn throught the studying of the parish church how the layout helped serve the community. You would expect to find lots of pews inside the church but this did not come until the Victorian era, but instead the main part of the church ( the nave) was a large empty space were markets, meetings and all sorts of village events were held. Therefore the church was not only used on a Sunday but every day of the week for a variety of things. The parish church could also be used to educate the people. For example the priest may run a type of school. It would not have been used to teach all of the village’s children but selected individuals. These people could then help with government and be clerks and clerics.

A parish church was a focal point in peoples’ lives, a community often developed around it so it can therefore tell us a lot about the history of the community it served. You can date a parish church which can help us understand when a community developed and the activities that took place. The church was important in peoples everyday lives so a community would always be close to one. It is important to remember that parish church evolved and changed throughout time so with it the community it served changed. In the Saxon period 944-975 the church buildings flourished. People sought higher status by electing a church near to their manor house. This was a continuing fashion over the next 200 years. The community was involved in the parish church through paying tithes. At this time the payment was put in law, therefore the majority of medieval parish churches are founded by saxon nobles as the boundary for the paying of the tithes was usually that of the local estates. Therefore by studying parish churches at this time we learn of the communities forced involvement and how parishes came about. Parishes were often large and included more than one settlement, so in reality parishioners could live quite far from their parish church. So they may have their own little chapel for the weekly services and only go to the parish church at special times of the year such as saint’s days, burials or baptisms. So there may be a case of growing resentment of parish churches as these parishioners would have to pay for upkeep of the parish and their chapel. Different parishes would develop different community identities and ways of doing things; once they did this they went to great lengths to protect them. Parishioners would follow the guidance of the larger church but their strong sense of belonging in their parish could sometimes clash. It is also important to remember that our view of the parish depends on which part of England, if you examine the northern part of England like Margaret Clark there are very few parochial records and the border parishes had quite different parish cultures than southern communities. William Coster argues that parish records are not just useful for demographic purposes but also show larger community values. [8] 

We can use window tracery as a dating criterion, windows which were usually smaller with a single opening. Most had a round head. Doorways were typically simple and narrow. In the 12th century there was a drive towards a more pious church so this tells us that the community the parish church served was more focused on religion. Parish priests were appointed. These churches were similar to the Saxon ones except for an apse extension to the chancel was often popular. In the 13th century the population grew, therefore so did communtieis. You can therefore learn about the wealth of a community through the church. Wealth was reflected in the churches of areas like northhamptonshire and Lincolnshire. It was common in this period to have churches with lancet windows and for the buildings to be expanded with an aisle along the side of the nave. If a church had a tower then it would indicate the community it served was wealthier as they were still not widespread. If the 13th century can be seen as a high point for the community the 14th was defineitely a low point and we can learn this from the parish church. There were terrible harvests after 1315 and the black death in 1348. Therefore a lack of man power. It was a new gentry c.ass often merchants who now financed church building. The churches of this period were perpendicular. The pointed arch was also becoming gradually flatter and proches were often added or rebuilt.

During tudor and stuart England the physical structure went into a period of decline those who helped pay turned their attention elsewhere. It was at a time of upheaval in the church. Then into the vicotrian period 1830 onwards it was only going to be so long that the church authroties could ignore the shifting population to industrial areas, so new parishes needed to be set up so there began a wave of church building. Therefore the parish church at this time ca tell us the population was increasingly urban and moving back to the more traditional catholic stance. There was a revival of gothic architecture. Rural parishes were now influenced by new industries which led to new structures.

Overall, you can learn a lot about the community through the study of parish churchesh. It gave peasants a purpose and meaning in life, and was seen as the gateway to heaven so very influential. The threat of hell made the peasants obey the church. The church to the peasants was huge and easily seen on the manor and easily heard with its bells. It therefore stood as a reminder of their nearness to God and to death.

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