Here is an article for all you liturgical minded people out there, if you are not a medieval liturgical nerd like I am, read no further!
|The rood loft at Patrishow, Powys.|
There is a theory that in the late Middle Ages the rood lofts of medieval parish churches in England and Wales, extending across the chancel arch between chancel and nave, were the setting for the singing of the liturgical Gospel during high mass. Given that many medieval rood stairs giving access to lofts are narrow spiral staircases (like those illustrated below) and are difficult to climb, even when not wearing vestments and carrying a heavy book, I have never really quite believed this.
|The rood loft entry at Coates, by Stow, Lincolnshire. A narrow and uneven stair that is difficult to climb even without the sign and the flowers in the way!|
|The rood loft stair at Edingthorpe, Norfolk. Difficult access.|
In any case there is visual and textual evidence, as I have discussed before on this blog that the liturgical Gospel was sung at the step of the high altar at a lectern facing north. Such a position is described in the Rites of Durham, that glorious record of the ceremonial and visual landscape of Durham Cathedral at the time of the Reformation and was clearly the use in Westminster Abbey too.
‘At the north end of the high altar, there was a goodly fine letteron [Lettern, H. 45] of brasse where they sunge the epistle and the gospell, with a gilt pellican on the height of it finely gilded pullinge hir bloud out hir breast to hir young ones, and winges spread abroade wheron did lye the book that they did singe the epistle and the gosple’
Such a position is also illustrated in a woodcut in Dat Boexken Vander Missen a block book guide to the mass from the Low Countries, that was circulated and known in England.
So on this basis I have shelved the rood loft/ambo theory in the same compartment with as other wild (usually Victorian) theories as to the purpose of various parts church building, such as the notion that low-side windows in chancels were ‘leper windows’. Until recently, when I discovered some evidence that has made me think again and return to the subject.
So what sources, textual and physical, are there to indicate that the Gospel might have been sung/said high up in the air from the impractical and inaccessible rood loft? The first source we might turn to is William Durandus Rationale Divinorum Officiorum. Durandus was a French bishop and this treatise, written sometime in the third quarter of the thirteenth century, he describes the ritual of the mass and the visual landscape of church buildings as he knew them in France in his time. The treatise was into English in 1843 by two Anglican ritualist clergy, John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb and the quote below comes from that translation.
‘When Bishop or Priest celebrateth High Mass with the highest solemnity, then, in some churches, as at Rome, the Deacon having kissed the right hand of the Bishop taketh the Book of the Gospel from the Altar, and giveth it to the Sub-Deacon to bear, and asketh and receiveth the Bishop’s or Priest’s blessing. But in other churches, he first asketh for the blessing, before he taketh the book. The Benediction having been bestowed, the Deacon proceedeth along the South side of the Choir to the Rood Loft, and before him goeth the Sub Deacon with the Volume of the Gospel, and before him the incense-bearer with incense; and before him the torch bearer with lighted tapers, and before him in some churches the Banner of the Cross: and thus they ascend the Rood Loft. And the Deacon readeth the Gospel: the which being finished, they return to the Priest or Bishop together’.
Ha, ha you say – here you go, here is the evidence that we are looking for. However wait a minute, the passage in Durandus raises more questions than it provides answers to. Firstly Durandus is of course describing the ceremonial that was common in France (and in Italy), in his time, not that of England. Secondly what he describes is the ceremonial of a French pontifical high mass, he is hardly describing the ceremonial that accompanied the mass in an ordinary French parish church. Thirdly we are reading Durandus in translation, we are relying on the interpretation here of the text by the translators. Neale and Webb in their translation have chosen to translate the Latin word Analogium in Durandus as ‘rood loft’. The word Analogiumis not synonymous with the term rood loft, it refers simply to a raised platform – that could mean the loft above a rood screen, but it could mean anything else from a single step above a floor, to a wineglass pulpit, or the raised Ambo found in early medieval Italian churches. In fact further along in the treatise Durandus refers to the deacon ascending the ‘Ambo’ to read the Gospel (p.224).
So Durandus is a bit of a dead end. Setting him aside for a moment, what other textual evidence is there that the rood loft in British churches may have been used for the proclamation of the gospel? What about the rubrics of the missals? The rubrics of the Sarum Missal, the most predominant of the uses of medieval England, do speak of the place of the proclamation of the Gospel and give some hints.
Et sic procedat diaconus per medium Chori, ipsum Textum super sinistrum manum solemniter gestando, ad Pulpitum accedat, thuribulario et ceroferiario praecendentibus … et semper legatur Evangelium versus aquilonem, id est, boream (pp. 12-14)And thus the deacon shall advance through the midst of the Quire, solemnly carrying the Text itself in his left hand, with thurifer and taper-bearers preceding him, to the Pulpit…. And the gospel shall always be read by a reader facing north.
‘Through the midst of the choir’ suggests that the deacon is heading to the west end of the quire and ‘to the pulpit’ suggests he is perhaps heading to the solid stone screen called the ‘Pulpitum’ at the west end of the choir, that once divided the chancel from the crossing of the cathedral church. But the evidence is rather ambiguous and in any case the ceremonial here described is the ceremonial of a well-resourced Cathedral church, not that of a parish church.
With the textual evidence being rather ambiguous, what then of the physical evidence. Is there any evidence within surviving rood lofts, of their use for the proclamation of the gospel? It has to be said that the physical evidence is fairly scant and of limited scope, as few rood lofts actually remain after the purge of the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I and we don’t know how representative the remaining examples are. Howard and Crossley in their English Church Woodwork, list five wooden lofts that incorporate projecting centre bays that may have formed a Gospel Ambo. Two of these at Coates-by-Stow and Sleaford in Lincolnshire have projections facing west and Dunster, Montgomery and Newark, have projections facing east. In none of these is there any evidence of the remains of a ledge or lectern to support a book. Of course, if these projections did represent the place where the Gospel was read, the book may have been held by the subdeacon or another minister as the Deacon sung the Gospel.
|The rood loft at Coates by Stow, Lincolnshire, with its projecting centre bay facing west.|
Facing east or west, they hardly fulfil the requirement in the Missal rubrics that the Gospel be proclaimed facing north. At Tattershall in Lincolnshire, a collegiate church, there is a stone Pulpitum dating from 1528 that divides the collegiate quire from the parochial nave of this great church. On its eastern side is a projecting ‘tribune’ as Aymer Vallance terms it. He writes:
‘A notable feature of the parapet consists of two stone desks in the solid behind the cresting. One of them … has a ledge at the lower edge to hold a book from slipping. The other desk facing north-east, just the place for the reader of the Gospel, occupies the space behind the two outer Tudor flowers.’
This is the only physical evidence of a built-in screen lectern of any sort and as Vallance notes, the north-east facing stone lectern would fulfil the Sarum rubric that the Gospel be sung facing north.
|The Tattershall Pulpitim showing the projecting ‘Tribune’ that incorporates stone built lecterns.|
As with the Sarum rubrics, the evidence at Tattershall, a collegiate church, is hardly representative of the average parish church. So all told the physical evidence is rather ambiguous as well.
Then this last week I had that Eureka moment. I am currently writing an article on the completion of majestic spire of the parish church of St James Louth in Lincolnshire as September is the 500th anniversary of its completion. As part of my research, I was reading the First Churchwardens Book of Louth as my bedtime reading. These are the accounts that cover the building of the spire, but also the general expenditure of the churchwardens between 1500 and 1524. By chance I came across the following items of expenditure within the accounts:
In 1517: ‘It. Paid Thomas Carfare 4 dais 2s. his servand 4 dais 16d. making letrum in the rode loft and 1 paas (step) to stand upon to rede gospels.’In 1522; ‘Thomas Carffare for making in rode lofte to reede gospull upon 8d.’
Thomas Carfarre is a joiner, who is paid for other work including woodwork around the bells and also for ‘wainscot’, panelling in the church. The accounts are clear, Carfarre is paid for making a lectern and a step on which the deacon stands to read the Gospels. So at Louth in Lincolnshire at least, the rood loft was indeed being used as a Gospel Ambo.
|The interior of St James Louth looking east towards the chancel arch and beyond to the high altar. The rood screen, long lost, was at the chancel arch. The loft was twenty foot above it.|
St James’s Louth is a grand building. It is built on the profits of trade, a building that at the eve of the Reformation was richly furnished, was endowed with multiple chapels, supported more than one choir who sang plainsong accompanied by organs (also placed in the loft) and it supported a clerical staff of some fifteen priests. In such a visually rich and well-resourced context, clearly the proclamation of the Gospel at high mass could be accompanied with rich a ceremonial that emulated that of the greater cathedral churches. The loft at Louth has gone, as has the screen, but the rood stair remains. It is a narrow spiral staircase built in the angle of the chancel arch and emerges some twenty foot from the floor of the church. It would have been difficult to get up in vestments and carrying a large book, but clearly here at Louth, that is precisely what they did. It is tentative evidence I know, but presumably other places did the same.