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The experience of worship

Going to church was a very different experience in the late Middle Ages, when King Henry VIII was in power and the Church of England was breaking away from Rome. A £349,606 grant has enabled researchers from the School of Music at Bangor University to recreate that experience through a series of research enactments of late-medieval rituals.

Led by Principal Investigator Professor John Harper and Co-Investigator Dr Sally Harper, ‘The experience of worship in late medieval cathedral and parish church’ project runs from December 2009 to May 2013. It was jointly commissioned by the AHRC and ESRC as part of the wider Religion and Society Research Programme and spans the study of liturgy, musicology, theology, history, history of art, anthropology and sociology.

Using four forms of liturgy that were dominant at the time, the project investigates how late-medieval church worship was experienced and understood by the people who engaged in it, from clergy and musicians to lay people. In doing so, it also explores how we can connect our present-day experiences of churches and cathedrals that have survived from that period with the texts, objects and music that once were used inside them.

The enactments were carried out between May and October 2011 and were set in 1535. “This was pragmatic because we could do it under the authority of the Anglican church, whereas the Roman Catholic church may have had difficulty with us using liturgies that aren’t currently authorised,” explains Professor Harper. “The 1530s were also a time when you had lots of people challenging how things should be done.”

The enactments took place in two strikingly different venues: Salisbury Cathedral, for which the chosen liturgies were originally designed and which has a resident congregation, and St Teilo’s, a rural parish church that has been restored in the grounds of St Fagans National History Museum, near Cardiff.

Whereas other liturgical reconstructions have focused on reproducing sound, the project aimed to reproduce the full sensory experience, including sight, sound, smell and touch. Participants and attending congregations were asked for feedback on elements such as the impact of using Latin and unheard prayer, and the restriction of Communion.

“What’s really important about this,” says Professor Harper, “is that we haven’t simply done traditional research into the texts, people and material items in question. We’ve engaged with them dynamically by using them, and some of the research outcomes are not pieces of writing or audio-visual recordings but real objects.”

These objects include two sets of vestments, a large number of ritual artefacts based on historical models, and a reconstructed medieval organ, built by Northamptonshire organ builders Goetze and Gwyn and painted by artist Fleur Kelly, which will provide a research tool for at least the next 75 years.

Gerallt Nash, senior curator at St Fagans, says St Teilo’s was restored to 1530 to tie in with fragments of paintings that dated from 1500 to 1530: “We discovered paintings hidden underneath layers of limewash. We replaced missing features like the carved screens that would have divided the nave from the chancel, and recreated items that would have been found within the church, including altars, candles and statues. You can walk in and see everything as it would have been almost 500 years ago.”

It was important to regard the enactments as genuine acts of worship. “We weren’t under any illusion that we were the same as medieval people, but we were very much doing it for real,” says Professor Harper. “It wasn’t just performance, because then you couldn’t have the necessary levels of intellectual, emotional, sensory and, for some people, spiritual engagement.”

One of the key challenges was that of appreciating just how medieval people might have carried out their roles, as liturgical scholar and specialist chant singer Christopher Hodkinson explains. “What might they have thought about when not concentrating on the music, and how might their singing have been affected by their understanding of their role and their place in a social hierarchy?”

Hodkinson participated in most of the enactments and was part of the team that compiled a new edition of the Sarum Customary, the liturgical text that acts as a ritual performance guide. A practising Catholic, he says it is a common misconception that medieval laity were excluded because they didn’t speak Latin. “It’s rather like saying that the crowd at a football match are excluded from participation because they can’t run around and kick the ball.”

Of his fellow project participants and the members of the public who attended the enactments, he says: “Most were not Catholics and many had never attended a Latin liturgy before. But almost all of them quickly found ways to engage and participate just as comfortably as I did.”

Late-medieval services were very different from the successive order of worship we see today. This was something that began during the Reformation, whereas churchgoers previously witnessed several things happening at once. “Very few had a book to follow, and you might not be literate,” says Professor Harper. “So we encouraged people to think about what other stimuli they would have had. There’s a lot to engage with and you have the freedom to move around.”

Artist and craftsperson Alison Merry painted the miniature crucifixion scene for the pax-board, inspired by a medieval survival, and used during the enactments. She attended the project’s Jesus Mass at Salisbury Cathedral. In her reflections on the experience, she wrote that she was “utterly caught up in the mysteries of the performance.”

“I liked the feeling of responsibility it gave me to use the time in the service creatively,” she wrote. “Quite challenging for my powers of faith and concentration.” She also loved being liberated from the pew. “Rows of pews and chairs speak of a culture which demands we sit still and only move or make a sound when told to do so.”

The project will leave a rich collection of books, objects, recordings and information, and the researchers hope other people will study their findings and pursue similar research. A wealth of material will be published on the main Experience of Worship website, while the ritual guides compiled for use at Salisbury Cathedral will appear on the Sarum Customary website. These will be launched early in 2013.

“This has been an entirely new way of investigating a historical experience,” says Professor Harper. “We really hope that people will pursue this type of research again.”

Article by Anne Wollenberg

Images courtesy of the project

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