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Inside a church

The parish church was the centre of each village, in every sense of the word: Socially it was where people met; religiously it was where they worshipped; politically it was where their ideas were controlled. It was usually one of two stone buildings in the village - the other being the noble's manor house or castle.

Church, Bristol UK

Inside, churches were highly decorated. Colourful stained-glass windows would portray stories from the Bible. The walls were often painted with scenes showing heaven and hell. You must try to understand that people of this time had never seen television, films and photographs, and most probably had never seen a painting outside church. This made people very much in awe of everything they saw, heard and smelt inside these splendid buildings.

Every villager went to church at least once-a-week, and maybe as many as a dozen times during religious festivals. They were baptized, married and buried in the church. From birth to death their lives were centred around the huge, colourful stone building that dominated their village.

Medieval Sculpture, Bristol, UK ©  Shirley Burchill

There was virtually nowhere to sit in churches of the 15th and 16th centuries; there were few pews or seats. The congregation would have to stand and listen to the service which would all be in Latin. Most would not understand one word but would have to make the appropriate "Amens" in any case. Services could be very long, up to four or five hours. In winter there was no heating, at night, no electric lights - only candles, and there was only straw on the floor to kneel on.

Stained Glass Window ©  Shirley Burchill

The building itself was nearly always built in the shape of a cross (see plan above) and always faced with its altar towards Jerusalem in the east. The finest craftsmen and the best materials were used to build churches, both outside and in.

The central part of all churches was the eastern end where the altar (see illustration above) was situated. No-one except the priest and his "servers" could approach this. It was divided from the rest of the church (and the congregation) by a wooden (or stone) screen, a choir and some steps. It was often said that the structure of the church represented the steps you needed to take in order to get to heaven, (the altar), from your wicked life, (the door). What it really did was separate the rich, who would sit in the choir, and the poor who stood in the nave. The priest was above all this and stood in a pulpit where he preached from.

Medieval City Gate, Bristol, UK ©  Shirley Burchill

The ornaments on the altar would be gold or silver, probably given by a wealthy parishioner. These ornaments would rest on the altar cloth which would have been very expensive and well made, usually in bright colours of red and gold.

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2014