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NICHOLAS ORME SPECIALIZES in the religious and social history of England. He has written a recent book on Going to Church In Medieval England, has a BBC History Podcast on the topic, and offers selected aspects in the November 2021 BBC History magazine. Here are tidbits gleaned from Professor Orme and from my usual Internet sleuthing. 

Going to Church in Medieval England, by Nicholas Orme, Yale University Press, 2021.

Medieval Christmases. The History Learning Site’s Medieval Christmas offers several tidbits: “The first recorded use of the word ‘Christmas’ was in 1038 when a book from Saxon England used the words ‘Cristes Maesse’ in it.”

The History Learning Site also notes that “William the Conqueror had himself crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1066. Those noble men allowed inside Westminster Abbey cheered so loudly when the crowning ceremony was taking place that the guards outside thought something was happening to their master inside the abbey. They rushed inside, attacked people, and houses near to Westminster Abbey were burned down.”

Other medieval Christmases were rather less dramatic: “Celebrations were for the birth of Christ as opposed to simply peasants enjoying themselves.”

Professor Orme’s Podcast.

The Importance of Church Attendance. In BBC History magazine, November 2021, Nicholas Orme writes, “Christianity was not only a religion, but an entire worldview that sought to explain a great deal more than people’s relationship with God.”

The Church as Social Infrastructure. This and other images from BBC History magazine, November 2021.

“In fact,” Orme continues, “the church fulfilled a lot of functions which we would now look to the government to carry out. This comprised a huge infrastructure to deal with things like education, morality, and charity in the parish.”

Confessions took place in public space. Closed-door priest/woman encounters were frowned upon.  

Were People Forced to Attend? “In theory,” Orme says, “everybody was meant to be in church on Sundays and festival days of which there were about 40-50 annually.… The actual levels of attendance tell a more complicated story, though. Children were exempt, as were shepherds and fishermen if their work demanded otherwise.”

“Nor were servants required to attend,” Orme notes. “The rich wanted to return home after church and find their dinner ready, and somebody had to make that dinner.”

What Actually Happened During the Service? Orme describes, “Services were conducted in Latin, apart from three or four points when the vernacular was used.… Unlike in most modern services, people were not expected to follow the service or respond to anything.”

The Origin of Door-to-Door Caroling. As noted at the History of Learning Site, “Carol singers in Medieval times took the word ‘carol’ literally—it means to sing and dance in a circle. So many Xmas services were spoiled by carol singers doing just this, that the Church at the time banned them and ordered the carol singers into the street.”

The Consecration. Orme notes, “The most solemn part of Mass—the prayer of consecration or canon—would be whispered by the priest in an intentionally low voice because it was so holy. At that point, the church would suddenly fall silent. Worship was not always about sound; it was also about silence.”

Silent night, holy night. Have a Joyous Holiday Season. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021  

4 comments on “MEDIEVAL CHURCHING 

  1. Damian
    December 5, 2021

    …And to you. The Lovely Jen, my wife, Introduced me to Lessons and Carols at Stanford, and as a music nerd, I fell immediately for it. It’s been a few years now, what with family shuffling off to join the Choir Eternal, but this is meaningful to my soul.

    • simanaitissays
      December 5, 2021

      Agreed. My Christmas eve begins at 7 am Pacific with the BBC Lessons and Carols from Cambridge. — d

      Sent from my iPhone


      • Mike B
        December 5, 2021

        Is that BBC 3? I’d like to take that in this year, try to get in the mood before shuffling off to my own participation in a church choir for Christmas Eve services.

      • simanaitissays
        December 6, 2021

        My usual “Lessons” is heard on BBC World Service, appearing on SiriusXM satellite radio.

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