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Parts of the Church (page one)

The parts and functions of the Medieval Monastery, using the groundplan for Beaulieu Abbey as a basemap.  Return to the Parts of a Monastery page to view the map, room labels, and basic information about the abbey.  Parts of the church, below.  Information about the monastery living quarters, here.

Page One (scroll down)       
The Presbytery (Chancel)
The Nave
The Quire (Choir)
Anchorhold or Anchorage
Page Two (next page)
Chapels, Shrines, and Chantries.
Churchyard (Graveyard)
See also information on Medieval Baptismal Fonts (new page).


  The Presbytery (or Chancel) 

A ‘Presbyter’ was a religious elder, and the Presbytery was named for the location within the church where these elders (the clergy, or those of highest rank or importance) would sit.  The presbytery could be raised higher than the nave, with the high altar at the easternmost point, perhaps raised higher still.

Earliest altars were simply tables, or the tombs of martyred saints.  As churches grew and the clergy regulated worship,  the altar was set apart and placed within the most sacred part of the church, decorated over with canopies and curtains, and access to it was limited. Stone remained, however, the primary material used in building the high altar, and often the precious relics or bones of a particularly powerful saint might be interred within it. In this way they resembled the shrines, or tabletombs of the Roman and Byzantine burials.

[Church, interior, Ross-on-Wye, England]

As the place where the most sacred of the church mysteries took place, the presbytery was the holiest part of the church. After the 12th century, the presbytery was separated from the choir below by a screen, called a rood (featuring the crucifix) or chancel screen.  The choir was further separated from the nave by a choir screen, so a member of the congregation looking up toward the pulpit (lectern) would see two screens, behind which the most sacred parts of the Mass were carried out, the chanted liturgical song of the monastery choir, and behind them, the celebration of the Eucharist.

[Hereford Cathedral]

Surrounding the presbytery/chancel were smaller chapels (see chapels) or shines to the patron or important saints of the abbey or community, as well as to benefactors of the abbey itself. On the eastern wall was usually a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  The Virgin was a primary figure to all Christians of the time, and many monasteries, hospitals and universities, and almost all Cistercian foundations, were dedicated to her.  

To the south side of the presbytery was the Priest’s Door where the priest could enter and begin services.  The door led directly into the presbytery/chancel from either the churchyard, vestry, or cloister.

  The Nave     
Early Christian churches emphasized the importance of the communal gathering and there were few screens, canopies, or curtains separating worshippers from another, or clergy from the congregation, or the congregation from the 'mysteries.'  Walls and screens came in slowly, starting with a wall beween the choir and the congregation.  By the latter middle ages, the great monastic churches and cathedrals had separated the belly of the church into distinct sections, with walls or screens at the narthex, choir, and presbytery (chancel).  The goal at the time was to place primary importance on the most sacred part of the church, that of the high altar, where priests celebrated the Mass and Eucharist.

The Nave today is usually the largest part of the church, the place where the general congregation assembles for worship.  In the middle ages, however, it was not necessarily largest and could be quite small.  Additionally, the medieval nave did not include benches or chairs for seating, those came later.  Early congregations stood, or, like Shakespeare's groundlings, they simply sat down on the floor.  The only seating provided were stone benches built into the church walls and there the elderly, sick, or disabled could rest.

[Interior of St. John and St. Paul's, Venice, Italy]

Churches of the middle ages were laid out in the form of the cross, with the top of that cross being the easternmost point. The parts of the church grew progressively more sacred the more easterly they were, so that while lowly penitents might enter the Narthex or Galilee, they might not gain entrance to the Nave, and certainly not the Quire (choir).  (In some cases women, as well, might enter the Galilee but not cross into the nave.)  The monks alone (with an occasional lay participant) could enter the quire, and of them, only the selected brethren, those chosen to special posts (or obedientiaries) or performing sacred duties (such as the priest, cantor, or abbot), could enter the inner sanctum of the chancel.

 In some ways the configuration of the medieval churches imitated that of the 'great halls' built by the Kings of the West.  In his palace or citadel, the medieval king would sit atop a throne on a raised dais at the top of an ornate and open hall.  No one else in the hall would be allowed to sit, though they might lie prostrate on the floor.  The great halls provided a physical demonstration of a king's power and position, and were often decorated with religious symbols.  Only the chosen few, close aides, esteemed allies or officers, were allowed access to him and the dais.  All other petitioners must keep their place or grovel at the door.  

[Throne room, Neuschwanstein Castle, Upper Bavaria, Germany]

While the ideals of the church communities differed from those of governing kings, some of the trappings that denoted power were similar for the church as for the hall.  Most particularly the use of penitential entries, halls (naves), raised dais as inner sanctum (high altar), and thrones.  Like a king, the Abbot or Bishop, as the tititular head of that church, diocese, or see, would sit at the top, eastern part of the church in large, ornate thrones during the Divine Offices, feasts and during Mass.   

The Nave itself (or Navis, the Latin word for ship), was the central area of the church and in general use by the congregation.  The area of the Nave included all the lateral space after the Narthex to the Choir Screen, including to the north and south of any supporting (or decorative) columns, arches or other architecture.  Church activities in this space included guild plays (religious in nature) and fundraisers, just as today.  In the middle ages, fund raising included a occasion to celebrate, such as a wedding or successful lambing season, and the distribution of plenty of good ale. 

  The Quire (or Choir)     
The medieval choir, as today, was the group of people who participated by singing as a group during church services.  In the monastery, however, every monk or nun was a member of the choir, and expected to always be present and ready to participate in the Divine Office.  The few exceptions for non-attendance were for those who were infirm, or whose other duties to the monastic house required them to perform other important functions, such as preparation of meals or the duty of performing private Masses for the ailing, or for an important guest. 

The monastic choir sang in what we know as Gregorian Chant, also called Plaintchant, or plainsong.  The single melodies of the monastic chants were different for each monastery, and were learned primarily by heart (with often strict punishment for those who might not learn quickly or well enough).  There were single voices, but primarily, all sung/chanted in unison.  The religious, liturgical song was a sacred and important task of the religious nun or monk and as such, great care was taken to make sure the singing was done well and without mistakes.  Harmonized singing became part of church services in the 15th century, but when it did, monasteries and cathedrals were often in competition with each other to produce the most beautiful music and feature the most ethereal and powerful singers.

[Minster, choir east, York, England]

The part of the monastic church building known as the Quire or Choir was separated from the nave with a sturdy wall, called the pupitulum, or screen.  This Choir Screen helped protect the monks and nuns from cold and damp, as they performed the offices and hours of the church at all hours of the day, and in every kind of weather.  The area where the choir sat was built with choir stalls, screened and sectioned, some with benches where each member could sit or kneel or stand.  If there were books available to help with services, there were also candles provided for lighting.  Juniors were charged with lighting those candles and keeping them lit.  (Though a single candle or lamp in the freezing dark of a Yorkshire winter must have been very little comfort.)

[Studland Church, interior, Swanage, England]

  The Anchorhold    

A number of monastic and other churches included an anchorhold or anchorage built within, or onto the side of, the church.  These small spaces, of a single or a few small rooms, held a religious person called a 'recluse' or 'solitary' and it was their calling to spend their days removed from the company of others in order that they might give the whole of themselves to the worship of God. These men and women were held in high esteem by the church and community, and could receive important visitors who would ask them for their advice.

The anchorite served as a kind of prophet, making predictions about the future or interpreting the will of God, and offering prayers for those in need of them.  Anchorites, also called Anchoresses, were enclosed in their cell sometimes completely with no way of getting out, or at other times attended by one or more servants who could go in and out as they needed.  Sometimes, even the anchorite him or herself might go out of the cell.

[Anchorage at Hartlip. From The Hermits and Anchorites of England by Rotha Mary Clay]

Similarly to the anchorage or anchorhold, the properties of a monastery might well include a hermitage or hermit chapel.  A hermit was a solitary, leading a life of solitude and simplicity like an anchorite.  Hermits, however, were almost always men (especially after the church instituted authority over them) and were not confined to their cell. A hermit was often a monk-priest who would celebrate Mass in his little hermit chapel.

For more information on anchorites and the anchorhold/anchorage, see my short article, What are Anchorites?  For more information about hermits, hermitages and hermitage chapels, see The Hermits and Anchorites of England, transcribed here

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