‘You have to picture the cathedral not just as bricks and mortar but as the accumulated force of centuries of prayer and devotion. It’s like one vast psychic engine but one that can be stopped in its tracks if people’s faith is shaken. If Hereford cathedral is forever defined by an awful event then the place will be a spiritual ruin.’
These are the words of Rev Huw Owen (played by David Threfall) in ITV’s recent drama Midwinter of the Spirit (adapted from a novel by Phil Rickman). Rev Owen is training young vicar Merrily Watkins (played by Anna Maxwell Martin) to become a ‘deliverance minister’, more commonly known as an exorcist. Hereford cathedral comes under attack from an evil spirit in the form of a man called Denzil Joy and his followers, and it is up to Merrily and Huw to deliver both the community and its cathedral from evil.
Watching the final episode and hearing Rev Owen’s words, I was struck by how well they tied into my own research into medieval attitudes towards the church and its status as a sacred space (I am currently finishing my academic book on this subject for publication with Manchester University Press).
The medieval church was not just bricks and mortar, it was ‘the House of God on earth and the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28:17), a sacred space sustained by communal prayer and liturgical ritual. But it was a fragile space that could become a ‘spiritual ruin’ if the congregation’s faith was shaken or if an awful event took place.
In the ITV drama, the awful event that is about to take place is a murder in the cathedral– the ultimate act of desecration- and the perpetrators plan for it to occur when the bones of the cathedral’s saint, Thomas Cantilupe (c.1220-1282), have been removed from his shrine. This is because with Cantilupe absent, there is no saint to protect the cathedral and keep it safe.
Luckily, Rev Owens is able to return the bones to the shrine just in time and the murder is prevented. At the end of the episode he says that will go and light a candle for the saint now that his bones are back where they belong, ‘keeping the badness at bay. Fending off demons.’
(Shrine of St Thomas Cantilupe, Hereford Cathedral)
This reminded me of two stories in the Middle English texts that I work on that depict saints fighting for their shrines and their churches. The first comes from the prose life of the Anglo-Saxon bishop of London St Erkenwald (d.693), whose relics were translated into St Paul’s cathedral in the twelfth century.
The life reports that there was a great fire in the city of London that ‘neither sparid churchis ne towris but devourid them fervently’ [neither spared the churches nor towers but devoured them fervently] St Paul’s itself is also on fire: part of the roof falls in, the lead begins to melt, and the heat shatters the stained glass, but suddenly the people see ‘the blessid Seinte Erkenwolde ouer his tomb fyghtyng with þe fyre’ [the blessed Erkenwald over his tomb fighting against the fire].
Burning beams fall upon the tomb but it remains unharmed and the people pray to God that as he had ‘preseruyd his tombe of theire holye fader harmeles’ [preserved the tomb of their holy father without harm] that he would have pity on them and save their city. The community’s prayers work and the cathedral and the city are ‘delyuerid fro the outeragyous fyre by the merytis of the holy seinte Erkenwolde’ [delivered from the outrageous fire by the merits of the holy saint Erkenwald]
St Erkenwald defends his tomb from fire and in another story from the fifteenth-century preaching compendium The Alphabet of Tales, the saints rise up to battle against demons who have taken over the church because of the bad behaviour of the parish priest.
A storm is threatening the parish church and the priest, called Henry, is sitting in the tavern with his clerk. They rush back to the church but are knocked out by a clap of thunder. The clerk is unharmed but Henry’s clothes are torn and his ‘membrys war all to-swythyn’ because he is a fornicator [members: genitals; to-swythyn: scorched, dried out*]. The clerk looks up and sees ‘fendis feghtand in þe kurk’ [fiends fighting in the church]. The saints whose relics are deposited in the altar appear and ‘withstude stronglie þe fendis and þer was betwix þe saynttis & þaim a grete batell’ [withstand the fiends strongly and there was a great battle between the saints and the fiends] The demons are eventually defeated but they run away with a piece of the church roof, in lieu of the body of the sinful priest.
(Image from the Harrowing of Hell in the Holkham Bible, 1327-35, British Library Additional 47682: fiends blowing trumpets and wielding grappling hooks on the roof of a rather architectural hell)
Returning to Rev Owens, the story in the Alphabet shows that the sanctity of the church can be endangered by the behaviour of the congregation. The priest’s fornication lays his church open to attack by demons and even the saints can’t prevent them from hightailing it with a piece of the sacred architecture. Saints such as Erkenwald protect their churches but they also rely on the good behaviour of the congregation and its ministers.
In my next post I will finally return to John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests to think further about the advice that Mirk gives for behaving well in the parish church and safeguarding its sanctity.
I have published a chapter on the church in Marion Turner, ed., A Handbook of Middle English Studies (Blackwell, 2013).
The Alphabet of Tales, ed. Mary Macleod Banks, Early English Text Society o.s. 126-7 (1904-5)
Prose life of St Erkenwald in Supplementary Lives in Some Manuscripts of the Gilte Legende, ed. Richard Hamer and Vida Russell, Early English Text Society 315 (2000)
British Library blogpost on depictions of hell in medieval manuscripts: ‘Prepare to Meet your Doom’