Page 9, 14th June 2002

14th June 2002
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Page 9, 14th June 2002 — Where there's a will

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Locations: Norwich


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Where there's a will

The bequests made by churchgoers in late medieval Suffolk take us back to a haunting world ravaged by the Reformation, says Anthony Symondson SJ Inward Purity and Outward Splendour: Death and Remembrance in the Deanery of Dunwich, Suffolk, 1370-1547, by Judith Middleton-Stewart, Boydell Press £60 Coastal East Anglia, with its vast skies and lonely churches, is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled regions of England. Unforgettable Gothic remains of the old religion tower over the country in the great wool churches of the 15th century. It is the world of M R James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and P D James's Death in Holy Orders. The great billowy commons and lonely stretches of shore are reflected in the cold emptiness of the churches, caused as much by neglect as by the hand of Puritan iconoclasm.

Where once were rich and solemn interiors that glowed with colour and gilding, lit by painted glass that sparkled like jewels, and lamps which flickered before the altars, we now have only large white windows through which nature is seen, damp white stone, relieved by pink floor tiles, silvered oak, hatchments, plain Communion tables, broken fonts, and a few mutilated monuments. The best season to see them is in the autumn, when soft, slanting sunshine and the fading beauty of nature harmonise with the lichencovered, moss-grown churches. The English Catholic achievement is overlaid with The Pilgrim's Progess, reduced to a Cotman state of decay.

Few places are as melancholy as Dunwich, that great port eaten by the sea, which once had seven parish churches and gave rise to the legend of church bells ringing below the water and where, to this day, human bones are swept on to the shore. A quarter of the town had been washed away by 1326 because it was built on a sandy cliff. By 1500, the port of the 12th century had been reduced to little more than a hamlet by the incessant erosion of land by water. During the 14th century, Dunwich lost three parish churches and two more perished, undermined by the relentless waves. The parish church of St John was pulled down before the sea devoured it in the mid16th century and All Saints survived until it slid over the cliff in the early 20th century.

In 1524 Suffolk and Essex ranked as the fourth richest counties in the kingdom. The deanery of Dunwich, which was part of the diocese of Norwich, was the largest in pre-Reforma tion Suffolk and occupied the middle third of Suffolk's coastal region. It had 52 parishes and included such architectural masterpieces as Blythborough, Southwold and Walberswick, where the ruins possess unusual beauty. The deanery included religious houses for five orders, four chapels and three hospitals. These churches had only a limited period of life in their origi nal integrity before suffering the ravages of the Reformation.

Judith Middleton-Stewart reconstructs from the wills of 3,000 parishioners the pennies and shillings which paid for the gifts of painted glass, seven-sacrament fonts, rood screens, chantry chapels, embroidered vestments, liturgical books and church plate with which they were once furnished. Religious art blossomed and it was the medium through which the illiterate approached their Saviour and the company of Heaven. The splendour of latemedieval liturgy, the homeliness of devotional practices in the form of guilds, beads and prayers, the ceremonies of the Mass and sacramentals, the hierarchical grades of burial are reassembled to explain the fabric of the religious life of the time. Good and wholesome it was and it is terrible how quickly it was destroyed.

The wills of the people are the most personal record of the parishioners who wished to be remembered through their material and spiritual bequests. The prayers of the poor were greatly valued and purchased to ensure the swift passage of the soul through purgatory in return for charitable help. The legacies helped to produce at least two of the finest parish churches in the country within a few decades of the Reformation. The late Middle Ages witnessed an intense interest in the earthly existence of Christ and his family and this was reflected in the introduction of new Masses and feasts which had artistic expression in the churches and in the deepening of devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus and the Five Wounds.

Chantries were endowed for Mass and intercessions to be said by a chaplain in return for an endowment. The chaplain's duties were not confined to an endless string of Masses but his time was employed assisting in the parish. Hundreds of chantries were established in this way and traces of their existence are still to be found in the enclosures made by parclose screens. Guilds were founded and the members were expected to keep a light burning before their patron saint in church. They provided funerals and all guild members were expected to attend. Legacies continued to be made up to the eve of the Reformation. In 1537 the Bishops Book forbade the veneration of images, the lamps were extinguished, and images were removed if they provided a focus for pilgrimage. Within six months of Henry VIII's death, the 1547/8 injunctions demanded the destruction of relics, images and pictures, including windows; all candles but those on the altar were to be put out, the rosary was denounced and domestic imagery was to be destroyed. Miss MiddletonStewart skilfully pieces together late medieval religion before the dimming of the lights through the dispositions of the people. Few books more accurately chronicle the framework of late-medieval Church life within a defined context than this.

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