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Parts of the Church (page two)
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.  Link for information about the monastery living quarters.

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


  The Chapels               
Chapels were places of worship and could be as large as a country church or as small as a niche in a wall.  In some places, chapels were small church-like rooms or buildings built into castles and gates, or built on estate properties and owned by the church, a secular family, or an institution.  Guilds might build chapels into their meeting halls or a city into its entry-gate.  These chapels might be owned outright by the family, but were always sanctioned and supervised under the local bishopric and subordinate to the local churches and cathedrals. In monasteries, small niche chapels lined the church walls along the nave, the transepts, and even in the presbytery.

[Castle Ruins, the chapel, Goodrich, England.  Detroit Publishing, 1905.]

Chapels were dedicated to particular saints and sometimes important persons, as with memorial chapels where the visitor was encouraged to pray for the benefactor’s soul.  Niche chapels in monastic churches might contain a relic of the saint (such as a thread from an apostle’s cloak or a martyr's finger bone), or might have painted depictions of the saint or the symbols associated with that saint, such as the pig and St. Anthony.  These paintings or relics, then, were displayed in canopied niche chapels in the church, perhaps illuminated by a candle, oil lamp, or colored-glass lantern.

Larger chapels might include space for many pilgrims to enter or pray at once, and also contain one or more large shrines. 

Shrine, edward the confessor
Image from
The Home of the Monk
by Rev. D. H. S. Cranage

These shrines showcased important relics, often of the saint to whom the chapel was dedicated.  The entry might include the admonition that penitents must remove their shoes before entering or maintain silence within.  The pilgrim or visitor was encouraged pray at these chapels, and to make offerings and requests to the saints to whom the chapels were dedicated.

[Chapel shrine with altar in Jerusalem.  Photochrom collection,  Detroit Publishing, 1905.]

Saints, chapels, and shrines could all be associated with the workings of miracles.  The monks, in fact, would encourage this by enthusiastically copying and distributing the stories of saints and the miracles associated with those of their relics owned by the monastery. Relics, and the miracles associated with them, were an extraordinarily important component of the medieval  monastic church.  Relics attracted pilgrims (and their jewels, cameos, and coins), and the patronage of the wealthy.  A monastery with valuable relics would be esteemed by association, and it was not uncommon for there to be squabbles over ownership of reliquaries, or even outright theft between institutions. 

[Zara, sarcophagus of San Simeone, Dalmatia, Austro-Hungary. Detroit Publishing, 1905.]

Chapels were similar to chantries in appearance, and both might be built into a church niche, on the church grounds, or into the church itself.  But chapels and chantries had very different functions.  Chapels were associated with particular saints and were a place the general population could go (or, if it were a private chapel, a particular group or family) to offer prayers and make requests of that saint for health, safety, and happiness.  Chantries were associated with particular people or families, and built with the particular intent to provide a place for a priest to say memorial masses for that person or family.  Chantries included altar tables, and the basic idea was that with each Mass sung, the soul of the chantry builder would be brought closer to heaven.

In addition, monasteries could also have a hermitage or hermitage chapel either their properties or associated with and under the authority of the monastery.  The hermitage would house one to three hermits.  Hermits were ususally men, usually monks, and also usually priests. 

(For more on hermits see my article What are Anchorites? or Rotha Mary Clay's The Hermits and Anchorites of England.)

(For more on shrines, see book chapters of Shrines of British Saints, by Charles Wall.)

  The Trancepts              

The first buildings used for Christian worship reflected the time and place in which they were constructed.  These ‘churches’ were Jewish temples and synagogues, then, as Christianity spread into Rome, they were basically meeting rooms, or family homes, where Roman widows were among Christianity’s first and most powerful converts. 

These widows were hostessess, served as teachers, and provided space for the community to learn from the itinerant Christian teachers who stayed in their homes (there were not yet Christian clergy in the way we understand them today).  Early Christians gathered openly when times were good, and as the number of Christians grew the church split from the synagogue and began to consolidate its own political, social, and spiritual identity and sought to express and propagate that identity. 

The square or round or dirt-floor meeting place, the manor home, the synagogue, the places that had accommodated early worshippers, slowly developed into the churches we recognize today as being characteristic to the East (the Byzantines) and the West (the Romanesque Church). 

[Peel, St. Germains Cathedral, Isle of Man, England, southern side with cloister & cloister wall.
Detroit Publishing, 1905.]

By the middle ages, the western church was built in the shape of the Christian Cross and consisted of two rectangles, one built west (the nave) to east (the presbytery), and the other built north and south (the transepts).  The two rectangles crossed each other at the Quire (choir) and the first trancepts may have been built to accommodate growing numbers of Christian religious, monks and nuns, who participated in the divine services.  The cross shaped transepts, then, reinforced the symbols of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, but on a practical level, they also provided more room as monasteries not only grew in members, but also in wealth and political influence. 

Churches used the trancepts not only to accommodate a large monastic choir, but also for benefactors' tombs, saints' shrines, chapels, and later, chantries.  Transepts allowed access to sacred places, such as in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  They also housed cupboards (aumbrys) and storage chests for books, ceremonial plate, and vestments. 

[Grotto of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Holy Land, (i.e., West Bank)  Detroit Publishing, 1905.]

  Wealthier, influential churches, in fact, had need of more room still, and some churches had a second or third set of transepts which were used as chantries or to house relics or even for additional northern or southern altars.  Other additions extended the walls of the nave, expanded the Narthex, and added towers (originally used for defensive purposes) and spires (originally simply bell-cotes).  Post-Reformation churches and cathedrals could be very elaborate, yet they still owed their core shape to the medieval,  north-south transept church.

[The cathedral, side, Cologne, the Rhine, Germany.  Detroit Publishing, 1905.]

  The Vestry            

Vestments were the clothing, robes, and symbolic items worn by clergy and during religious worship.  Vestments became elaborate representations of what had originally, in the time of the early church, been simply the every day clothing of the people of the day.  These items became "vested" with meaning according to the type of item and how it evolved.  Robes, shawls, tunics, hats, and even walking staffs came to denote rank, status, and level of sanctification. 

Vestments were kept in chests in the vestry and handed out by the Sacrist when their use was called for, such as for the daily priest, or for special feasts and occasions.  The Vestry itself could be simply a chest in a wall niche in the church, or Sacristy, or be a room in its own right tucked into one of the church transepts.

  The Graveyard              

Few modern gothic-styled horror movies would be complete without a spectacular graveyard to raise the hair on the back of the neck.  But graveyards filled with gravestones and mossy monuments were not part of the church landscape of the middle ages.  Tombstones did not come into general use until after the reformation, when a strengthening middle class began to compete with the nobility for a share of prayers and attention.  It was then that grave stones, many of them carved to imitate the memorial basses inside the church, began to crop up in the churchyards.

[Douglas, Kirk Braddan, Isle of Man, England.  Detroit Publishing, 1905.]

The faithful of the middle ages believed the deceased would first spend time in Purgatory, a place between heaven and hell, where their sins would be burnt away so their souls might enter the perfection of heaven.  The prayers of those on earth, and the goodworks performed while they lived (such as donating money to a church or monastery) would shorten the time they were required to spend there before entering heaven.

The wealthy and influential, then, could gain the appreciation of a monastic community by a generous donation.  In turn, the monks would remember them in their prayers, offices, and devotions, thereby speeding the donor's entry into heaven.  In addition, monasteries often had strong family and economic ties to important local families and landowners.  The burial of the local gentry, and local patrons, patronesses and benefactors within the church, reinforced the idea of the importance of the church within the power structure of the community.

Burial inside the church or monastery, then, was an especial honor, and the burial itself was memorialized by some particular marker, either a stone or wooden carving, or by one of the beautiful engraved brasses of the 12th through 15th centuries.  (Also see Chantries, under Chapels).  All others were perhaps embalmed, usually shrouded in cloth, and buried on the south side of the church (the north side being reserved for criminals, suicides, and heretics).  Later, the bones would be dug up from the grave yard and placed in a communal crypt.

[The church crypt, Hythe, England.  Detroit Publishing, 1905.]

Among the monks themselves, a monk of particular position or importance would be interred in the church, cloister, chapter house, or elsewhere in the monastery.   All others would be buried in the south church yard.  The exception was the Cistercians, who buried their dead in the cloister garth.  Regardless of where they were buried, close attention was paid to the dead of the monastery (careful records were kept on Mortuary Rolls).  The names of the dead were read out in Chapter for prayers, and, especially on the anniversary of a brother's death, the whole community would pray for the soul of the departed in their communal prayers and daily devotions.

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