If you stand outside the former Augustinian priory of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London before evensong, twice a month, you can hear the sound of late medieval London. It is the only active church in the country to have a ring of five bells cast before the Reformation – in this case, the first decade of the sixteenth century.
If you do stop to listen, you will hear that medieval bells had a different music. When a church bell is struck it doesn’t produce a single note, but a family of sounds. There is the hum, an octave below the strike note, as the dominant pitch is known; the tierce, a minor third above the strike; the quint, a fifth above; and so on. Medieval bells, less perfectly tuned, sometimes placed the hum a seventh below the strike, a sound at once familiar and unfamiliar to modern ears.
They also carried meanings that extended far beyond mere sound. Different numbers of strokes marked the deaths of men and women, children and adults. Some of these distinctions were so local they might almost be dialect: the church at King’s Cliffe in Northamptonshire had a bell that was rung while a body was being wrapped in its shroud; another rang a sequence of bells that changed as a funeral procession neared and then passed through the lychgate.
Bells were often forged within the church itself, often at the base of the tower. They were blessed too, sprinkled with holy water to the singing of the antiphon Asperges me, Domine (Purge me, O God). Many carried saints names – Mary, John, Augustine, ‘Catherine, the rose of the world’, and so on – inscribed on their mouths; others carried descriptions of their roles. ‘I weep for the dead, I call the living, I close funerals’, runs the text on a passing bell.
Richard Morris is an archaeologist and the former director of the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds University. He has spent the bulk of his career studying the religious buildings of medieval England and is probably best known for Time’s Anvil: England, archaeology and the imagination (2012). His new book Evensong is an eclectic hybrid of memoir and essay, at its best when reminding us how deeply embedded these buildings are in the English landscape and exploring how intimate meanings can be rediscovered through archaeology. His account of the graveyard at Kellington in Yorkshire, the skeletons mostly crammed, layer on layer, around the south porch – the dead of the parish, rich and poor alike, always in sight of the living as they enter and exit the church – is touching and poignant without ever becoming sentimental.
He returns more than once to the music of the church. He cites historian Martin Renshaw’s insight that, prior to the Reformation, churches in England were built for singing, not speaking, and notes that parish church chancels are frequently double, or triple cubes – that is, spaces with good acoustic properties. More, the church organ – the last of them victim to the triumphal Puritanism of the Commonwealth – was ubiquitous; organists learned their music in the choirs. The great efflorescence of music during the English renaissance – Taverner, Tallis, Byrd, Morley, et al – wasn’t, as Morris puts it, “some exultant starburst”, but the final legacy of several centuries of choral practice and experience in the late medieval church.
Morris writes sensitively about the buildings themselves, too, these great, fragile spaces, whose “walls keep secrets and litanies”. Among those he discusses is the parish church of St Mary’s at Lastingham, North Yorkshire, formerly a post-Conquest Benedictine Priory and the site of a 7th-century religious community established by two Northumbrian saints, Cedd and his brother Chad. The discovery of the rubble of a saint’s shrine in a blind, abandoned corridor leads him to trace the history of the brothers’ bones, translated before the Conquest to Lichfield, and saved from destruction – at least in part – at the Dissolution by some of the cathedral clergy. Six of these bones have now found home again in St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, the first Catholic cathedral built in England after the Reformation. Science has dated five of them to the 7th century and one to the 8th; they belong to three different individuals. They may well belong to Cedd, Chad and another, forgotten Anglo-Saxon saint named Ceatta, Morris writes, technology thus confirming the accuracy of a list of saints’ resting places written at Lichfield c1030.
The conjunction of archeological, textual and scientific analysis is a recurring theme. The deep layers of history, of human use and habitation, underlying every building and site – sometimes literally so – is another. These juxtapositions are sometimes made to powerful effect: a family visit to the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral brings thoughts on the city’s Corpus Christi cycle of medieval plays; then ‘Lully, Lulla, Thou Tiny Little Child’, its lullaby for children slaughtered by Herod; and then a list of twelve infants killed by German bombs, some as young as two months.
But there’s no escaping that this is a curio of a book, which doesn’t entirely cohere. It divides into three overlapping sections. The first is a memoir of the author’s upbringing in a series of vicarages in the post-war decades, most notably Longbridge in the Birmingham suburbs and Battersea. His father was a leftish vicar in the Church of England who, like many, came to ordination after military service through the second world war.
The second section is a series of essays ranging across Morris’s interests and activities as an archaeologist, from which most of the above examples are drawn. The third is a tender record of his father’s early years, from youthful agnosticism through service as a navigator in RAF to ordination in the Church of England. It’s illuminated by his father’s faith, and by that of a generation of men who learned the ideals of service during the war and sought to translate it into ministry after 1945, hoping to build a better society. Morris quotes one: “I’d loved being a solider and being a priest was like being a soldier – only more so.”
These chapters also draw movingly on his father’s wartime correspondence with the woman who became his wife – Yorkshire-born but living in Canada – conducted over several years. Morris only discovered the letters after his father’s death in May 2000. Faith, love and hope shine through all of them; they prayed together, the same prayer at the same moment, four thousand miles apart, she at 5pm in Canada, he at 10pm in Italy.
What, if anything, unites the book thematically is the importance of music in performance – and perhaps theatre and performance more generally – in binding Christian communities together over the millennia. But at its heart is the question of the place of faith in the modern world and particularly, perhaps, how it resists, accommodates or engages with secular ideologies.
This is not a book for everyone, and those outside the Anglican community – and even many of those within it – may find its discussion of post-war disputes within that body somewhat opaque. (The 1967 report of a policy sub-committee formed by the Diocese of Southwark on ‘Tomorrow’s Parish’ felt a detail too far for this reader.) But it is a warm, thoughtful and generous-spirited book with a deep feel for the bones of medieval, pre-Reformation belief beneath the skin of modern society, and a profound sense of the importance of traditional spiritual devotions in the modern world.
The book closes with Morris reflecting on what Reformation historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has called “the unending dialogue of Protestantism and Catholicism which forms Anglican identity”, and thinking of the composer William Byrd, who wrote music for the Elizabethan liturgy while remaining a devout Roman Catholic.
“I wonder how replacing liturgy with the everyday helps you seek for what lies beyond the everyday,” Morris writes despairingly of one modernising church initiative. Perhaps if all else fails, the thousand-year legacy of English church music, Catholic and Anglican, may come to your aid.
A slightly shorter version of this review first appeared in the October 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald.