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Late Medieval

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I
n medieval times the church would have been a far busier place than it is today.   Apart from on Sundays, when just about everyone would have gone to church, the building would be totally different in the week from the rather quiet place most of us expect to see when we visit.  The large, open main body of the building would have been used in much the same way as we use a village hall or social club today.   People would talk and trade and hold meetings while at the side the priest would be saying Masses.

Animals probably wandered around, and as all sorts of trading was carried out in the churchyard there is no reason to doubt that these activities extended to the inside of the church.   [Similar scenes could have been seen in 2011 - see picture left - when bad weather meant that the church fête was held in the nave.  All agreed it was a great atmosphere and we hope to repeat this medieval tradition.]  After all, in early medieval times life was much more jumbled up:  there were far fewer buildings attached to specific functions and perhaps above all parish government and local civil administration were still one and the same thing.   St Nicolas’ Church would have been very much the centre of community life.   So no wonder there were no pews in the nave:  the sacred and the secular was far more intermixed.  

As worshippers we would have entered the building through the beautiful Norman doorway in the west wall of the south transept.   Inside, we would have found wall paintings in gaudy colours everywhere to be seen.   These paintings covered all manner of subjects – from the lives of the saints and scenes from the Scriptures to a large, rather lumbering St Christopher, carrying the Christ child on his shoulders, to scenes in the life of Our Lady.   These paintings were not just to make the church look attractive; they were an important way of teaching people about stories from the Bible, the lives of the saints and even the after-life, in the days before most people could read and when books were hand-written and so extremely rare and very expensive.

The chancel could only have been seen through the richly moulded round arch.   Above this chancel arch the worshipper would have seen a painted picture of the Last Judgement. Typically these ‘doom’ paintings, painted in the manner of the mosaics still seen in basilicas of Italy and eastern Europe, showed naked figures of the dead being judged.   Those fit for heaven were shown being assisted up by angels and those damned to hell are prodded into a “hell mouth” or cauldron, by devils, often with pitchforks.    This great wall painting was designed to instil fear and obedience among those who worshipped here.   [It may be that the famous St Nicolas' cat, carved into the crown of the tower arch which faces the nave, and which we have looked upon fondly as a model for Disney's Cheshire Cat, was actually intended to depict the mouth of hell!  Compare the pictures on the left.]

In addition to this, much of the stonework on the arches and pillars would probably have been brightly painted and the woodwork of the screen, doors and roof would have been richly painted.   But it is through the chancel that we would have seen the greatest riches.   There would have been no stained glass but the walls would have been painted with figures, also recalling mosaic pictures.   There would have been bands of classic-style patterns dividing them.   The altar would have been of stone, small and box-like, recalling the tombs of Christians in the catacombs of Rome in the earliest days of Christianity.   The altar would have stood well away from the eastern, semi-circular end of the apse.   It would have been covered with a cloth hanging from its four sides, decorated with vertical bands.

The most notable medieval fitting in the church is the timber chancel screen of around 1300 which is now below the chancel arch.   This divides the chancel from the nave or main part of the church.   Screens were first erected in churches in 1215 following the 4th Lateran Council.   These screens, known then as rood screens carried the rood beam on top, which supported the rood loft.   This in turn carried what would have been the main feature of the church, the great rood or cross with the figure of Jesus Christ upon it and kneeling figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John on either side.   At the Reformation all roods and rood lofts were removed from churches, though the screens were allowed to remain.

The chancel was rebuilt, longer and wider, in the early 14th century and a north chapel replaced the former apse to the transept.   The south apse may also have been removed at that time.  The changes made to St Nicolas’ Church at this time were the last to be made before England entered a period of economic and population decline aggravated by the Black Death, that great outbreak of plague in the years 1348-49 which reduced the population of the country by more than half.
 

The Black Death, which originated in Central Asia and swept across Europe, landed in Weymouth, Dorset, in June 1348.   It was an invisible horror.   No-one understood how it travelled.   It crept across the country half a mile a day, eating people up.    Historians think that more than half the population of Britain perished.   In 1300, it stood at perhaps 6 million; by the late 1300s, it was about 2.5 million.   Locally,
by about 1300, the population had dropped to around 120 people and the effects of the plague can be seen at Old Erringham, a village a mile or so to the north of Old Shoreham, where the few surviving villagers abandoned the maintenance of their separate church and, having joined the congregation at Old Shoreham instead, took over the responsibility for the north chapel.  

The vicar of Old Shoreham had ceased to pay tax by 1401 due to the poverty of the living and within a few years he had to be paid an increased yearly salary of £6.   Since the living was, despite inflation, still worth only £7 18s 6d by 1535, its true value to the postholder without his £6 salary can be easily appreciated.
  The depression of the 15th century, following upon the widespread mortality of the Black Death, left only 80 or so residents in 1525.

Massive social change came about as a result of the Black Death.   Britain was over-populated and there wasn’t enough work to go round.   But after the Black Death struck, labour was at a premium.   Peasants no longer accepted the conditions landlords imposed.   They moved around more and started to demand pay and rights.   Serfdom – the idea that one person can be owned by another – started to disappear.   We tend to view history in terms of kings and rulers, but this was a period when ordinary people drove historical change.

In spite of the horrors of the age, we also get a great sense of how the villagers enjoyed themselves.   They played an early form of football; there were other sports and gambling games; and they had their fair share of holidays (30-40 days per year).   Their diet didn’t regularly involve meat – animals were too valuable – but it did include salted fish, onions, garlic and leeks, plus beans, pulses, peas and cabbage (but no potatoes – they arrived only in the 16th century).   Central, though was ale - even children drank it.  They seem very familiar to us, the country-folk of these times.   We can recognise them.   But then, the peasants who managed to survive the Black Death are the ancestors of many of us living in Britain today.




Perhaps our church, as a haven for seafarers,
also showed St Christopher accompanied by a mermaid




Part of the screen



The church in the 13th-14th Century