Our Church during the Middle Ages


No 33. Holy Week in the Middle Ages

Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, was the heart of the late medieval church’s year, full of elaborate ceremonies and ritual. The obligatory annual confession by all the lay parishioners to the parish priest took place during the week, followed by their annual communion on Easter Day.

Palm Sunday started with Mass and the telling of the story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, after which the ‘palms’ (in practice flowers and green branches, usually of yew, box or willow), were distributed and clergy and people accompanied by the church’s principal relics, processed out of the church into the churchyard. After various ceremonies they moved to the west door where the priest took the processional cross and struck the door with its foot, symbolically demanding entry for Christ. The procession moved to the Rood-screen separating the nave and the chancel, where all through Lent a great painted veil had been suspended in front of the Rood, the large wooden cross with Christ crucified. This veil was now drawn up on pulleys, the whole parish knelt and the anthem Ave Rex Noster, ‘Hail our King’, was sung. The Gospel story was then read or sung often from high up on the Rood-loft at the foot of the Crucifix.

On Maundy Thursday, after Mass, the high altar and all the side altars (there would have been half a dozen in Penn Church) were ritually stripped of all their coverings and ornaments and were then washed with water and wine using a broom of sharp twigs – vividly symbolic of Christ’s last hours.

Good Friday was a day of deepest mourning. The whole narrative was read from St John’s Gospel. A veiled crucifix was unveiled and clergy and people crept barefoot on their knees to kiss the foot of the cross. Then, the most imaginatively compelling of the Good Friday ceremonies took place. This was the symbolic burial of Christ in the Easter sepulchre in the chancel. In a modest country parish church like Penn, the sepulchre would have been made of a moveable timber frame in the shape of a hearse, with carved or painted panels. It was placed on the north side of the chancel and covered with a richly embroidered cloth. The priest, barefoot and without his customary vestments except for his surplice, wrapped a crucifix and a silver pyx containing the consecrated Host in linen cloths and laid them in the sepulchre. Parishioners followed suit, again creeping barefoot to the cross, a custom the Protestant reformers were later to find particularly odious. Candles were lit on stands around the sepulchre, and a continuous watch was kept all night.

On Easter Sunday morning a procession was formed to the sepulchre and the crucifix was solemnly ‘raised’ and carried triumphantly around the church with all the bells ringing and the choir singing Cristus resurgens, ‘Christ is risen’. Throughout the week, the empty sepulchre remained .,_ object of devotion. One of the commonest bequests, all over England, was for maintaining the sepulchre lights and for Penn we find Thomas Alday, in 1505, bequeathing an examen de apibus, a swarm of bees, to the lumini sepulture de Penn, to provide the wax for the lights.

[Anyone with a particular interest in this subject would greatly enjoy Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars,  from which most of the above has been gleaned].

© Miles Green, 10 March 2003

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