Every Part Had To Be Sanctified

Liturgy, Architecture, and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England

by Helen Gittos
0 Oxford University Press, 350 pages, $125.00
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Gittos opens her study of Anglo-Saxon church architecture with a personal recollection. Returning to the town in which she grew up, she considers an “unremarkable nineteenth-century building” that may be the successor to an early Anglo-Saxon chapel. As it lies within the precinct of the minster in Yeovil, Somerset, she wonders why ecclesiastical sites of this era commonly included more than one church. Thinking that an answer might lie in an examination of extant, contemporary liturgical manuscripts, she proposes that such a study might answer other puzzling questions as well, like why multiple churches were often laid out end to end or what function raised exterior balconies or internal upper chapels served. 

Gittos recognizes that the dearth of surviving major Anglo-Saxon churches poses a challenge. Moreover, surviving minor structures’ function is less likely to be explained by relevant textual remains, which typically are produced for cathedrals and monasteries. An additional hurdle is that most of the relevant liturgical manuscripts date to the tenth century, while the physical evidence comes mostly from the seventh to ninth centuries. Gittos is cautious about precise coordination of texts and monuments and about making unjustified generalizations. Yet, she reasonably and necessarily makes use of the sources she has available while being conscious of potential problems. 

Despite these complications, and while the extant documents clearly cannot provide answers to all her questions, Gittos believes that analysis of available texts holds keys to better comprehension of these spaces and, in so doing, charts a method for integrating analysis of ancient liturgical manuals with the spaces that hosted the kinds of rituals they describe. Even here she acknowledges an additional concern that liturgical scholars will recognize: written liturgical manuals describe ideal or model ritual practices and as such are not absolutely reliable sources for reconstructing actual activities. Nonetheless, Gittos carefully coordinates evidence for liturgical practices with the existing structures that could have housed them, which provides a rich and illuminating study in spite of the caveats. 

Throughout, Gittos poses questions that liturgical historians sometimes overlook when considering textual evidence alone. For example, how many people would have attended church services, and how often would they have done so? Was weekly attendance expected, or were most Christians likely to show up only on the major feasts? Did people travel significant distances to major churches, or were they more likely to congregate at local shrines? How widespread were pilgrimages, and to what degree were they a basis for urban and ecclesiastical competition? 

The book’s chapters proceed logically from the general to the specific. Chapter 2 considers the identification and ritual consecration of sacred sites, while chapter 3 turns more concretely to actual buildings, in particular those that were grouped together in ecclesiastical precincts. That leads to chapter 4 and a discussion of the links among such groups through pilgrimages, stational liturgies, and other kinds of liturgical processions (e.g., rogations). Chapter 5 explores the ways the forms of Anglo-Saxon churches reveal their function and how those forms (and functions) developed over time. This includes particularly interesting sections on the placement of altars, the purposes of west chapels, the display of relics, gendered divisions of space, and the design of baptisteries and fonts. 


Chapter 6 shifts attention to ritual practices. Here Gittos offers a detailed study of Anglo-Saxon dedicatory rituals, attending to the steps of the rite as it unfolded in both time and space, and explaining how participants experienced these ceremonies as typologically linked both to sacred (biblical) stories and the narrative of individual salvation. In her words, “Every part of a church had to be sanctified: foundations, floors, walls, roof, and altar. It was also symbolically a person who was catechized, baptized, and took first communion” (p. 244). The last chapter draws this idea out even further, borrowing Mary Carruthers’s idea of a building as a “machine for thinking” and justifying Gittos’s brief conclusion that, despite all the possible problems in bringing together disparate kinds of evidence, her results were “likely to be worthwhile” (p. 278). This modest statement underestimates the rich contribution of this study, which this reviewer enthusiastically recommends to historians of both liturgy and church architecture.