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The Experience of Worship in late medieval Cathedral and Parish Church

Through a series of public enactments, the project investigated the experience of worship at a time when King Henry VIII was in power, just before the English Reformation. The enactments took place in two contrasting medieval buildings — Salisbury Cathedral and the small parish church of St Teilo — where the participants undertook the roles of medieval priests, assistants, musicians and lay people.

‘What was it like to be in a church in the Middle Ages?’ Professor John Harper (Bangor University), leader of the project, explains. ‘What did you see around you? What did you hear, sense and feel? Imagination has always been a crucial tool for historians seeking to understand the past — imagination combined with the evidence that can be garnered from what does survive. But that needs to be realised and explored as experience through engagement in enactment.’

In readiness for the enactments, specialist craftspeople from across Britain were involved in reconstructing everything from organs to vestments to ritual objects. The project generated an income for them in excess of £92,000, and has enhanced their existing skills through the opportunity to share and explore new sources of information and inspiration.

The experience of taking part in the enactments provided a unique opportunity for musicians to play a ‘lost’ instrument. A medieval organ was made and richly decorated on the basis of archaeological and archival evidence, and situated in a variety of locations to enable as many musicians as possible to work with it. This led to significant exploration of how early organs related to singing in church, and has inspired fresh re-engagement with the source material. The reconstructed organ alone will provide a valuable research tool for at least the next 75 years.

Honouring the Name of Jesus after Compline, St Teilo's Church, St Fagans Museum, September 2011. Copyright Sophie Thomas
Honouring the Name of Jesus after Compline, St Teilo's Church, St Fagans Museum, September 2011

For host venues of the enactments, understanding of their church or cathedral has been enhanced by the experience of stepping back into its past. Already, local people in Wiltshire have been inspired to explore their heritage and benefit from the project. Heritage Lottery Funding of £39,700 awarded in November 2013 enabled them to host a performance of newly-found thirteenth-century chants at Easton Royal Parish Church, which played to a full house, and to produce a CD of the music for the whole community.

In future, the new understanding of the use of religious buildings, objects, texts, music and ritual practice will enrich the visitor experience at St Fagans, National History Museum of Wales, where the reconstructed parish church of St Teilo is situated. The videos of the enactments on the project website enable far wider engagement. The project’s collaboration with Salisbury Cathedral and St Fagans has already provoked fresh ideas about how medieval buildings might be used for future enactments and events.

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