It is difficult, if not impossible, to visualise the church of the fifteenth century, as it was at that period, without an accurate knowledge of the social life of the English people before the accession of the Tudors. The church was not only the place of worship; the nave was also the hall or meeting-place of the village or parish. The earliest churches must have been mere shrines or sanctuaries which evolved into the chancel with or without chapels. This was the church proper, and even at the present day, in many villages, if not in all, the chancel is church property, maintained and upheld from its funds, whereas the nave belongs to the parish, and any expense of additions or renovations are paid for with parish money. This is one of the reasons why the chancel is nearly always richer in decoration than the nave.
It is when this dual ownership of the village church evolves, that the chancel opening is screened off from the nave, and although an opening (rarely a door) is provided in the chancel screen, a massive cill is placed across to remind the undevout that the sanctuary beyond is not to be invaded, but approached with reverence.
The life of the fifteenth century, whether of craftsman or hind, franklin, freeman or serf, was rude, but not as hard as it became under the Tudors. Desires were few and diet was limited in variety. As a compensation, food was plentiful and cheap.
Fig. 93. Winchester Cathedral Choir Stalls And Canopies. - Late thirteenth century.
Fig. 94. Chester Cathedral, The Choir, West.
Fig. 95. Chester Cathedral, The Choir Stalls, Detail - Late fourteenth century.
There was little, if any want, even among the vagrant class, at this date. It remained for Henry VIII to set the spectre of famine stalking through the length and breadth of broad England. The population suffered from plagues, due, in all probability, to an incredible lack of cleanliness of person and certainly contributed to by a total lack of sanitation. Yet the age must have been a happy one, at least, for the craftsman, however humble. The Golden Age of English woodwork could not have existed side by side with want or serious oppression. Taws were harsh and strict, but not savagely brutal as they afterwards became. Over all handicrafts was the guiding and gentle influence of the Church, and the lot of the craftsman who lived in the shadow of a mighty abbey, - and priories and abbeys were numerous enough to cast many such shadows, - must have been a happy if uneventful one. If the warlike expeditions of his lord, either in England, or in the English provinces across the Channel, called him to arms, and caused him to exchange tool and apron for long-bow and leather jerkin, this was but a diversion in a somewhat stagnated existence. In times of peace he had his guild, or met his fellows in the village church at close of day, when strong ale or other liquor was by no means unknown. This was his leisure life, enlivened with occasional feast or saints' days, when carousing was still more deeply indulged in. All legends agree that the Churchman of this day was a good liver, and his flock, - as a good flock should, - dutifully followed his example.
The reaction of this life is seen in the craftsman's work, especially in that of the woodworker. There is more than skill evidenced in chancel screens, pulpits, timber roofs and all the embellishments of the village church. There is the earnest desire to produce something fine, which should defy the centuries, and the spirit of emulation and rivalry which prompted the craftsmen of one village to vie with, or to out-do the inhabitants of a neighbouring hamlet in the enrichment and the beautifying of their church.1
Fig. 96. Culbone, Somerset, Chancel Screen. - Fourteenth century.
In no instance is this thoroughness of workmanship, as distinguished from either inspiration or skill, more evident than in the colour decoration as applied to Gothic ecclesiastical woodwork of the fifteenth century. It is not that it is fine in execution or in conception (although in both qualities it is unrivalled) so much as in the fact that what has persisted - in spite of neglect and iconoclasm of the most brutal and ignorant kind, or purposed and law-sanctioned destruction, not on one, but on three noted occasions at least - has the colours and gilding mellowed by time, but as pure and transparent as the day they were applied. That the same may be said of the pictures of the Van Eycks we know, but we do not know the immense trouble which Jan Van Eyck took to make his colours and his vehicles pure and permanent.
1 The Church, which was, of course, Catholic at this date, was torn by violent schisms in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. In 1377 there were two Popes, Urban VI at Rome, and Clement VII at Avignon. England adhered to the former, Scotland to the latter. The Council at Pisa, in 1409, elected Alexander V, and at this date there were actually three titular heads of the Church.
Fig. 98. Detail Of The Chancel Screen, Fig. 97.
With whiting prepared from finely powdered chalk and carefully freed from all impurities by elutriation, and with size made from parchment, the oak was prepared for its decoration.1 Coats were applied in succession, each carefully rubbed down, when dry, until the grain was filled and the surface rendered level and smooth. The parts intended for gilding were then prepared with bole-armoniac (called bole armeny in documents of the time) a yellowish unctuous clay, which, curiously enough, was also employed at that time for the staunching of blood. It is this brownish or yellowish earth, impregnated, as it is, with oxide of iron, which gives this old gilding its warm lustre. The raised gesso was formed either by building up on its ground, or by cutting into it, according to whether the ornament was to be in relief or intaglio. The chancel screen of Bramfield, Fig. 126, will serve to show how delicate was nearly all of this original gesso.
1 Grounds prepared entirely in oil colours are also not uncommon.