The Architectural Setting of the Mass in Early-medieval Ireland

The Architectural Setting of the Mass in Early-medieval Ireland

By Tomás Ó Carragáin

Medieval Archaeology, Vol. 53 (2009)

Abstract: Surviving churches and documents are analysed for what they may reveal about the architectural context of the mass in early-medieval Ireland. This shows that there is no evidence to support the widely held view that the congregation stood outside. Instead, the variable but relatively small size of these churches expresses the fact that they served smaller and more diverse communities than their high-medieval successors. The altars in large episcopal and/or monastic churches seem positioned further west than those in relatively small, pastoral churches. In part, this was probably to facilitate relatively complex eucharistic liturgies. Externally defined chancels appear for the first time in the late 11th century AD inresponse to an increased emphasis on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Significantly, they occur at a handful of important sites whose clerics and patrons were in direct contact with Lanfranc of Canterbury, a key exponent of this doctrine.

Introduction: About 180 pre-Romanesque churches survive in Ireland. One-fifth of these are drystone churches with corbelled roofs of Gallarus-type, some of which are as early as the 8th century. The rest are of mortared stone and date mainly from about AD 900 to 1130. They are a remarkably uniform group: all 180 are unicameral with short proportions (1:1.56 on average), a single W doorway and almost invariably just two small windows, one in the E wall and one in the south.The literature so commonly cites well-preserved examples at minor sites like Gallarus (Co Kerry) that they are seen as typical, while larger churches at more important sites, which often survive only as vestiges incorporated into parish churches, tend to be overlooked. As a result, it is widely believed that Irish churches were too small to have been congregational. One of the main aims of this paper is to counter this view. In fact these churches vary greatly in size from tiny structures that could house no more than a handful of people to cathedrals 200 sq m or more internally. The average size of the principal church at sites that went on to be parish centres is 60 sq m and only a quarter of these are less than 40 sq m. This compares well with the naves of contemporary proto-parish churches in England that, according to Morris, averaged 20–30 sqm in the 10th century and 60–80 sq m from the later 11th century.

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See also Dr. Tomás Ó Carragáin wins award for Irish Medieval Studies

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