Page 5 - HistoricChurches2011

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BCD Special Report on
Historic Churches
18th annual edition
English Pulpits
Charles Tracy
of the ancient
pulpits in English churches were made
within a century of the Reformation,
their function was not an invention of the
late-medieval church. Pulpits are thought
to have originated from the raised platform
from which the Rabbi read the scriptures in
the Jewish temple. They are descended from
the ambos, symmetrical pairs of elevated
stone platforms which flanked the stone choir
enclosures of early-Christian churches, and
from which the Epistle, generally on the south
side, and the Gospel, on the north side, were
read. By the Middle Ages they had migrated to
the nave in the guise of a pulpit and a lectern.
Before the consolidation of the pulpit as a
permanent fixture from the mid 14th century,
preachers used either the altar or chancel
steps, or a portable square and somewhat
makeshift, utilitarian raised platform, which
is sometimes illustrated in manuscripts. The
authorities clearly felt a need to regularise
this informal arrangement into the dignified
structures that we see today – indisputably
objects of parochial pride and authority.
The arrival in England, from the late 12th
century, of the mendicant friars injected new
life into the practice of preaching, already firmly
established since at least the 7th century. The
friars were in stiff competition with traditional
parish churches and, in return for the alms
of the faithful, were offering attractive burial
rights and the hosting of chantries * for the
deceased in their churches. Proclaiming the
Gospel, often in the open air on raised wooden
platforms, was possibly their most successful
strategy for capturing a new following. The
established parish churches tried to counter
this challenge by exhorting their clergy, as at
the Synod of Oxford in 1223, to ‘preach the
Word of God, and not to be dumb dogs, but
with salutary bark to drive away the disease
of spiritual wolves from the flock’. Although
this may not have been a deliberate attempt
to fend off the depredations of the friars,
it certainly sounds like an exhortation to
meet the competition on their own terms.
Exceptionally, some churches boasted an
integral exterior pulpit, famously the one at
St Paul’s Cathedral, known as ‘Paul’s Cross’.
Little remains of England’s friary churches,
and even less of their furnishings. However, the
Ham stone pulpit (above right) at Frampton,
near Dorchester, Dorset, although restored,
displays two high-relief figure panels, which
suggest a possible Franciscan provenance.
Against this is the fact that the style of the pulpit
is contemporary with the restoration of the
church by the dean and canons of St Stephen’s,
Westminster in about 1460–70. Like most of
its kind, the pulpit has been moved at least
once. It has also lost three of its six medieval
carved figural high-relief limestone panels.
Given the iconoclasm of the Reformation and
the Commonwealth period, and although
the panels have since been re-cut, they
remain remarkable survivals of their genre.
The centre panel of the remaining three
(on the left in the illustration), depicts a friar
holding a monstrance * in his right hand and
a closed book in his left. On either side are
two containers, fashioned as a church or
temple, one possibly a reliquary , the other a
pyx *. Quite probably this figure represents
St Bonaventura, an Italian Franciscan and one
* Words followed by asterisks are defined in the glossary on page 8
St Mary, Frampton, Dorset: late 15th-century stone pulpit, detail of two carved panels