Online Conference: ‘The Lay Experience of the Medieval Cathedral’, Ecclesiological Society Annual Conference, 10:00–17:15 (BST), 2 October 2021

This conference, postponed from last year, was organised to coincide with the designation of 2020 by the Association of English Cathedrals as “The Year of Cathedrals and Pilgrimage”, and as part of a year-long series of events across the country. 2020 was also the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom cult made Canterbury Cathedral the most venerated pilgrimage destination in England. Our cathedrals are very familiar to us today, but how were they seen and experienced by medieval lay people? This conference seeks at answer that question so that we can better understand what it was like for ordinary folk to visit a cathedral – whether as part of a pilgrimage or more generally. Our speakers will look at the impact of cathedrals on lay visitors: the architectural surroundings, how spaces were used, the use of colour and art on walls and in glass, of music, and of all these on worship and lay people’s religious experience.

Get your tickets here.

Practical information

All those who have registered will be sent a Zoom link one or two days before the 2nd October.

All ticket prices have been reduced by 50% and all those who have already booked – prior to 2nd September – at the original prices – will be refunded 50% of their ticket price. It is assumed that all those who have booked will be content to move to the Zoom alternative. (Please allow us time to process the refunds)

Attendance fee

There are three price tickets

  • Members: £30 (previously £60)
  • Non-members: £35 (previously £70)
  • Undergraduate and post-graduate students: £20 (previously £40)

The day’s programme: 

(full timings will be provided shortly)

Emma Wells: A “Matter” of popular piety or divine discipline? – Reflections on lay devotion and the cathedral in medieval England.

In this paper, Emma Wells considers and challenges some of the received wisdoms about lay belief and piety, both active and passive, in the context of the medieval English cathedral. It seeks to evaluate what exactly we mean by “lay piety” in the Middle Ages in the particular context of cathedrals – their art and architectural function and design – and to set the role of cathedrals within their immediate and wider environments. It also looks at the expectations, demands, and requirements of the cathedral clergy within this dynamic religious milieu.

John Crook: The architectural setting of pilgrimage shrines and their design.

John Crook explores the way the architecture of pilgrimage churches was influenced by the presence of saintly relics, and discusses the special monuments that were created to house and give limited access to those relics.

John Jenkins: Time and the seasons in the later medieval lay experience of the cathedral.

It is well-known that the liturgical and devotional life of medieval cathedral chapters followed established daily, weekly, and yearly cycles, similar to those of any medieval monastery or collegiate church. What is far less well understood, however, is the impact of this sacred chronology on the lay experience of cathedral-visiting. In this paper, John Jenkins argues that lay presences in the cathedral were not only highly seasonal in the year, but that activities were concentrated around particular times of day, and that at many later medieval cathedrals, ‘opening hours’ were carefully regulated to manage the lay experience within the church space.

Miriam Gill: ‘Near the public path where many persons pass by and go out’: Imagery framing the lay experience of pilgrimage.

The Abbey of St Alban’s had a clear sense of the ‘public path’ through their building. Miriam Gill’s paper looks at the use of imagery and the decisions made by places of pilgrimage, both grand and more mundane, to ‘frame’ the experience and expectations of lay pilgrims. This paper takes a recently-discovered late fourteenth-century scheme (wall painting and probably originally glazing) in the north transept of Ely Cathedral and sets it with other painted, glazed and carved schemes. It looks not only at those which ‘told the story’ of the saint or proclaimed their efficacy, but also those which created a narrative or historical context, and those which made hagiographic comment or perhaps framed the expectations and understanding of pilgrims.

Dr Dee Dyas: Spiritual cues for the senses and the construction of pilgrim experiences: Some medieval accounts.

Dee Dyas’ paper explores the representation of pilgrim experience in medieval narratives in the light of the wider principles informing the creation and use of sacred spaces in Christian tradition.

Matthew Cheung Salisbury: The practice of Lady Mass and Lady Office in late medieval English institutions.

Matthew Cheung Salisbury explores the widespread supplementary “cursus” or round of worship offered in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the “Lady Mass’ and ‘Lady Office’ – which enjoyed widespread observance in late medieval England, both as a feature of institutional worship and as part of the premier set of lay devotions. He presents some implications for late medieval devotion to the Virgin, as well as to the organisation of ecclesiastical bodies and their music-making.

Jon Cannon: Lay devotion, the Lady Chapel, and architectural space.

Jon Cannon explores ways in which the ‘lay interest’ may have affected the design and perception of architectural spaces dedicated to Our Lady. His initial focus will be on two specific great church Lady Chapels, both of which are in Bristol; he will use these to suggest a variety of other places in which devotional and commemorative interests in particular arguably had a discernible, and comparable, impact on the design of ‘Marian spaces’.


Published by Roisin Astell

Roisin Astell received a First Class Honours in History of Art at the University of York (2014), under the supervision of Dr Emanuele Lugli. After spending a year learning French in Paris, Roisin then completed an MSt. in Medieval Studies at the University of Oxford (2016), where she was supervised by Professor Gervase Rosser and Professor Martin Kauffmann. In 2017, Roisin was awarded a CHASE AHRC studentship as a doctoral candidate at the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, under the supervision of Dr Emily Guerry.

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