Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Medieval bench ends, Osbournby

click photo to enlarge
It is not unusual to hear a member of a church congregation complain about the hardness of the pews, benches or chairs that they must sit on. Perhaps they should spare a thought for the early medieval congregations. Like the clergy of that time, they had to stand throughout the services, though the old or infirm could use the stone ledges that are sometimes found projecting from the nave wall (a practice that is supposed to be behind the saying, "the weak go to the wall"). During these centuries our parish churches were also public meeting places for secular events, and only when these began to be conducted in pupose-made buildings could the church authorities countenance the provision of seating for services.

It is not unusual to see the remains of seating that dates from the fifteenth century and later in our churches. The Victorians rescued and restored a great deal of it, especially in East Anglia and the West Country. The oldest benches in England, however, are probably those at Dunsfold in Surrey, dating from the early 1300s. This early date is unusual: most remaining examples date from after 1450 when increasing prosperity seems to have led to the installation of seating in many churches. The benches from this period are often made of oak and are fairly rudimentary. However, they were frequently enlivened by decorative carving on the bench ends that face the aisles.

The examples above, at St Peter & St Paul, Osbournby, Lincolnshire, are a particularly noteworthy set. They have the characteristic pointed shape with a foliate or figure "poppy head" (a finial whose name derives from the French poupee meaning a bunch of hemp or flax). The lower parts are generally filled with patterns similar to Gothic window tracery, whilst the upper parts, beneath the pointed arch, have scenes from the Bible, from saints' lives, the bestiaries and folk tales. At Osbournby these include the Crucifixion, the fox preaching to the geese and (see above) Adam and Eve, and St George and the Dragon. The aim of the figurative illustrations was much the same as the pictures in stained glass: to place before a largely illiterate population important episodes from the Bible alongside a series of secular, "improving" tales. The charming naivety that shines through the bumps and knocks of the centuries is because these were not, in the main, the work of renowned metropolitan wood carvers, but were fashioned by local individuals.

I took a few photographs of these ancient seats aiming to show them in context and also to highlight some of the figure carving. For the shot down the nave I got down low to keep the bench ends vertical and give them prominence in the image. The two details were pasted onto a white background, and the surroundings given the digital equivalent of "burning" to reduce the impact of what was behind.

photographs & text (c) T. Boughen

Photo 1 (Photo 2)
Camera: Lumix LX3
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 5.1mm (24mm/35mm equiv.):(5.4mm (26mm/35mm equiv.))
F No: f2 (f2.1)
Shutter Speed: 1/30 (1/30)
ISO: 125 (400)
Exposure Compensation: -0.66 EV
Image Stabilisation: On