Friday, 11 June 2010

Medieval pavement

Medieval stone pavements in English chancels are something of a rarity.  In fact medieval chancel floors are a rarity, for many were destroyed either by post-Reformation burials, or swept away in the nineteenth century.  Under the influence of the Ecclesiologists in Victorian restorations, medieval floor levels were destroyed to admit ranks of steps for elevated altars.  Altars elevated on steps were considered more 'correct' and medieval.  So I was surprised to see a well-preserved fourteenth century stone pavement in the chancel at Laxton in Nottinghamshire. 

Laxton, Nottinghamshire

The pavement, formed from square stone sets or lozenges, covers about half of the chancel floor, including the sanctuary. The western half of the chancel between the choir stalls is covered by Victorian encasstics.  Though badly worn and affected by damp, some of the sanctuary slabs still have their original decoration on them. Each has a centrally placed estoile and and is bordered with a narrow line.  At the point where for slabs meet, a semicircle in each slab forms part of a decorative quaterfoil.   It is a striking, but simple, design. Presumably the levels are the original medieval levels and rather than being raised on a rank of steps or footpace, here we have evidence that the medieval high altar here, was simply raised on a single step above the chancel pavement.

Laxton, Nottinghamshire

Laxton, Nottinghamshire

Laxton, Nottinghamshire

What surprises me about this pavement is that despite it's rarity and importance, nobody seems to have noticed it before.  Pevsner doens't mention it, neither does the listed building record, nor even Cox in his Nottinghamshire Churches.  Sadly the pavement has been damaged, principally by the modern heating system.  The blue carpet covers a large modern metal grille and cast iron pipes makes a fill circuit of the sanctuary. 

6 comments:

Nebuly said...

Another fascinating post and thank you.

I assume that the stone high altar was destroyed. Are there traces of it on the flooring?

Allan Barton said...

The altar us long gone and there are no traces of it. I suppose that is surprise on the floor itself as it is well worn. Any traces on the wall would be covered by the reredos.

Simon Cotton said...

In most mediaeval churches, the floor levels were dictated by the geography of the site rather than symbolic considerations. Munro Cautley reckoned that there were six churches in the whole of Norfolk with a step down into the chancel, Ashwellthorpe, Burgh St Mary, Dickleburgh, Helhoughton, Shelton and Wickhampton, to which I'd add Reepham and Mundford, though the latter may owe it to a rebuild. This works out at c. 1%. In Suffolk he cited Debenham and Fritton. At Walpole St Peter, where in the 15c. the chancel was built right up to the edge of the churchyard, a processional way was made under in its east end, which dictated the elevation of the High Altar inside. At St Lawrence, Norwich, a crypt dictated an elevated chancel. But in most cases it was the post-Camdenian desire of Victorian restorers to emphasise the importance of the altar that resulted in raised chancels and concomitant refloorings in the 19th century.

Simon Cotton said...

Re Nebuly's question, very few mediaeval stone mensas remain in situ anywhere, the Reformers simply removed them. One church where the altars appear to have remained undisturbed since before the Reformation is the two altars in front of the rood screen at Patricio, a few miles north of Abergavenny (grid reference SO2788922434). Their location in a church up a hill in a remote valley of the Black Mountains suggests the reason for their survival. Often the altar stones were used for paving etc. and some subsequently were restored to use in the 19th and 20th centuries. I know of 14 such restorees in the county of Norfolk (i.e. about 2% of churches) for example, plus a few more still in floors.

BillyD said...

Was this sort of decoration of stone floors common, I wonder, or was it an attempt to make it look like tile?

Allan Barton said...

Simon, a quick flick through Francis Bond's 'The Chancel of English altars' lists about two or three dozen mensas still in situ, mostly side altars. Only Arundel and Peterchurch in Herefordshire retain their high altars in situ, The reformers did a thorough job! Bond, whose work is always good value, also includes a rather good photo of the interior of Patricio.


BillyD, the answer is, I don't know. There are not many floors to compare it with. Certainly the sets do reflect the decoration of medieval encuastic tiles. The incorporation of decorative motifs that are formed by the intersection of individual elements is something that occurs in encuastics.