ON Wednesday, the 30th of November, 1910, a meeting of the Society was held in the Exchange Hall, at 4.30 p.m., upwards of sixty members being present. Mr. Gill read the following paper, and, at intervals, gave more than sixty illustrations made from his own photographs, and shewn by an excellent limelight lantern.
THE LOW SIDE WINDOWS OF NOTTINGHAMSHIRE.
By Mr. Harry Gill.
"There are stages in the development of a scientific idea when the best service we can do it is by attempting to separate facts from fancies, by demanding that difficulties shall be frankly faced instead of being severely ignored, by insisting that the giving of a name cannot convert the imaginary into the real, and by remembering that if hypotheses yet on their trial are treated as axioms, the result will often bring disaster, like building a tower on a foundation of sand."—Professor Bonney, British Association Meetings, at Sheffield, September, 1910.
I have adopted the term "low side windows" as the title of this paper, not because I think it is the most accurate, but because it is the term that has lately been used to denote the small windows, or apertures, which are to be found in the walls of ancient churches— generally, but not always, in the chancel, sometimes on the north side, more frequently on the south side, and occasionally on both sides, many of them now blocked up with masonry, and commonly known by the popular name of "leper windows."
The origin and purpose of these peculiar apertures have engaged the research of antiquaries for some time past, and are still debatable topics. That they were made to fulfil a definite purpose all are agreed, for the mediaeval workman was no believer in idle show ; it was an axiom in his workaday creed that nothing should be done without aim. With a view to arrive at a solution of the question, a systematic survey (and report) of all the openings still in existence is being made. On behalf of our Society, I have undertaken to make the survey in the county of Nottingham. This has been no small undertaking, but my labour has been considerably lightened by the hearty co-operation of our members in various parts of the county, to whom I wish to acknowledge with gratitude my indebtedness. To the Rev. Atwell M. Y. Baylay, M.A., of Thurgarton, who has given me great assistance upon points of Ritual, and who has kindly read the manuscript of this paper, my thanks are especially due.
The "leper" theory was expounded about seventy years ago in a book by Dr. Rock, the "Church of our Fathers," and this called forth a lengthy correspondence in the "Gentleman's Magazine" and other periodicals. For a time the pathetic story was current that persons stricken with the dreadful disease of leprosy—painfully prevalent in England from the beginning of the nth to the end of the 13th century—were thus enabled to attend the service of the mass, and to receive the solace of holy communion at the hands of the priest without entering the church. Forbidden to dwell in towns, the leper was driven into the highways and compelled to wander about, until he could find refuge in one of the numerous lazar-houses that were built by the benevolent. Hence the reason why the so-called "leper" windows are said to be found not in town churches, but only in smaller churches by the wayside. A very cursory examination, however, will shew that it would be impossible for the priest to administer the sacrament through one of these openings with anything like due decorum (if anyone doubt it let him make experiments and he will soon be convinced), for the height above the ground in some cases, and the thickness of the walls in all cases, apart from any other consideration, would prevent administration; nor would it be possible for anyone standing outside the church to see the altar,1 or the images on the rood-loft, or any essential feature within the church; the splays, which are always internal, would surely have been external, if the intention were to enable anyone on the outside to look in,—a point that is generally overlooked.
Moreover, the leper was looked upon as a dead man : by a special office of the Church he was separated from his fellows, and it is almost certain that he would not be allowed to enter even the churchyard. It is true that we sometimes read of lepers asking alms at the church door, but the term is then used in a general sense to denote beggars, stricken with ghastly wens and ulcerous sores, outcasts from society and loathsome to a degree; but not stricken with the dread disease of leprosy. Further, I have looked in vain for any carved representation on capital or misericord of such a pathetic incident as a leper in the act of receiving the ministrations of the Church in this way. When we consider how freely every detail of the daily life of the people was thereon portrayed I think this omission has great significance.
I am not unmindful of the fact that the mediaeval workman would never allow an intentional satire, or even a representation of the solemn office of the mass to be made or set up; but we must also remember that he never lost an opportunity of recording abuses, and I think it is fair to assume that such administration would not go long without imposition and abuse.
In spite of all arguments, however, the fact remains that the leper theory is still extensively and tenaciously held, and the impression I have received while making the survey is that the theory will only be given up with the greatest reluctance and regret. More than a dozen other explanations of the feature have been put forward, but most of them are not worth a moment's consideration. I have tested them on the spot, with the result that I do not deem it necessary even to name them all; but I shall refer to some of them in passing.
My task necessitated the examination of nearly 200 churches, and has led me to travel the length and breadth of the county. The third edition of "Thesaurus Rerum Ecclesiasticarum," by John Ecton, published by Browne Willis in 1763, contains a list of the dedications of 222 ancient churches and chapelries in the county, and I have systematically worked through this list. Ten of these churches have gone, or are rapidly going, to decay; sixteen have been entirely rebuilt, either on the old site or near it, and therefore do not concern us in this enquiry; of the remainder, very few retain the chancel in its original form. The introduction of an organ chamber or a vestry, has interfered very much with the ancient walls, especially on the north side, and the insertion of new and larger windows of a later date has destroyed the original fenestration. "Time has demolished the remembrance of many practices, once common, so effectually, as to hardly leave a gleam of light for our guidance in recurring to the past."
I have found about forty examples that call for careful consideration, and these (with two exceptions, Mansfield and Linby, which require special treatment) may be divided almost equally into two classes. An examination of the section of the jambs will shew that in eighteen cases they were rebated to receive a door or shutter, while all the others were rebated for glass in the ordinary way. This is an important point to notice, and in my opinion will be found to be the determining factor. I propose, therefore, to dispense with the complicated system of division into numerous classes, or types, and to deal with the openings under two general headings:—
A.—Small rectangular openings that were originally fitted with oak shutters to open inwards, and are now (or have been) "stoned up," though many of them have been reopened and glazed in recent years, thus making the classification difficult.
B.—Openings having arched and cusped heads, glazed from the first and never stoned up.
Then, in order to save misconception, it will be necessary briefly to notice a series of openings erroneously called "leper windows," but having no claim to serious consideration, class C; and hagioscopes, or "squints," for special purposes, class D.
On beginning the survey my first thought was to ascertain whether the "low side window" was an essential feature in a pre-Reformation church, i.e. whether the churches that were built during any fixed period were all arranged in the same way. I soon came to the conclusion that they were not all made for one and the same purpose, and that whatever that purpose was, it could be fulfilled in various ways; for I found that some Early English chancels (Flintham) had "low side windows," while others (Ratcliffe-on-Soar) had not; and later on in the Decorated period the little wayside church of St. Patrick, at Nuthall, had a "low side window," but the churches in the neighbouring parishes of Bilborough and Strelley had not. This is more noticeable still in a series of chancels built by a peripatetic band of masons who, dispersed on the completion of the extensive work done at York by Archbishop Romanus, travelled the country erecting churches as they went, and who came to be known as the York school. Out of half a dozen chancels built by them in this county, Car Colston is the only place where a so-called "low side window" is to be seen, and as this is a well-known and oft-quoted example, I shall have more to say about it later on.
(1) Laxton is the only instance in the county where the altar might possibly be seen from without. The reason for this position is explained in the descriptive notes which follow.