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The Integrated Interior: Parish Church Architecture in Eastern England, c. 1330–c. 1550

Zachary Stewart [Columbia University]
Robert H. and Clarice Smith Fellow, 2014–2015


St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich, England, c. 1430–c. 1455.  Author photograph

Parish churches featuring integrated interiors—architectural envelopes lacking any structural division between nave and chancel—were among the most distinctive of the thousands of parish churches built or rebuilt in the so-called Perpendicular style of Gothic architecture in late medieval England. Indeed, at the time of their construction, these buildings were nothing less than revolutionary insofar as their open configurations upended centuries-old conventions of church planning by obscuring the programmatic division of lay space and clerical space. Historians of art and architecture, in evaluating structures of this type, have been quick to praise their homogeneity as architectural ensembles but slow to parse their heterogeneity as composite spatial enclosures and conglomerate social enterprises. My dissertation, in contrast, investigates the repercussions of this productive tension between affect and reality in approximately two dozen examples in the region of East Anglia. It argues that the unique configuration of these structures empowered parishioners to reexamine the multilayered identity of the parish as a one-and-many institution by exploiting the fundamentally pliable relationship between form and meaning in works of architecture.

My dissertation opens by reassessing two common art-historical narratives concerning the origins of integrated design in the parish church architecture of later medieval Europe. The first, proposed with respect to the hall-like parish churches of late medieval England by the architectural historian Sir Alfred Clapham (1883–1950), frames integrated design in terms of efficient spatial coordination (as the work of master masons). The second, proposed with respect to the hall-style parish churches of late medieval Germany by the art historian Kurt Gerstenberg (1886–1968), frames integrated design in terms of effective social collaboration (as the work of lay patrons). These two narratives, though more than a century old, continue to shape contemporary research on the architecture of medieval Britain—not least because they occupy a central place in the work of the prolific architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983). I argue, however, that both are lamentably reductive in the sense that they treat the buildings in question as products of determinative cultural processes that foreshadow, respectively, the spatiality of the Renaissance and the sociality of the Reformation. I therefore propose an alternate paradigm—one informed by the so-called spatial turn in the humanities—that prioritizes the ways in which architectural objects, conceived not in indexical terms but in instrumental ones, resist teleological analysis.

My dissertation then proceeds to explore the implication of this approach with respect to three parish churches featuring integrated interiors in the largest, wealthiest, and most architecturally dynamic settlement in late medieval East Anglia: the cathedral city of Norwich. Each building, I contend, corresponds to an important period in the development of the integrated interior. St. Gregory Pottergate (c. 1394–c. 1401), a five-bay structure designed by the cathedral-based mason Robert Wodehirst (active 1351–1401), belongs to a first phase of experimental buildings from the fourteenth century. St. Peter Mancroft (c. 1430–c. 1455), a cavernous nine-bay structure likely attributable to the workshop of the cathedral mason James Woderofe (active 1415 – 1451), belongs to a second phase of tightly related buildings from the first half of the fifteenth century. And, finally, St. Andrew (c. 1500–c. 1510), a five-bay structure likely attributable to the workshop of the cathedral mason John Antell (active 1459 – 1485), belongs to a third phase of loosely related buildings from the second half of the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth century. Shedding copious light on all three case studies is a rich collection of archival material, including wills and inventories of medieval date as well as parochial accounts, diocesan records, and restoration documents of postmedieval date. Utilizing this evidence, I suggest that parish churches with integrated interiors enabled parishioners not only to project the identities of families, guilds, and confraternities but also to problematize these identities in conjunction with that of the parish as a composite body, thus enhancing the buildings’ liturgical function as centers for the celebration of the Mass—a rite whose two-part structure of sacrifice-of-one and sacrament-for-many also negotiated the tense relationship between unity and plurality in ecclesiastical institutions.

In sum, by analyzing the integrated design of a select number of parish churches erected in late medieval Britain, my project achieves two ends. First, it clarifies the history of the buildings themselves, thereby augmenting current scholarship on urban life in medieval Norwich, on devotional practice in pre-Reformation East Anglia, and on the evolution of the Perpendicular style in late medieval England. Second, by combining older positivist methods and newer theoretical models, it contributes to ever-expanding interdisciplinary research concerning the instrumentality of buildings, cities, and landscapes.