Mundane Uses of Sacred Places in the Central and Later Middle Ages, with a Focus on Chartres Cathedral
By Dawn Marie Hayes
Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol.30 (1999)
Introduction: Although technically reserved for worship, church buildings were put to numerous non-devotional uses in the Middle Ages, raising the question just how set apart from daily life medieval churches were. Relatively little has been written about this subject, despite its importance as a signpost to the contours of the medieval understanding of sacred space. Late last century and early in this century Sidney Oldall Addy and William Andrews did some work on this subject for England. Their accounts, however, are narrative and do not address larger questions of meaning and significance of such uses. More recently J. G. Davies has written on the subject also with a focus on England. Non-devotional uses of churches in medieval France remain uncharted territory. A small number of works has been published on various aspects of secular usage—including the use of Chartres Cathedral for lodging medieval pilgrims. It is the goal of this article to offer the reader a sample of non-devotional activities in sacred places and break ground for what promises to be a fascinating avenue of exploration into the cultural history of medieval northwestern Europe by considering the conflict between the theory and practice of medieval sacred space.
People regularly tested and challenged the order of officially recognized sacred places, and the clergy responded to these challenges in a variety of ways, deeming some non-devotional activities as either harmless or necessary. Others, however, were not tolerated and were even considered sacrilegious and condemned. At issue usually was the area within the church structure, but certain objectionable activities in cloisters and cemeteries also created controversy. Just as all areas of the church building were not equally sacred, not all non-devotional activities were equally profane. People negotiated sacred places and rendered them less restricted than one might expect from the rite of consecration, the official ecclesiastical statement on the church building. Considering non-devotional uses of churches will enable historians to reconstruct a history of the living church.
Certain parts of churches were more sacred—more reserved—than others. The sanctuary and the choir were the life systems of the church, and as with any system, this control center had to be kept secure. Although the nave was important to the church because it represented a part that many (although certainly not all) considered integral to the church’s physical structure, it was not the source of spiritual life. The lifeblood of the church originated in the sanctuary where God was made and in the choir, the location of the clergy who performed and witnessed the miracle of transubstantiation.