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Recent Additions

Kirkdale (Yorkshire) - revised

Wootton Wawen (Warwickshire)

Beckford (Worcestershire)

Wareham (Dorset)

Melbury Bubb (Dorset)

Morcott (Rutland) - revised

Bere Regis (Dorset)

Winterborne Tomson (Dorset)

Swaffham Prior (Cambridgeshire)

Little Snoring (Norfolk)

Billesley (Warwickshire)

Old Shoreham (Sussex)

Historical Background

The Effects of the Great Plague

It is impossible to overstate the effect of the Black Death that ravaged Europe between 1348 and 1350. 30-60% of Europe’s population died, depending upon which figures you believe. The best estimates in England seem to be around 40%. That wasn’t the end of it, however: it returned at intervals for the next 60 years.

How does this relate to the Demon Carvers? We know that it is extremely unlikely that they were at work in 1350. However, the Plague almost certainly has several influences on this narrative.

Firstly, the masons were not spared its effects. The Demon Carver(s) would have learned his or their craft from one of a very diminished population of master tradesmen. To add to the scarcity, the royal projects took priority. Some County Sheriffs were actually set quotas of masons to be sent to London or elsewhere demanded by the King.

Secondly, labour scarcity led, unsurprisingly, to a general increase in wages and a acceleration of the breakdown of the feudal system. There is evidence that even before the Great Plague a general surplus of labour was leading to feudal duties being reduced in some areas of the country - as well as a general hunger in the land. The chaos of the Plague made it hard for landowners to successfully pursue absconders.

After the Plague those labourers left were able to demand higher wages from desperate manorial lords. Ordinances and Statutes pegged wages and prices to pre-Plague rates and this had some effect it seems. Another Plague in 1361-2, however, reduced the population by another 25%. Landowners now found their labour costs doubling and their produce prices tumbling. Faced with this, many chose simply to let their land out for cash rents rather try to farm it profitably themselves.

The 1361 outbreak was known as "The Pestilence of the Children." This outbreak killed the young disproportionately since they did not have the acquired immunity of those who had lived through 1348-50. The next generation of apprentices, tradesmen and labourers was, therefore, also severely reduced.

All of this paints a picture of scarcity of supply and an increase in wages in most trades. What is remarkable about the Demon Carvers is not only that their work is visible at a a number of churches but also that their work seems to account for more than 50% of the frieze carving in his area. We are not talking here of a few churches amongst many: there seems to have been one (surely small?) group of carvers of this kind of work over the whole of Rutland and the margins of at least two adjoining counties. This is wholly consistent with the certainty that after the Black Death there was a general shortfall in masons and carvers.

After the Plague the fashions in church architecture themselves changed. The Decorated period of Gothic architecture gave way decisively to the Perpendicular. Let’s be clear that the first manifestations of this new style were seen some twenty years before Great Plague. Perpendicular style, however, offered a simpler, more consistent style that was more appropriate for the post-Plague recovery period when probably 50% of the masons had perished. At this time we also see the practice of “shop” work emerge whereby window mouldings and the like were carved at the quarry rather than at the building site. Most texts state this as a fact without trying to explain why this should be the case. It seems to me, though, to again be very consistent with post-Plague social changes. Labour shortages would enable carvers to dictate that the church masons should come to them rather than that they should go cap in hand to beg for employment at the site as had historically been the case.

Perpendicular churches are often magnificent in style and proportions but there is a uniformity about much of the external features, especially window mullions. Although the perpendicular style predates the Plague - though only just - we might speculate that the development of off-site “shop work” drove this uniformity. If the Plague had not occurred perhaps we would have seen more diversity of styles produced by more independently-minded masons working on site.

The Expansion of Churches in the post-Plague Decades

The Black Death meant that many churches already under construction or re-construction were not finished for many years. Yet we see the Demon Carvers plying their trade only 50 or less years later. There are only three places that we see his work: on the parapets of clerestory and aisles, in courses below tower parapets and on porches.

Each of these architectural features bespeak of enlargement of churches. It is estimated that it took 150 years for the population of England to return to pre-Plague levels. So how is it that the Demon Carvers’ work was required at all?

If anything is well-documented about the Great Plague it is that the population attributed it to God’s displeasure with those He had created in His own image. This was true for both the great and the humble. Coincidentally, it is at this time that the concept of Purgatory took hold. Those whose lives had been less than blameless (although not, of course, the real sinners who could look forward to a one-way ticket to Hell!) could look forward to a painful limbo between Heaven and Hell until such time as their sins had been purged (hence the word “Purgatory”). This notion would not have been well-received by the rich and powerful who were not perhaps totally blind to their own vices!

That was not all, however. With the concept of Purgatory came the belief, eagerly fostered by the clergy, that a person’s time in Purgatory could be reduced or even remitted altogether if God’s representatives on earth saw sufficient compensatory “good works” or, not to put too fine a point on it, donations to the Church - euphemistically known as the “Sale of Indulgences”. This gave rise to a culture of what we would now see as bribery and the less than edifying concept that the rich could buy even God’s forgiveness. Unsurprisingly amongst Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses famously nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517 were these :-

  • “The pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties beyond those imposed either at his own discretion or by canon law.
  • “The pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God; or, at most, he can remit it in cases reserved to his discretion. Except for these cases, the guilt remains untouched”.

What could be more corrosive to the heart of the common believer that his masters could realise the benefits of their worldly wealth even in the afterlife? Whatever your views of the Reformation that followed Luther’s assault on the Roman Catholic Church, it is hard not to agree that there was a rottenness in the heart of the Church that needed reform. The worst excesses of the Reformation - the destruction of the monasteries, the maiming and horrific deaths of so-called “heretics” on minute points of religious principle - were down to a new wave of intolerance and self-serving fanaticism rather than to the need for reform itself.

It was

 surely this belief in the possible remission of time in Purgatory that partly led to the seemingly incongruous expansion of parish churches to accommodate a diminished population? Not only could the endowment of “good works” in themselves buy remission but, better still, monks and clergy could pray for the benefactor’s own immortal soul. Hence the outbreak of “chantry chapels” often endowed for that very purpose and, as a direct consequence, the need for wider and higher aisles to accommodate them!

Let’s not be too cynical here. Not all church improvements were bankrolled by the rich. For many communities church enlargement was probably no more than an act of thanksgiving for being spared or else an act of propitiation to an angry God - sadly a not very successful policy in the light of the several further outbreaks of Plague.

Clerestories and heightened towers, to be sure, offered no expansion in accommodation of the congregation. Yet we can confidently conclude that building higher and more conspicuously was consistent with a symbolic reaching out to God.