Professor Sarah Hamilton – RHS Lecture 1 May 2020

‘Responding to violence: Liturgy, authority and sacred places c. 900-c.1100’.

Professor Sarah Hamilton (University of Exeter)
From 11 May – online with a virtual Q&A.

Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury cathedral in December 1170 is one of the more well-known incidents of medieval English history. But while murder inside a cathedral was actually very rare throughout the Middle Ages, reports of violent acts in the precincts of churches, especially in graveyards, are much more common. How did bishops and priests react to such events?

Set apart through rituals of consecration, grants of immunity and rights of sanctuary, local churches with their graveyards came to constitute important sites of ecclesiastical authority across the medieval West from the tenth century onwards. As such, both church and cemetery were vulnerable to attack from non-Christians and other Christians.  And as open spaces, graveyards, in particular, routinely attracted incidents of drunkenness, dancing, brawls, and, if only occasionally, murder.

Scholars are well aware that the principle of sacred space is a specific feature of medieval Christianity. There is a rich body of research focusing on how churches and their precincts, including graveyards, came to be defined and maintained as holy by churchmen in the medieval world.  We know, also, how episcopal and monastic communities reacted to violent incursions into their own consecrated spaces with specific acts. They met in council and issued legislation, or recited curses against their enemies, imposed excommunications, or humiliated saints’ relics. For all its strengths, this latter approach focuses upon unusual and atypical events.

What is missing from this picture is the evidence of the much more common rites by which bishops and their priests sought to restore and reconcile holy places, including graveyards, which had been violated by acts of bloodshed, drunkenness, negligence and obscenity. This lecture will investigate how, why, where and when churchmen developed these rites, anchoring their development in the years after the dissolution of the Carolingian Empire.

Sarah Hamilton is Professor of Medieval History in the Department of History, University of Exeter. Her research focuses on the religious, social and cultural history of early medieval Europe between c. 900 and c. 1200.

St Mary and All Saints, Rivenhall, Essex