Evensong: People, Discoveries and Reflections on the Church in England by Richard Morris
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, 336 pages
If you stand outside the former Augustinian priory of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London before evensong, twice a month, you can hear the sound of late medieval London. It is the only active church in the country to have a ring of five bells cast before the Reformation. If you do stop to listen, you will hear that medieval bells sounded different. When a church bell is struck it doesn’t produce a single note, but instead a family of sounds. There is the hum, an octave below the strike note (as the dominant pitch is known); the tierce, a minor third above the strike; the quint, a fifth above; and so on. Medieval bells, less perfectly tuned, sometimes placed the hum a seventh below the strike, a sound at once familiar and unfamiliar to modern ears.
They also carried meanings that extended far beyond mere sound. Different numbers of strokes marked the deaths of men and women, children and adults. Some of these distinctions were so local they might almost be dialect: the church at King’s Cliffe in Northamptonshire sounded a bell that was rung while a body was being wrapped in its shroud; another rang a sequence of bells that changed as a funeral procession neared and then passed through the lychgate.
Richard Morris is an archaeologist who has spent the bulk of his career studying the religious buildings of medieval England. His new book Evensong: People, Discoveries and Reflections on the Church in England is an eclectic hybrid of memoir and essay. It is at its best when reminding us how deeply embedded these buildings are in the English landscape and when exploring, how the intimate meanings they have held can be rediscovered.
He returns more than once to the music of the church. He cites historian Martin Renshaw’s insight that, before the Reformation, churches in England were built for singing, not speaking, and notes that parish church chancels are frequently double, or triple cubes – spaces with good acoustic properties. More, the church organ – the last of them victim to the triumphal Puritanism of the Commonwealth – was ubiquitous; organists learnt their music in the choir. The great efflorescence of music during the English renaissance – Taverner, Tallis, Byrd, Morley, et al – wasn’t, as Morris puts it, “some exultant starburst”, but the final legacy of several centuries of choral practice in the late medieval church.
The conjunction of archaeological, textual and scientific analysis is a recurring theme. Deep layers of history, of human use and habitation, underlying every building and site – sometimes literally so – is another. These continuities and juxtapositions are sometimes powerful: a family visit to the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral brings thoughts on the city’s Corpus Christi cycle of medieval plays; then ‘Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child’, its lullaby for children slaughtered by Herod; and then a list of 12 infants killed by German bombs, some as young as two months.
But there’s no escaping that this is a curio of a book, which doesn’t entirely cohere. Perhaps it doesn’t intend to. It divides into three overlapping sections. The first is a memoir of the author’s upbringing in a series of vicarages in the post-war decades, most notably Longbridge and Battersea.
The second ranges across Morris’s interests and activities as an archaeologist. The third is an account of his father’s early years, from youthful agnosticism through service as a navigator in the RAF, to ordination in the Church of England. It draws movingly on his father’s wartime long-distance correspondence with the woman who became his wife – Yorkshire-born but living in Canada – conducted over several years.
At the book’s heart is the question of the place of faith in the modern world. It will not appeal to everyone; this reader found its absorption in the minutiae of Anglican politics wearying. But it is a warm, thoughtful and generous-spirited book with a profound sense of the importance of traditional spiritual devotions in the modern world.
Evensong closes with Morris reflecting on what historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has called “the unending dialogue of Protestantism and Catholicism which forms Anglican identity”, and thinking of the composer William Byrd, who wrote music for the Elizabethan liturgy while remaining a devout Roman Catholic.
“I wonder how replacing liturgy with the everyday helps you seek for what lies beyond the everyday,” Morris writes despairingly of one modernising church initiative. Perhaps if all else fails, the 1,000-year legacy of English church music, Catholic and Anglican, will come to your aid.
Matthew Lyons reviews for Literary Review, History Today and Prospect.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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