Meg Bernstein

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Larkin, ‘Church Going’1

The verses of Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ reflect the ambiguity of the parish church for contemporary visitors. The narrator has been curious enough to stop for a visit, and knowledgeable enough to identify the font and the lectern. Yet, he betrays a lack of comprehension, a wall where his knowledge ends, leaving him to note that he cannot accurately assess the age of the roof. Although interested at first, it seems to be his lack of understanding that leads him to conclude ‘the place was not worth stopping for’.

Estimated at numbering between eight and nine thousand, parish churches containing at least some medieval building fabric are ubiquitous in the English landscape. Looking out the window on a short train journey may yield views of a dozen towers: some stumpy, some tall, and others topped with a leaded spire. Yet, despite their quotidian familiarity, the parish church has received little consideration outside certain pockets, namely: historians of lay piety and amateur ‘church crawlers’. Despite the amount of surviving fabric, parish churches have been challenging to parse due to the iconoclasm of the Reformation and persistent rebuilding over time. Dwindling congregations and lack of regular, institutional funding from the Church of England have rendered these buildings difficult to maintain.2 Unlike many monastic sites or castles, parish churches have remained in use, and modernisation has been necessary to meet the needs of congregations with additions of sacristies, kitchens, toilets, and other facilities. With a focus on providing sacraments and community for ordinary laypeople, both in the Middle Ages and today, parish churches have been perceived as less important, institutionally, economically, and artistically than those churches which served high-level prelates and nobility, namely cathedrals and monasteries. For these and other reasons, parish churches have not, by and large, been treated consistently or systematically as deserving of the attention of art historical study.

This collection of essays comes from ‘Towards an Art History of the Parish Church’, a conference held at the Courtauld Institute of Art on 2–3 June 2017. The essays focus on the two centuries between 1200 and 1399. This period represents the most notable lacuna in scholarship, even though the parish church was fully solidified as an administrative category and arguably as a building type. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries have historically been understudied, in comparison with the smaller corpus of the Romanesque period or the late medieval church after 1400, which draws on greater availability of documentary evidence in the form of churchwarden accounts.

The conference took direct inspiration from Paul Binski’s 1999 article ‘The English Parish Church and its Art in the Later Middle Ages: A Review of the Problem’, seeking to answer Binski’s important question: ‘how, and in what ways, we might place the imagery of the parish church at the centre of the study of medieval visual culture rather than seeing it as some unfathomable, and perhaps embarrassing, epiphenomenon of something that was ‘really’ going on elsewhere’.3 In response to this question, the papers delivered at the conference took the form of both overarching analyses and case studies, considering such issues as the category of the parish church as object of study, furnishings and decoration, the parish church in relation to other categories of buildings, and issues of funding and patronage. Big data, economic analysis, and phenomenology are some of the methodologies employed in examining these buildings. This volume presents ten of the papers delivered at the conference and concludes with an Afterword by Paul Binski based on his closing remarks and reflection some two decades after his influential essay on the ‘parish church problem’. Rather than presenting a single unified approach or a final word on the topic, it is the editor’s hope that this collection of essays will inspire further questions and enduring attention to these buildings and their contents.

The editor has incurred many debts in the course of organising this volume. I wish to thank the speakers whose papers do not appear in this volume for their contributions to the discussion in 2017 and the ‘parish church turn’. The Courtauld’s Research Forum sponsored and organised our event. I am in their debt, particularly to Alixe Bovey, Ingrid Guiot, Jessica Akerman, Lara Frentrop, and Fern Insh. I also wish to thank the Paul Mellon Centre for funding travel to London for our participants. Series editor Alixe Bovey offered to publish these transactions under the auspices of Courtauld Books Online, and managing editor Maria Mileeva has shepherded it to fruition. Grace Williams offered a much-needed steady hand in the design and publication of this book. In our New Haven sessions, Jamin An sharpened my focus and clarified the way forward. Jules Hynes’s unconditional confidence in my abilities and constant encouragement helped me overcome unanticipated hurdles in the completion of this project. James Alexander Cameron initially proposed a conference on parish churches to me in 2015 and was an able co-organiser and inspiring conversation partner in its development. Although he isn’t a formal contributor to this volume, his influence in it is deeply felt throughout. A small army of peer reviewers generously contributed their time and expertise to improving the essays in this volume. Julian Luxford, John McNeill, and Tom Nickson’s advice and aid were invaluable to this first-time editor. Finally, I am grateful to all of the authors whose stimulating writing on parish church art and architecture is contained herein; I am honoured to be in conversation with them.


[1] Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, (ed.) Archie Burnett (London: Faber & Faber, 1955).
[2] James A. Cameron, ‘What Can Be Done to Save England’s Neglected Parish Churches?’, Apollo: The International Art Magazine (December 2019).
[3] Paul Binski, ‘The English Parish Church and its Art in the Later Middle Ages: A Review of the Problem’, Studies in Iconography 20 (1999): pp. 1–25.