East Anglian Church Porches and their Medieval Context
An interview with Helen E. Lunnon
Dr Lunnon, many thanks for taking the time to discuss your work for this issue of the Medieval Herald. Before we begin, may we pry into your past and ask about your studies and research to date?
My first published research article, for the British Archaeological Association, observed and enquired into the changing form of medieval chancel screens in Norfolk. For a decade since, the art and architecture of medieval East Anglia have been the focus of my research.
What was it that inspired you to write your new book? Why porches and why East Anglia in particular?
Porches are an extremely familiar element of the thousands of medieval parish churches which make an important contribution to the definition of England, past and present. However, porches seem not to have sparked people’s imaginations and have been little studied or written about. J. C. Wall’s Porches and Fonts, published in 1912, has been the only published work on the subject until my new book. East Anglia was a highly populated, well-connected and prosperous region in the later middle ages and its people displayed their Christian devotion through their parish churches. As such, East Anglia offered me a rich resource to mine in the study of medieval parish church porches.
Why do you think the subject has been so little studied? Are porches simply too utilitarian to be considered significant? Because judging by the illustrations in your book, many of them are very lovely and quite striking.
I have often pondered that very question, and it remains a puzzle to me why porches have been so little studied. A friend once said of my work on porches that I had taken a topic and created a subject, and I think that difference lies at the heart of the neglect porches have suffered. They have often been used by scholars as vehicles to enable the study of another subject, rather than being treated as subjects in themselves. I will be delighted if my new book changes that view and encourages more people to consider porches more seriously.
And yours is, I believe, the strictly correct definition of East Anglia – Suffolk and Norfolk – so no Cambridgeshire or Essex, is that right?
Yes, that’s right. For the purposes of this book East Anglia is taken to comprise the modern-day counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. It thus approximates the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the East Angles and the medieval ecclesiastical diocese of Norwich.
Can you describe the essentials of a medieval church porch, and were these shared across all churches?
Four key components make up the basic architectural form of medieval church porches. They are an open entrance arch, which is a ubiquitous feature (100% occurrence), window-like apertures in the side walls (94% occurrence), buttresses of varying kinds (89% occurrence) and a (more or less decorative) base course (72% occurrence). This architectural starting point is explored in detail in Chapter Four of the book.
What role did they play in the wider function of any medieval church?
That’s a very complicated and there’s no quick or easy answers. The whole of Chapter Three of my book is dedicated to trying to answer it.
How many porches feature in your book?
Goodness, I haven’t actually counted. My survey work included 119 East Anglian porches, and the appendix contains primary and antiquarian references to 136; there is overlap between those two sets. Additionally, a range of other porches are also discussed, including those recorded in the Old Testament as built by King Solomon.
How did you go about finding and mapping them all? Are you confident that you have found all the examples in East Anglia or might there be some tucked away in distant rural villages?
No, I’m sure I haven’t found them all. In fact, anything like a total survey was never my aim. Parish churches are an abundant feature of the East Anglian landscape and the majority have a porch of some kind. The maps included in the book locate the more architecturally notable or interesting examples, and I hope it will encourage readers to discover the church porch close to where they live and provide a context in which they can better understand it.
And you have visited them all? You must have a wonderful photographic archive now. Do you have a favourite porch, or one that was particularly satisfying to find and study?
I estimate that I’ve visited and measured around 300 church porches, including the 119 East Anglian examples presented in the book. Fieldwork presents a special opportunity to take time to get to know one’s subject intimately. Observing each building’s details, including noting its dimensions and recording its main features, was perhaps the most pleasurable part of the research process. And you’re right, as a result I do have an awful lot of photographs of church porches! Close study of porches through photographs sometimes revealed a secret which hadn’t been apparent on site – for example deciphering the inscription at Forncett St Peter. But for making it possible for us to sense the skill, inventiveness and humour of a medieval mason, the roof bosses in the south porch at Walpole St Peter must feature in my top ten.
What do you hope your work will reveal to church visitors and students of medieval church architecture?
Two things are perhaps of greatest importance to me – first, that all buildings are worth studying, not just the big or architecturally flashy ones. Attending to every strata of a culture’s buildings helps us better understand the context in which they were made; and secondly, I hope my study of church porches will reveal the value of consciously experiencing one’s movement from outside to inside a church. By slowing down it becomes possible to sense the techniques porch designers employed when making the stage on which we each perform passage from temporal to eternal, every time we walk into a church.
What is next for you now? More porches or church architecture?
Several publications are currently in preparation, including two co-authored books resulting from a three-year Leverhulme-funded research project studying the medieval parish churches of Norwich. Having worked with the medieval buildings of East Anglia closely for over a decade I have developed a particular fascination with the medieval use and value of flint, and I hope to start a new research project on that subject later this year.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
Personally, I very much enjoy receiving a catalogue through the post. I find myself engaging more intently with printed matter than with digital content, and it can be produced with environmentally responsible credentials. In contrast to searchable databases, which rely on the user knowing what they want to find, printed catalogues allow for serendipitous discoveries – and in my experience that is a mainstay of much academic research.
Dr HELEN LUNNON is Head of Learning at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Special Medieval Herald Subscriber Price:
Save 40% with your Medieval Herald discount (code BB870)