When Devils Prowled: Jangling & Idle Gossip in Medieval Churches
This month’s panel is a tracery light from the parish church of St Nicholas at Stanford-on-Avon, near Daventry, in Northamptonshire.
Description of panel
The panel shows three women in conversation while surrounded by assorted denizens of hell. The most prominent of the women wears a pot metal yellow mantle over a murrey gown and holds a yellow-stain rosary. On the right is the upper part of a fierce monster in pale blue glass and on the left are the upper half of a green devil and the lower section of a ruby monster.
It measures h. 0.32m by w. 0.35m. Professor Richard Marks has assigned it to a major glazing campaign in the church of c. 1330–1350 (Further Reading: Marks, 1998).
The panel is the only certain example in stained glass of a subject sometimes called the Warning against Idle Gossip, an image more commonly found in surviving English wall paintings of the period. [Fig. 1] Its importance – both in terms of its rarity and the way it was intended to be seen and understood by medieval audiences – cannot be overstated.
Apart from overtly religious and donor imagery, medieval churches often featured scenes imploring worshippers not to misbehave by working on the Sabbath (Warning to Sabbath Breakers); not to blaspheme by invoking Christ’s name (Warning to Swearers/Blasphemers) and not to misbehave in church by gossiping or indulging in other disrespectful/disruptive activities (Warning against Idle Gossip or Jangling).
Each of these Warnings was reinforced with vivid and dramatic imagery, akin to modern-day ‘shock’ advertisements warning against the dangers of smoking or drinking and driving. Each was also depicted in stained glass.
Rebukes not to work on the Sabbath showed Christ’s body surrounded by playing cards and everyday working tools; implements whose improper use on Sundays injured him anew and added to his wounds. Until recently it was thought that this subject was confined only to wall paintings but the discovery of a displaced panel from the parish church of St Neot (Cornwall) suggests that it have may have been depicted in stained glass more often than previously thought (see Vidimus 36).
Warnings against Swearing or Blasphemy included images of young men clutching the parts of Christ’s body by which they had sworn or cursed. e.g., ‘By God’s foot’ or ‘By God’s feet’, thus leaving his body bloodied and dismembered as a result. Although only now surviving in a few wall paintings, as in the parish church of St Lawrence at Broughton, Buckinghamshire, at least one example of this subject is known to have been depicted in stained glass. At Broughton the painting is dominated by a pieta with the grieving Virgin Mary cradling her dead son while to the right a swearer flaunts his heart and another culprit waves a foot which has been wrenched from his leg. [Fig. 2]
Similar imagery also once appeared in a window in the north aisle of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Heydon (Norfolk), when it was described by the eighteenth-century antiquary, Francis Blomefield (1705–1752) thus : ‘on it are painted many young swearers, drunkards, dice-players and other profligate livers, with a representation of hell, and such sinners as those in its flames; placed there, no doubt, as a view and warning-piece, for to deter youth from such a living’. Sentences on scrolls issued from the mouths of the young men, recorded them blaspheming by citing parts of Christ’s body. (Further Reading: Woodforde).
Idle Gossip & Jangling
As with our panel of the month Warnings against Idle Gossip in stained glass or other media employed the same ‘shock tactic’ of vivid and memorable imagery to make its point, in this instance by portraying jangling and tittle-tattling as the work of devils who prowled the aisles cajoling and encouraging offenders to ignore the words of God and disrupt the devotions of more pious worshippers.
Priests inveighed against such sins in their sermons
‘..synners herithe no worde of God, but turnithe hem to dilectacion of synne, to which the devil temptithe hem. For the devil hissithe be mony diverse weyes in the sermon: and how? For he makith some to slepe that they her not the wordes of God: and some he makithe to chatir [chatter – Ed] faste’ (Further Reading: Marks, 1987 and Owst)
Some preachers blamed tiny fiends who ran amok in churches greasing lips with ointments until, ‘the folk jangelyd and telde talys’.
Another who took up cudgels against the din of chattering and gossip which drowned out sermons was John Mirk (fl. c.1382–c.1414), an Augustinian canon and later prior of Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire. Writing in the 1380s he railed against jangling in church, accusing chatterers of making the House of God and prayer into a ‘hous of dadull [tattle –Ed.], and of whisperyng and rownyng (talking – Ed.], and of ‘spekyng of vanyte and of ofer fylthe’. In his De Dedicacione Ecclesie Sermo Breuis he painted a picture in words similar to the imagery in our panel, describing how a deacon saw two women talking during the Mass with a fiend sitting on their shoulders recording their words on a long scroll. When the service was over the bishop asked the women what they had been doing and ordered the fiend to read what he had written and when he had done so, the women fell to the floor and begged for mercy. (Further Reading: Erbe and Mirk)
Such behaviour did not go unpunished in the material or temporal world. Church records in Norwich of 1430–33 document parishioners complaining about the behaviour of two men whose conduct included ‘chattering continuously’ during holy services and in the Norwich Visitation records of 1499, eight people were reported for ‘chattering’ in church (Further Reading: Tanner).
Idle gossip was frowned on for other reasons, including its potentially devastating effects in small tightly-knit communities and its perceived incompatibility with the seriousness expected of the devout.
Apart from the Stanford window, all the surviving images of this subject are in wall paintings. Most are located either at the western end of the church (where the miscreants probably congregated) or above doorways where they could be seen easily as people entered the church. The image was designed to be seen and to influence behaviour, either by itself or as a supporting tool for priests when they railed against disruption and chatter. Professor Marks has suggested that our panel was probably installed at the western end of the nave before it was moved to its present location. Similar depictions of the subject survive in sculpture and in wood carvings. [Figs. 3, 4 and 5]
St Andrew at Old (Northants)
As with the Warning to Sabbath Breakers window in Cornwall, and the lost Warning to Blasphemers window at Heydour, the survival of the Stanford panel suggests that the image may have been more common in medieval church windows than appears to be the case today.
Some intriguing fragments of early sixteenth-century glass currently in the south aisle at the parish church of St Andrew at Old, (also Northants), may be just such an example. It shows the upper part of a male figure with a sharp-fanged devil on his back with a scroll issuing from its mouth. Unfortunately the poor condition of the glass means that the Middle English inscription cannot be translated with any certainty; a problem compounded by discrepancies between two antiquarian descriptions of the glass. [Fig. 6]
The first saw: ‘All claterers i[n] the nght schall pae yow for yowr warg[t]’, while the other recorded ‘All claterers i[n] the kyrght schall hae yoe for yowr waight’.
In his CVMA catalogue of the Medieval Stained Glass of Northamptonshire, Professor Marks explained that ‘clatter’ had two meanings in Middle English, first, ‘chatter or noisy talker’ second, ‘as a betrayer of secrets’. By contrast ‘warght’ was more straightforward and can be interpreted as work. The problem arises from ‘nght /kyrght’ with the former meaning ‘night’ and the latter meaning ‘church’. The differences are significant. If ‘kyrght’ is right the panel could be the remains of a second Warning to Idle Gossip window, if ‘night’ is correct, however, the subject could be a reference to ‘the perils of the dark when demons abound’ ( Further Reading: Marks, 1998).
Some of the glass used in the panel also deserves comment. The devil’s body consists of parallel or streaky ruby strips on white glass. Professor Marks has observed that it appears to be an example of a technique associated with Venice, but which also occurs in French glass of the late fifteenth-and early sixteenth-centuries. Some yellow stain is applied under the monster’s chin. Back painting has been used to enhance the profile of the devil. [Fig. 7]
Although there are no immediate parallels for this subject in stained glass in Germany and France, there is ample evidence to suggest that the central ideas behind the imagery were well known. The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471 -1528) produced woodcuts of the same/similar subject to illustrate Der Ritter vom Thurn (The Knight of the Tower). [Fig. 8]
I am grateful to Dr Hartmut Scholz of the CVMA (Freiburg) for drawing my attention to the Dürer woodcut.
- T. Erbe (Ed.) Mirk’s Festial: A collection of homilies by Johannes Mirkus (John Mirk), Part I, London, 1905. This is now available online.
- R. Marks, cat entry 561, ‘Warning against idle Gossip’, in Jonathan Alexander & Paul Binski, Age of Chivalry Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, London 1987 (exhibition catalogue)
- R. Marks, The Medieval Stained Glass of Northamptonshire, CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 4, Oxford, 1998
- G. A. Owst, Preaching in Medieval England, Cambridge 1926 and 2010.
- R. Rosewell, Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches, Woodbridge, 2008
- N. Tanner, The Church in Late Medieval Norwich 1370-1532, Toronto, 1984.
- C. Woodforde, The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century, London; New York; Toronto, 1950