Folklore in the Church:
the Stones of Lastingham Speak Silently
by Elissa Michele Zacher
Folklore consists of traditions
or practices that cause ‘lore’ or are the result of communal
popular beliefs. This includes interpretations of folk practice,
such as superstition, popular religion and local knowledge and
myth. It is the material culture and social customs of a people (Gazin-Schwartz
& Holtorff, 1999: 3). This shared culture makes an individual part
of a group through the continuity of tradition and ritual (Sharpe,
1997: 287). What folklore can be seen in the stone fabric of
English churches, especially in St Mary’s Church, in my own
village of Lastingham, North Yorkshire?
St Mary’s Church marks the site
of the Anglo-Saxon monastery of St Cedd, founded in 654, but
abandoned during the Viking raids (Jenkins, 1999: 178). In 1078,
Stephen, Abbot of Whitby, received permission to rebuild the
monastery at Lastingham as a Benedictine house. Stephen first had
the crypt built as a shrine to Cedd, over the spot the saint was
probably buried, and then began a new abbey church. In 1088, he
moved to York and the site was abandoned (Lastingham Parochial
Church Council, 1997: 4). The partially built abbey formed the
basis of the present church, which became a parochial church in
1228. In the 13th century, the north aisle was added
(ibid.: 9-10). The above-ground structure has an apse and
short chancel (Weston, 1914: 224). In the 14th century
the south aisle was pulled down and rebuilt on a slightly wider
scale and in the Decorated style. Other renovations occurred in
1831 and 1879 (Kennedy, n.d.: 11). The crypt is two-aisled with a
small chancel and apse and Norman piers (Jenkins, 1999: 178) and
nine low groin vaults with thick columns (Pevsner, 1978: 26). The
bases of the Norman columns in the crypt appear to be of
pre-Conquest workmanship. (Lastingham Parochial Church Council,
1997: 4). St Mary’s, Lastingham, has both a south and a north door
still in use. The south porch is recorded as having three mason’s
marks (Russell, 1914: 528), although I have not found them.
The folklore of Lastingham
Church revolves mainly around changes to portals. There is the
closure of a door and its passageway, possibly due to liturgical
change, which created local myth over many generations. There was
also the temporary closure of the north door. In addition, there
is the perceived holiness of the south door and its unusual lintel
of recycled stone.
The folklore of walled up
church north doors, the “devil’s door”, is possibly linked with
the Reformation, when some liturgical practices involving the
north door were banned. For example, during baptisms the devil was
thought to leave the child, through the north door, which was
frequently positioned opposite the font (Gutch, 1899: 384). This
notion could have originated in the Doctrine of the Cardinal
Points, which taught that Satan dwelt on the north side of heaven
before his fall (Colgrave: 1945: 3), and therefore the north must
be “bad”. Another reason for the north’s unsavoury reputation may
come from the Scandinavian “pagan” belief that the underworld was
below the third root on the north side of the tree of Yggdrasill
(Johnson, 1912: 334). Brian Hoggard thinks (pers. comm., 2002)
that some aims of the Reformation were to reduce the folk belief
attached to the physical structure of the church, and to block
entries that let in the cold. In addition, with the Dissolution of
the Monasteries and the Reformation, there was the purging of
saints’ devotionals and their associated pilgrimages, which
resulted in less church income. Maintenance levels of individual
churches would have varied, depending on the proceeds of each, and
modifications to the structures may have resulted.
The reuse of stonework,
including “pagan” iconographic blocks, has occurred in churches
from the early Post-Roman period onwards; such masonry is often
located in the chancel, porch, doors, nave and arches (Catling,
1998: 63, 69) and is frequently, blatantly visible. A local
example is a Roman altar in Malton Priory, a common occurrence in
the north of England. The historical Church’s view on this
practice was contradictory and varied. Pope Gregory ordered Abbot
Mellitus to convert pagan temples to Christian use only to tell
King Ethelbert to destroy them (Eaton, 2000: 99). In his “The Law
of the Northumbrian Priests”, Archbishop Wulfstan instructed the
early 11th century clergy not to put “unsuitable
things” in churches (Hey, 1986: 23). Tim Eaton proposes a number
of possible explanations as to the reasoning behind the reuse of
stonework: pragmatism, acquiring apotropaic (deflecting evil)
attributes intrinsic to the imagery, acquiring the perceived power
of the icons and inscriptions in a positive manner for the Church
and negating/controlling this same power by surrounding the stone
by the physical church (2003: 70) and its inherent holiness that
came from being a building dedicated to God.
When I first came to
Lastingham, the door on the north side of the main body of the
church was quite firmly closed. Yet, it was still there,
contrasting other churches in the area like All Saints in
Sinnington, which has blocked doors on the western and northern
sides. The present incumbent has inquired about the closed north
door and was told that it was only permanently shut in the
mid-1990s, following a burglary. Before then it was in occasional
use (Ferguson, 2008. Pers. Comm). Therefore, the shutting of this
particular portal has nothing to do with liturgy and ritual and
everything to do with practicality – it leads to a less visible
part of the graveyard and access to the main road.
On the north side of the crypt
is a narrow “dog leg” corridor, with tunnel vaulting, leading to a
door which has long been blocked up. Kennedy believes this tunnel
was the original entrance to Stephen’s crypt chapel (n.d.: 11) and
that pilgrims could go directly to the shrine of St Cedd
(Lastingham Parochial Church Council, 1997: 4). Primary attendance
on the saint was part of local ritual and liturgy in many
churches. However, in 1559, under Elizabeth I, the two Acts of
Supremacy and Uniformity ended saints’ days, votive masses,
Purgatory, pardons, pilgrimages, indulgences, holy water, incense,
pagan and semi-pagan practices (Paul, 1996: 37). During the
English Reformation images were removed and certain ceremonies
were denounced as superstitious (Hey, 1986: 127-8).
Over time, legends became
attached to this door. One fable is that it was a secret route,
via a long tunnel, for the Catholic priests to escape out onto the
moors during the Reformation. The second is that priests would
secretly visit the nuns at Rosedale Abbey (Gutch, 1899: 395). In
1859, Whellan recorded in his History of the North Riding,
there were persons who could remember when the tunnel was still
open to about 40 or 50 yards (Bulmer, 1890), though whether this
passage was navigable or not is not mentioned. No evidence of a
tunnel has ever been found. However, once the wall was opened up,
rubble was located (Weston, 1914: 72). Unfortunately, any physical
evidence in the external wall has been obliterated by restoration
and the construction of a vestry. What does this tradition of
naughty nuns and priests have to do with the alteration of the
crypt? Was this the method by which the new Church denigrated the
old by allowing (or creating) such lore to put the Roman Church in
a bad light? Did the folk tale replace the truth? – the existence
of a pre-Reformation ambulatory focused on St Cedd’s burial, which
the new Church may have wished people to forget? Knowing the
geography of the area, I imagine the crypt tunnel was on the north
side for practical reasons. Did the fact that the passage is on
the north side, the devil’s side, have any bearing on its closure?
However, when was this passage closed? An engraving from 1816
clearly shows an external door in this area (Lastingham Parochial
Church Council, 2006), but is this the door to the tunnel or to
the vestry? Yet, there is the seemingly more sympathetic story of
escaping priests to consider as well.
* * *
The lintel of the Lastingham
Church south door is quite unique. I can find no reference to this
slab lintel in parish histories or in the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon
Sculpture. I have found no means by which to date what looks to be
a grave slab with a Scandinavian Yggdrasill. This “Tree of Life”
is a symbol of cosmic regeneration (Wessells, 1994: 149). It binds
heaven, earth and hell, for its evergreen branches are in heaven
while its roots lie in the subterranean world (Evans, 1981: 1209).
The Yggdrasil becomes associated with the cross in the 4th
century (op. cit.: 151), perhaps because of the legend of the
Norse god Odin’s self-sacrifice upon this tree to gain knowledge
(Orchard, 1997: 185-6). The carving has its branches to the east
and its roots in the west. The south door is reset from the 13th
century round headed predecessor when the aisle was widened in the
14th century (Russell, 1914: 528), but was that when
this stone was included? Was it much earlier? It is unlikely to
have been an accidental insertion during the renovation of St
If I am correct in thinking it
is a Scandinavian ‘tree of life’, is this then an example of
Christianising pagan beliefs, or demonstrating that the Church is
the successor to the old ways? Could its location in the south
door bear some relation to the Doctrine of Cardinal Points, that
being the ‘holy’ side? Is it ‘pointing’ east – to the altar or to
the Holy Land?? According to this doctrine, the south and east
were “good” sides (Evans, 1981: 791). Was it to remind the
congregation that salvation lay within through Christ’s (rather
than Odin’s) sacrifice on the cross? If it is a Saxon stone, then
was Stephen (or someone else) trying to appropriate the power and
memory of Cedd’s monastery to enhance the social position of his
own Norman church in the local mindset (just as the Saxons did
with Roman masonry)?
* * *
A building can be thought of as
a text (Jones, 2000: 47, 126-7). The door and tunnel to the
Lastingham crypt have been blocked for some time. If this passage
was part of a processional way deemed unnecessary by the reformed
Church, do we see here a probable effect of the Reformation in the
suppression of saints’ cults? By placing a possible Yggdrasill
stone as the lintel of the south door, was the Church cleansing a
Scandinavian relic or reminding those who entered that the way to
life eternal lay within? These two tales are written in the
fabric of St Mary’s – perhaps someday we will truly know them.
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