Maundy Thursday: time to welcome back the sinners! Exeter University unearths medieval rituals
In the Christian faith, Maundy Thursday is the day that Christ conducted the Last Supper with the apostles; in the Middle Ages it was also the day on which heinous sinners were reconciled with the Christian community after 40 days of being ostracised from society. The way in which these sinners were expelled from and then welcomed back into the community in medieval England and Wales forms part of a new research project being led by a historian at Exeter University.
The Arts Humanities and Research Council (AHRC) funded project focuses on the re-enactment of a medieval liturgical rite for the reconciliation of penitents in a medieval parish church (St Teilo’s) located at St Fagans National History Museum near Cardiff.
This re-enactment is part of a wider study as to how rites such as those for baptism, marriage and funerals, would have been conducted. The text and music for the service which will be re-enacted was originally written for Salisbury cathedral, and became the standard written form for services in most churches in southern England and Wales in the later Middle Ages. However, the way in which such rites were conducted must have differed from the written text in smaller, more local churches.
Dr Sarah Hamilton, a historian at Exeter University said: “Enactments were written for a large cathedral setting and all the music and text could not be used in a smaller church setting. We are exploring what was cut and how the rite was likely to have been performed. This also helps in our understanding of social, religious and ideological issues, using liturgical material to study otherwise little known areas of medieval life.”
These rites would have involved the whole community. For example, when a repentant sinner was physically brought back into the church members of the congregation lay down on the floor to show that they were are humble sinners too and ask for forgiveness.
The project is in collaboration with the University of Kent and Dr Helen Gittos, a historian at Kent, said: “Ritualised actions played an important role in medieval religious, social and political life. This research brings together historians, musicologists, literary scholars, theologians, palaeographers and art and architectural historians, to discuss the problems involved in studying the surviving evidence for occasional services.”