15.03.04, Huitson, Stairway to Heaven

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Katherine L. French

The Medieval Review 15.03.04

Huitson, Toby. Stairway to Heaven: the Functions of Medieval Upper Spaces. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014. Pp. vii, 264. ISBN: 9781842176658 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Katherine L. French
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Those who have crawled around medieval churches of various kinds are familiar with the narrow, twisting staircases that lead to spectacular views for those brave and flexible enough to make the steep and narrow climb, or to the truncated remains of inaccessible galleries high above our heads. Focusing largely on the churches in Kent, Toby Huitson's book Stairway to Heaven examines the construction, form, and uses of these upper spaces. As he points out in his introduction, the existence of upper spaces is obvious, but medieval and post-medieval renovation and additions have often made their original arrangement unclear, and lack of written material often makes their original or secondary functions unknown. Consequently, there are many theories about the function of these spaces. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquarians believed that rooms above church porches often housed an anchorite or other recluse. The so-called 'Old Bakery' chamber over St. Anselm's chapel at Canterbury Cathedral was reputed by antiquary William Gostling to have been a prison for King John II of France after the English captured him in the Hundred Years' War. These and other theories, Huitson argues, were put forth with limited systematic study of either the structures themselves or the surviving sources. His broad comparisons and careful analysis of individual building's construction history allows him to argue that these upper spaces served a variety of purposes, which changed as the communities using the building grew, reformed, and renovated their churches.

In eight fulsomely illustrated chapters, Huitson takes us through many churches, mostly abbeys, collegiate churches, and cathedrals, but also parish churches and the occasional secular building as appropriate to discuss the many functions and evolutions of upper spaces. His first chapter provides a detailed description of staircase construction, and the upper spaces to which they provided access. While there was no single type of staircase, spiral stairs were perhaps most common, or most enduring. Masons changed their method of constructing these staircases in the early thirteenth century from a separate newel and tread supported by a semi-circular barrel vault, to a newel and tread created out of a single block of stone. This change Huitson argues probably cost less and was easier to build, but he also connects it to a shift from Romanesque to Gothic style. Stairs led to a variety of galleries, walkways, and rooms, which were often later additions, or amended by subsequent construction and renovation. In high status buildings, such as cathedrals or abbey churches, wall passages above the nave were common. Architectural historians, Huitson states, have assumed that these passages were to lighten the load of the wall, which undoubtedly they did, but medieval architects also carried these passages through critical structural points, suggesting that they took this risk because the passages had other purposes as well. Parish churches, with their small budgets and smaller size had less complex upper spaces, but like many large monastic churches, often had rood lofts, and rooms above their porches. In parish churches, often the only evidence of roodscreens and lofts swept away by the Reformation were the entrance and exit points to the staircase.

In the next five chapters Huitson examines in detail the various functions of these upper spaces. Most uses related to the liturgy or its enhancement. Altars and chapels were often located in upper spaces, such as the chapel of St. Giles, located above the chapel of St. John the Evangelist at Bury St. Edmunds. Huitson suggests this practice of building upper-level chapels derived from France. While, rooms for anchorites were less common than antiquarians had supposed, some did dwell in upper rooms, such as the chamber above the south porch at St. Mary, Rye in Sussex. Galleries also provided a visually powerful vantage point for viewing and hearing the liturgy, something that the priors of Durham apparently appreciated. Upper spaces also augmented the liturgy by providing places for dramatic lighting. Norwich Cathedral apparently placed wax candles in gallery spaces and clerestory walkways during important feast-days. Similarly, there is a rare fifteenth-century drawing of the rood with candles for the now-demolished parish church of St. Andrew, Canterbury. Huitson also found evidence of dramatic performances, where monks and parishioners decorated their galleries and lofts with drapery to provide background for processions, readings, and singing. For Huitson, upper spaces also include bell towers, and so sound from these spaces also augmented the liturgy.

Beyond direct augmentation of the liturgy, parochial, cathedral, and monastic communities used their upper spaces for more practical day-to-day uses such as housing the clock, storing vestments and liturgical vessels, and for keeping the muniments, libraries, or other administrative records, such as at Westminster Abbey. Huitson has also found evidence of upper spaces being used as living and work spaces. At Cleeve Abbey in Somerset, the refectory was in an upper space, while someone used the upstairs room above the Christ Church Gate at Canterbury as a bed room. At both York and Wells Cathedrals, upper spaces served as temporary workspaces for the buildings' masons as they renovated the buildings. For yet other communities, upper spaces served as dovecotes and granaries, although not at the same time.

In the last substantive chapter, Huitson argues that scholars interested in the use of buildings or other structures need to look beyond just the structure and its fittings to understand its function. Physical evidence for one function does not preclude other simultaneous or subsequent uses, and particular uses could be found in multiple places. Additionally, some functions leave no traces. Thus he argues for a six-step process of analysis that requires focusing not only on the building in question, but situating it in the larger context of other buildings and knowledge of monastic and parochial practices more broadly. He then applies this method to several upper spaces, whose uses have been highly contested, such as the 'Old Bakery' at Canterbury Cathedral. His approach, he argues, calls for a larger reassessment of how scholars approach the analysis of buildings.

Huitson's study opens up new ways of thinking about the liturgy, and how religious communities used their buildings to further the glory of God. Concentration on upper levels allows readers to understand that height was more than an end unto itself, employed to add light, give perspective, and promote a multi-sensorial experience of the liturgy. That being said, the topic of upper spaces as Huitson approaches it involves more than the liturgy and becomes somewhat unwieldy; rood lofts and bedrooms above gate houses are really quite different animals, with only their locations off the main floor in common. This lack of commonality becomes more obvious in Huitson's organization. He places his discussion of the three masons' identifiable handiwork on the staircase at the church at Hythe at the end of the book, rather than with his chapter on the construction of staircases, and he oddly places his discussion of the sleeping arrangements of monastic or cathedral servants in the chapter on "Supporting the Liturgy," rather than in his chapter on "Behind the Scenes," where he discusses upper-level dormitories. Nonetheless, the variety of topics Huitson gathers together under the aegis of upper levels also adds to our understanding of the practical aspects of living and working in a religious community.

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Author Biography

Katherine L. French

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor