Ring-givers and Romans : the cultural roots of Anglo-Saxon church architecture
Catherine Edith Hundley
Master of Arts Thesis, Georgetown University (2010)
For at least two hundred years, scholars have debated the architectural influences affecting Anglo-Saxon churches. By recognizing the presence of continental building elements, critics often dismissed pre-Conquest churches as inferior imitations of Roman or Carolingian design. Architectural historians seldom acknowledged potential insular influences on minster architecture, while the integrated culture of Germanic British Christians has never been adequately tied to the architecture of the Anglo-Saxon church. Yet, it is this syncretistic culture that enabled the distinctive design of pre-Conquest churches. This thesis will place Anglo-Saxon church architecture within its broader cultural context.
Evidence for this synthesis was gleaned through site visits to selected Anglo-Saxon churches in southern England, in concert with analysis of surviving decorative arts, literature, and primary source texts. Where appropriate, select secondary sources are also included. The nine churches profiled in this thesis display a variety of floor plans, building materials, and decorative arts, yet they share the cultural aesthetic of localized reinterpretation. Although primary source texts were consulted, few surviving documents are linked to standing churches. This dearth of written material heightens the importance of the buildings themselves as primary source “documents,” and fuller understanding of these churches will significantly advance the study of Anglo-Saxon religious and cultural history. These buildings are expressions of a culture that combined Germanic, continental, and insular influences to create a distinctive religious life and architecture.
More importantly, no two are exactly alike. Although surviving churches of the Anglo-Saxon era employ a common architectural vocabulary, each church used established elements to create a local architectural expression. This independence is consistent with the decentralized nature of the Anglo-Saxon political and ecclesiastical landscape. By understanding the endless variations of form within a common architectural vocabulary, it is possible to understand the Anglo-Saxon church as an institution at once in dialogue with the larger Christian world yet focused on its local mission. Reading each building in concert with the literature, political history, and monastic discourse of the era does much to illuminate the broader understanding of the Anglo-Saxon era.