Facing Sin – Image and Identity on Medieval Dartmoor

by Sue Andrew (Newsletter 34, pp15–21) – 20th November 2008.

2nd Annual Research lecture — ‘Facing Sin — Image

and Identity on Medieval Dartmoor’

An audience of about forty members and non-members gathered in

the foyer of the new Roland Levinsky Building at the University of

Plymouth on 20 November for a wine reception followed by a

sparkling lecture given by Sue Andrew in the adjoining Jill Craigie


Sue delighted us with extraordinary and colourful images from

numerous medieval Dartmoor churches displayed on the

impressively large screen. This was ground-breaking material, giving

fresh insight into the medieval religious world, and raising questions

about penitence, the importance of women in medieval Devon , and

the position adopted for prayer, among many other fascinating

aspects. Most of all was a sense of the breathtaking quality of

surviving medieval craftsmanship still to be seen in our churches.

The Dartmoor Society much appreciates the support for the lecture

we received from Dartmoor National Park Authority and also from

the Research & Graduate Affairs Office in the Faculty of Arts,

University of Plymouth . A sum of £115.67 was raised towards the

Research Fund.


Many of the late medieval roofs of the parish churches of Dartmoor

are decorated with oak bosses, carved to cover the joints of ribs and

purlins. While the majority of these are foliate, of those figural

bosses which survive most are carved with human heads, singly,

paired or occasionally four heads meeting at their chins. Both male

and female heads appear on the bosses and they display a variety

of headdresses and facial expressions.

In order to try and understand why these bosses may have been

carved in such a manner, one must look at their medieval

architectural and religious context. This involves not only looking at

what survives in the churches now but also looking at evidence of

that which has been lost through periods of iconoclasm, particularly


the Reformation of the sixteenth century, and also during the so-

called ‘restoration’ of the Victorian era.


The medieval church building was a complex structure with areas of

greater and lesser holiness. The chancel, where the high altar was

housed, was the most holy part and the responsibility of the clergy,

whilst nave and aisles, including the rood screen, were the

responsibility of the laity. Against the rood screen in the aisles might

be set up subsidiary altars with images of the saints and the walls

would almost certainly have been plastered and painted – again with

images of the saints or perhaps one or more of the seven deadly

sins. Although Devon has very few wall paintings extant, there is a

fragment at Branscombe in east Devon, where a devil with long

lance pierces the bodies of a finely dressed courting couple. This is

said to represent the silt of lust.

Most commonly, there would have been an image of the Day of

Judgment, known as the Doom, when the fate of souls would be

determined. Here the penalties faced by sinners were displayed in

gory detail — the impenitent would be cast into the gaping mouth of

hell. Often St Michael would be pictured with his scales, as in

stained glass in Doddiscombsleigh church, weighing a good soul,

while a small devil pulls on the scales trying to redress the balance.

Although the little devil is a restoration in this window, this

configuration is known elsewhere in the country and was an image

that would have been familiar in the Middle Ages.


There is no doubt that death and the afterlife preoccupied the minds

of the people of medieval Dartmoor. The plague, which had taken

hold in the early months of 1349 and had devastated the population,

returned on a regular basis and prayers were said for protection

from further pestilence. Some saints were believed to be especially

helpful in warding off the disease and their images can still be found

in the churches of Dartmoor. A wonderful painting of St Roche, a

saint who had helped victims before succumbing himself to the

sickness, is to be found on the roodscreen of Holne church. The

saint did not die but was saved by his faith and with the help of a

small dog who brought bread to the woods where St Roche had

isolated himself. The dog is pictured on the screen with the saint

who reveals the plague sore on his thigh.

The image which would have dominated the whole church stood on

the loft above the screen or on a beam above this. This was the

great rood, the cross on which could be seen the figure of the

suffering Christ who had died to redeem the sins of mankind. No

complete roods from the medieval period have survived from

churches in England but a figure of the suffering Christ can be seen

in stained glass in Cadbury church in Devon. This glass was once

part of a seven sacraments window although the glass portraying

the sacraments is long gone. Fortunately, images of the sacraments

may still be found in stained glass in Doddiscombsleigh church, and

the window is a valuable record of medieval liturgical practice

showing how God’s grace was imparted to his people through the

rites of the eucharist, marriage, confirmation, ordination, baptism,

extreme unction and beneath the feet of Christ, penance. Each of

the sacraments is linked to the wounds of Christ by streams of red

glass, symbolising his blood, and vividly reinforcing the church’s

teaching that each derived its power from Christ’s sacrifice.

At the heart of the liturgy lay the eucharist, when the body and blood

of Christ became real so that the church and world might be

renewed. The path to the eucharist lay through penance, for only

those who lived a virtuous life or who made amends for their sins

through the penitential system of the church might benefit from

reception of the Host. In the late medieval church in Devon, the way

in which penance should be administered was prescribed by Bishop

Peter Quinel of Exeter in his Synodal Statutes of 1287. The bishop

determined that parish priests in his diocese should be fully

instructed in the art of hearing confession so that, like wise doctors,

they would be able to heal the souls of those who had transgressed.

He decreed that parishioners should be encouraged to come to

confession three times a year, at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost

or, at the very least, at the beginning of Lent.

From Quinel’s Statutes and from sermon literature, it is clear that

there was an ongoing emphasis on the penitential process during

the late Middle Ages and this seems to have been reflected in

images in stained glass, in wall paintings and carved on the roof

bosses. Obviously the scope for narrative in a large wall painting or

in stained glass would be much greater than that afforded on a

relatively small oak boss — many measure less than 30 centimetres

in diameter. But perhaps their size makes them particularly suitable

for the portrayal of human heads, many of which must be carved

almost life size. Housing most of the sensory organs, the head was

believed by many theologians to be the seat of the soul and the core

of individual identity. lt was therefore highly suited for use in a visual

programme which encouraged self examination prior to confession.

In order to be effective in such a programme, the designs on the

bosses would have had to have been recognisable. Looking at

examples from South Tawton, where the north aisle roof is now

boarded and dark stained and where the bosses are unpainted, and

Harberton where a similar boss appears painted and set against a

celled and painted roof, the difference is quite striking.

It is probable that the figural bosses in the parish churches of Devon

were intended to be seen — moreover, the viewer may have

observed the bosses during periods of prayer. Medieval illustrations

of two different modes of prayer clearly show heads tilted back and

eyes raised heavenward which would bring roof bosses into direct

view. This position was also associated with recollection.

If the bosses were seen during periods of recollection and prayer,

what part might they have played in the late medieval religious

experience? One modern writer has compared the medieval church

building to an ‘engine of prayer’ with moving parts. Considering the

bosses in this light, they may be seen as cogs which facilitated

effective prayer by encouraging the penitent to recollect the nature

of sinful acts committed, thereby enabling him to feel contrition, to

confess and to pay penance. The bosses would also have acted as

a constant reminder that further lapses were possible and in this way

would support the Paternoster, the Lord’s Prayer, with its plea ‘lead

us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…’

Many of the bosses seem to refer to the sin of pride, from which, in

Quinel’s words, ‘every wicked offspring of the vices takes its origin’.

A boss of a woman’s head, in the north aisle of Ugborough church,

shows her garbed in a horned headdress with a devil perched on

top. The horned headdress came in for particular condemnation in

medieval sermons. Women who wore such apparel were likened to

wild beasts or devils and ‘the soul which has the mastery in a horned

woman, as of a butting ox, after reason or conscience or the

preacher shall have warned it that those horns are a cause of

damnation to others, is spiritually slain and doomed to everlasting


Another boss of two heads, one female and one male, again from

the north aisle of Ugborough, may also refer to pride and to one of

the many categories of ‘sins of the tongue’, among them boasting,

whispering and backbiting, insults, outcries and blasphemy, perjury,

scurrility and loquacity. These sins were referred to in Quinel’s

summula which states that a penitent ought to recall his words,

because ‘the tongue is the font of all sin’. The bird in the woman’s

headdress may be a screech-owl of which the Bestiary says: ‘The

screech owl is the symbol of all sinners. [It] gets its name from its cry

because its mouth speaks what overflows in its heart. ..lt is burdened

with feathers to signify an excess of flesh and levity of spirit, always

bound by heavy laziness, the same laziness which binds sinners

who are inert and idle when it comes to doing good.’ A boss from the

north aisle of South Tawton church also depicts an owl in a woman’s

headdress — this time wearing it.

A boss from Christow shows two men engaged in sinful speech.

Above them a small devil holds a scroll in his teeth. It has been

noted that ‘idle talk’ or ‘jangling’, which disrupted pastoral instruction,

was seen as a major threat to the authority of the church during the

Middle Ages and warnings against it appeared frequently in

penitential manuals, sermon collections, and religious treatises. The

figure above the men is the demon Tutivillus, who recorded idle talk

on his scroll to be read out before God on the Day of Judgment.

Tutivillus had become a commonplace in penitential, sermonizing

and literary texts and in wall paintings, stained glass and carvings by

the end of the fourteenth century.

The Christow boss is most unusual, if not unique, in its

representation of men engaged in ‘idle talk’ — almost everywhere

else in the country, gossip is gendered as female. The bosses

alluding to gossip (those of two male heads at Christow and male

and female heads set together at Buckland-in —the-Moor, South

Tawton, Ugborough and elsewhere) are all in the nave or north

aisles of their respective churches, and would, very probably, have

been paid for by the laity. Women in Devon are recorded as

contributing to the upkeep of the church and they seem to have

been unusually well integrated in parochial activities, so it may be

that they had some say in the images on the bosses and were keen

to see men as well as women depicted in warnings against idle talk.

One of the most common designs on roof bosses in the churches of

Dartmoor is that of a head, usually male in appearance, which has

foliage coming from its mouth and sometimes also from eyes or

ears. Although much has been written about this image, sometimes

called the Green Man, it may be understood best in the context of

the penitential process. Chaucer had written that ‘Penitence may be

likened to a tree, having, its root in contrition, binding itself in the

heart as a tree-root does in the earth; out of this root springs a stalk,

that bears branches and leaves of confession, and fruit of

satisfaction…. Penance is the tree of life to them that receive it.’

The images carved in the roof spaces of its churches give us a

unique insight into the concerns of the medieval parishioners of

Dartmoor. They represent an outstanding resource in our

understanding of people who were largely illiterate and who have left

little trace in the historical record. The bosses may have moved

them to a new understanding of their sins and, through the

penitential process and prayer, strengthened their faith. Looking at

these carvings, many probably in their original positions after five

hundred years, it is hard for us not to feel moved by their extraordinary power.

Churches on and around Dartmoor where figural roof bosses may be seen include Ashburton, Bovey Tracey, Bridford, Buckland-in-the-

Moor, Buckland Monachorum, Chagford, Christow, Drewsteignton,

Ilsington, Meavy, North Bovey, North Tawton, South Tawton,

Tavistock, Throwleigh, Ugborough and Widecombe-in-the-Moor.


Sue Andrew

Sue Andrew is a postgraduate student in the Faculty of Arts. Her research for a PhD is on

figurative carving in the medieval churches of Devon. This topic has never before been studied

in any depth relating to Dartmoor and is thus pioneer work, revealing the extraordinary

craftsmanship in timber and other materials in Dartmoor churches, and also exploring the

meaning of the carvings and imagery.

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