Monday, 18 May 2009

The Mystery of the Vanishing Horse Skulls

A while ago I was struck by this passage in the note on Southwold in H Munro Cautley’s Suffolk Churches
In the chancel are a series of stalls with misericordes having fronts with fully traceried panels and standing on a pierced curb of stone. Extending beneath the whole area of these stalls is a chamber 54” deep and 39” wide and this was no doubt provided by the mediaeval builders for some acoustical purpose., as at Norwich in two churches where there are similar chambers, one was filled with acoustical jars and one with horses skulls.
This is an extraordinary image: the hidden heads of dead horses singing along in harmony with the choir. I had to find out which these two churches were. An answer comes earlier in the book, in the section about Choir stalls. Monro Cautley discuss the raising of choir stalls on hollow platforms. He says of the chamber at Southwold:
Unfortunately it has been completely cleared out and no records remain of what was found. There really can be no doubt as to the purposes of these chambers, for in similar ones at the Norwich churches of S.Peter’s Mancroft and S.Peter’s Mountergate, acoustical jars were found built into the walls of the chambers with mouths of the jars facing outward. Specimens of these are in the Norwich Museum.
This is curious. Firstly because our delightfully pagan horse heads go unmentioned, and secondly because it’s not clear why Munro Cautley thinks the chamber at Southwold has been “cleared out“, when the Norwich chambers are described not as having been filled with jars, but rather having them built into their walls. In fact he gives the impression of not having read his own book.

I turn to the only other book on mediaeval church architecture in my limited if somewhat eccentric library: The Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture by Matthew Holbeche Bloxham In the second volume of the 1887 edition he has a section headed Earthen Jars:
Church walls have been found sometimes to contain empty earthenware jars It is supposed they were placed thus for acoustic purposes.
In or about the year 1864 in repairing the chancel of Denford Church Northamptonshire some singular orifices were discovered on the north side over the arcading which lines the chancel, and beneath a discharging arch. These orifices had all originally contained or been lined by earthenware pots, the bottoms of which had been removed. In one of them the pot still remained. Some years ago some earthen vessels were found immured in the walls of a church in Oxfordshire. In 1852, during restorations carried out in St Peter’s Mancroft, Norwich, the remains of passages were found under the chancel floor, having earthen jars embedded in their side walls. The vessels of red ware with a slight glaze on the uper part wee laid horizontally , about 4 feet apart, their mouths being flush with the face of the wall; they measured 8 inches in height, and the diameter was about 6 inches.
This seems pretty definitive. Bloxam was writing much nearer the time of the restoration and his description is clear and precise. And anyway, some of the jars remain in the collection of the Norfolk Museums service.

But what of St Peter Mountergate ? (There are several variations on the name.) An internet search turns this up in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries for 1873 :

James Fowler, Esq. FSA exhibited a plan, three views and a section of one of the so-called Acoustic Pots, discovered at fountains Abbey in 1854, and described by Mr Walbran in his guide. The arrangement is similar to, but much less complete than that discovered about the same time in the churches of S.Peter Mancroft and S.Peter-per-Mountergate Norwich, described by Mr Minns*
No horse skulls here either. I downloaded a couple of books with chapters on the subject of acoustic jars. In his contribution to Antiques and Curiosities of the Church , edited by William Andrews FRSA , published in 1897, George C. Yates FSA gives further details. The find at St Peter Mountergate is described as being of a similar nature to that of St Peter Mancroft, but the jars having ears and handles. At the very end of the article Yates says
Occaisionally the skulls of horses have been found in sacred buildings, the popular idea being that, like earthenware jars, they were built in for acoustic purposes.
We’re back on the trail. Usefully, TF Thiselton Dyer, in Church Lore Gleanings, published a little earlier, in 1892, covers the same subject in more detail. He explains:
Occaisionally the skulls of horses have been found in sacred buildings; the popular idea being that, like earthenware jars, they were built in for acoustic purposes.
Just a minute, haven’t we been here before? In fact no less than four of the ten pages of Yates’s article (on finds at East Harling, Leeds (Kent), Fountains Abbey and Youghal, (though not incidentally, those at Norwich) are taken verbatim from the one chapter of Thiselton Dyer’s book. It seems even fellows of Royal Societies aren’t above a little cut -and- paste. Thiselton Dyer goes on:
…although it has been suggested that the remains of sheep and horses found under the floors of churches indicate the traces of heathen sacrifice on the spot in earlier times. Some years ago “ a horses head was placed under the organ of a parish church in Munster,to give increade effect to the music, “A superstition” writes a correspondent of Notes and Queries (4thS. Iii.564), “very prevalent in the county Clare…” In the bell turret of Elsdon Church Northumberland, there were found built in the masonry three skulls of horses. Horse’s skulls. too, have frequently been put into the sounding board of Presbyterian ministers in Scotland:and when an old meeting house in Bristo Street, Edinburgh was taken downin the early part of the present century, to make way for the church, the old sounding board above the pulpit was found filled with horses skulls.
Fascinating stuff.But no mention of them being used in chambers under choir stalls, or why H. Munro Cautley should have made this peculiar suggestion

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