Standing on Holy Ground in the Middle Ages, by Lucy Donkin

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This is an important book that inaugurates a paradigm shift in the study of religious architecture and ritual. Lucy Donkin draws the reader’s gaze downwards to the paving within church interiors, calling her readers to consider religious space from the bottom up. The surface of the ground, she argues, ‘played a crucial and hitherto underestimated role in the definition of places and people during the Middle Ages’ (p. 21). It is this role that she sets out to reconstruct, using a broad range of medieval sources. Throughout the book, Donkin calls our attention to layers of ground-surfaces stacked on top of each other, suggesting a ‘stratigraphic approach’ for analysing their interdependence. The layers she identifies prove to be surprisingly rich, with numerous strata underneath the paving. Slicing through the different floor-levels, she considers under-layers such as graves dug under churches, relics buried under the altar, sacred soil sprinkled on the earth beneath later paving; details of the floors themselves, examined as markers and guides; ephemeral drawings made in coal or ashes during services; top-layers such as items placed on the floor during certain rituals (from precious silks to haircloths), or tomb-slabs that visibly bulge out of the paving surface. Above and on top of all these, and perhaps the most important for the reconstruction of paving as meaningful, are the people who interacted with the surfaces in different ways. Like the different layers of floor surfaces themselves, the types of calculated human interactions with the floor prove to be surprisingly varied. Beyond the necessary contact with the feet of every person stepping into church-space, Donkin traces such actions as ritual prostration, ceremonial walking patterns, careful avoidance of walking in certain areas, stepping on spread-out coverings such as fabrics, writing out letters on floors as part of services, the laying out of the dead and more.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1398-1399
Number of pages2
JournalEnglish Historical Review
Issue number594-595
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2023


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