The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Lychnoscopes in East Anglia

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has given us a new insight into what happens during an infectious plague. We have been unused to them for many years, and none in recorded history  have been as extraordinarily severe as the Black Death that may have killed 60% of the inhabitants of northern Europe. Because we weren't, until now, familiar with the effect that plagues have on society, some aspects of history have long puzzled us.

As a local historian, the pandemic has given me a new insight into lychnoscopes. A friend died during the lockdown and the congregation at the funeral service had no choice but to sit or stand outside in the churchyard to pay their respects, and listen to the service through the windows and doors. There were no lychnoscopes to help them. 
Lychnoscopes are a type of 'squint' or hagioscope.

Hagioscopes are splayed openings or tunnels at seated eye-level in an old church.  They tend to penetrate obliquely south-east or north-east through an internal wall. Squints or Hagioscopes were often cut into the chancel arch; Where they were intended to allow people in the porch to attend a service, a series of openings were created in the walls obliquely in a straight line between the porch and the altar; They were the subject of much discussion amongst Victorian antiquarians because their purpose has been lost to history. The most obvious explanation has been that  it gives the entire congregation, including those whose view was obscured by screens or tombs,  a view of the the elevation of the host. This requirement usually disappeared after the reformation when so much decoration was removed.  

It has been suggested that the verger or sexton were provided with a hagioscope so that they could ring the Sanctus bell when the Host was elevated, or to warn the bell-ringers or church orchestra when to start.

Sometimes squints were made to allow nuns or hermits to observe the services without having to give up their isolation. Some churches had twin purposes, both as a parish church and the chapel of a convent or monastery. In St Helen's Church in london, church records show that the squint in this case was not enough to restrain the nuns, who were eventually admonished to "abstain from kissing secular persons", a practice to which it seems they had become "too prone"

Many squints were very odd because they were made in external walls, and it has always been assumed that they were created in existing churches so that the infectious members of the congregation such as lepers could see the service without risk to the assembled congregation. They have generally been walled up and are difficult to detect but many churches had them. Often they are  roughly made, and it is obvious that they are a later, sometimes hurried, insertion into an existing building. They are termed leper windows or lychnoscopes. They  were often created as a low window in the chancel wall,  protected by either a wooden shutter or iron bars. There is no evidence that they were ever glazed: They are low enough on the wall to allow even the shortest person to see  in from the outside, They do not invariably point the same way. There is generally an internal, and seldom an external splay. The larger ones are usually transomed.

They tend to occur either...
  • singly on one side of the chancel.
  • several on one aide of the chancel.
  • on both sides of the chancel.
  • in the nave, or other unusual places.
  • in connection with Hagioscopes
Lychnoscopes were used in every style of Church from early Romanesque to Perpendicular; but are most frequent in the Early Gothic. They can occur almost anywhere, but are most usual at the south-west angle of the chancel. 

Lychnoscopes aren't  very frequent around here. St Margaret, East Tilbury, Holy Trinity Littlebury, Little Cornard, Gedding, Rougham, Little Wenham, Ickworth, Lound and Raydon. Its usual position is on the south side of the chancel, but at Wenham it is on the north, and at Raydon there is one in each wall. The example at Gedding is unusual in that there is no window above it.

The best-known instance of squints or Hagioscopes in Suffolk are at Drinkstone, where it is on the south side and of very small size; and at Gedding, where there is one of a considerable height on each side of the Chancel arch, forming a prominent feature in the interior. 

There is seldom any tradition as to their use. As well as the traditional explanation that they allowed lepers to observe communion, it has also been said that lychnoscopes were exterior confessionals, that they were used for watching the Pasch-light, that they were offertory-windows, or that they were symbolical of the Wound in the Saviour's Side. Although they would be most likely to be used by people in quarantine, It could be that a previous virulent strain of  'cold' (Coronovirus) or Flu could have required the frailer of society to participate in services via a  Lychnoscope, not because they were infectious, but because they didn't want to take the risk of catching it from the congregation.


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