Altar Rails- Draft Script

Altar Rails

When I was a child, my mother used to tell me all about the church.  She was a verger at our church, and I was an eager first-year acolyte that wanted to know as much as I could about all of the trappings of the church.  Yea, I was that kid… (stocker)

Anyway, as I was saying, my mother would tell me all sorts of things about why we process the cross in the way we do, why the candles on the altar used to be a really big deal, and there were fights between Christians to have them or not to have them.  One of the explanations that always stuck with me what that the altar rails were originally to keep sheep away from the altar.

What a weird origin story…  what an oddly pragmatic solution…

Here is how I remember her telling it,

“The altar rails were originally but into churches to keep the sheep from chewing or messing on the altar.  You see, back in those days in England, the church was the only large building in the village, unless it was someone was lucky enough to have a barn.  During those cold winters, villagers would have to house their sheep inside the church when the weather was really bad.  And they didn’t have pews in those buildings, so it was just one big stone floor, and the sheep would just spread out.  When people started doing this, they notices that the animals were getting up to the altar and causing a mess, and people didn’t want animals messing with the holy table, so they put rails in front of the altar to keep she sheep out.  It wasn’t until later that the  everyone assigned the religious symbolism of people bowing to receive communion.  It was originally a practical solution to a problem that later was given spiritual significance because it was what people had become accustomed to.”

Well, it may not be exactly how she told it, but that is how I remember it, so (with all apologies to mom), lets take a look at this myth.

This mythical origin story of altar rails has a lot of things going for it.  

1.  It has some historical precedence.  There is a similar myth in history that the altar rails were constructed to keep dogs from fowling the altar and linens.  However, we have to come back to this one in a little bit.

2.   Regarding the housing of animals in the nave, I have heard this angle a few times from different people, but never in an actual historical account or story.  Even a Google search brings up nothing about farmers sheltering animals or livestock in churches during any sort of weather— good or ill.  The closes thing I can find is an advertisement for a local church’s blessing of the animals earlier this year.   I read many medieval and church scholars, and none of them seem to share any notion of sheep or any livestock being housed, even temporarily, in a church.

3.  Churches did used to have bare floors.  Pews first started showing up in English churches in the 13th century, but were in the back or along the sides. The middle of the nave was still an open space.  And what of that space?  Was it earthen? Was it stone?  Perhaps flagstone? 

1.  As it turns out, a good deal of medieval flooring remains, at least in the larger, more famous Cathedrals and churches.  We know there was a medieval possess of laying a tile floor with a raised relief pattern dating from c1000-1050, which was found near Oxford Cathedral. At Durham, a medieval pavement survives on the platform where St Cuthbert’s shrine stood. there is also evidence of  sandstone paving stones from the original east end dating from the 1090s. 

2.  Regardless, pews did start becoming standard by the 15th century, and they weren’t just reserved for the elderly and informed who could not stand, not were they just for the choir, which stood in the back (yes, the choirs used to stand in the back— but that is another episode), they were for the congregation, and they began to become fixed.  So, get back to the myth at hand, yes, there seems to be credence for the open floor of the nave back in the day, but this seems unlikely, as pews were starting be common as early as the 15th century.


4.  Candles on the altar.  Yes, that is a real thing.  There is precedent for practical elements becoming spiritually symbolic.

1.  In the RC— For reasons of religious tradition, the Church used the candles at divine service that are made of [beeswax]

1.  SymbolismTo the three elements of a lit altar candle, some writers attached a symbolism related to Jesus Christ : the beeswax or other material symbolizing his body, the wick his [soul]( , and the flame his divinity

2.  Also, the symbolism of prayer has been connected with candles; the burning flame of the candle represents the prayer that rises to God.


These were city boys

Sheep (or any other livestock) have been doing fine on their own outside for thousands and thousands of years

The Business

Railing was a Reformation thing:  Following the exposition of the doctrine of  transubstantiation  at the fourth  Lateran Council  of 1215, clergy were required to ensure that the  blessed sacrament  was to be kept protected from irreverent access or abuse; and accordingly the area of the church used by the lay congregation was to be screened off from that used by the clergy. Apart from the congregation, pet dogs were often taken to church, and a dog-proof barrier was needed (more recent rails often fail in this).

this is where you need to continue the script, edit the wiki article below

There were medieval structures like communion rails, but the various types of screen were much more common. A church in  Hasle, Bornholm  claims to have “a rare 15th-century altar rail”;[4] perhaps, like other examples, this is in fact a sawn-off medieval screen. The origin of the modern form has been described by one historian as “nebulous”,[5] but it probably emerged from Italy in the 16th century, though the German Lutherans and the  Church of England  were not far behind in adopting it, perhaps without being aware of the Italian versions. In England the rail became one of the focuses of tussles between the  High Church  and  Low Church  factions, and in many churches they were added, removed and re-added at different times.

 Archbishop Laud  was a strong supporter of rails, but the common story that he introduced them to England is incorrect; he was trying to prevent  Puritan  clergy from continuing to remove them, and his pressure in favour of rails was bound up with his very controversial “altar policy”, reasserting the placement of the altar in its medieval position.[6]  Matthew Wren , Laudian  Bishop of Ely , was imprisoned during the whole of the  English Commonwealth  and had to defend himself against charges of enforcing altar rails, which he pointed out had been found in many English churches “time out of mind”.[7] In both Catholic churches and Anglican ones following Laudian instructions, the congregation was now asked to come up to the rails and receive communion kneeling at them, replacing a variety of earlier habits. This too was controversial in England, and the Laudian party did not push too hard for this in many dioceses.[8]


•  The Myth of the Altar Rail

•  What the Myth has going for it.

•  Medieval flooring: Floors of the great medieval churches - Designing Buildings Wiki


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