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The Social History of the English Medieval Cathedral

The sixteen surviving medieval cathedrals of England conjure up powerful and emotive images of the Middle Ages. Their well documented histories reveal the process of construction and alteration with great clarity, with the identification of the sequence of architectural styles being regarded as critical. What is less frequently considered, however, are the reasons why they were built in the way they were, and how they were intended to be used. An appreciation of the social history of the period is often the essential key to understanding the architectural development.

Before the Norman Conquest the cathedrals of the fifteen dioceses were sited in historic centres associated with Saxon saints. There are few visible remains of these buildings and many were fairly small. This reflects the relatively low significance placed on the cathedral in the tenth-century church. They were places of pilgrimage rather than government, and the site was often of more significance than the building.

In the second half of the eleventh century the gradual change in the theology and structures of the church, led to a reappraisal of the function of the cathedral. Even before the Conquest this had generated new building projects and ideas for church reform. Edward the Confessor was influenced by the fresh ideas in church design already spreading through Normandy, and in 1044 he brought over the Abbot Robert from the pioneering abbey of Jumieges to re-organise the monastery at Westminster, while also beginning to completely rebuild the abbey itself (1050- 65).

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