A Glossary of the Medieval Church

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abbess : female head of a nunnery of the Benedictine or related orders

abbey : large religious house belonging either to one of the orders of the Benedictine family or to certain orders of the Canons Regular (Augustinian Canons)

abbot : the head of a monastic house of the Benedictine or related orders, and of certain orders of Augustinian canons

absolution : the formal act of a priest or bishop pronouncing the forgiveness of sins by Christ to those who are qualified by penitence to receive it

acolyte : the highest of the minor orders of the ministry; they had particular responsibility for candles and assisted in preparations for mass

Advent : the preliminary to Christmas, beginning on the Sunday closest to 30th November

agnus dei : the depiction of a lamb as the symbol of Christ

aisle : part of a church, parallel to and divided by piers or columns from the nave, choir or transept

alb : item of mass vestments; a long tunic decorated with six squares of embroidery known as apparels

Albigensian : a heretical movement found in Germany, Italy and France in the 11th to 13th centuries, based on a dualist belief in two Gods, one of good and one of evil; also known as Cathars

Alcantara : military monastic order founded in Spain and Portugal in the 12th century

alms : money collected for the relief of the poor

almuce : item of processional vestments: originally a fur-lined hood, it became a fur cape

altar : a table or slab consecrated for celebration for celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion; in a medieval church, in addition to the high altar or principal altar, other altars dedicated to particular saints were located in chapels around the church

ambulatory : a semi-circular or polygonal aisle enclosing an apse or a straight ended sanctuary

amice : item of mass vestments; a rectangular piece of fabric worn around the neck, forming a loose collar

Annunciation : the feast celebrating the visit by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary to inform her that she was to bear the son of God

antiphon : verses sung alternately by two choirs, or by a soloist and choir; in the divine office, sentences from scripture recited before and after the Psalms and canticles

antiphoner : book containing the music for divine office; a sub-set of the breviary

anti-type : a story from the New Testament which has been prefigured by a story in the Old Testament

Apocalypse : events leading up to and culminating in the Last Judgement, as described in the Biblical Book of Revelations

Apocrypha : sections of the Bible which had no original Hebrew text extant when they were translated into Latin from the Greek; these were included in their proper place in the Bible in the Latin Vulgate version, but are relegated to a separate volume in a modern Bible

apostle : the twelve followers of Christ who were sent to spread the Christian message after his death and resurrection; the place of Judas Iscariot was taken by Matthias; the grace and the authority of the church were believed to have passed directly from Christ through the apostles

apse : a vaulted semi-circular or polygonal termination, usually to a chancel or chapel

arcade : a range of arches carried on piers or columns

archbishop : a bishop with authority over a group of territorially contiguous dioceses and their bishops; also known as a metropolitan

archdeacon : a cleric having a defined administrative authority delegated to him by the bishop in the whole or part of the diocese

archdeaconry : a sub-division of a diocese administered by an archdeacon, whose authority was delegated to him by the bishop

archpriest : a minister assisting a bishop in the administration of a rural deanery, or subdivision of an archdeaconry; also known as a rural dean

Ascension : the feast of the ascent of Christ into Heaven, celebrated forty days after Easter

Augustinian : 1) order of regular canons following the Rule of St Augustine; established from pre-existing orders in Italy and France in the 12th century: 2) order of mendicant friars founded in Italy in the 13th century; also known in England as the Austin Friars

aumbry : a stone cupboard, usually set in the north wall of the chancel, for mass vessels, books and other sacred objects

Austin : term used in England for the Augustinian friars

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ballflower : carved decoration in the form of a globular three petalled flower

baptism : the rite admitting an individual to the Christian church; after the missionising period carried out in early infancy

baptistery : a separate building or separate area in a church which contains the font and where the rite of baptism is carried out

barbe : a tall pleated collar worn by nuns and widows

barrel vault : continous vault of semicircular cross-section; also called tunnel vault

bar tracery : window tracery wich divides the window into patterns with bars of stone, characteristic of later Gothic

battlements : a parapet with an alternately raised and lowered outline ~Beatific Vision : the vision of God in heaven which is the final destiny of redeemed souls

beguinage : community of lay women living a life of poverty and chastity, without living under a rule or taking irrevocable vows

Beguine : lay woman living a life of poverty and chastity in a community, without living under a rule or taking irrevocable vows

belfry : the upper storey of a tower where bells are hung, or a special purpose building for the hanging of bells

bench end : refers to the ends of pews or choir stalls, often elaborately carved

Benedictine : order of monks or nuns living according to the Rule of St Benedict

benefice : the means of generating an income to support a priest

bestiary : a description of the animal world in moral terms, based ultimately in an early Christian text "Physiologus" with a variety of additions

Bible : the basic literature of Christianity, comprising the Old Testament which essentially describes the history of the Jewish people up to the birth of Christ, and the New Testament which describes the events of the life of Christ and their aftermath

biblical : from the Bible

bishop : the highest order of minister in the church, with the power to confer holy Orders and administer the rite of Confirmation; consecrated to rule a particular diocese

blind arcading : a series of arches set against a wall

Book of Hours : a book for the laity containing Psalms and prayers to be read at the times of the daily office

brass : a tomb effigy incised in two dimensions in a brass plate

breviary : book containing the form of services for the daily round of divine office

buttress : a mass of masonry or brickwork projecting from or built against a wall to give additional strength

Byzantine : referring to the eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, after the fall of Rome

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Compiled by Dianne Tillotson. Now part of her Medieval Writing web site.

Last updated 11/8/2004.