A Glossary of the Medieval Church

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nailhead : decorative carved design of a line of pyramids

Nativity : the birth of Christ

nave : the western arm of a church, and more specifically the central axial section of that arm, used by the congregation and for sermons

New Testament : the books of the Bible describing the events of the life of Christ and later; the part of the Bible unique to the Christian faith

night office : Matins; the choir service of the daily round of divine office performed during the night

nimbus : halo; symbol of a saint in religious art

nodding ogee : an S-shaped arch which bends in three dimensions

None : the fourth of the Little Hours of the divine office, recited at the ninth hour (3 pm)

Norman : the term used for Romanesque architecture in Britain

nun : a female living in a regular order under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience

nunnery : an establishment of nuns

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office of the dead : service for the benefit of the souls of the dead

ogee : an S-shaped curve, particularly of an arch

Old Testament : the books of the Bible describing events that occurred before the birth of Christ; the part of the Bible shared with the Jewish faith

orders : a) with respect to the monastic or regular life, groups of communities following the same rule or under a common administrative and spiritual structure b) with respect to the Christian ministry, the various grades consisting of the major orders - bishop, priest, deacon, sub-deacon - and the minor orders - acolyte, exorcist, reader, doorkeeper

orders of angels : there were held to be nine ranks of angels; Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels and Angels

orders of clergy : the various grades consisting of the major orders - bishop, priest, deacon, sub-deacon - and the minor orders - acolyte, exorcist, reader, doorkeeper

ordinal : book containing instructions for conducting the prescribed rituals of the church

ordination : the rite of admission into the ministry of the church; only admission to the major orders of the ministry was considered to be a sacrament

orphrey: embroidered panel found along the opening of a cope

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pallium: item of mass vestments worn by an archbishop; formed from a strip of cloth encircling the shoulders with similar strips hanging down at back and front

Palm Sunday : the Sunday before Easter, commemorating Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem the week before he was crucified

papacy : the office of Pope, spiritual leader of the Western church

papal : with reference to the office of the pope

papal bull : legal document issued under the authority of the pope

papal curia : the central government of the Western church (Latin curia = court)

papal legate : a personal representative of the pope who has been entrusted with his authority

parclose screen : a wooden or stone screen enclosing a chapel or shrine

parish : an area under the pastoral care of a priest, himself under the jurisdiction of a bishop; the parish church was the centre of worship for the parish

parlour : in a monastery, an area where speaking was allowed for legitimate puposes

paten : the plate for holding the bread or communion wafers for the ritual of the Eucharist

patristic : with reference to the early fathers of the church

penance : a form of punishment whereby one who has confessed his sins to a priest can obtain absolution

pendant vault : a vault supporting one or a number of dependant structures, usually with much surface decoration

penitential psalms : Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143; they were recited after Lauds on Fridays in Lent

Pentateuch : the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy

Perpendicular : the final phase of Gothic in England, characterised by large windows with vertical tracery and flattened arches

Pied Friars : also called the Friars of Blessed Mary or the Friars De Domina; disbanded and the members obliged to join one of the major orders in the early 14th century

pier : supporting pillar of any cross-section, from square to multishafted

pieta : a representation of Christ in the arms of the Virgin Mary after his deposition from the cross

pilaster strip : a shallow rectangular column, without base or capital, projecting from a wall

pilgrimage : a journey to a holy place from motives of devotion, to obtain supernatural help, or as a form of penance

pilgrim badge : a small lead badge which indicated that its owner had visited a particular shrine

pinnacle : steep pyramidal or conical ornament to a spire, buttress or parapet

piscina : a stone basin with a drain, used for washing the mass vessels

pix : container for the storage of consecrated wafers for the mass

plate tracery : window tracery in which the designs have been carved from a flat plate of stone rather than constructed from bars, characteristic of early Gothic

Poor Clares : the female branch of the Franciscan order, maintaining an enclosed monastic life rather than one equivalent to that of the friars

pope : head and spiritual leader of the church in Western Europe (Latin papa = father)

porch : a covered entrance to a doorway; in some great churches these became large and elaborate structures

prebend : a cathedral or collegiate church benefice; normally consisting of the revenue from one manor of the cathedral estates which furnished a living for one cathedral canon, or prebendary

prebendary : a cathedral or collegiate church canon supported by a prebend, normally the income from one manor of the cathedral estates

preceptory : monastic house of the order of Templars

Premonstratensian : order of canons derived from the Augustinians, founded in 1121

presbytery : the part of the church lying east of the choir, where the high altar is placed

priest : a minister of the church empowered to administer the sacraments, most particularly that of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, as well as those of confession and extreme unction

Primate: the chief bishop of a single state or people

Prime : the first of the Little Hours of divine office, recited at the first hour (6 am)

prior : the deputy of an abbot in a major Benedictine institution; or the head of a lesser Benedictine house; or the head of any house in some orders

prior provincial : the head of a province in the Dominican order

prioress : the head of a nunnery; in some orders of a lesser house dependent upon an abbey

priory : a monastery; in the Benedictine orders a house dependent upon an abbey; in certain orders such as the Augustinians or the mendicant orders, any religious house

processional : book containing prayers, hymns and litany for use during processions around a church of feast days

processional cross : the long staff surmounted by a cross carried by archbishops on ceremonial occasions

processional vestments: ceremonial clothing worn by the clergy for special occasions, excluding the celebration of the mass

province : 1) unit of ecclesiastical administration comprising a group of territorially contiguous dioceses: 2) in relation to later developments of monastic orders, geographic units of administration within the order

psalm : an extract from the Old Testament book of Psalms, a series of hymns of praise to God

Psalter : a book containing the Psalms for recitation at divine office, often arranged according to the requirements of the office rather than their original biblical arrangement

pulpit : a stone or wooden stand from which sermons or readings were given

pulpitum : a stone screen separating the choir from the nave of a major church

Purgatory : a place or state where those who have died in the grace of God must spend time expiating their venial faults and forgiven mortal sins before being admitted to the Beatific Vision, or presence of God

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quadripartite : of a vault, each bay is divided into four sections by the vaulting ribs

quoin : dressed stone at the corner of a building

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

Last updated 6/9/2007.