"Stand if you are able," the pastor says on Sunday morning as we sing a hymn. "Please be seated," he or she says, and we return to our normal posture for the sermon, Scripture reading, or pastoral prayer. But before the late Middle Ages, most Christians would have found our extensive sitting in church extremely odd. Where did pews come from, and why do we spend so much time in them?

Early Christians worshipped in private homes, and we know little of the architecture of those house churches. Once Christians could build public spaces for worship, they adapted the design of Roman law courts, where the judge was seated and others stood before him. The front of the church (the apse, or chancel) had seats for the bishop and assisting ministers, while the people's part of the building (the nave) was larger and unencumbered by seating, except at low ledges around the side for the elderly or infirm. People stood or knelt where the action was. If a procession took place, they simply moved out of the way.

In the Middle Ages, the action moved further away from the nave. Monastery chapels provided a long chancel with seats, where the monks faced each other, and a "high" or main altar at the far end of the chancel. Often there were multiple altars around the church with several Masses going on simultaneously. When churches adopted this arrangement, seats were provided in the chancel for clergy and wealthy laity. The rest of the congregation stood in the nave, often moving from altar to altar when the ringing of a bell warned them that each Mass had reached its climax with the elevation of the Host. In between, they said their own prayers or even engaged in secular conversation. In the 1400s, isolated benches were built to enable them to ...

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