Skip to Content

Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Warning to Swearers
Warning to Sabbath-Breakers

Two Medieval Moralities

Spit in my face, ye Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet and scoffe, scourge and crucifie mee,
For I have sinn’d, and sinn’d, and onely hee,
Who could do no iniquitie, hath dyed:
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sinnes, which passe the Jewes impiety:
They kill’d once an inglorious man, but I
Crucifie him daily, being now glorified…¹

I deal with these two Moralities together because there are few of either left and it is often very difficult to distinguish between them. Additional complications stem from the fact that there is said to be another, quite antithetical subject usually called The Consecration of Labour or (particularly by EW Tristram) Christ as Piers Plowman. I have to say though, that I have yet to see a painting in the English Parish Church that is unequivocally one of these latter two. Perhaps the most likely candidate is a fragmentary painting (on these pages now) at Duxford (St John’s) Cambridgeshire, showing a cartwheel, a griddle-like object and several other implements used in medieval trades surrounding a central space that was once probably occupied by a standing figure. But it could just as easily be a Warning to Sabbath-Breakers (the most unequivocal of which are at Breage and Poundstock in Cornwall) – there is simply not enough left to be sure.

The Warning to Sabbath-Breakers is aimed at those who stay away from church for work or play (‘Christ was crucified, and thou dost laugh?’) on Sundays and Holy Days. Christ stands centrally, occasionally crowned (as at Breage) and covered in drops of blood and the various surrounding implements often touch him. Working (or playing) on the Sabbath inflicts new wounds on Christ, is the clear enough message.

But although sermons were preached on the iniquity of the practice, the medieval Church had to be realistic – harvests would not wait – and it is perhaps for this reason that the remaining certain examples of this subject are so few and tend to belong to the later part of the period, which might suggest that by this time attempts at enforcement were more half-hearted. The aftermath of the Black Death, which had a devastating effect on the condition of the land and caused a drastic shortage of labour, may be in part responsible. On the north wall inside the tower of Ashwell church, Hertfordshire, is a Latin carved inscription which translates as ‘Wretched, wild and distracted. The dregs of the people survive as witnesses [of the Black Death], and in the end a tempest this year St Maur thunders on the earth. 1361’ ². In such conditions bemoaning absence from church among a decimated population seems pointless.

The link to the Warning to Swearers is of course in the idea of wounding Christ It may have been concern about this that later produced from the essentially medieval mind of John Donne (not, I imagine, a man never heard to utter an oath, but certainly one to be guilt-ridden about it) the lines at the top of this page.

All the English examples of these subjects that I know of are in the links table below. Corby Glen will be on the site as soon as I can arrange it.

¹ John Donne (1572-1631), Divine Meditations XI
² “M.CT Xpenta. MCCCL miserada ferox violenta Supest plebs. pessima. testis. in. fine que ventus. valid’ OC Anno Maurus in orbe tonat. MCCCLXI”, GH Cook, The English Medieval Parish Church, London, 1961, p.258. [The translation is GH Cook’s]. St Maur’s day was January 15, and on that day in 1361 there was indeed a violent storm which inflicted heavy damage on Ashwell church [Cook].