Updated: Nov 13, 2022
After I darkened a few church doorways, I noticed something: the informational signs you find in church doorways almost always feature an interlude that says, “In medieval times, churches were used to trade and arrange deals—people even kept their pigs in churches!”. The exclamation mark is added to make the information more accessible for children. This general thrust appears in books and online as well—churches were just big community halls, meeting spaces, where people got together to do deals.
The reason we see this slant today is because we live in a materialist society where it’s unacceptable for the spiritual to be real; hence we read our own secular attitudes into the past—indeed, it is less historical “presentism” and more, in my view, a deliberate policy to push the spiritual out. Really, it is modern churches that are “multi-functional utility spaces”.
An old Victorian church in my village was recently knocked down and replaced with a new church; it was no loss, it was not an attractive old church and was in bad repair. On the other hand, what replaced it was basically a multi-functional community centre—somewhere to do yoga, with no adornments whatsoever, a tiny steeple-like addition, and a modest cross on the outside. Nowhere to leave your pigs, though I do see Muslim parents drop their children off to learn karate there—so very multi-functional. It’s an evangelical congregation—so a bit of guitar-playing in an unadorned room and swaying when you stand up to the pop-hymns. Atheism, in other words. It’s churches today that are multi-functional meeting spaces; and, indeed, if you check the signs all the way through you find the vicars were fined and remonstrated with—as it turns out, what is promoted as a “it might surprise you” norm in the past really constituted a perverted exception that was stamped out. It says more about how we are meant to think and how we project our own prejudices backwards than about medieval times.