Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Priest Houses": Sacred or Profane?

Architectural history is plagued by a typological binary between sacred and profane functions. The roots for such a demarcation lie in the theological debates of the Protestant Reformation and their eventual translation into the concerns of secular nation-states and their academies. A tendency to identify pre-modern civilizations with their religious cultures has lead to an over-representation of temples, churches and mosques in material-culture studies. Byzantine architectural history is almost exclusively a history of churches. The standard textbooks, Cyril Mango's Byzantine Architecture (New York, 1974) and Richard Krautheimer's Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (New York 1986, 4th ed.), include very little domestic architecture, nor can one find a rudimentary survey of houses in the Byzantine world. But this is a quite well known problem, the result of an ultra-conservative discipline.

What concerns me here is a related, but smaller problem, one that smacks the ignorance of houses against the scholarly plethora of churches. In other words, what happens when a house is slapped against a church? How do we separate sacred from secular in such an instant? The question came to my mind after reading William Caraher's discussion of "Early Christian and Hybrid Space"and the Lechaion Basilica in Corinth. Caraher is here concerned with the original 6th-c. phase of the building (dated a century later than previously thought). Instead, I am interested in the 7th-c. shrinking of the church and the attachment of a domestic quarter; this is the lesser known phase, discussed by Demetrios Pallas in his excavation reports (
Praktika 1956-1961). Although, I am not as close to the material as Caraher or Guy Sanders (who has looked at Pallas' pottery), I distinctly remember a residential accretion described as the bishop's palace.

In a different context, I have been reading up on early British medieval excavation methods, using Christopher Gerrard's guide,
Medieval Archaeology: Understanding Traditions and Contemporary Approaches (London, 2003). The book is slightly misleading in not including the word "United Kingdom" anywhere on its title, since it concerns itself with British archaeology. Discussing the emergence of sound scientific methods in the interwar period, Gerrard mentions the excavations of St. Catharine's Hill at Winchester College of 1925-1928 (p. 69). Although not remarkable in excavation techniques, this project included detailed documentation of all kinds of lesser finds, including (what interests me greatly) medieval roof tiles. So, I requested the original publication through Interlibrary Loan, C.F.K. Hawkes, J.N.L. Myers, and C.G. Stevens, Saint Catharine's Hill Winchester (Winchester, 1930) and started reading through the publication once it arrived (from Harvard!!! Clemson never gets ILL from Harvard!!!). The site's medieval phase (over the earlier Iron Age) constitutes of a church built in 1110-1125 and characteristic of Norman plans; an earlier phase, isolated in the east, may date close to the conquest, 1066. Around 1530, the chapel was suppressed at a time when the local cardinal closed a number of monasteries and transfered their endowments to Colleges at Oxford and Ipswich. The first lay tenant of the property is responsible for the destruction of the building, which remained unknown until its archaeological discovery.

In addition to the beautifully illustrated rooftiles, what interests me about this excavation is the discovery of two small rooms attached to the tip of the chapel's northeast corner. In its precarious proximity the space was assigned the function of "priest's house," a natural conclusion. But is it really that natural? What does this proximity say about the life of priests, or the boundary between sacred and profane. Is everything near a recognizably religious building a priest's house. Such haphazard identifications characterize much of ancient archaeology, as well. Any seemingly residential complex near ancient sanctuaries has always been called the house of priests or priestess. This is exactly the subject of Deborah Brown's on-going dissertation at Bryn Mawr College.

So, I'm simply raising the question. Given the insurmountable boundary in modern conceptions of religious versus domestic space, houses that attach themselves to churches throw a nice wrench. Churches that attach themselves to houses have been more thoroughly dealt with as "private chapels." At this interface between church and house we might find the vocabulary to talk about medieval domestic architecture more meaningfully.


Bill Caraher said...


To this discussion we can add Kim Bowes work on churches in domestic space, predominantly elite villas -- some of which has been summarized in last JECS 15 (2007), 143–170. There are of course other discussions that touch on this -- particularly the blurry relationship between monastic and domestic space.

Because this is a blog, I can even say things like this: there are some really interesting little booths attached to the south wall of the Lechaion basilica. These could be little shops leaning against the big church's outer wall and catering to visitor to the church or even just locals who would have passed in the shadow of the big church every day. There are some interesting parallels, of course, for small shops as annexes to religious building...


Unknown said...


Don't forget about all the work in Cappadocia! :)


Anonymous said...

Hey i hav an essay on sacred and profane which asks what the four key issues that theme the secred and profane raises. any ideas?

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States