Medieval charnel houses: resurrecting lost medieval rites

Paul Barnwell*, Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, J Crangle, Dawn Hadley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Through analysis of written sources, architectural evidence, excavation reports and antiquarian records this paper argues that charnelling of human skeletal remains was more common in medieval England than has hitherto been fully recognised. It became increasingly widespread following formalisation of belief in Purgatory in the late 13th century, and charnel houses can be found both at the better-documented greater churches and at parish churches, for which churchwardens’ accounts are important sources. Charnel houses are mainly free-standing buildings in churchyards, or crypts within the body of the church, and both forms are often semi-subterranean, with the carefully maintained charnel visible through windows high in the charnel house walls. There was typically a chapel located above the charnel room, in which prayers for the dead were offered, similar to chantries. The paper presents the first detailed exploration of the potential liturgical contexts for charnelling. It is argued that the most likely form of rite to accompany the translation and deposition of charnel would have comprised a re-enactment of the Office of the Dead followed by an adapted version of the burial service, with possible secondary uses of the charnel house in the days leading up to Easter, the most solemn part of the Christian year.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of the British Archaeological Association
Early online date3 Jul 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 3 Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 The Author(s).

Cite this