Andrew Spicer and Sarah Hamilton, (eds.), Defining the Holy: the Delineation of Sacred Space, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, reprinted 2008.

Andrew Spicer and Sarah Hamilton, (eds.), Defining the Holy: the Delineation of Sacred Space, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, reprinted 2008. ISBN 10 0 7546 5194 0 (hardback), pp xviii + 345, £55


Reviewed by:  Caroline Bowden, Royal Holloway, University of London, June 2008

This interdisciplinary collection started (like many others) as a set of conference papers with the added advantage of a well defined theme; seeking ways to delineate and define notions of sacred space. The disadvantages for a reviewer of such origins arise from the length of the period covered, the geographical spread of the topics covered and the number of papers (fifteen) included in the volume. Not un-naturally some of the essays are more relevant to members of this list than others, and there is much of interest in the volume. The topics move from domestic devotional space in the middle ages in England and the Netherlands, through a convent in Wienhausen to Protestant places of worship in Hungary ending in a consideration of the links between sacred space and political authority in Avignon on the eve of the French Revolution. The authors range in experience from a graduate student to senior scholars from both sides of the Atlantic. Rather than risking a gallop through each chapter with the risk of creating little more than a list.  This review will focus on a select group of chapters that may be of interest to H-WRBI members; the reviewer apologises in advance to those authors left out of this review.

The introductory discussion of the nature of sacred space written by the editors is of particular interest to historians interested in foundations and early years of institutions such as convents, which are often required to adapt religious rules to fit difficult circumstances in existing secular buildings. Equally the conceptual discussion could be applied to interpretations of the work of builders and creators of large new convents who designed specialised buildings and chose decorative finishes relevant to the purposes of the spaces contained therein. Much of the methodology in this essay is relevant outside the period covered by the collection. Historians who become more aware of the meaning of iconography and the use of space can read much more into their understanding of religious practices than is available, for instance, from manuscript evidence. The authors of the chapters consider such issues as the differentiation of sacred and secular space, the blurring of boundaries that occurs between the two and questions of gendered space such as claustration. They look at change over time by considering ways in which liturgical practices altered the way space was designed and used.

In ‘Domestic Space and Devotion in the Middle Ages’, Diana Webb considers the use of private sacred space in the middle ages and how it was adapted and transformed over time. She brings up the cases of two women Umiliana de Cerchi (d 1246 aged 27) and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), both of whom defied parental wishes to create their own sacred space at home. The author argues that private devotion flourished in the century before the Reformation as an extension of public worship and this in turn had implications for the design for the design of houses in that period.

Richard L Williams considers the spaces occupied by Catholics in England at a time when such places were proscribed, turning them into forbidden sacred spaces whose creation and use was fraught with danger. Few Catholic chapels existed in this period and signifiers such as images for altars had to be imported printed on paper or cloth so they could be rolled up and stored at a moment’s notice. He argues that reverence towards sacred space in this period was transformed by the situation into provocative acts of political defiance. (p107)

The chapter by Graeme Murdock on reformed space for worship in early seventeenth-century Hungary discusses changes to the appearance of buildings in order to remove all evidence of Catholic practices and beliefs. The zeal of a newly established church is visible in the extremist language of the reformers, the white painted walls of the churches and in the case of Bekecs, extensive coverage of the walls by Biblical texts in Hungarian and Latin. However the position of the reformers was jeopardised by political instability in the region and Catholic resurgence.

In his chapter ‘The Liturgical Use of Space in Thirteenth-Century Flanders, Stijn Bossuyt manages to combine keeping the reader’s interest with a clear structure and directed arguments. This chapter will be important to anyone studying the meaning of liturgy. Bossuyt focusses his attention on how the liturgy was used in Lille and St Omer but his interpretation carries much wider significance. He argues that while the function of the liturgy is to express the relationship between man and God, it makes that relationship visible to all Christians through the use of space and symbols. He shows how liturgy was used to put across symbolic messages to the laity who have no knowledge of Latin, for instance by dramatic presentations. He even discusses the impact of bad weather on ritual and its interpretation: an important practical recognition of heavy rainfall in Flanders.

The collection provides much food for thought on many aspects of defining and interpreting sacred and secular space and the blurred boundaries between the two. As with all collections of this size some essays will be more frequently consulted than others. One of the difficulties of the book is the assumption of more specialised knowledge than non-expert readers (including this one) are likely to have at their finger tips given the breadth of coverage. However, for the most part the text is accessible and clearly explained. It will be of interest to anyone thinking about the relationship between religious practice and the spaces where it takes place.