Tithe barn

tithe barn 5

I’ve been remiss in not sharing more of my photos from this past summer in the UK. Where to start? How about with a 14th-century tithe barn:

A tithe barn was a type of barn used in much of northern Europe in the Middle Ages for storing tithes—one tenth of a farm’s produce which was given to the Church. Tithe barns were usually associated with the village church or rectory and independent farmers took their tithes there.

tithe barn 7

Back in early July, Rachel and I spent three days visiting friends in the town of Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, and a short distance from their apartment was this magnificent 14th-century barn, part of a farmstead belonging to the Shaftesbury Abbey. English Heritage calls it “a spectacular 14th century monastic stone barn, 51 metres (168 feet) long, with an amazing timber cruck roof.” (A cruck is a curved timber.)

tithe barn 6

The roof was certainly its most striking feature, along with its sheer size.

tithe barn 3

You could look straight up through to the slate tiles. As with any barn, of course, the necessity for good air circulation had to be balanced with the necessity for keeping things dry. It was interesting to see how they solved the air-flow problem with only slits for windows, and I also wondered whether the barn had ever doubled as a fortress — it certainly looked defensible.

tithe barn 4

I’ve always been kind of a barn nut. A large barn can feel a bit like a secular cathedral — and the blood rites enacted in many barns offer a further point of comparison. So I was charmed by the cross-shaped openings at either end,

tithe barn 1

not to mention the stone buttresses, reminiscent of a Romanesque church.

tithe barn 2

And the massive doors had a definite “grain in, sinners and tares stay out” kind of vibe.

Just across the river and up the hill is an actual Romanesque church dating back to Saxon times:

Saxon church Bradford-on-Avon

You can see what I mean about the similarity in architecture. Metaphors in the Bible about sheep and tares might seem quaint today, but to Medieval peasants they would’ve sounded like a direct commentary on their day-to-day lives. So it kind of makes sense that big barns would’ve looked like houses of worship — or vice versa.

14 Replies to “Tithe barn”

    1. Oh yes! That’s a very famous barn indeed. (We have a beautiful round barn down here in the State College area, but it’s wooden — painted red with white trim, always very neat and Germanic looking.)

  1. Oh, how cool. Years ago in my institutional religion days, I was occasionally exhorted with this verse from Malachi (suitably translated here from the Vulgate by Wycliffe & friends): “Brynge ye yn ech tithe in to my berne, that mete be in myn hous, and preue ye me on this thing, seith the Lord, if Y schal not opene to you the goteris of heuene, and schal schede out to you blessyng, til to aboundaunce.”

    I thought the “storehouses” (I do prefer Wycliffe’s “my berne” to the King James’s “the storehouse”) were only figurative after Bible times. Maybe those crosses are an attempt at that verse’s “windows of heaven.”

    1. Ah-ha! How interesting that the tithe barn should’ve gotten into a Bible translation.

      By the early 14th century, of course, stained glass windows were the usual thing in churches, But the church was sacred space, while this was space set aside for the support of the sacred, so perhaps the cross-shaped openings to the sky would’ve been seen a bit like the brand of the owner on a free-ranging cow or sheep.

  2. The tithe system was pretty brutal, and one of the reasons why tithe barns can look a bit like fortresses is that they were deliberately constructed to symbolise the feudal power they embodied. The Monastic system was especially oppressive, because they represented religious power as well as secular. In St.Albans, where I live, the abbot confiscated all the local millstones so that everybody had to bring their grain to the abbey mill, the perfect way to control the tithe. The millstones were used to pave the floor of the abbey church – also heavily symbolic, I think. During the Peasants’ Revolt, the rebels attacked the abbey and ripped up the floor. No wonder a barn like this looks like it was built to be defended!

    You’d love Grange Barn at Coggeshall in Essex,which is even older – 12th century. Doesn’t look anything like as impressive from outside, because it had to be completely restored when the National Trust got hold of it in the 1990s, but the timber structure inside is beautiful.

  3. Wow, Dave! Wonderful wonderful pics!. I have so missed this part of your blog. Didn’t even know you’d been to England again. As for the dark ages, I had no idea that tithing was as brutal as that. And we gripe about income taxes.

    Anyway, if they housed some livestock in these behemoth barns they could officially be called ‘sacred cows’. (grin)

    1. Groan. Technically speaking, the dark ages were prior to 1000 AD (and they aren’t considered to have been especially “dark” by modern historians).

      Check the U.K. category link for a few more travel posts. And there will be at least half a dozen more, I think — I took a fair number of pictures this summer.

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