Dr Helen Gittos

Featured Publication
understanding medieval liturgy

Understanding Medieval Liturgy (Routledge, 2016)


This book provides an introduction to current work and new directions in the study of medieval liturgy. It focuses primarily on so-called occasional rituals such as burial, church consecration, exorcism and excommunication rather than on the Mass and Office. Recent research on such rites challenges many established ideas, especially about the extent to which they differed from place to place and over time, and how the surviving evidence should be interpreted. These essays are designed to offer guidance about current thinking, especially for those who are new to the subject, want to know more about it, or wish to conduct research on liturgical topics. Bringing together scholars working in different disciplines (history, literature, architectural history, musicology and theology), time periods (from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries) and intellectual traditions, this collection demonstrates the great potential that liturgical evidence offers for understanding many aspects of the Middle Ages. It includes essays that discuss the practicalities of researching liturgical rituals; show through case studies the problems caused by over-reliance on modern editions; explore the range of sources for particular ceremonies and the sort of questions which can be asked of them; and go beyond the rites themselves to investigate how liturgy was practised and understood in the medieval period.



‘thoughtful and at times provocative’, Michael Witczak, Journal of Ecclesiastical History

‘exactly the place to point the wary student or colleague confronted with the terror of an unfamiliar liturgical source’, Arthur Westwell, Early Medieval Europe

‘this book encourages us to rethink our methodological and conceptual norms when engaging with medieval liturgical texts, and to engage with a broader range of evidence. I recommend it wholeheartedly.’ Emma Hornby, English Historical Review

  • Medieval Church History
  • History of Written Languages
  • Church rituals
  • Early medieval cultural and social history
liturgy arcutecture and sacred places

My research has focused on using liturgical sources as a rich vein of evidence for many aspects of the social, cultural and religious history of the early Middle Ages. My first book, Liturgy, Architecture and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England (2013), revealed, for example, how important outdoor processions were in peoples’ religious lives, how visible the liturgy was in the landscape, and the extent to which Anglo-Saxon bishops repeatedly revised rituals as part of their efforts to gain control over popular religious fervour and to enforce payments of taxation. I have also worked on the origins of rites for consecrating Christian cemeteries, evidence for the liturgy of Canterbury Cathedral in the early and central Middle Ages and, more recently, on rituals associated with death and burial and how archaeological evidence can sometimes provide clues to local liturgical practices.

A second strand of my research has been about language. I’ve written about the use of Old English in liturgical contexts and also on the audience for Old English texts. I am currently writing a book, English: The Forgotten Language of the Medieval Church. In this, I argue that English was used in the liturgy throughout the Middle Ages contrary to the conventional view that Christian rituals were celebrated exclusively in Latin until the Reformation. I have been awarded a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship for the calendar year 2021 to help to complete this project.

I also enjoy working collaboratively and learnt a great deal from an AHRC International Research Network that I led with Sarah Hamilton, from which came Understanding Medieval Liturgy (2016). Currently I am one of the Co-investigators on Worked in Stone, an AHRC project to complete the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture and, with Alban Gautier, I organized a colloquium on Vernacular Languages in the Long Ninth-Century, papers from which will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Medieval History. I also help to convene the Institute of Historical Research seminar on the History of Liturgy and Oxford’s Early Medieval Britain and Ireland Network.


  • Archaeological evidence for local liturgical practices: the lead plaques from Bury St Edmunds

  • Introduction

  • Researching the History of Rites

  • Understanding Medieval Liturgy Essays in Interpretation

  • The audience for Old English texts: Ælfric, rhetoric and ‘the edification of the simple’

  • More

MPhil students:

Bobby Klapper, MPhil, Early Conversions to Christianity amongst the Anglo-Saxons

I welcome applications from DPhil and Masters students wanting to work on early medieval history and church history more broadly.

I currently teach:

Prelims: FHS:

History of the British Isles 1: 300-1100

History of the British Isles 1: 300-1100

History of the British Isles 2: 1000-1330

History of the British Isles 2: 1000-1300

European and World History 1: Transformation of the Ancient World, 370-900

European and World History 2: The Early Medieval World, 600-1000

Approaches to History: Archaeology

Disciplines of History

In the Media

Anglo-Saxon Kingdom: Art, Word, War, British Library, 2018: https://www.bl.uk/anglo-saxons/videos