Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Debunking 'devil's doors'

Blocked north door, Lower Gravenhurst, Beds

The otherwise useful guide to Pirton church, Herts, states 'A door built in the north wall was left open during a baptism to let out the evil spirits in the child, but, [sic] as this custom fell away during a less superstitious age most of the Devil's doors were blocked up.'

Googling 'Devil's doors' brings up Wikipedia and the relevant page from the National Churches Trust among the first few results, and both of these agree with the guide's statement. But let's examine the evidence. How do we know this statement to be true? Is there a medieval document which describes and explains the custom of opening the north door? To the best of my knowledge - and I've read a lot of books about churches - no such document exists. As far as we know, no one ever claimed that he or she had opened a north door to let the evil spirits out, or witnessed such a thing happening.

This should be enough to make us sceptical. The existence of the doors hardly counts as evidence, since, obviously, doors have other potential uses. So why should we believe that they were made with this as their principle purpose?

So there's no positive proof that north doors were ever used for the purpose claimed. In addition, there is negative proof which strongly suggests that 'Devil's doors' did not exist. For example, how do we account for the fact that many churches - a minority, but still many hundreds - have, and always have had, their main entry on the north? If the north was seen as so closely associated with the devil, why were people apparently happy to enter from that direction? Why couldn't they just walk around to the devil-free south (or west)?

Nicolas Orme's Going to Church in Medieval England (2021) is a very thorough discourse, based firmly on a wide reading of the documentary evidence. (The endnotes are 47 pages long, and the bibliography 13.) There is a 12 page account of what happened during baptism in an English medieval church. The number of times the north door is mentioned in these dozen pages is exactly zero. 

What's more, we learn that 'The liturgy began at the church doors. [Whether north or south Orme doesn't specify.] Baptism ... was a rite of transition that brought the recipient from outside to inside the church. One motive for building porches in the later Middle Ages was to provide a shelter for the outdoor part.... The first part of the service outside the church was called "the making of a catechumen", meaning :a candidate for baptism. It consisted of a series of ritual actions to make the baby fit for baptism.... The baptismal party brought with it some common salt. This the priest exorcised and put a tiny quantity in the baby's mouth, saying "Receive the salt of wisdom that God may be propitious to you in eternal life." The salt was followed by a series of prayers ... which contained an exorcism of the Devil and the signing of a cross on the infant's forehead' (pp306-7).

This makes clear that the child was exorcised, that is had the Devil driven out of him or her, even before they entered the church. Why then would it have been necessary for the north door to be open during the later part of the ceremony inside the church? The Devil had already skedaddled (and no one seems to have worried about which direction he might have made his getaway in).

This surely knocks on the head the claim that north doors were left open during baptism. Where, then, does this idea come from? I don't know when or by whom it was first invented and propagated (the Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for 'devil's door'); my guess would be that it was dreamt up by an 18th century antiquary, anxious to make medieval people seem picturesquely superstitious. Victorian ecclesiologists (I imagine) happily seized on it, and it survives as a mainstream dictum in the 21st century.*

Going back to the Wikipedia entry, it's notable that the only authorities cited are local history books, a genre that sometimes (not always, of course) relies more on gossip than documented evidence. As for the National Churches Trust, it's inexcusable that they allow such nonsense to appear on their website.

The two remaining questions are easily dealt with: what was the purpose of north doors if they weren't intended as Beelzebubian boltholes? And why are they so often blocked up? The first can be answered by asking: what do you use doors for? Personally, I use them for entry and exit, and I hazard a guess that it's the same for you and was the same in the Middle Ages. Perhaps they especially came into their own during processions. The second can be answered with a single word: draughts.

With so much mis- and disinformation around at the moment, much of it potentially or actually harmful, this probably seems a trivial subject to devote thought and effort to. And it probably is. Nevertheless, I'm glad to be able to definitively slam the door resoundingly shut on this particular piece of fanciful foolishness.

* The earliest reference to this supposed custom of which I know is in George Smith Tyack's Lore and Legend of the English Church (1899).

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