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Tithe Barns and Their Ancient Use

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Tithe Barns are among the picturesque surprises of the English countryside. Owing to their venerable age and, in the case of some particularly, their Brobdingnagian proportions, the spectacle affects one much as if in the course of a ramble one were to chance on a mammoth or some animal more beautiful and, like it, supposed to be extinct. For not a few Tithe Barns have architectural pretensions raising them far above ordinary farm buildings. But, as a rule, it is mainly their size that renders them imposing and constitutes their special distinction. Chaucer lays stress on this peculiarity, writing as he does of

an officere out for to ryde
To seen hir graunges and hir bernes wide.

Etymologically there should be no difference between a grange and a barn. The word "grange" originally meant "barn," as it does in French to this day; but already in medieval times it came to denote the farm buildings of a religious house. Obviously the barn was the most important, and it is significant that it has in some instances survived where the grange as a whole has disappeared. Gilbert White supplies us with a case in point. He says:

"The Priory of Selbourne had possessed in this village a Grange, a usual appendage to manorial estates.... The author has conversed with very ancient people who remembered the old original Grange; but it has long given place to a modern farm-house. Magdalen College holds a court leet and a court baron in the great wheat-barn of the said Grange." This excerpt provides food for thought. The term "tithe barn" is employed for convenience, being in common use as a generic description covering the huge structures of which we have spoken besides those to which it properly applies. With regard to the former sort it is inadequate and, indeed, a misnomer. A so-called "tithe barn" might be the property of a monastery, or, again, it might be manorial in the sense of being wholly secular. Why "tithe barn," then? The explanation is not hard to find.

Previous to the passing of the Tithe Commutation Act in 1835 it is probable that there were in England few parishes that had not their tithe barn. And, of course, it was needed. Not only corn and wool - the chief produce - were subject to tithe (the tax of a tenth part), but under the designation of small tithe all kinds of things of which, directly or indirectly, the earth yielded its increase found their way into the lap of the Church. Such tenths or tithes as flax, hemp, peas, beans, apples, pears, cherries, pigs, geese, cows, milk, cheese, calves, colts, honey, pigeons, eggs, charcoal, may serve as examples, for the list, though long, is not likely to be exhaustive, much depending on the qualities of the soil and opportunities of the market. What was to be done with this abundance? The tithe barn gives the answer. Wealth in kind was there stored pending use, sale or barter.

Tithe Barns in the strict acceptation of the word, though commodious, can hardly have vied in point of size with the larger sort of monastic barn so often confounded with them, nor yet with manorial barns, which do not differ materially from the last-named. Some idea of the enormous capacity of medieval granaries may be gathered from the floor area of a ruined barn that belonged to the great Cistercian house of Beaulieu in Hampshire. It is about 17,400 square feet. Or take the case of the great tithe barn at Abbotsbury in Dorset. This immense barn, over 300 feet in length, was, when complete, one of the finest known examples in England. Half of it is fairly perfect and in use; the rest is in ruins. The one big porch now standing-it is excellently built - has a turret staircase and an upper apartment. Dating from the fourteenth century, the building, though of one design, was clearly not erected without a check; and Dr. Cox thought the interruption was due to the incidence of the Black Death in 1349.

These examples have been chosen at random. Other barns, not perhaps so large, are in far better preservation. As it is not possible to describe at any length individual barns, even the most magnificent, it may be stated in general terms that some of the great medieval granaries have a single or double transept, and are divided into nave and aisle by arcades of stone or timber. A marked feature in nearly all is the huge soaring rafters of the open roof.

A splending specimen of a medieval barn is that at Bredon, Worcestershire, with its solar or room for the monk or bailiff in charge; and equally notable is the barn at Bradford-on-Avon, Wilts, once an appendage of Shaftesbury Abbey, with its quaint arched portals and pine-timber roof. If, however, we are in quest of elaborate ornamentation, there is little doubt that the cruciform Abbot's Barn at Glastonbury eclipses all competitors. "In the main gables and in those of the porches," writes Mr. Francis B. Andrews, "are panels bearing the symbols of the Evangelists, above which in each gable-end is a beautiful triangular foliated window, richly moulded and hooded, and as a finial to the copings there is a statuette of a bishop (mitred abbot?) standing three feet four inches high on a small stone pedestal." This barn is a fourteenth-century edifice.

The Bishop's Barn at Wells-probably it was built by Bishop Bubwith in the early part of the fifteenth century-is rather larger than its neighbour, the Abbot's Barn, but here there is no carving or enrichment as at Glastonbury, if we except the niche in the north porch and the finials on the gables, all the mouldings being very plain.

An interesting example of a medieval granary possessing national as opposed to merely local associations is that of a Decorated barn near Torquay in Devon. Some 120 feet in length, it belonged to Torre Abbey, and is known as the Spanish Barn, having been used to shelter prisoners from the Invincible Armada.

The question may be raised-by whom were these barns erected? It is pretty certain that in numerous, if not in most, cases they were built bv the monasteries themselves. That there might be no doubt on this point, the fourteenth-century barn at Enstone in Oxfordshire bears a Latin inscription stating that it was built in a.d. 1382 by the Abbot of Wynche-combe, Walter de Wyniforton, at the instance of Robert Mason, bailiff of that place.

On the other hand it might happen that a layman of confirmed piety or uneasy conscience might bequeath his barn to a particular community. This, in fact, was done by Robert Sale, who left his barn, together with other property, to the Abbot and Convent of Faversham on stringent conditions, one of which may provoke a smile. It was that the monks should enter into a bond with the vicar of the parish for the due provision of logwood, eight loads annually, for the heating of the convent.

One of the earliest Cistercian monasteries in England, that of Boxley in Kent, appears, if we may be forgiven the expression, to have been "over-barned." The granary, which still exists, seems altogether too spacious for an establishment of an abbot and eight monks, with their dependents, and it has been suggested that the corn stored in this great barn was kept in reserve for the needs of the poor. Perhaps also for the entertainment of wayfarers, for the monasteries were "given to hospitality," and often had extra, and hungry, mouths to feed.

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