One of the more remarkable architectural features of many churches in Devon are the roof bosses. Carved of oak in the 14th and 15th centuries, they survived not only the widespread destruction of images during the English Reformation of the 16th century, but also the "restoration" of many churches by the Victorians in the 19th.
Two of the five North Devon churches which I have "adopted" as part of the Devon OPC project have good collections of roof bosses: St Peter's, Tawstock and St Mary's, Atherington. One of the more interesting collections, however, is found further south at St Andrews, South Tawton, on the northern edge of Dartmoor. During my recent trip to England I made a point to visit South Tawton.
The paired male and female heads at the top of the page represent idle talk or gossip. "Sinful speech" was a serious concern of the late medieval church , and complaints about gossip were a recurring feature of Middle English literature.
The foliate head or "green man" is found in many Devon churches. The carvings tend to be both beautiful and sinister. South Tawton has several including the one above. The symbolism of the foliate head is a topic of some debate. The green man is commonly thought to be a pagan symbol of fertility. Another interpretation, more in line with Christian teaching, is that the green man is a symbol of rebirth or resurrection.
The meaning of the three hares is uncertain. A modern myth is that the three hares are "Tinner's Rabbits" and represent an association with Dartmoor's medieval tinners. The South Tawton church guide states that the three hares represents the Trinity, although this is unlikely to be a medieval interpretation. Another theory associates the three hares with the Virgin Mary as hares were thought capable of virgin birth.
The hares may have have a negative connotation. The Middle English poem The Names of the Hare lists many disparaging names: the lurker in ditches, the filthy beast, the coward, the traitor, the friendless one, the one who makes you shudder, the covenant-breaker, the animal that all men scorn, the animal that no one dares name. It is also possible that the three hares represent the three temptations of the flesh, the world, and the devil.
The horned headdress depicted in this roof boss was frequently condemned in religious tracts of the late medieval period because of its associations with the devil and with the sin of pride. A confessor's manual from the 15th century instructs the confessor to ask woman if they "go about wearing horns and looking outlandish, which is a category of pride."
This owl wearing a horned headdress is quite unique. In the late medieval period, screech owls in particular were used to represent sinners. The Alberdeen Bestiary, a early 13th century illuminated manuscript, describes the owl as:
The roof boss therefore likely represents the connection between sinners and one those are guilty of pride when they wear "extravagant, vainglorious, outlandish and inordinate apparel" on their heads....a filthy bird, because it fouls its nest with its droppings, as the sinner dishonours those with whom he lives, by the example of his evil ways.