This is an abridged and edited version of a lengthy chapter on benitiers in Volume 1 of Old Jersey Houses by Joan Stevens
Four types of bowl
Benitiers are one of four types of bowl or basin which were devised by the church to hold water for some sacred or ceremonial purpose, and placed in a mediaeval church or monastery.
Unifier, or stoup
Benitier is derived from the Latin benedictarium, and means a vessel for holy water, placed in a niche in the church porch, or against a pillar near the door, in which persons entering dipped their fingers and made the sign of the cross, thus purifying themselves before proceeding to their devotions.
The word ‘benitier’ is recognised as part of both the English and French languages. English also has its own synonym for benitier - stoup, or holy water stoup, derived from the Anglo-Saxon steap, meaning a cup, and it is stated by one authority that stoups were also used in private houses. In either case the object was to sanctify the person entering.
Font, or fonts Baptismaux
Font is derived from the Latin fons, a fountain, and means a bowl or basin, usually of fine quality stone and often hollowed out of a solid block, standing free of the wall, and containing water for baptism by aspersion (sprinkling) or immersion.
In early times, when immersion was practised, fonts were of considerable size.
Derived from the Latin piscina, a fish-pond, cistern or basin, the piscina was a perforated stone basin or sink, within a canopied niche, built into the church wall to the south of the altar, for the emptying of water with which the priest washed his hands and the sacred vessels at Mass. The word can also mean a font in French.
Derived from the Latin word lavabo, meaning ‘I will wash’, originally this word meant the ritual washing of his hands by the priest after the offertory. By extension, lavabo came to be used for a large stone basin in mediaeval monasteries from which water flowed through small orifices round the edge, for washing before religious exercises or meals.
The word is used for a modern washroom or lavatory. It can also be used as a variant for a douet a laver.
If these definitions are applied to the 30 or more objects surviving in Jersey, none of them is a lavabo, which has sometimes been suggested as the correct name for many of them. Only one is a true benitier, the stone basin built into a wall at Les Citeaux in Trinity.
Piscinas, called benitiers
The majority were piscinas, which seem to have been called benitiers in Jersey, and there is evidence that they were so named elsewhere, as illustrations in English and French books on ecclesiastical architecture show the word benitier to cover niches in walls surmounted by tracery of trefoil form, which are clearly allied to the arched recesses which we call benitiers.
They are recorded in 21 properties, nearly all of which are in the north or west of the island. Two of them are believed to be still concealed under the plaster, another two to have been destroyed, and two possible ones are built into farm outhouses. There is reason to suspect that several more are waiting to be uncovered.
In all cases except two they are on the ground floor. They usually face south, never north. The positions chosen for these objects in our farmhouses might furnish a clue as to the reason for inserting them. Many of them are in the wall adjacent to the front door or at the foot of the stairs, where one expects, today to find an electric light switch. So it is possible that our ancestors installed them in these places to hold a lantern.
A piscina is the shape of a lantern, and forms an admirable shelf on which to place one. Its height precludes danger of fire, and the recessed position in the wall protects it from draughts or clumsy passers-by.
Pigsty lantern niches
Granite pigsties built in the 19th century sometimes have lantern niches, to provide the farmer with light when a sow was farrowing, and their design is strongly reminiscent of the benitier. The similarity to the piscina in the chapel of Notre Dame de la Clarté at La Hougue Bie is striking.
They are both composed of a shelf, two uprights, and two stones leaning inwards to join in an apex.
It is not suggested that piscinas were designed to hold a lantern, but that for any householder who rescued one rejected from a church, they would have suited the purpose admirably.
These niches appear for the most part in the oldest of our houses, but one could not confidently state that they were all of pre-Reformation date. Their appearance immediately suggests an ecclesiastical origin, and their similarity to the few surviving piscinas in parish churches is remarkable.
Some authorities contend that they are merely domestic lavabos, or a kind of built-in wash-stand. If this is so it is curious that they are never in the kitchen, where washing normally occurs, and the men of the house, hot and dusty from their labours, would have found their size and design most uninviting, and undoubtedly have preferred the pump in the farmyard.
If they are wash-hand stands, why are they so much more elaborately carved than any other feature in the house? On the other hand, if they are ecclesiastical, how did they find their way into the fabric of farmhouses, and having done so, how did they escape the Reformation?
If ejected from the churches and retrieved by the farmer, and inserted into his house, how had they escaped being broken, as all other objects connected with Roman Catholicism were?
A British Museum expert has suggested a 13th century date, and if they did come from religious establishments, this date is perfectly feasible. There is no doubt that every parish church would have had one piscina, and probably several, serving individual altars, chapels and fraternities. So would the Seigneurial chapels; there would be a piscina in any building where Mass was celebrated, and we know that it was celebrated daily, for example, at Rosel Manor chapel in 1461.
There must have been several dozen piscinas in the island, which were destroyed or removed at the Reformation, though some may have been very rough and simple, as at La Hougue Bie. By some oversight, three early piscinas, and one dated 1524, have survived in parish churches, but the fate of the remainder is unknown.
Church piscinas were designed in such a way that the holy water ran through a hole in the wall, and thence to the ground outside, and several of our examples have a base sloping backwards to a drainage hole. Holy water stoups, also sometimes called benitiers, had a hollowed out base like a saucer, and several of our examples are of this pattern.
If these objects were ecclesiastical, and were ejected from the religious buildings, we still have to explain how it was possible to retain or introduce such an obviously "superstitious" relic into a dwelling house during all the years of religious intolerance.
Deliberate debasement to lowly domestic use is one possible explanation, and it was in keeping with the anger of the reformers to convert a font into a pig trough.
The arched niches in farmhouses are invariably spoken of as benitiers, and never as lavabos, and there is no reason to doubt that their name was originally chosen by people who knew that they had come from churches or chapels, or had actually seen them prised from the walls of these buildings.
Edmund Nicolle’s view
Edmund Toulmin Nicolle, a recognised authority on Jersey antiquities, wrote :
- "Most pre-Reformation houses of importance possessed piscinas and benitiers or holy water stoups. Where these exist it is a sure
criterion as to the date of the building".
But such domestic piscinas would have been destroyed at the Reformation, and we still have to account for those which survived it. The fact that some of the houses with benitiers seem to be post-Reformation is not significant either way, as houses have been rebuilt, perhaps several times, on the same site and using the same stones.
The distribution of benitiers is worthy of note. St Ouen, St Peter, St Lawrence and St John each have four, St Mary and Trinity two each, St Saviour and St Brelade one each, and none in the remaining three parishes.
St Clement and Grouville, with no benitiers in houses, have retained piscinas in their parish churches. The domestic example in Grouville is suspect, and that in St Saviour almost certainly came from the Seigneurial chapel of Bagot. If these two are put aside, the distribution is strongly western, and of the 23 examples recorded or suspected, 19 are in the western half of the Island.
This is so striking that it must have some significance, as yet undetermined. The priories tended to be western rather than eastern; apart from that at St Clement, the others, Noirmont, Ste Marie de Lecq, St Pierre, Ste Marie de Bonne Nuit, are all in the western area. The Chapels, were far more numerous in the east, particularly St Martin, Grouville and St Saviour, parishes which, with two explainable exceptions, are devoid of priory or of benitier.
The weight of evidence makes it reasonable to suppose that our benitiers were ejected from ecclesiastical buildings, probably at the Reformation, and installed in farmhouses for utilitarian or decorative purposes.
- Editor’s note: The chapter in Old Jersey Houses goes on to discuss at some length the possible origins and uses of a variety of stone bowls to be found in Jersey houses. The writer’s conclusions are even less definite than those above relating to what she, herself, describes as ‘so-called’ benitiers.
It should also be noted that although Mrs Stevens consistently used the spelling benitier, other writers use benétier