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cut into the walls of St Leonard’s to mark when to celebrate mass

Eynsham Mass Dial

Eynsham Mass Dial (19 Apr 2007)

Our Grade II* listed church, St Leonard’s, has a historical feature usually overlooked by parishioners and visitors. Mass dials, or scratch dials, were primitive sundials cut, or scratched, into the walls of churches by medieval priests to tell them when to celebrate mass. These were common on English churches up to about 1600, when more modern sundials, and then clocks, took over.

I surveyed the ones on St Leonard’s for the British Sundial Society in 2007 and came up with 11, giving some the benefit of the doubt. The environment hasn’t been kind to them but you can still see some examples.

Look at the buttresses on the wall of the late 13th century south aisle for inscribed circles or semi-circles, or partial rings of pock marks and some radial lines from a hole in the centre. The priest put a stick, or his finger, in the hole to cast a shadow on the sundial. These were probably originally whitewashed with the lines and dots picked out in black, with the important masses in red.

There are also two on the east end of the church, on a block of stone probably reused for a renovation.

Dennis Stukenbroeker

Maps & WalksEynsham HeritageLocal Covid ResponseEynsham News