Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Dark Ages Worship on the Road: Portable Altars

by Kim Rendfeld

In an early medieval army, a portable altar was as important as swords and horses.

Used at sickbeds, on Christian missions to pagan lands, and by invading armies, these consecrated altars provided a fitting place for Mass and the wine and the altar bread—the literal presence of Christ—and sometimes the relics of a saint. The message: God is with you.

This was an era when prayers were a means to victory. Before a war with the Avars in 791, for example, Charlemagne and other Franks observed three days of litanies and abstained from wine and meat, all to ensure that God would grant victory to the Christian Franks over the pagan Avars. Charles would say the prayers worked.

An 11th century portable altar of copper gilt
with enamel and porphyry,from Walters Art
Museum (public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 
or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)
So while Christian soldiers could not carry an entire church into pagan lands, they could take sacred space in the form of a portable altar. Although some were wood, many were stone slabs. In the medieval mind, anything used for God’s purpose should be beautiful, durable, and precious. The altars could be slate, marble, alabaster, or porphyry. They could have gold, silver, or gems. They needed to be large enough to accommodate a chalice, a special plate to hold the Host, and perhaps relics of a saint, and they often were topped with altar cloths.

Despite their weight, these special altars didn’t slow down the march. Loaded with armor, weapons, food, tents (for the wealthy), and other supplies, armies typically moved 12 to 15 miles a day with priests and monks, aristocrats’ servants, laundresses, prostitutes, and other people accompanying the warriors.

In pagan lands, the battles were for souls as well as territory, and the altars reminded Christians they won the war with divine assistance more powerful than pagan deities, a concept I used in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. But Christian victory was often short lived among the Continental Saxons, as evidenced by Christian sources’ frequent complaints about broken baptismal vows.

The altar’s meaning depended on the viewer’s religion. In a strange land, the Christian army found comfort in a familiar worship service. The pagans, however, might see it as a symbol of oppression.


The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, Volume 2, by Colum Hourihane

The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity, edited by John H. Arnold

Charlemagne, Translated Sources, by P.D. King

Kim Rendfeld’s second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), has a scene with a portable altar, shortly after Charlemagne’s first victory against the pagan Continental Saxons. Ashes, a tale of a mother who will go to great lengths to protect her children after she has lost everything else, is a companion book to Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a story of a noblewoman contending with a jilted suitor and the premonition she will lose her husband in battle.

To read the first chapters of  Kim's published novels or learn more about her, visit or her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at You can also like her on Facebook at, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Kim's book are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.


  1. Thanks for this Kim - really informative and interesting. I am so drawn to your book covers, particularly The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar. It's stunning. I studied Charlemagne when I was an undergrad and have read little about him since. You've re-ignited my interest :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I give credit to the cover artist for "The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar." The days of Charlemagne continue to fascinate me.


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