Friday, November 14, 2014

Notarial Signs

  I have a bit of a change of theme here as a result of a request. Yes, I do requests. Sometimes. A correspondent was interested in images of notarial signs, so I have pulled together all of same from the miscellaneous collection of medieval detritus that I have accumulated and put them up as a Flickr album. Potter through and enjoy.
  The signs themselves represent different ways of doing medieval legal business. In those places where ratification of legal process developed from sworn oral testimony - primitive unlettered places like Britain or the Germanic speaking areas - the insignia of authenticity rested in the use of the seal. People did not sign documents. Kings did not sign documents, King John did not sign Magna Carta, OK? Even when they became a bit more literate, the seal was established as the authenticating instrument and documents referred to witnesses, not necessarily to the document, but to having seen and heard that an oral agreement had been made.

  The seals started off with relatively simple designs, but many became very elaborate by the 14th and 15th centuries.

  Seals were owned by individuals, by offices, by institutions and corporations. There is still a whole field of study with much to be learned about seals.
  In parts of Europe which retained aspects of the Roman system of law, legal documents were drawn up and ratified by notaries, who authenticated them with their own unique pen drawn marks and endorsements. I am informed that such transactions as property deeds tended to be much longer and more specific in detail than the brief and spare charters and deeds of the seal using lands, where the document was basically to identify witnesses who could testify to the details.

  This notarial endorsement was at the bottom of a property deed on a roll that was twenty membranes long. I don't know what they filled it up with as I don't have the other nineteen membranes.
  As every notarial sign was supposed to be unique, they developed many complex elaborations; some more fascinating than beautiful, while other had an ingenious simplicity.

  The division was not necessarily along national lines, or at least what we now perceive as national lines. (OK, that's another story.) In the more southish eastish parts of France the notarial system was in use, while in the more northish westish areas seals were used on short snappy documents as in Britain. Sometimes a belt and braces approach was used, as in the following document from 16th century Brittany. Yes, that's westish. People got around in those days, despite rumours to the contrary.

  In Britain, notaries were only used by the church, to draw up documents with, or appealing to, papal authority, such as this one, so that notaries were a relatively rare species among the writing classes.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Imagining Medieval Leicester

  In my attempts to nibble around the edges of some blockbuster epic projects of yore, and resurrect some interesting photographs, I have tried two Flickr tours of medieval places, Beverley and Pickering, small and charming towns in Yorkshire. So, in a fit of enthusiasm, I have attempted something a little more tricky.
  Leicester is a town whose post-medieval history has cut swathes through its historic past, but it is possible to put together a mental picture of the size and shape and nature of the town through surviving bits and descriptions while plodding up busy streets, dodging traffic and getting lost in labyrinthine parks. It's not like York where you can perambulate leisurely around the walls and fit the picture of the city together and conceptualise the spaces. I'ts like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of bits missing.

  There are relics marooned by traffic.

Some very splendid buildings.

Some sites practically deserted and incomprehensible.

Some things displaced.

And some which have gone forever.

  As our travellers John Leland, Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe all had a bit to say about Leicester, we can see how it changed. Links to other photographic sites have been included, as I had not spent as much time in Leicester as some places and some buildings were just not accessible at the time. And of course it is just a wee bit topical right now.
  The system is as before. Start here then click your way through, scrolling, meandering and diverting as you will. Eventually all these bits and pieces will come together into something with coherence and some themes. Optimist, me.
  Now I had better give my brain a rest and just get on with cleaning up and cataloguing all my medieval images. Besides, I'm sick of trying to copy type 16th and 17th century spelling. Bon voyage.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Another Medieval Day Trip - Pickering, Yorkshire

  Continuing the theme of trying to integrate some old resources into little explorations of medieval places (See previous blog post for the background.) the latest little adventure is to Pickering in Yorkshire. This fits the baby steps into small and not too complicated sites, as Pickering has just two notable medieval monuments, a church and a castle.
  The down side of following the formula that I started with Beverley is that neither Daniel Defoe nor Celia Fiennes seem to have visited Pickering, or they were asleep in the coach when it rattled through. This rather messes with the concept. Leland had a few words about it though, so all is not lost.
  The church in Pickering is mainly noted for its 15th century wall paintings, one panel of which, the Corporal Acts of Mercy, I illustrated a couple of postings ago. The tour shows all the paintings, although some of the photographs are a bit dodgy as the lighting conditions can be pretty awful. The pictures were taken by myself on two different occasions and by my son Eddy on a third, and as luck would have it the sun was shining through the clerestory windows on different sides of the church, so something is cobbled together. You can see the scheme, and maybe imagine the totally different aesthetic of a medieval church in its heyday, with coloured imagery jumping out in all directions.

  A huge St Christopher greets all wayfaring travellers who enter the south door of the nave.

The story of St Catherine of Alexandria is told in strip cartoon form as narrated by Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend. And there's much more painted along the nave walls.

  There are tombs, including this handsome knight.

  Although we don't have any descriptions from the 17th century travellers, there is a suitably romantic early 19th century steel engraving that shows the motte and bailey castle is a rather more decrepit and decayed state than it is today. Either English Heritage have tidied and reconstructed it something savage, or 19th century artists liked to embellish the romantic decrepitude of historic places, and they always had sheep or cows and rustic yokels in them.

  In its preserved state it serves as a pretty picnic spot for those who like a touch of history with their potted meat sandwiches and pork pies, and then there is a chance for an excursion on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, one of the best historical steam railways in England. That isn't medieval but it's damned good fun.
  To do the tour, start here . Read the blurb, look at the map, click on the first picture and off you go. You have to scroll down to get the commentary.
  Now, in this meandering ramble through old resources, where do I go next? 

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Little Experiment in Medieval Beverley

  Many years ago, when computers had numbers that ended in *86 and Windows 3.11 was considered the ultimate improvement, I started messing around with multimedia to see how it could be used to present various aspects of medieval history. I was way, way too early. Everything I did back then is now unusable, and Medieval Writing was the only project to be rescued from the wreckage and developed in newer formats.
  Other projects that were being worked on included a guide to the medieval church, of which the only relics are some extracted text files and a Glossary of the Medieval Church, now on the web in totally primitive form. There was an animated medieval atlas, which rapidly morphed into something that looked like a cross between Dungeons and Dragons and Pacman. Another blockbuster epic was a Toolbook project on the nature of medieval towns and the significance of their surviving forms, based on York, Lincoln and Norwich. Then there was the project that never was, about the changes to town and country at the English Reformation, as seen through the eyes of John Leland and some later travellers.
  I have recently been cleaning up, recataloguing and putting on Flickr my collection of medieval digital photographs, all derived from old slides. Not all brilliant photographs by any means, but all telling interesting stories. So here is the experiment. Take a small medieval town, not so spectacular as York, Lincoln or Norwich, but more manageable. Find all the pictures, put them into a Flickr album arranged in a logical narrative and include commentary by Leland, Daniel Defoe and Celia Fiennes by pretending that they are actually adding comments to the Flickr images. Put them all on the map at high resolution, then see if it works. So here is .... ta da .... Beverley.

  It includes big and spectacular things and things now completely missing.

Hidden things.

  Disregarded things.

Displaced things.

  And things you have to hunt around to find.

  So start with the Flickr album Beverley. Read the general blurb on the main page, then click on the first picture. You have to scroll the page down on each picture to get the commentary, which is annoying. Then just click through the tour. If you go back to the main album page, you can also click on the Map link and it shows you where all the pictures were taken, which should get you here. If you click on the Map link under each individual picture, it shows you everybody else's pictures, but many of them have not been placed so accurately on the map, so that might get a bit confusing.
  I would appreciate any feedback. Is it fun? Is it informative? Is it incomprehensible? Is it so bloody annoying that you feel like hurling your computer out the window? Be honest, but nice about it. Please direct any comment to @HipBookfairy on Twitter, as comments directed at this blog are nearly all ads for internet gambling or fake handbags and I have taken to deleting them by default.
  Might try something similar for some other small medieval places before tackling the biggies. And meanwhile I have to continue the donkey work of cleaning up and cataloguing digital photographs.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Corporal Acts of Mercy

  A couple of posts ago I compared two programs in stained glass windows in York, one from the magnificent All Saints North Street. This one also looks at a window from that favourite church of mine, but compares it with a wall painting in the parish church of Pickering in Yorkshire. This is another in strip cartoon style, representing the Corporal Acts of Mercy. This theme is not so foreign or exotic as some in medieval iconography, as we are still carrying out those same functions today for our brethren who have fallen on hard times, whatever our religious persuasion, or lack of it.
  The concept, unlike many in medieval Christian iconography, comes straight from the Gospels. "For I was hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me." (Matthew 26:35-36, from the one and only King James version). This is the road to salvation, so it is perhaps unsurprising that a wealthy patron might wish to have himself commemorated performing these acts, as appears to be the case in All Saints, North Street, where a benign, bearded elderly gent presides over every panel.

  The acts of mercy are represented in the two central rows of panels. The bottom row contains images of kneeling donors and an image of the sun and planets, which may or may not actually belong here.

  To feed the hungry, the virtuous man doles out loaves of bread to beggars with the help of a faithful servant.

  To give drink to the thirsty, he pours liquid from jugs into bowls with the aid of the same wee servant. Note that the figure in front is walking on padded knees with little stools under his hands; one of the desperately needy.

  He takes in the stranger by welcoming a couple of travellers with walking staffs into his home. I'm not too sure whether that is supposed to represent a cockle shell on his hat, indicating that he too has been a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostella. I may be over-reading it here.

  He clothes the naked with some spiffy red garments, once again with the help of the faithful servant. Medieval guys wore boxer shorts evidently.

  He visits a sick man, bringing some sort of gift - might be money, or bread, or home baked goodies. Probably money, I think. The wife of the sick man seems quite overcome. Note the commode by the bed. The 15th century glaziers of York were quite partial to this as a symbol of illness or impending death.

  Finally he visits the prisoners, not in some dungeon vile, but in the town stocks. Best of all, he has brought a large purse into which he is dipping his fingers. Presumably he has payed their fines. Perhaps it is easier to be virtuous if you are rich.

  The wall paintings in Pickering church are faded and less vividly coloured, not to mention difficult to photograph as you are firing into the clerestorey windows. They are also enthusiastically restored, but the scheme is still there. This church contains an array of paintings of some of the most popular motifs in late medieval art, but we will look at this one for now. 

  The individual panels slightly overlap one another, giving the look of a continuous scene.

  In this sequence a beardless young dandy dispenses the goods, in this case loaves of bread to a couple of long haired wayfaring strangers who look alarmingly like George Harrison and John Lennon from the late 1960s. This seems to combine feeding the hungry with taking in the strangers.

  These same two enjoy a quaff from a bowl which has been dispensed from a jug.

  The young man has also dispensed a garment which seems to be a bit difficult to get into, as the wayfarers proceed on their journey. If you are wondering, as I was, why a large spear might be considered a merciful thing to give the needy, I think the figures on the right actually belong to the next scene, as follows.

  The benefactor is visiting a prisoner in a cell. As he is holding a large purse, I presume he has bribed the jailer to lower his weapon. The grateful fed, watered and clothed hippies seem to have come along to help, or perhaps they are just wayfaring on.

  Here he visits the sick bearing some sort of gift, again with a somewhat overwrought wife in the background.

  The final panel represents the burial of the dead. This is not mentioned in Matthew, but it makes up that favourite number seven, and is undoubtedly a merciful act, at least for the survivors.
  So what does this all have to do with Medieval Writing? Well it does show that texts can be represented in pictures, and were. I don't think it necessarily implies that the readers were illiterate, but just that the teaching and preaching tradition contained written, pictorial and oral elements which added up to a total experience in the church, which was undoubtedly a more colourful and exciting environment than any other in the lives of most parishioners. It also encouraged the worshippers to pray for the souls of the patrons and donors represented there, in the same way that medieval tombs did. That's a story for another day.
  I don't think I know of this pictorial program in a medieval manuscript, but they are probably out there somewhere. If you know of one, please tweet it to @HipBookfairy. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Flyleaf Friday, or When Is a Manuscript Finished?

  A current game in the medieval Twitterverse is to put up interesting things found on flyleaves and pastedowns on Friday under the hashtag #FlyleafFriday. My little contribution this week is a bit too lengthy and contains too much rumination for Twitter, so here is the story. 
  I once bought a scruffy, cut down flyleaf from a French book of hours containing prayers written in French. 

  It was purchased as an example of a late 15th or early 16th century Gothic cursive script in vernacular French. It has a certain formality in that it contains a rubric and a slightly scrappy illuminated capital.

  No doubt pages from the original book of hours text are gracing various collections of pretty medieval things. There is a script sample and paleography exercise for this sample in Medieval Writing
  Some time later the same bookseller made me an offer I could not refuse and I acquired two similar pages from the same volume with the prayers written only on one side. On the blank side of one of them, an inscription in a circle had been added in a much later hand.

  The book still had significance to somebody. There has to be a story there. The bookseller included with these some extra flyleaves from the same book, that were so little regarded by the collecting public that he gave them to me for free. These were two leaves with further prayers written in  a quite elegant, but completely different script.

  These were dated at the end to 1572.

  There are a few things to think about here. Firstly, the book could never be regarded as finished until the last addendum had been added. The scribe or the bookseller did not prescribe the total content. Owners added their own contributions. Individual volumes were evidently valued by owners, probably successive generations of owners, for a long time after the huge wave of popularity of books of hours in the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries. Private devotions presumably did not always follow officially sanctioned religious fashion. Grandmere's old book of hours still provided solace and consolation for somebody.
  Finally, it is intriguing that in the modern collecting marketplace, these parts of the book should be considered valueless discards. In some ways they provide a closer bond to the book's former owners than the officially prescribed text. OK, it was probably falling to bits. It certainly looks that way, rather than having been cut up, but to me these are at least as interesting as the rest.
  I have a few scraps in my medieval detritus collection with personalised addenda and I thought at one stage it might be good to write an article about them. Then I discovered that a much more revered academic had written a whole book on this subject: Eamon Duffy 2006 Marking the Hours Yale University Press. It's a fascinating exposition of medieval people's relationships with their books.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Angels Ain't Angels

  Having pottered my way through cleaning up and organising my photographs of stained glass windows in parish churches in England, a subset of my huge project to continue the process of turning a load of old decomposing Kodachrome and Ektachrome into an orderly digital archive on Flickr (why, oh why, did I think this was such a good idea?), I discover that two churches in York have windows that depict the Nine Orders of Angels. This concept, also referred to as the Celestial Hierarchy, was expounded by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite somewhere around the 5th century AD or beyond. He has been dubbed Pseudo, not because he didn't exist or was some kind of fraudster, but because he wasn't the Dionysius the Areopagite mentioned in Acts 17 who was converted by St Paul. It was just his nom de plume. I have always thought this was a good name to drop unexpectedly into a dinner table conversation.
  The churches containing windows with this program are the fabulous All Saints, North Street, where the heavily restored window was reassembled from fragments after the discovery of an antiquarian drawing that showed how it was supposed to go, and St Michael Spurriergate.

  From St Michael Spurriergate, on the left the most senior order, the Seraphim, with multiple wings and bathed in fire; on the right Cherubim, also with multiple wings and bathed with light. In fact, many depictions of angels generally show them covered in feathers, which may relate to the costumes worn in the Mystery Plays.


  From All Saints North Street, a Seraphim in scarlet leads a procession of senior ecclesiastics while a Cherubim leads a group of cleric and scholars. The plain coloured glass represents where modern glass has been inserted to fill out the general design. The grid pattern is from the mesh screen behind the window, inserted to prevent kamikaze birds or rocks thrown by idiots from damaging the windows.

  Working down the hierarchy, from St Michael Spurriergate, Thrones or angels of humility and Dominations, dressed as armed knights to display their qualities of leadership.

  From All Saints North Street, a Throne leads a group of members of the legal profession, while a Domination leads a group containing a pope, a king and an emperor. This panel has rather a lot of the lovely and intricate original glass in it. The angels are being matched with the mortal folks in their hierarchy.

   Back in St Michael Spurriergate, the next panels should be Virtues, allied with nature, and Powers, depicted as armed warriors. Well that is the theory. I think these may have got a bit out of order over the centuries. The ones on the left are wearing armour, and crowns. It seems our Dominations, Powers and Virtues may have got a bit mixed up. Story of the history of nations really.


  Back in All Saints North Street, a Virtue leads the city burgesses while a Power leads a procession of priests. Ponder on that association.

   The final panels in St Michael Spurriergate show Archangels and Principalities. I had always thought that Archangels were at the top of the heap, but it's a bit more complicated. Archangels can be the leading or senior angels of each group, but as a whole they are in the lower orders. They are also the messengers from God to humanity. Think Archangel Gabriel, Annunciation. Principalities seem to be a somewhat subversive group and I don't quite understand them.

  In all Saints North Street an Archangel leads a group of ordinary city folks, including a worker with a shovel, while a Principality leads a group of noblemen.
  The sequence at St Michael Spurriergate ends here, as there are in fact only eight panels in that window.

  In All Saints North Street the final panel shows an assortment of townspeople being led by ..... an Angel. Yes, the lowest order of angels are called Angels. The people who hang out with Angels include a child and, if you look very carefully in the middle of the panel, next to the men in red, a person wearing spectacles.
  The whole thing is so appealing because of its ever so medieval tangled threads of iconography, text, tradition and social reinterpretation. An earnest early Christian scholar writes a dense and complex treatise under the pseudonym of a New Testament figure, which is translated in that literalising medieval way into pictures of angels in feathery tights or suits of armour or flapping their wings amid sheets of flame, then overlaid with some kind of commentary on the nature of the earthly hierarchy.
  Lessons for the illiterate?  Maybe just a reminder that God orders the estates in both heaven and earth.

These pictures appear in larger format on my Flickr site, but they are not properly organised yet. They will be. One day.