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.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hoccleve on Chaucer

  Continuing with the mentally undemanding but nevertheless satisfying job of upgrading manuscript images on Medieval Writing with shiny colour reproductions from the web, the latest offering is a page from Hoccleve's Regement of Princes (British Library, Harley 4866, f.88r), which he wrote to instruct young Prince Harry how to conduct himself once he became King Henry V, then presented it to him. My God, wouldn't that be annoying. "Thank you my friend, I will surely treasure it." Exit stage left muttering "Daft old bugger!" Sorry, overimaginating history again.
  The script sample and paleography exercise display a Gothic bastarda script. I love it when you get into paleographic bastardry, because it just means that everything is getting mixed up and unclassifiable. This particular form of book hand is very English and owes part of its heritage to Gothic textura, and another part to chancery cursive. The English royal chancery had a great influence on scripts, not only in the legal domain, and also spelling and language in the later middle ages. Literacy escapes from being the exclusive preserve of the church and becomes a major part of lay life and government. Anyway, it looks like this.

  It looks a bit tricky at first, but once you get your eye in it is very neat and consistent. Just be prepared for some variant English spelling and be aware that what looks like a y with a straight tail is actually a thorn and represents th. The page is about Geoffrey Chaucer and the hand which is pointing to a line of script is attached to a portrait of said Chaucer. He looks like this.

  I think our image of GC as a benign and amiable old buffer with a bit of a naughty twinkle in his eye and smirk around his mouth probably comes from this image. Would we have read The Canterbury Tales differently if he had been portrayed as ugly, cantankerous and crosseyed?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Magdalen in Blue

  The latest updated graphics in Medieval Writing are to a script sample and paleography exercise of the Gothic rotunda script from the Melissande Psalter  (British Library, Egerton 1139), a 12th century manuscript produced in the Holy Land. The page displayed is a prayer to St Mary Magdalen, in rhyming couplets that would no doubt make it easy to remember.
  There are always surprises when upgrading from old black and white images to the beautiful colour reproductions that the British Library allows us to use today. This one was no exception.

  Mary Magdalen is more usually portrayed in medieval art wearing red, symbolising her sin. She was the patron saint of redeemed sinners. This example shows her in a beautiful blue robe, a colour usually reserved for the Virgin. Her sins truly are redeemed. And is that a purely decorative frieze behind her legs, or are those shadows of seated human figures? Maybe getting a little over-imaginative here.
  Also in relation to Medieval Writing, it has been notable that I have been steadily adding new websites to the Paleography Links page, as more material creeps its way online. I really thought things would happen more quickly in this area than they have. Some vintage presentations survive, and still work, but some others have vanished. Recently I have added several links to the Spanish and Portuguese section, which shows that things have improved since I once googled "Spanish paleography" and the first item listed was a page from my own website which said that the only things I knew about Spanish paleography came from a 19th century book which I had downloaded from The Internet Archive. The body of online knowledge in this area is steadily increasing.
  Now to my wish list. The steadily growing corpus of digitised manuscripts online, especially those allowing free access for use of the images, contains amazing numbers of beautiful illuminated books. It would be sooo nice to have some images of documents - charters, petitions, accounts, wills and the like - to be able to use. I think I get more emails from people trying to read documents than those wanting to read books, for a whole bunch of different reasons. Mostly I'm stuck with the old grungy black and white images from antique paleography books.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

It's Gothic Jim, But Not As We Know It

 The Luttrell Psalter (British Library, Add. ms 42130) is famed in song and legend for its illustrations, containing elaborate historiated initials, scenes of English country life and work which might be considered typical if the 14th century hadn't been rife with Black Death, rotten weather, famine and peasants revolting, and some very weird part human, part animal creatures cavorting in the margins. It also contains the most pompous portrait of a patron and book owner ever painted, Geoffrey de Luttrell. Well, perhaps with the possible exception of the Duc de Berry graciously acknowledging St Peter as he enters heaven.

  Talk about establishing ownership. Galfridus Louterell, as he is designated here, liked to spread his armorials around.
  The Luttrell Psalter also contains writing, which seems to get forgotten at times. The script is a form of Gothic textura, although it doesn't have that diagonal interwoven quality that gives textura, or textualis, its name by comparison with the appearance of a woven textile. Instead it is very upright, incredibly precisely drawn, and some of the letters are finished straight and flat at the bottom, without feet, which was much harder for the scribe to do accurately. It therefore gets called Gothic textura prescissa, or even Gothic textura prescissa sine pedibus (without feet). This particular example also has very fiddly, but somewhat ugly, little curly scrolls added to the ends of some letters.

  The letters are all carefully separated and somehow, although the letter forms are essentially Gothic, it doesn't really look Gothic at all. It's not too hard to read, and there is a script sample and paleography exercise for it on Medieval Writing. The pretty and wacky pictures from the page are also there for your amusement, courtesy of the British Library website. You can now work your way through the whole manuscript there if you can navigate the search facility. Worth the trouble.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Beasties from the Bestiary

  Purely coincidentally, the last two script samples and paleography exercises for which I have updated the graphics in Medieval Writing (courtesy once again of the British Library's generous usage policies for their digital facsimiles) have been extracts from that wondrous medieval text known as the bestiary. The first (Royal 12 C xix) concerns the partridge, a bird which is painted with a very bad character. This is a nice example of protogothic/early Gothic, however you want to designate it. Because I now have access to the whole manuscript rather than just a small segment of the page, the displayed text and transcription has been extended. The full translation is still pending. I may have to give a bit of a rough guide rather than a translation, as the peculiarities of the bestiary text defeated even the family medievalist.

  The second (Harley 3244) concerns the elephant, a creature considered to be of much more moral character than the perfidious partridge. The script is a very small Gothic textura. The images of elephants, usually depicted with a castle full of soldiers on their back, are often grossly anatomically inaccurate, but this one is a pretty good representation of an elephant. It looks very like a depiction of the town band of Cremona as drawn by Matthew Paris, so perhaps, like Matthew Paris, the artist had actually seen as elephant or perhaps he took elephant drawing lessons from Matthew Paris. Suffice to say that everybody on board the elephant appears to be having a jolly old time and this has to be the best medieval party elephant ever.

  I adore bestiaries. The text is crazy and the images are delightful. In many ways the bestiary is the absolute prototype of a medieval text, if you exclude the liturgical texts which supposedly were reproduced accurately and consistently. The work comes in multitudinous variations, based on a core text, Physiologus, whoever or whatever he or that may have been. The text is confused, corrupted, with startling links to very ancient depictions of animals or mythical creatures in the ancient world. It has also been added to from various sources, including local familiar animals so that hedgehogs (dutifully carrying grapes on their spines) could share a page with gryphons or cockatrices.
  As far as natural history goes, the descriptions are bizarrely inaccurate, and they are overlaid with moral lessons. While the pictorial character of each creature may be reasonably consistent, and the general character of each animal follows a pattern, the precise text varies from manuscript to manuscript. There is no definitive text. This means you can't just google a transcript or translation of a section, like you can the Vulgate Bible. This is true of so much literature from the manuscript era. However, picking the text to pieces to try to find some authentic core in a reductionist mode is fruitless. Each example is an authentic witness to something somewhere. If a few creatures from Gerald of Wales appear occasionally, as they do, this is not an intrusion but a legitimate form of the text which meant something in a particular place and time.
  So enjoy the paleography lessons, then waste many happy hours poking through all the other amazing creatures of the bestiary. There are worse ways to spend a wet afternoon.

    I leave you to contemplate the battle between the crocodile and the hydrus (also Royal 12 C XIX), in which the crocodile swallows the hydrus but loses the bout because the hydrus gnaws his way out through his guts. The bestiary can be a bit savage at times.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Protogothic and Choking Lions

  For reasons which are not entirely clear, some members of the medieval Tweeting community use the hashtag #notalion to post pictures of medieval illustrations of lions that don't look like lions. Part of the culture of foolish recreational medievalia, I guess. One of my favourite #notalion images is in the form of a decorative initial that has a lion apparently choking on it while eating spinach.

  Which brings me to note that the graphics have been updated on the script sample and paleography exercise for a Continental protogothic script from the works of Suetonius in Medieval Writing, courtesy once again of the British Library image bank. And now that there is a colour illustration, it can be seen that the exercise has turned the lion quite green around the gills.
  Very easy paleography in this example. Good one to start on.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Medieval Cartoon Strip and Reader's Digest

  I think my very favourite English church is All Saints, North Street in York. Unusual design, sits down there by the river, sports an angel roof and at one time constantly reeked of incense. The greatest treasure of all is the collection of late medieval stained glass windows. Like most of their kind they have been moved, damaged, restored, jumbled, but they are still an amazing collection, and that in a town which has vitreous wonders dotted around it in many churches great and small.
  Some of the windows have less than common iconographic schemes, of which perhaps the most unique is the Pricke of Conscience window, illustrating an English language medieval poem about the last days of the world. This poem was once attributed to Richard Rolle of Hampole, but has since been re-assigned to that most prolific of English authors, Anon. It is a very, very long poem, and the window illustrates one short segment of it, listing the events of the last fifteen days of the world. It reads from left to right, bottom to top, like a strip cartoon.

    Two panels are in the wrong order for the poem, the second top right and the top left. This may have occurred during restoration of the glass at some time. The bottom row represents the donors of the window, praying for their own salvation. In the tracery lights St Peter leads the blessed to heaven and demons take the damned to hell, so get praying. Sorry, I don't have a good picture of those panels.
  So far we have the standard "lessons for the illiterate" paradigm, but it isn't quite so. Each panel has two lines of the poem written beneath it in chunky Gothic script. Some of these do not survive complete, but they were there. So it is not just a picture book, but a Reader's Digest; a potted summary of the most important lessons from a very long literary work that even the literate among the congregation may have found daunting to read in full. So this is how it goes.
  (Text from version by Richard Morris, 1863 from Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse - starts on p.129. As is apparent it doesn't match on every panel, so there must be variant texts, and the thorns have all been turned into th for easier typing. The spelling checker will now proceed to explode.)

  The first day of thas fiften days
  The se sal ryse, als the bukes says,
  Abowen the heght of ilka mountayne,
  Fully fourty cubyttes certayne,
  And in his stede even upstande,
  Als an heghe hil dus on the lande

  The secunde day, the se sal be swa law
  That unnethes men sal it knaw.

  The thred day, the se sal seme playn
  Ans stand even in his cours agayn
  Als it stode forst at the bygynnyng,
  With-outen mare rysing or fallyng.

  The fierth day, sal swilk a wonder be,
  the mast wondreful fisshes of the se
  Sal com to-geder and mak swilk romyng (roryng in another ms. Much better, roaring fishes.)
  That it sal be hydus til mans hering.
  Bot what that romiyng (roryng) sal signify,
  Na man may whit, bor God almyghty.

  The fift day, the se sal brynne
  And alle watters als thai sal rynne;
  And that sal last fra the son rysyng
  Til the tyme of the son doun gangyng.

  The sext day, sal spryng a blody dewe
  On grisse and tres, als it sal shewe.

  The sevend day byggyns doun sal falle
  And grete  castels, and tours with-alle.

  The eght day, hard roches and stanes
  Sal strik togyder, alle attanes.
  An ilkan of tham sal other doun cast,
  And ilkan agayn other hortel fast,
  Swa that ilka stan,on divers wyse,
  Sal sonder other in thre partyse.

  The neghend day, gret erthedyn sal be,
  Generaly in ilka contre;
  Ans swa gret erthdyn als sal be than
  Was never hard, sythen the world bygan.

  The tend day thar-aftir to neven,
  The erthe sal be made playn and even,
  For hilles and valeis sal turned be
  In-til playn, and made even to se.

  The ellevend day men sal com out
  Of caves, and holes and wend about,
  Als wode men, that na witt can;
  And nane sal spek til other than.

  The twelfte day aftir, the sternes alle
  And the signes fra the heven sal falle.

  The thredend day sal dede men banes
  Be sett to-gyder, and ryse al attanes,
  And aboven on thair graves stand; This sal byfalle in ilka land.

  Sal dighe, childe, man and woman
  For thai shalle with tham rys ogayn
  That byfor war dede, outher til ioy or payn.

  The fiftend day, thos sal betyde,
  Alle the world sal bryn on ilk syde,
  And the erthe whar we now duelle,
  Until the utter end of alle helle.

  So there you have it; the sea rising and falling, fish gathering and roaring, the sea burning, bloody dew, earthquakes with castles and towers falling, rocks breaking each other apart and the earth flattened, people crawling out of holes just in time to see the stars falling, the bones of dead people reassembled and then everyone dies so they can rise again, after the earth has been destroyed by fire. I guess they picked those lines for their marvellous pictorial possibilities. After all, a hundred pages or so on the sayings of the Anti-Christ just wouldn't have the same visual impact. Be very scared. Pray. Be good.
  What does it say about lay literacy? The words are there for the reading in the vernacular. It even has a bit of a northern twist to it. I can hear it in a Yorkshire accent. But the assumption seems to be that the written text must be extremely abbreviated and rendered visually. Narrative, yes, but not too many words.
  The church of All Saints, North Street has applied for a Heritage grant to restore and protect these windows for future generations. Check out all their news on their own website.