Saturday, December 19, 2015

Heritage Sites: Trendy and Not Trendy

  During the course of sorting and optimising hundreds of old photographs in order to be able to use them online, I am beginning to see through some of the filters which we put on our interpretation of the past. This was part of the point of the exercise. The way we see medieval sites today is mediated through hundreds of years of history, and yet what we see in front of our eyes, tidied and explained by the heritage industry, defines our perception of people, societies, communities and events.
  The above is an engraving of Rievaulx Abbey in beautiful North Yorkshire, derived from a drawing by Turner. It practically defines our image of a Cistercian abbey, even though it was utterly dead and ruinous at the time of its depiction. We imagine something isolated and silent in a wild landscape of unpopulated hills. We imagine the monks walking solemnly, without chatter, no sound echoing off the hills but the melodic singing of the offices. It's a kind of comforting image in today's frantic world.
  The engraving conforms to what we know about the practicalities of Cistercian monasteries. They did build in isolated sites away from towns. The location in the bottom of the valley and the romantic little stone bridge in the foreground indicate their relationship with running water, for sanitation and for rural production.

  This romantic imaging was perpetuated by post-medieval owners of the site. From the Rievaulx Terraces, now managed by the National Trust, there were gaps cut through the trees and shrubbery to provide a series of picturesque views of the simple but grand and stately remains. You can imagine the matin bell tolling across the peaceful valley.
  In fact, this would have been a busy community. While the monks said their offices, an army of lay brothers carried out the practical duties around the place. There were rural estates providing income and provisions for the community, with the necessary comings and goings. There were important visitors staying in the guest house. There were masons and builders continually adding and renovating. Those massive churches and cloisters were not just deposited there by the angels. There were mills grinding flour and breweries making beer and armies of cooks toiling away in large kitchens. It was probably busier and noisier then than it is now, even on a bank holiday.

  Fountains Abbey (above) and Rievaulx Abbey are visited by thousands of people taking in the medieval Cistercian experience. The completeness of their remains and the delightfulness of their surrounds convince us we are immersing ourselves in that world. Other Cistercian remains in Yorkshire like Byland Abbey, Jervaulx Abbey or Roche Abbey are pleasant ruins, but perhaps a bit harder to comprehend in their incompleteness. Then there is Kirkstall Abbey.

  Situated in the middle of suburban West Yorkshire sprawl where Leeds and Bradford have kind of oozed together, it lacks the romantic charm of being marooned in a country estate. The walls are blackened with West Yorkshire industrial muck. When the Cistercians built there it was a rural site like the others, sited in a valley bottom by a river in standard form. Even by the late 18th century it appears to have still been farming land. William Bray in his Sketch of a Tour into Derbyshire ... etc etc, of 1783, decries the attitude of the owner of the Kirkstall estate, the Duke of Mountague, for allowing his cattle to wander through the church ruins.

  It is, however, as complete a ruin as either Fountains or Rievaulx and conveys the complexity of a Cistercian community just as well, albeit with an added layer of urban grime. Yet somehow, because it is in a place whose fame depends on later industrialisation, we let that override the medieval past. Medieval events and processes did not happen outside areas of industrial revolution growth. These happened over the top of them, but not all traces were obliterated.
  I recently undertook, with my good mate Sjoerd Levelt whom I have never met, the task of reading Camden's Britannia in English translation from beginning to end. We egged each other along by tweeting the experience with the hashtag #DoomBritain. It was notable that Camden had as many murderous tales of the medieval aristocracy, dodgy etymologies and mythological historical events for Doncaster and Halifax, Pontefract and Leeds, as he did for the more romantically preserved medieval places.

  The family medievalist grew up in the industrial towns of the West Riding and was amazed to discover that there are fine medieval alabaster tombs, albeit a little browned by their environment, in Batley, for example. He lived there at one time and didn't imagine such things were to be found in the townscape of dreary terraces and housing estates which characterise parts of West Yorkshire.

  Thornhill, now practically a suburb of Leeds, also has a share of fine medieval tomb monuments, just as elegant as those on the Harewood estate but less romantically situated.

  It also has some fine 15th century stained glass, of the York school but showing that you don't have to be surrounded by lovely white wedding cake walls in order to have some treasures.

  A similar mindset applies to older remains. Hadrian's Wall is typified in our thoughts as a lonely set of outposts stretching across empty bits of Britain. I took the same photographs as everybody else does. In fact, for the one above there could be a little platform with footmarks in it to show you how to get that same shot.

  Things do keep changing though. There have been ongoing excavations at Vindolanda to reveal more about the settlement history. Bits of the wall in other areas have been repaired. But even more interesting, the foundations of the end of the wall at Wallsend have been discovered, not in the remote wastes of Northumberland or Cumbria but under the cleared remains of a now defunct shipyard by the river Tyne. The industrial drama of the 19th and 20th centuries has had its time upon the stage and exited, leaving traces of the earlier history still there. This keeps happening all over Britain. Our perception of medieval and earlier heritage cannot be constrained by post-medieval romanticism. To get a true picture we must look for the traces in our more modern landscapes as well.
  I remember once getting slightly lost in the middle of the city of London. I was doing the revolving lighthouse thing trying to get my bearings amid a forest of steel and glass towers with no reference points except the street names like Pudding Lane and Bread Street, harking right back to the Great Fire and beyond. It doesn't go away, it's just hiding.

  Hull, washed up old port and fishing town, bombed to bits in the Second World War, is a bit of a daggy elderly place. I don't know where discussions are up to right now but they were contemplating burying a bit of their history, the Beverley gate foundations, to save the bother of looking after it. You can't imagine that happening in York. They would be having a re-enactment every year of the citizens telling the king to "booger off", all wearing funny hats and big 17th century boots.
  I'm not sure what the moral of this story is, except that heritage should not just be about romanticism, but about history. Help people to find it in the places where it is not so easily seen.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Not Just a Big Church

  I have recently become aware that, with all the nattering on Twitter about Camden and blogging about tombs,  I still have about a zillion roughly digitised old photographs to clean up and sort, including numbers that I took of monasteries, cathedrals, hospitals and collegiate churches. What fascinated me about these institutions is how they were entire communities among themselves, connected into the greater society but at least partially self supporting, with their own networks and hierarchies.
  In fact, the western medieval church can be seen as a society in itself, part of the society of the nations where it resided but not entirely of them, partly a transnational social system with its own rules and structures. As is well known, the relations between secular governments and church authority could get seriously bumpy at times.
  The nature of church society and its relationship with secular society changed drastically over the course of the medieval era. There is an image of monks of the Dark Ages living solitary, ascetic lives of literate scholarship, apart from secular society. By the 15th century monasteries were big business enterprises of major economic significance and senior churchmen were influential people wheeling and dealing in the land. In my investigations of important medieval towns (now a defunct multimedia project waiting for a Lazarus revival), it became apparent just what proportion of town real estate had become the property of major church institutions of various kinds. Their impressions on the townscape can still be seen today, even if there is not a stone to show above ground. The big institutions of 19th century urban revival, such as railway stations, libraries, museums or theatres, were often built on land that had formerly belonged to long departed friaries, collegiate churches or the appurtenances to cathedrals. There must have been something there in the meantime, but presumably nothing that couldn't be knocked down.
  It is these accidents of survival and destruction that give us our impression of the medieval church through heritage monuments. I have started tweeting some of these pictures with the hashtag #notjustabigchurch as I go along, to try to build up a picture of the whole pattern.

  The magnificent Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire preserves much of its structure and complexity, giving us a glimpse of all the facets of life that were conducted there. Because Cistercian abbeys were usually tucked away in remote spots, it wasn't worth anyone's trouble to try to cart away the raw materials. So we have a mental image of monasteries as tucked away in the romantic hills as isolated communities. But they are now ruins. After the Reformation, Fountains Abbey served as a large garden ornament.

  Town monasteries that had the good fortune to be converted to cathedrals at the Reformation, like Peterborough above, at least avoided the fate of demolition of their churches, but the survival of all the conventual buildings was dubious, and of course they became crowded around with all the modern appurtenances; living things still, not fossils of an ancient type of society.

  The abbey church of Selby survived by becoming a parish church, but no cloister or conventual buildings remain at all. It is now just a big church, and offers few hints about the community that founded, developed, lived and worshipped in it.

  In the major towns, the four orders of friars steadily commandeered quantities of inner city space and their institutions were large and sprawling. Blackfriars' Hall in Norwich was the nave of a huge Dominican preaching church. It and the other surviving buildings and fragments in the complex give some idea of the scope of these enterprises, but these are rare survivals in the towns.

  Fragments may survive as multiply re-used fragments, as in the remains of the Dominican Friary in Gloucester. This is a rather desolate wreckage.

  Or there might be some poor decontexted abandoned relic, like this isolated tower from the Franciscan church in Richmond, Yorkshire. Or there might be a few sculpted stones in a heap, or a street called Blackfriars Lane, or a car park with a king buried under it, or nothing recognisable at all. It is very hard to conjure up the lives of the friars from the relics of built heritage that are left behind.

  Collegiate churches, occupied by secular canons rather than monks, were also complex communities. Because they didn't serve as parish churches, they became extraneous and many became ruinous, partly ruinous or lost. Beverley Minster got lucky, but was only saved in the nick of time before the north transept fell down. The lumpy green pasture beside it once housed an archbishop's palace, but it and all other buildings of community living are vanished. Some undistinguished buildings by the minster hold the remains of canons' houses in their innards.

  In York in the 1970s there were scruffy little inner city alleyways where you could find mysterious stuff like this, right near the tourist hub of the minster as you can see. This area has all been rejuvenated, consolidated and beautified. It was the Bedern, where the vicars choral who did duty in the Minster lived and ate and carried out their private devotions. The whole community was lost under the jumble of close packed later building. It wasn't just the monasteries that formed communities, the secular clergy had them as well.

  Hospitals were also large religious communities, housing members of religious orders as well as the lay inmates who were being cared for. St Cross Hospital in Winchester has enough surviving structure to give an impression of this communal life, as well as still carrying out something that resembles its original function. Many others fell to decay after the Reformation, during a couple of centuries when charitable provision became a bit dodgy.
  I am continuing to plough through the photographs, hoping to eventually be able to put something together to show how these communities within communities functioned. I am slogging my way through monastic communities right now. The work in progress can be seen on my Flickr site as a monastic collection. Tasters can be found by following the hashtag #notjustabigchurch on Twitter. 
  Meanwhile, I haven't abandoned medieval tombs or my travels with Leland or manuscripts and paleography. Everything in its own good time.

Friday, September 11, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 14 What Happened to Them During the Middle Ages?

  We have a mental concept of tomb memorials as being forever: an eternal reminder of those we have lost and perhaps a reminder to the world of who we are on the basis of who our ancestors were. Medieval tombs seem to have been part of a process; aids to passing from this world to the next and not necessarily designed for eternity. I have been flogging the concept of liminality in this series, and how the doctrine of purgatory gave a formal church structure to this concept, which is found in some form in practically every culture.
  Certainly tombs were destroyed through accidents of history, but there are some cliches lurking around on this subject. Yes, Henry VIII  dissolved and repossessed the monasteries, destroying many church structures and their contents in the process. Nasty bastard that he was, nevertheless it doesn't seem that he set about attempting to destroy every tomb in the land, just the ones that were in the way. The Reformation put an end to purgatory, but there were ways of modifying the memorial to the family ancestors without destroying it utterly. More on that another day. Puritans knocked medieval religious art around, but tombs have survived where stained glass or wall paintings have been demolished.
  There are clues that in the medieval period itself, tombs were destroyed, removed or re-used. First let's contemplate the logistics. Churches were for saying mass and the office, and for the congregation to worship. The most prestigious place for burial and commemoration was in the chancel near the altar. Over the centuries, how many people vied for that coveted spot, especially in a small village church? And how many times were they replaced?

  The tiny church of Coates-by-Stow in Lincolnshire. Not much room for competitive mortuary commemoration in a minute space like this.
  Spending a bit of the family fortune on building a mortuary chapel might ensure continuity by claiming a bit of real estate in the church, but it is intriguing how often these chapels contain tombs from a limited period of time, somehow just representing the salad days of a local dynasty.

  The St Quentin chapel in Harpham church on the East Yorkshire wolds contains tombs from a range of dates and styles; stone, incised slab and brasses from the 14th and 15th centuries as well as post-medieval wall monuments. Symbolic of family significance over centuries in a small rural village.

  On the other hand, the alabaster tombs of Harewood in Yorkshire represent a more limited time span. They were originally located in a family chapel, but have been moved around the church over time. I wrote about these in a previous post.

  Churches got added to and altered over the course of the middle ages, as evidenced by the changes to architectural styles within individual buildings. Fittings and furnishings and monuments would have got moved around. The mortal remains of those buried there got moved around. There was probably a time after which these things had served their religious, spiritual and ceremonial usefulness. The reasons for preserving the tomb of a family ancestor may have shifted into the social sphere, where they were always grounded in the first place, but vigilance of surviving family would have been required to conserve the relics of family honour.

  In Eastrington church, Yorkshire, a couple of stone effigies have been roughly squared off and used to patch a gap in the wall. Heaven knows when this was done, but these objects were clearly only valued for their raw materials by this time.
  Before effigy tombs became the big thing, those buried inside the church were commemorated with flat or low relief slabs set into the floor. Sometimes these bore identifying inscriptions, and sometimes not. Often they were inscribed with symbols such as a sword, keys, shears, chalice to identify the profession or status of the individual commemorated, as well as a variant on the crucifix, often in the elaborated form known as a floriated cross. These have been moved around the churches, often to sites unrelated to places of burial.

  A floriated cross slab in the church of Sproatley, East Yorkshire, with a depiction of a chalice and paten, indicating that it commemorated a priest. It has an inscription, which is far from universal with these slabs. It leans against the wall, which is often where these things got parked when discovered in odd places during the course of church restorations.
  Such tomb slabs are also easy material for reappropriation. All that is needed is to carve a new inscription, or simply place it in a new setting.

  This floriated cross slab from Aldborough, North Yorkshire, has been reappropriated with a later inscription carved over the base of the cross, upside down to the original. The incised heraldic shield has been given a modern coat of paint.
  The porch of Bakewell church in Derbyshire contains numerous tomb slabs of this type, propped against the wall, no longer where they were placed for the death ceremonies of those they were commemorating. The church of Brancepeth in county Durham suffered a disastrous fire in 1998, after which it was discovered that numbers of these tomb lids had been hidden in the walls. These are preserved, but no longer in their place of honour.

    This is just a sample of the slabs at Bakewell, representing more tombs than you could imagine artfully arranged on the floor at any one time and highly suggestive that they had a limited life in their original position.

  The reappropriation of effigy tombs is at its most unequivocal in the case of some brasses.The earliest brasses in England were large, hefty things containing much metal. Some of them were big rectagonal plates imported from Flanders. Sometimes when later medieval brasses have been lifted from the floor for restoration or whatever, it has been discovered that they have been made from these larger, older sheets, turned over and cut up. These are referred to as palimpsests, a term appropriated somewhat inaccurately from manuscript studies, where a palimpsest refers to a sheet of parchment which has been scraped down and written over the top.

  Rubbing of a rather sweet little 16th century brass, just post-Reformation but in medieval tradition, from Ossington in Nottinghamshire. The date is 1551, just before the succession of Queen Mary, but the brass has an inscription invoking prayers for the souls of the departed, just showing that everything was not as simple as some folks would like to believe.

  Photograph of a rubbing of the reverse of the brass, showing that it is made of buts cut out of a larger and bolder composition. Some bits look like the mass vestments of a priest and there is a little dog at the feet of a figure.

  The above represent two sides of the same plate, which has simply been flipped and a new image engraved on the reverse, from Halvergate in Norfolk. The earlier figure is a friar, Frater William Jernmuth and the later one is identified as the wife of Robard Swane (d.1540). You might be forgiven for thinking that the lady is no improvement on the original composition.

  In many cases it is clear that tomb effigies have been moved around the church, sometimes placed on tombs where they don't fit, or the tombs themselves have been moved into smaller spaces with the loss of some of their panelling. Sections of panelling don't always match. It may be quite unclear when this has actually happened, but I am sure it is not all post-Reformation vandalism. The builders of the royal tombs of Westminster Abbey were quite unfazed about hacking into and damaging those of previous monarchs. There is a previous post about this too.

  A tomb in Eastrington, Yorkshire, which appears to be made up from a miscellany of ill assorted panels.

  The ceremonies of death had a range of time cycles, as mentioned in a previous post. Some of these were in the period leading up to actual interment and others continued after death. Just how much depended on wealth and status. The most wealthy and elevated might acquire a chantry chapel where a priest was employed to say continuous masses for years, or until the endowment ran out.

  An elaborate chantry chapel in Exeter cathedral. These things tend to be found in large major churches, I guess for obvious reasons.

  For lesser mortals the priest might be paid to say mass on various commemoration dates and anniversaries, while the poorest and simplest had to make do with an annual prayer for the souls of all who had no other conduit to the almighty. By the late middle ages the access to church rituals had gone a long way from the teachings of Jesus.
  The artistic effort of these rituals included the use of expensive but ephemeral materials; banners, hangings, fabric drapery and quantities of fancy beeswax candles. Possibly rough freestone tomb effigies covered with fragile and delicate gesso designs and painted in a riot of colours may have been regarded as expensive ephemera. Ritual destruction of wealth has been a feature of funerary commemoration in many cultures of the past. Spend a bucketload of money on an expensive effigy which might only last until the one for the next generation replaces it and you are a rich and powerful person indeed.
  Perhaps that is why so many battered effigies are found in tiny little country churches. They may simply represent the last person in the village to be able to afford such extravagance.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Flying Solo on the Word Wild Web

  I have had a website on medieval paleography and written culture up and running for around 15 years now, with my email contact on it. This blog has been running for a few years. A Flickr site has been up for a couple of years I guess, initially just for my personal use to help me organise and put into usable digital form a large and messy collection of photographs, but now with some embryonic developing projects. I also tweet in order to keep in touch with people and keep up to date with things. They all provide channels of communication.
  Periodically I get little waves of communication through email, blog comments or tweets, some of which seem slightly peculiar. I guess when you get out of the institutional environment where the protocols of communication and the hierarchies of expertise are carefully mapped, you get different perspective on how people perceive knowledge and expertise. As the various modes of internet communication have developed, the nature of the chains of communication has changed.
  In the early days a common request was from schoolkids wanting answers to very simple questions, or suggestions on subjects for their projects. When I hinted that I thought the idea of their school exercise was to look things up for themselves, I sometimes got told that the teachers had told them to get on the internet and ask somebody. Teachers have got a lot more savvy about the use of the internet since then and I haven't had one of those for a long time.

  I do remember that one of these ran along the lines of "I have to do a project on saints. Do you know any good ones?" Erm. The randomly selected one above is from St Mary Castlegate in York.

  Another common communication from the early days involved suggestions for external links for my website, often to very generalised link pages like or Wikipedia or even student assignments or the little hobby pages of individuals pasted together out of scraps from other parts of the internet. With the vast amount of valuable and authoritative information now being loaded on to the internet by all manner of organisations and institutions, these suggestions tend to get drowned in the flood. Replying to such suggestions involved care and discretion.
  Wikipedia has come a long way since then, even if it still has a lot further to go. One strange discussion got entangled with medieval nomina sacra abbreviations and the Holy Trinity. I know a bit about the first but get a bit lost in the haze with the intricacies of the second, but I remember having to try to explain, as tactfully as possible, that writing an article for Wikipedia then citing it yourself isn't the most totally convincing mode of academic argument, especially back in those days when conflicting views on Wikipedia dissolved into all in cyberbrawls.

  Symbolic representations in Thornhill church, Yorkshire.

  A facet which continues to this day is the belief that anyone publishing on the web is  a recognised world expert, and furthermore, in a vast array of fields. I have been asked questions on obscure aspects of paleography, textual history and analysis, iconographic representation, authenticity, stuff dug up by metal detectorists, medieval law, medicine and heraldry. Heraldry! I wish the College of Arms would put up a decent website that at least explains some of the concepts of heraldry and why no single individual, let alone one who has never got very deeply into the subject, knows the coats of arms of everyone who ever bore one from the dawn of the concept to the days of somebody's grandfather's boarding school. I've been sent pictures of arms on things from seals to teaspoons to 19th century boilerplates. 

  All Saints North Street, York. Treasure house of glass.

  Then there is the business of reading the legends on seals. Fortunately most of them just say SIGILLUM FREDDI MERCURI or some such, but that always seems to be disappointing to the inquirer. They think they contain coded information. I did manage to partially untangle a trickily organised inscription in old French on a gold ring once (Yay.) but the finder was taking it to the British Museum anyway and I'm sure they did a much better job.
  The queries about reading old stuff can be diverse and intriguing. I love the letters from folks who have been trying to decipher something for ten years but think I should knock it off for them over the weekend, with my vast knowledge of every script in use before about 1900 and every language known to man. Sometimes it's only something they've bought on eBay or in an antique shop and you're not sure why they want to know anyway. Other times it's some family thing that they suspect contains an amazing privilege, or links to great people or events, or perhaps the ownership of a suppressed abbey reclaimed by the crown and granted to a family ancestor. 
  The latter are sometimes very secretive. They want to show you something of their Amazing Document, but they don't actually want you to know what is in it, in case you gazump them and go claim their abbey or something. So they send a picture of a little corner of it, often chopped off without whole words being displayed and you can't see the whole alphabet or how the letters go together. When you say you think it looks 15th century or whatever, but you really don't have enough information to tell them much else, they think you're holding out on them.

  Any offers? Glastonbury.

  There have been some interesting documents cross my tracks this way. Acquittances from the Hundred Years War. A bit of marginalia in a different script to the main text by someone doing a transcription. I got the letters out but didn't know what it meant. One of his academic pals recognised the text when they were having a night at the pub. Nice to participate in an academic pub discussion in Glasgow from this end of the world. A very creepy Reformation era clerical confession found by somebody scrunched up in a hole in a beam in their ancient house. I think I found it more interesting than they did when I ascertained it wasn't about the house.
  Occasionally I have had images sent of things that have already been transcribed and published. When I've asked why they are reinventing the wheel they have replied that they believe something is incorrect, omitted, wrongly interpreted, but they can't actually read the thing themselves. Three mysteries here. Why would you set off on a project that you don't have the skills to carry out? Why would you think a previous transcription or interpretation is wrong if you can't read the original? Why would you contact a random unknown person on the internet to aid your cause? Demur politely on those. Not my specific area of interest.
  Absolutely on the rejection list are people who want their manuscript treasures valued. I had to put a specific disclaimer on the Medieval Writing website about that one. No way, no bloody way! Rather more strange are the people who want to know what I paid for my little medieval scraps. I even had somebody once demanding to buy one. Perhaps they think I'm running a clandestine manuscript scraps business on the side.

  Not for sale. Not even the strange Spanish ones with curly wurly writing that I can't read and mysterious notary's marks.

  There are people who send pictures of their treasures wanting them identified in some way, who then get slightly miffed if you don't give them the answer they were looking for. An intriguing oddity is the desire for something to be older than it is, even if it is old and interesting already. Then they want to claim they have the oldest whateveritis in the universe. Or they have read somewhere that a certain script, notation, style first appears in the xth century, so theirs has to be at least that old. I tend to go on a simple assessment that if it swims, quacks and waddles it's probably a duck, not a pterodactyl. But feel free to ask somebody else. Nope. They want to convince me. They don't understand that I really don't care.

  An old German duck. Mine. From the same scrap of codex as somebody else's pterodactyl.

  The type of query that baffles me particularly is when somebody wants me to give a one line, definitive answer to something that is the subject of academic debate. If I refer them to some reading, they say no, they want to know what I think. Why? Am I some kind of international umpire? Why do they think I'm qualified to speak on these diverse debates? The weirdest ones come from people who are interested in (Dare I mention it?) the Voynich Manuscript. Quiet now. I have been informed that the VM was written by a Hungarian mystic, that it is in old Dutch, that its mysteries can be solved through the study of late antique beekeeping. VM assertions and queries seem to travel in waves. I once got so sick of them that I wrote a blog post asserting that it was written by Leonard of Quirm (a Terry Pratchett character) and was so screwed up because it had been altered by travelling through the space-time continuum from Discworld. I then got an email from a person who had been trying, valiantly and apparently fruitlessly, to maintain a sensible and sane website on the VM saying that because of me he had had to put up a posting explaining to people the meaning of the word "parody". 

  One of the interesting aspects of having an open, non-institutional web presence is that you can get engaged in intriguing cross-disciplinary discussions. Legal contracts in the digital age or modern urban linguistics or medical science can have roots in the medieval past and there are experts in suchlike fields who are interested to explore them. It is surprising that academics out of their field can be as naive about methods of investigation as members of the general public. They can also be just as inclined to want you to do their basic searching for them. "Do you know of images of ... from medieval manuscripts?" Try the British Library images or Gallica for starters. Ten minutes later, when they couldn't possibly have exhausted those, "Aren't there any others?" Try Sexy Codicology. You can find them all there. Nevertheless this does open up interdisciplinary communication, and may even engender some mutual respect between workers in different areas. The disciplinary boundaries are very hard to breach in the seminar room or academic journal, where walls are built for protection against wolves.
  The madly enthusiastic hobbyists can also generate some great discussion, even if the protagonists get a bit carried away with their obsessions sometimes. I have had a swag of correspondence, by email and blog comment, on the subject of formulations for medieval ink. One modern scribe even wanted to send me a pot of his brew and had to be firmly dissuaded because of what customs and security might make of a vial of nasty, toxic brown stuff in the post. The longest and most enthusiastic blog comments were on this subject, with folks posting their favourite recipes and chemists and paleographers locked in mortal combat.
  The opportunity for such freewheeling discussion has been limited by the curse of blog comment advertising spam. It does seem that blog hosts have thrown in the towel on ridding the airwaves of this noxious menace. I can't even see what point it has for the spammers as I don't see how they can get to a target audience by this means. I guess the open invitation discussions just have to migrate to other internet forums.
  I hope this hasn't read like a long whinge or just a series of funny shaggy dog stories, because there is a point here about engagement outside the academic community. When I first started with this stuff, the university mob were more than disinterested. They were determined that they were not going to engage in this nonsense outside the limits of their traditional academic debating forums. A younger generation of academics is changing the way these things operate and using all the digital tools at their command. However, it would be a shame if this was just used to build fenced academic communities in cyberspace. Engaging with folks outside the ivory tower means understanding the interests, skills and aspirations of those who are not members of a club whose rules have been drummed into all its members.
  Personally, I think all academics should learn or be taught how to write outside their disciplinary environment. Some do. Some don't. Some won't. You can learn at least as much as you teach.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Medieval Graffiti and Medieval Marginalia

  In the area of medieval studies it often seems that armies of scholars are marching in serried ranks over well trodden ground again and again and again. It seems the last drops of blood are being squeezed from the pallid corpses of Geoffrey Chaucer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, King John and the barons and all the other usual suspects. The vocabulary of the discourse becomes more obscure and dense, so that the conversation becomes incomprehensible to all but an inner circle.
  It is a rare and wondrous thing to find a whole area of study which is still begging for primary, grass roots research to be done, because even the basic field recording is hugely incomplete. Enter the wide green open pastures of medieval graffiti.

  Medieval Graffiti, by Matthew Champion (2015, Ebury Press: London) is a summary of the current state of this still largely unexplored area of study by its most enthusiastic protagonist. The book not only explores what is known, but why it is important to know it, as the scratchings and incisions on the walls of churches, and other buildings, give a different perspective on the use and life of the building to that propounded by the official church hierarchy. That's why he refers to them as the lost voices. 
 There is a current trend in medieval manuscript studies to investigate not only the formal text in the main central rectangle of the page, but the marginalia which has been added by readers, rubricators, editors, critics and occasionally bored scholars. The bit in the middle is the official version of the text, sanctioned by the author, compiler and in many cases the authorities of the church. The marginalia gives some clues as to how readers responded to the text. This study has been given the handle reception theory. Personally, I think there is no such thing as reception theory, but my background in the dim distant past was in science where the word theory had a particular meaning. There is such a thing as reception studies; the study of responses to a text, and the way readers made it their own.
  The marginalia in question can be part of the formal design scheme, as added by an illustrator. All those farting bishops, monkeys with urine flasks and the famous nun picking penises off a tree have been discussed as a kind of commentary on the text. Text marginalia can become a formal and approved part of the main text, as in the Bible gloss. Marginalia can also be doodlings, pen trials, ownership inscriptions, corrections, addenda and occasionally rude comments about colleagues. They can be partially erased, and even that poses questions. Taken together, they bring a range of readers and users into the story of the book, expanding the concept of the use of the text.
  Medieval graffiti is to church art and architecture studies as marginalia is to manuscript studies. Church authorities designed and approved the central scheme, but the buildings were part of normal social and religious life. In various ways people appropriated them and made their own comments, not necessarily church sanctioned, but not church disapproved either. It is both claiming ownership and revealing parts of medieval life not recorded in official accounts. It is reception studies for buildings.
  The book gives a broad overview of the current state of these studies, emphasising that there are many parts of England that have not yet been extensively surveyed and there is much basic data yet to be collected. It is divided into multiple short chapters (21 chapters in around 250 pages), each briefly examining a particular class of graffiti or general aspect of the subject. It is very much a general survey and written in an accessible style for any literate person who finds this kind of thing interesting. Nevertheless it is apparent that the author has done considerable background research in various historical sources to get the basic scheme in place.
  While it is clear that it is written in a popular history style, the trained academic in me itches a bit with a book that has no bibliography and also no citation of original historic sources. Where is the commonplace book of Robert Reynes? Which several sources? What authorities? Where could I get my hands on those records? No, you wouldn't like it to read like an academic conference paper, but I have satiable courteosity, like the elephant's child.
  By separating all the types of graffiti into different categories, the author emphasises that they may all have different functions and meanings, even if these are not well understood. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on mass dials. Apart from the fact that they should really be called divine office dials (They didn't say mass every time.), the priest would have known when to say his offices by looking out the window and the laity mostly didn't attend. The existence of multiple examples on one church would certainly seem to be extraneous. Makes you wonder whether the act of making one of these was a devotional act or process in itself. Like all the different types and styles of graffiti, there are more questions than answers.
  The amazing thing about these markings in a public space is that they have been so overlooked. I was amazed at the places where these things abound, and where I have been many times without the slightest awareness of them. I mean Beverley Minster for one. Must be blind as a bat. I even found one on an old photograph I took many years ago and hadn't even mentally processed it.

  There it is, on an alabaster tomb in Harewood church in Yorkshire.
  One of the most delightful things about the medieval graffiti projects is that they are genuine community efforts involving teams of volunteers who are doing the basic research. A very enthusiastic mob they are too. This has to be a credit to Matthew Champion himself, as director of the Norfolk and Suffolk Graffiti Survey. Volunteers are sometimes treated like odd job people on large projects, but this lot are clearly engaged with their work and self motivated to do their church exploring. When they find something good they are on Twitter, tweeting like sparrows. It can only make the cause prosper.
  The book is nicely produced and illustrated and largely free of typos, but .... well I shouldn't. I mean there's always one that gets through. But when it's a good one ... p.220 "Misericords ... often decorated with strange cravings ..." Sorry Matt. Done a bit of editing and I just can't help myself.
  So all power to the ongoing graffiti projects. It will be interesting to see continuing results. And next time I get to England I might find myself not photographing tombs but peering quizzically at walls.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 13: Female Fashion

  I have been holding off writing this one because, whenever I have something to say on medieval women's fashion, I am assailed by medieval re-enactors who insist that every item of clothing or ornament has a correct name which must be used on every single occasion, and who then want to know the technicalities of how you get your headdress to stay that way. Well this is about the concept of women's fashion, how it is expressed on funerary monuments, and how it relates to the depiction of males during this period of competitive social stratification.
  As mentioned in previous posts, the period in which effigy tombs became popular, for those that could afford them, was a period of rapid change in armour, and in the presentation of the fighting man. It was also a period of rapid change in women's fashion. Whether or not they always dressed to the nines, they were certainly depicted in the very latest on their tomb monuments.

  The earliest female monuments of the 13th to early 14th centuries, such as the one above from Appleton-le-Street church in Yorkshire, show a standardised form of female clothing. The drapery of the dress is swirly and enveloping, but can reveal the curves of the body in a sculptural way. The headdress is simple and includes a wimple which covers the neck. It is a very sculptural form, like the crosslegged knights who so often accompany these ladies. This is emphasised by the fact that any surface treatment with gesso and paint has usually disappeared under the influence of time, weather and church restorers.

  This lady from Bedale in North Yorkshire is another example of this style, with a very billowy style of drapery that seems to be there for its three dimensional effect rather than the meticulous depiction of a particular style of frock. (OK medieval re-enactors, I know they didn't call them frocks. It's a generic word.)
  Around the middle of the 14th century, ladies' fashion suddenly happened. It could be argued (OK, OK, I am arguing) that increasing social mobility caused by the many disasters and accidents of the 14th century became expressed in competitive dressing, as well as eating, entertaining, posh book ownership and prancing around in the latest military equipment, not to mention building fancier houses. Interestingly, one chronicler blamed it all on an influx of Belgians to the court of Edward III and his queen Philippa of Hainault.

  The above is from a text of the Brut Chronicle (British Library add. ms. 33242, f.140-141) and is the first part of a rant about wicked modern fashion which reads as follows:

and yn th (this)
tyme Englishmen so moche haunted and cleved
to the woodnesse and foly of the stranngers the fro
the tyme of the comyng of the henandes (henanders) xviii yer
passyd they ordeyned and channged he (hem) evy (every) yer
dyvse (dyverse) shapp (shappus) and disgysing of clothyng of longe
large and brod and wide clothis destitut and dys-
hert from all old honest and good usage and any
tyme shorte clothis and strete wasted jaged and
cutt on evy (every) side to flateryd and botoned w (with) slevys
and tepetes of surketeve and hodys ov (over) longe and
large and ov (over) moche hangyng that y sothe shall
say they were lyke to tourmentos (tourmentors) and devellus yn
her clothyng and showyng and oth (other) aray tha (than) to
men (menn) and the women (womenn) more nycely yett passid the
men (menn) in aray and koryosloker for they were so strete
[new page]
clothyd that they lett hong fox tayles sowed beneth (benethe)
within forthe her clothis for to hyll and hyd here
ars the which disgysing and pde (pride) paventur (peraventur) aftur-
ward brought forthe and encaused many myshapps
and myschevys yn the reme of England.

or in modern English

In this time Englishmen so much adhered to the madness and folly of the foreigners, that from the time of the coming of the Hainaulters 18 years before, they ordained and changed every year diverse shapes and disguisings of clothing. They were of long, large and broad clothes destitute, and desert from all old honest and good usage. At any time they wore short and narrow clothes, jagged and cut on every side to flatter (flatten?), and buttoned, with the sleeves and tippets of their surcoats and hoods over long and large and hanging down over much, so that in truth it could be said they were like tormentors or devils in their clothing and adornment and other array rather than men. The women more nicely yet passed the men in array and curious appearance, for they were so scantily clothed that they let hang fox tails sewn inside their clothes to hill (enhance?) and hide their arses. This disguising and pride perhaps afterward brought forth and caused many mishaps and mischiefs in the realm of England.

  You can look at this in detail on the Medieval Writing website here.

  I don't know about the mishaps and mischiefs, but fashion certainly became a thing. The foolishnesses of male fashion as derided above were not so often to be found in 14th century effigy tombs, as grand tombs were mainly the preserve of the knightly classes, who preferred to be depicted in the latest suit of armour. Certainly not much mischief to be got up to in one of those.

  This tiny little male civilian figure from a brass, possibly from the head of a floriated cross, from Hampsthwaite in Yorkshire shows the disgraceful male attire; very short garment with lots of leg showing, extraneous flappy bits and a gross excess of buttons. Obviously decadent. Such attire is much depicted in illuminated manuscripts from this period, from which it can be seen that really stupid shoes and bizarre hats go with the look as well.

  This is a battered example from West Tanfield in Yorkshire, but it shows how ladies' fashions became more revealing. The wimple disappeared, exposing the neck. Great holes were cut in the sides of the outer garment, revealing the undies. The outer garment was cut closer to the body, revealing more of the shape beneath. And there were off the shoulder capes, extraneous flappy bits on sleeves and dozen of buttons along tight fitting sleeves and down the front of dresses. There is no evidence from tombs to confirm or deny that they wore fox tails under their skirts to make their bums look bigger.

  Headdresses became diverse and elaborate, as with this frilly number on the brass of a lady from Bothamsall in Nottinghamshire. This also shows the rows of buttons on the sleeves. You are obviously a person who does not have to fill up their day with menial tasks if it takes you, or your servant, half the morning to do up your sleeve buttons.

  Most tombs lack the surface treatment of gesso and paint these days, but surviving examples and battered relics show that texture and colour were used to depict the intricacies of complex and expensive imported fabrics making up the ladies' garments. The tomb of Lady Elizabeth Montague (d.1354) in St Frideswide's cathedral, Oxford gives a hint at how lavishly these effigies, and their clothing, could be depicted. The illustrations above is from C.A. Stothard 1840 The Monumental Effigies of Great Britain: London.

  Fashions as depicted on tombs changed rapidly during the course of the 15th century, with headgear becoming increasingly elaborate. This lady from Swine in Yorkshire dates from around the beginning of the 15th century.

  This rubbing of a brass of Lady Agnes Routh from Routh in Yorkshire shows the extravagant styling of the early 15th century, with a highwaisted style and huge billowing sleeves deploying acres of fabric and an elaborately constructed headdress. Her cuffs and collar are blank as they once contained some sort of inlay, probably representing fur. This is a lady from a tiny nondescript village in East Yorkshire, but she is presented as the height of glamour. I suspect that the emphasis on rapidly changing fashion is a reflection of the social conditions of the times, repudiating ancient lineage as the doorway to privilege and emphasising displays of current wealth as the signifiers of status.

  As with the knights, the increasing use of alabaster for high status tombs in the 15th century allowed for intricate depictions of fine surface detail, showing the minutiae of hair ornament, jewellery and fastenings. Even when they have lost all their colour there is much detail to explore. The above example is from Ashbourne in Derbyshire.

  And here is a beautiful later 15th century lady from Methley in Yorkshire wearing a tall, almost turban-like headdress with the fabric texture depicted, because you just can't have too many alabasters. She is sporting plenty of bling with her rings and necklace.

  The headgear just got more extravagant, as in this late 15th century brass at Raveningham in Norfolk. Note the fur collar and the nifty furry fingerless mittens. She wears the Yorkist suns and roses collar as her husband was squire to King Richard III. Some brasses showed an attempt to depict fancy brocaded fabrics, but the effect is a bit cruder than on the three dimensional tombs.

  Sometimes a lady's hair was depicted flowing down freely over her shoulders. It used to be said that this signified that they had died unmarried, but there are several examples where they are depicted this way lying next to their husbands, as in this late 15th century tomb from Batley in Yorkshire. Perhaps it is a way of suggesting that age is removed in the liminal stage of death. Certainly nobody, apart from the odd royal personage, seems to ever get depicted on their tomb as old. Once again the depiction of richly brocaded fabric on the lady's headgear is emphasised.

  The exception to following the rapidly changing vagaries of fashion were if the woman was depicted as a widow. In that case the imaging reverts to a rather shapeless garment, veil and wimple or pleated barbe covering the neck. It was the same for centuries. This example from Harewood in Yorkshire has the lady prominently displaying her rosary beads. Widowhood was a virtuous, if perilous, state.

  The fashion parade continued into the 16th century, with perhaps more emphasis on opulence rather than extravagances of style. This lady of the early 16th century from Bishop Burton in Yorkshire has furred cuffs and a very large and conspicuous girdle and chain. The headgear seems to have been the most telling item of fashion change.

  The smaller and more modest brasses of the somewhat less exalted levels of society in this era became more stereotyped. The ladies wore the latest styles, but were not so ingeniously individualised. I guess they were just more ready-to-wear kinds of monuments. It is notable that male fashion had become notably more modest than the frivolities of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. A demure long gown was fine so long as it had lots of fur and you were sporting a large purse. The above example is from Tideswell in Derbyshire.

   This group of women are subsidiary figures in a  large and elaborate brass arrangement on a table tomb in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. The main figures on the brass are wearing very complex heraldic attire, as illustrated in a previous post. These represent the female children of the deceased, and they are as alike as peas in a pod, wearing identical clothes. They are symbols of a time and place and set of relationships, but even their clothes don't distinguish them as individuals.
  For those interested in medieval fashion, tombs can provide endless hours of fascination. However, it is worth pondering what they represent. Just as the faces of the deceased are not portraits but idealised imagery, so the clothing is not so much representative of the wearer's individuality as defining a position in society. Manuscript illuminations as well as tombs depict aristocratic women as permanenty dressed for a night out with John of Gaunt and his pals. We don't know what they looked like when hanging around in their dressing gowns, or whether they had dressing gowns. Did they have lazy days in their private chambers wearing a floppy shift with their hair hanging loose?
  And no, I don't know how they kept those fancy headdresses in place.