Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Medieval Tour of Boston (Lincolnshire)

  In my devious sneaky way I am creeping around some of my larger projects by serving up little snippets on medieval towns visited by Leland and others, but cunningly avoiding the blockbuster epic ones that I tackled in the past in previous incarnations of multimedia technology. Those were York, Lincoln and Norwich, but I have so much material on those that it's a little daunting. Instead, here is a little look at a town which was very important in its medieval heyday, but with changing fortunes over the centuries retains very little of its medieval built past, with one notable exception. So click here to embark on a Flickr tour of medieval Boston.

  You are right. This shot does not show the most famous building of medieval Boston. That's because I was standing on it at the time in order to show the layout of the town and the way it winds along the river Witham, basis for its wealth as a major port.

  This, of course, is the medieval building that everybody knows from Boston; St Botolph's church, also known with Lincolnshire irony as the Boston Stump. It is much more than just a church with a big tower and contains many treasures, especially in the way of woodwork and tombs, some of which may be a trifle inconspicuous.

  It's a bench end. You can make up your own mind as to its significance.

 There are little details from other places, such as these fragments of stained glass now lurking in a window in the 15th century guildhall.

  There are some things that  no longer exist. You just have to conjure up their ghosts from the scratchings on metal plates of past recorders.
  As with the other medieval tours, I have added the descriptions of John Leland and Daniel Defoe into the comments. Celia Fiennes evidently didn't pass this way, but we have picked up an antiquarian with the unlikely name of Pishey Thompson who was full of information and supplied images of places altered or disappeared. Welcome aboard, Pishey.
  There is now a Flickr collection of the various medieval tours which include the commentary of Leland. They can be accessed here. This will steadily expand.
  I now have to decide where to go next with this little enterprise. My thought is to go with a few more of the smaller but interesting places, randomly dotted about. The Family Medievalist wants me to tackle Lincoln. He reckons medieval Lincoln needs a little love. Hmm. Watch this space.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Digital Humanities - At Last?

  In 1995 I found myself with  PhD in Archaeology and Anthropology and no academic job in prospect. Too old for a junior position, too inexperienced for a senior one, too overqualified for peripheral academic positions on offer, and too married for interviewing teams to believe that I would be willing to put in the hard yards to work in a different city to my husband. Yes, a (female) professor actually put the hard word on me about my domestic arrangements if I were to accept a job; illegal according to equal opportunity provisions but she sprung it on me over a "friendly" cup of coffee outside the interview room.
  I put my newly acquired free time to use by investigating ways of using multimedia technology in teaching on behalf of the Family Medievalist, my longsuffering spouse who taught medieval history at the Australian National University. This has always been unpaid. At that time a number of academics at the ANU were trying similar experiments, but all in a disco-ordinated way and without support from higher echelons of the establishment. We held regular meetings in which we discovered we were all using different software, platforms, technologies and we all came from different disciplines. The science bods were amazed to find medievalists in their midst, as if they thought we could not personally progress beyond the quill pen.
  In the late 1990s and early 2000s university management and senior academics alike were quite averse to this kind of activity. Some felt threatened that they would be required to do more work and acquire even more skills if this sort of thing got about. The university thought it ought to be able to make money out of such efforts, even those by an unpaid volunteer. Even archives thought we should have to pay for services that would otherwise be provided for free to any wandering member of the public, because we were obviously going to make a squillion out of it. Occasional meetings and conferences with other excitable cognoscenti punctuated periods of avoiding garlic and silver swords in the corridors from less enthusiastic members of the faculty.
   As I have mentioned in previous postings on these projects, the whole thing fell to custard because of the rapid changes to technology. Without a team of experts updating things constantly, multimedia projects from this era just died of premature senility. Just one of my projects survived and grew, the website Medieval Writing.

  Medieval Writing was originally designed to teach paleography to students who hated the subject, much to the distress of the Family Medievalist who kept trying to persuade them that it was the key to discovering anything in medieval history. It ended up on the web, rather than a multimedia CD, because by giving it away for free I could keep control over it and develop it in my own way. It expanded to cover aspects of literacy and the nature of things that medieval people did and didn't write about. It has been rejigged technologically several times, but now seems to be coming to the term of its natural life yet again.
  It is also galloping towards 300,000 clicks on the home page. Now that is over a long time, and some folks may keep coming back for return visits. Equally, many others don't go through the home page as they come in through Google searches or have bookmarked their favourite bit, like the index of scripts. It is not a strictly quantitative measure of anything I guess, but I can't help wondering how many copies I would have sold had I written a paleography book, or even how many people might have borrowed it from a library.
  For that matter, what would my odds have been on getting a paleography book published in the first place, not being a member of the academic establishment? Certainly, publishing a book doesn't let you grow and develop a project over many years as a website does. There is no editor, but experts have written to me at times with suggestions and corrections, and they can be fixed instantly if needed. The biggest peer review group in the world is out there.
  Strangely, some people just didn't believe it was real. On more than one occasion I have had a friend or colleague say something like, "I got a recommendation of your website from somebody in America. She found it on Google and asked if I knew you. I must look at it one day." or "I  saw your site listed on X university's link list. Amazing!" or "If you type 'paleography' into Google there's a site called Medieval Writing that comes out on top. That's not yours, is it?" There was a whole bunch of people in academia, not all of them old, that just didn't believe the digital thing was happening. The truly old academics just pined away and died when their copy typing secretaries retired and they had to type and file their own emails.
  An interesting aspect is the feedback that a website allows. Yes, I have had emails from schoolkids wanting ideas for assignments and folks wanting me to identify the coat of arms on the antique set of spoons that they inherited from their greatgrandmother and deluded folks who thought they should inherit a country estate with an abbey on it because they have a document in their possession which belonged to Anne Boleyn's lady in waiting. I have also had some fascinating conversations from people who would never have gone near a paleography book; an international law professor working on digital signatures or a linguist investigating modern urban dialects.
  This is proto-Digital Humanities, I guess, but the tools remained very primitive for a long time. The first manuscript facsimiles on the website were old black and white photographs, either out of copyright or used with permission.

  Yup, that is horrible to the point of totally unusable on a modern computer screen.

British Library, Cotton Tiberius C II, f.34. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica

  Rescanning helped, but the job got bigger and bigger as the site grew. Great thanks to the British Library for letting us have a go back then when things were so experimental. For legal documents, old Public Record Office scanned photocopies have been replaced by digital downloads from the National Archives. Now, of course, the number of high quality digital images of medieval manuscripts available on the web is enormous and growing, and so are the tools to make use of them.
  There was very little on the web on paleography or manuscripts in general in the way back when, but now resources are proliferating. There are general introductions and specialist sites and tools for producing interactive transcripts far more sophisticated than the clunky little exercises that I devised for Medieval Writing. I'd ask if anybody needs a DHTML programmer in Dreamweaver for Internet Explorer 3 or a Flash 5 programmer, but I think I've forgotten how to do it.
  There are communities of scholars interacting through social media and cross-fertilising ideas. This facilitates friendly conversations between people with new ideas, not overseen by a session chairperson with an overriding agenda and a tenured professorship. (Oops. Getting a bit radical here.) It all makes things hopeful that Digital Humanities can actually happen: that it can be an open door to all interested participants, not an elite privilege for high fee paying students in enrolled courses. (Yeah, yeah. Waves red rag and stands on the barricades, yelling.)
  So here's to all 300,000 of you finger clickers who have helped carry the torch through the Dark Ages of Digital Humanities. And here's to the clever young folks who are going to take it to the high Gothic stage of beauty and functionality. If I can find a fountain of eternal youth (or at least eternal late middle age) I may be able to participate in it.
  Ultimately, I think the moral to this story is that any subject, even one which students are reluctant to tackle, can be made fascinating with ingenuity. Before the age of the internet, which I believe is 25 this year, so much, much younger than me, resources for subjects like paleography were hidden away in obscure corners of academic libraries. Those resources are likely to be hidden even deeper in reserve collections and underground bunkers these days, but they can be translated into wonderful concepts accessible to all. Medieval marginalia of cats, killer bunnies, farting priests and nuns picking penises off trees may get their attention, but there is so much more that can engage people. We now have the resources and technology to do it.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 7 Civilian Males

  This episode of the neverending tomb saga will look at the tombs of males depicted in civilian dress. Now before anybody gets their feminist knickers in a knot, let me point out that there is no real difference in the depiction of women on tombs, whether they are from the knightly or civilian classes. They all wear the latest fashions, and the styles of memorial change over time, but apart from heraldry there is rarely a specific signifier of aristocratic rank.
  As we have seen, the earliest effigial tombs were made for high ranking clerics and knights. The former were always attired in the very correct vestments for their rank and the latter in the latest style of armour. From around the 14th century a class of people were becoming wealthy in new ways, as merchants and traders in the towns rather than country landowners. For those truly on the rise, their tombs could match those of the knightly classes in glamour, and the same basic iconographic scheme was followed, minus the suit of armour.

  This early 14th century effigy of a man in civilian dress in the church at Birkin, Yorkshire is very much in the style of crosslegged knightly tombs of the period. His robe falls open at the knee to display his shapely calf in the same manner as the knights' surcoats were draped. His feet rest on a dog. He carries no weaponry, but holds a heart in his hand. He lies on, under and beside bare stripped masonry, so there is no way of knowing how elaborate his original tomb arrangement was.

  For those aspiring to use their new found wealth to mix it with the rich and famous, the tombs could be as elaborate as those of any knight. The tomb of William de la Pole (d.1366) and wife Katherine has effigies of alabaster on an arched table tomb adorned with shields. He has a splendid lion at his feet. The de la Poles got on in the world, kickstarting their rise as wealthy Hull merchants.

  The tomb of Thomas Babington (d.1518) in Ashover church, Derbyshire is the standard late alabaster confection. We are in the heart of alabaster country here of course. The tomb has elaborately carved weepers under canopies, angels (decapitated as usual) support the pillows of the effigies and he has a standard lion gazing at him from his feet. He and his wife sport the latest fashions, by this time long baggy robes for men. A notable feature of the figure is his large purse, often used to denote the status of a figure as a wealthy civilian. This may seem a trifle crass, but the virtuous wealthy man was supposed to use his means for charitable purposes, so perhaps this serves to remind those praying for his soul in purgatory that he did.

  Harking back to a previous blog posting on the Corporal Acts of Mercy, the wealthy man, depicted in stained glass in the church of All Saints, North Street, York, is dipping into his purse to aid the plight of the prisoners in the stocks. Wealth can be used for good. Keep praying, people.

  The tomb of a civilian (d.1487) in the church of Glastonbury, Somerset is in similar mode, although only the effigy on top is of alabaster. The base is a coarser stone. His rosary hangs by the large purse in case the passerby has forgotten that he is supposed to be praying for the departed man's soul. The tomb chest has some large and clunky angels holding heraldic shields, but what looks to be a somewhat deformed lamb and flag motif actually is an animal with two humps. The man's name was John Cammel. The rebus, or pun on a name, was a not uncommon medieval trick and sometimes these evolved over time and generations into coats of arms; another appropriation of the significata of knightly rank by the uppity wealthy town classes.

  Effigies of civilians were often not of the totally standardised paint-by-numbers workshop styles as found in most aristocratic tombs. While sometimes awkward, even ugly, they could have some unique character. This quaint bearded gent lies in Beverley Minster, Yorkshire. He is probably late 14th century, but his identity is forgotten. Probably some of these were produced by local craftsmen rather than imported from the major studios.

  This funny little effigy, less than half size, in a floppy 15th century robe, is now set into the wall in Filey church, Yorkshire. Whether he was originally horizontal or vertical is unclear, but that blurry area has been discussed already. As the provision of memorials travelled down the social scale, more modest examples were produced. There are also small half effigies of knights, presumably knights in somewhat straitened circumstances, in niches which may have always been on the wall. This leads me to wonder whether these actually represent burials within the church at all, but serve as the usual reminder to pray for those who may actually have been buried outside in the churchyard. That is another of those thoughts to hold for a later occasion, when we start pondering what they actually did with the bodies.

  The wealthy merchant classes had some networks of their own for provision of high class commemoration. Yes, you've seen this one before but I did say there were some more things to think about. It comes from Boston, Lincolnshire, which was an important medieval port, where they exported and imported things. This black marble incised slab to a civilian and his wife is a bit the worse for wear, but it would have been an impressive thing in its time, especially with its brass inlay in the hands and faces of the figures and the marginal inscription. The stone is from Flanders and the design of the figures is a bit suggestive of that as well. Never mind having a common old English alabaster, we're so rich and important that we can have a fancy foreign tomb slab. Take that, feudalism.

  Tombs depicting civilians could reflect their acquired, rather then inherited, status in life by showing the effigies in robes of office. Sir William Gascoigne (d.1419) is depicted here in his robes as a judge rather than in knightly attire. Note that he carries his large purse, like a civilian, but has a very aristocratic looking lion at his feet. Not visible from this angle is his long sword hanging by his right side, giving a nod to his knightly status. The tomb of the judge and his wife Margaret is one of a series of splendid alabasters in Harewood church, Yorkshire. The above photograph was taken in 1979 when the tombs were dismantled for restoration. (Memo to self: prepare a blog post with a complete set of before and afters for this amazing collection.)

  Mayoral robes are the distinguishing characteristic of this brass of John Wellys (d.1495), now on the wall of St Laurence's church, Norwich. The figure is about half life size. Most of the inscription has disappeared and there is a shield with a woman's head depicted in it below the inscription. The reminder of piety and prayer is embodied in the whomping great set of rosary beads that hang from his belt. With his balding head, there is a temptation to see this as some kind of representation of an individual rather than simply a type. I hesitate to use the word portrait, as that seems to lead to hotbeds of controversy. The slight angle of the head and shoulders seems to take this away from some of the rigid conventions of depiction of funerary effigies and foreshadows a slightly different style of modest funerary brass.

  The tomb of the poet John Gower (d.1408), in what is now Southwark Cathedral in London, Has been mightily restored and colourised up to give it a medieval aesthetic. I'm not too sure how accurate the style of colouring is, but it gives a different impression to that of the inauthentic, stark white or bare stoney look that we see in most surviving tombs. He has a kind of poet's crown and his head rests on a pile of books, indicating that his status is based on his achievements. I have no idea whether the names of his works written on the books represent the original composition of the memorial or a bit of Victorian Romanticism, but I suspect maybe the latter. The tomb is as fine as that of any knight.

  This rubbing is of a brass to Richard (d.1451) and Margaret Byll in the floor of Holy Trinity church in Hull, Yorkshire. It is very worn from centuries of feet tromping over it. It seems to represent a way of getting extra bang for your buck, so to speak, as the whole composition is large enough to be a full sized tomb cover, but the individual brass pieces are relatively small and spread out. The roundels in the corner are the emblems of the evangelists. Under the inscription, displayed in the manner of a heraldic shield, is the owner's merchant mark. These were workaday symbols which identified the goods of particular merchants, but they acquired something of the status of heraldic symbols for the nouveau rich of the towns. They were used by merchants on their seals, for example, when the use of seals spread from the aristocracy to anybody needing to carry out legal transactions. In some cases they were actually converted into coats of arms when members of the mercantile classes ascended the social ranks.
  The knightly symbolism could be turned around for the merchant classes in other ways. Wealthy wool merchants of the 15th century could be shown with sheep or wool bales as foot supporters on their effigies or brasses rather than heraldic animals.

  During the 15th and 16th centuries the use of brass memorials became more widespread and many were of very modest size. This example from Cottingham in Yorkshire commemorates John (d.1504) and Joanna Smyth. Now you can't get a more ordinary name than that. The figures are only 45 cm tall and seem somewhat crudely drawn. The oversized hands may simply be drawing attention to that important reminder to pray. As with grander memorials, they are shown wearing the latest fashions of the day. The memorial is on the wall of the church, and the slightly sideways posture makes it look as if they were always meant to be seen as vertical. The compositional tensions found in the older and grander memorials, indicating liminality and the sense of not being one thing or the other (vertical or horizontal, alive or dead) have disappeared. They are just standing there, saying their prayers. The inscription begins by exhorting us to pray for their souls and finishes with a request to God to have mercy on their souls. This is an absolutely standard wording for inscriptions on brasses and later tombs, where they survive. Perhaps with increasing general literacy in the population these clues could be put into written words rather than enigmatic symbols.

  This little wall brass from Beaumaris in Wales prefigures some of the compositional changes to memorials at the Reformation. It commemorates Richard and Elizabeth Bulkley and dates from around 1530. The composition comprises various little brass inserts in the traditional manner of English brasses. The figures of the man and woman face each other with their children kneeling behind them. They are a family praying together. Later brasses were often incised on a single rectangular plate with the families facing each other, kneeling to pray. They were memorials to formerly living people, not representations of the liminal state of purgatory. That is something else to save for another day.

  Finally, something small and charming and out of chronological order to introduce another thought to save for later. This tiny brass figure is on a wall in Hampsthwaite church, Yorkshire. He is so small that he most likely was once part of a composition within the head of a floriated cross, of which there are numerous examples known. He is from the earlier part of the 14th century, as evidenced by the crazy fashions of the day; very short tunic, excessive buttons on sleeves, extraneous flappy bits which all have specific names - very important if you are a member of the Society for Creative Anachronisms. His long hair and beard is early 14th century hipster. He has a purse and a dagger, just in case anybody tries to get nasty about it. He has also been scratched over with an exceedingly crude inscription ascribing him to somebody who died in 1570. Now that seems a very cheapskate way to get a funerary monument. This is just something to ponder about how long funerary monuments were intended to last, and what happened to them when they passed their use by date.
  There are many threads of this topic to follow from here. I haven't decided which one to chase next. Watch this space for the next episode. It might just be a simple feast for lovers of alabasters.