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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Some really beautiful photos, thanks for putting them together into a post. I've recently been exploring some of the ruined monasteries of Yorkshire (including Fountains Abbey) and they are wonderfully photogenic places- as well as fascinating to visit, of course.