Saturday, February 27, 2016

Medieval Literacy: Pictures and Texts

  I have recently been plodding through organising, optimising and recataloguing a large number of digitised slides of the stained glass of York Minster. I spent quite a bit of time in York and managed to photograph a fair swag of the city's magnificent medieval glass, but I didn't have a cherry picker or a drone so there is a fair bit of fiddling about with enlarging details and seeing if they come out. Also my identification of the individual windows was not quite as accurate as it might have been. So with the trusty Pevsner and a pile of other reference books on the desk, I am putting Humpty Dumpty together again.
  The process has jogged the brain into mulling over the whole question of the nature of medieval literacy and the old chestnut about church art being the Bible of the illiterate. For starters, literate and illiterate do not need to be polar opposites. Medieval people read what they needed or wanted to read, whether it was their own names, the oft repeated prayers and psalms in their books of hours, their household accounts, the texts of sermons they were about to deliver, or complex philosophical treatises requiring knowledge of several languages. The same applied to writing. Some scribes copied stuff literally, some made notes from the spoken word, some specialised in formulaic legal documents and some authors wandered round dictating their thoughts to hapless secretaries.

  York Minster is a big building, with very tall windows filled, in many cases, with fiddly detail, especially the 14th century windows with multiple small panels full of colour. It's very hard to simply read the windows without any background or prompts. A photograph like the one above of a window in the north side of the nave gives a bit of an idea of what you actually see. Who is doing what up there and why does the window seem to be hung about with little golden bells?

  The window in question was, in fact, donated by the bellfounders. A telephoto lens shows a kneeling donor presenting the window to St William of York himself, and he is bestowing his blessing on the bellfounders. This panel is at the bottom of the window so it is easier to make out than some, but medieval folks did not have telephoto lenses. No doubt people were told the story of the bellfounders and their donation, and all those little bells just reminded them of it.

  Something similar must apply to the windows which tell the stories of morality and martyrdom and the episodes of the Bible. In peering at the images trying to tell which window was which, I found myself searching for those visual clues that permeate every visual retelling of the story, because for all the variations of style and medium, medieval church art used a standard repertoire of symbols to represent each story. The window above tells the story of St Catherine of Alexandria.

  The episodes of the life of St Catherine are played out in a series of pictures which follow the story exactly as it is told in the Golden Legend. The panels are detailed, even after centuries of damage and restoration, but quite far away. These stories would have been known to the lay congregation mainly from oral teaching. Not too many folks would have had a copy of Jacobus de Voragine in their personal library, but they would have heard the stories many times. They would also have seen the stereotyped images of saints in their books of hours or prayer books, if they were so fortunate as to have one. They learned the stories, recognised the imagery and could follow the sequences in the art in the church. Is this literacy or illiteracy? I say it is a form of literacy. Word and image reinforced each other in medieval books, as well as on windows and walls.

  The story of St Catherine is told in exactly the same type of strip cartoon form on the nave wall of Pickering church in Yorkshire. It was an accepted way of narrating and imaging a well known story. The philosophers, the prison, the flogging, the wheels and the grand finale with the beheading with a sword: that tells the story. You read it.

  The nave clerestorey windows are way, way up. The top row of scenes are actually 12th century glass from an older cathedral on the site, but they must have thought it was worth saving. What the hell is it? Ah. That was a clue. On the right there is a great big mouth with chompy teeth with people going into it. Other panels seem to have people being poked into a pot.

  Hell is what it is. At one time pictures of the Last Judgement were all over the chancel arches of many churches, possibly most. There they were large and easy to see, and were no doubt explained in gruesome detail by some of the more charismatic preachers. Literate or illiterate, the basic clues tell the story.

  In the formerly Benedictine church of Blyth the Doom painting is faded and battered, but it was big and conspicuous in its heyday.

  The nasty demons poking people into hell were suitably demonic. The whole image is a story which can be read, not just a picture. Benedictine monks were not illiterate. They could read those little black marks scratched on to pages, but pictures could be read as well. Even if you could just make out the big chompy teeth in the distant window, you were reading the story. 

  Even a single figure is not just an image, but represents a story. St Christopher carrying the baby Jesus across a river is one of the more dubious bits of Christian mythology, but it was a story popularised in the Golden Legend and he is one of the most prolifically illustrated saints. This is a 15th century example from the windows of York Minster, but while the size and boldness of the 15th century glass makes the image easier to see from the ground, the story has to have been learned. 

  In the parish church at Easby the founding myth of the Jewish and Christian religions is depicted on the wall. It is read from left to right, just like writing. It is a story that was codified and solidified by being written down, then copied and recopied. It can be read in the Bible, or in excerpts, or in paraphrase, or in pictures. Or it can be learned by listening. Bible picture books were produced for wealthy aristocratic patrons in which the stories were paraphrased with words and pictures. They were for literate people, but literate people used pictures too. Literate clerics used historiated initials to help them find particular passages in their psalters or lectionaries, because the iconographic code had rules and conventions, just as writing did.

  So trying to identify exactly which window I'm looking at is very analogous to how a medieval person might read that window. What is that panel in the middle? Man looking over left shoulder, somewhat startled, at an angel in the sky, with sheep wandering about.

  Joachim in the wilderness. Back story to the life of the Virgin and the early life of Jesus. Christian mythology known from the Golden Legend, filling out some unsatisfactory gaps in the Gospels. The window tells the story. You just have to know how to read it.

  Upside down saint. Martyrdom of St Peter. Now what else can we recognise to see what story this window is telling?

  Kings in vegetation. Jesse tree. Genealogy of Christ. From the York Minster choir but originally from New College, Oxford, where we can presume the congregation was reasonably literate.
  We may regard many medieval folks as less literate than ourselves, but in many ways they may have been more literate, with minds open to different ways of telling stories.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 16 - Memorials in Glass

  So far in this series I have looked at medieval memorials that are essentially grave covers, at least in theory, although some of them depicted people who were buried in other locations, or only certain parts of them were buried at the commemorated spot, or their remains or tombs had been moved. Within churches there were various other ways of commemorating the dead, especially if their good works in life had included donations to the fabric or treasures of the church in question.
  Sally Badham's recent book, Seeking Salvation, gives copious examples of other church works which can be regarded as funerary memorials, indicated by inscriptions on walls and furnishings, church plate and many instructions in wills for donations to the church. Stained glass windows also come in here, and she points out that all of these are visual reminders to the congregation to pray for the souls of the departed to hasten their trip through purgatory.
  Purgatory was a big deal in the 14th and 15th centuries, when church art and commemoration was developing in elaboration, but as I have mentioned before, purgatory was an official church doctrine which allowed expression for concepts of liminality concerning death. Those concepts have been expressed in different ways in other times and in other religions and cultures.
  The 14th and 15th centuries were also a time when traditional social hierarchies were being challenged and social stratification, although well and truly still there, became very competitive. This was evidenced in many aspects of life, including rapidly changing fashion utilising fancy imported fabrics, massively competitive dining habits, more lavish houses for those who could have them, and posh book ownership. In competitive societies, worth is displayed by not only what you have, but what you can afford to give away. In societies with very different religious beliefs, funerary ceremonial could involve large and often complex redistributions of wealth. Funerals and mortuary gifts certainly encouraged others to pray for your soul, but also increased the standing of you and yours in society. Besides, they then made other people obligated to you and yours, should fortunes reverse.

  The simplest easily recognised visual symbol for the folks of the congregation was probably heraldry. The above example comes from St Martin's church in Stamford, Lincolnshire. They shields were often depicted being carried by little angels, which has parallels with the angels carrying the souls of the departed also found in funerary depictions. The heraldic device might indicate that the family concerned had built their own funerary chapel, or had contributed in some other way to the fabric of the church. These are very commonly found, sometimes sprinkled among the more didactic panels of the windows.

  Here is another example from a small northern town, Thirsk in North Yorkshire. I don't suppose the coat of arms actually represents three donkeys but it looks a bit like it. Such panels no doubt encourage prayers for the soul, but they also stamp a certain authority on the congregation.

   The de Mauley window in the south nave aisle of York Minster has eight coats of arms associated with the de Mauley family, sprinkled between the usual scenes of martyrdom and mayhem, and representations of members of the family in the lower panels. It has to be said that this is virtually a copy of the original window after a drastic restoration in 1903, but you get the idea. 
  Occasionally you can find a heraldic shield in a window that matches one on a tomb in the church, indicating that these are not either/or modes of commemoration but part of the whole cornucopia of ways that people could be remembered, respected and hopefully hastened on their way to glory.  
A more personal representation is found in the simple kneeling donor figure, usually found modestly in the bottom corner of the window.

  This somewhat effaced little figure from Thornhill in West Yorkshire is depicted in civilian clothes with his purse slung on his belt, not armour, reflecting the new order of town life when you could have influence with money rather than coats of arms. He is kneeling at his prayer desk with the prayer book open, which is about as clear a reminder of what you are supposed to do as you can get.

  This donor panel in St Michael-le-Belfry church, York has an inscription encouraging you to pray for the donor and his three wifes. The convention of showing successive spouses all kneeling together is not unusual. Time collapses when you're dead. Many donor panels contained these inscriptions, but some have been lost, accidentally or on purpose when the glass was reset in times of religious change. The desire to perpetuate the memories of families outlived the need to believe in purgatory. Similarly the "orate pro anima" part of tomb or brass inscriptions has sometimes been effaced, a symbolic gesture making the memorial correct in religious terms while still commemorating the departed, and reminding folks of the significance of the surviving families.

  This window in All Saints North Street, York has multiple references of this type. The kneeling donor  figures in the lower panels have come from a different window. Stained glass is always mixed up because of the need for regular repairs and renovations. Nevertheless they are two of several representations of this type in this particular church. The six panels above represent the corporal acts of mercy. I have written about this in another blog posting here. The acts of mercy are being administered by a benign looking bearded man who looks much the same in every panel, and it has been assumed that this figure represents the donor of the window; a reminder of how he has redistributed his wealth for the benefit of the parish.

  Furthermore he is rich and he wants you to know it, because he is using his wealth for virtuous purposes. Here he is dipping into his large money purse to bail out some prisoners in the stocks. Acquiring wealth is fine if you give it away in a virtuous manner. Pray for his soul please, and look after his heirs.

  The windows in the wealthy church that wool built in Long Melford, Suffolk display more of the symbols of power and less of virtue in the figures of the donors. Sure, they are kneeling praying so please remember to say a prayer for them, but they are togged out in very conspicuous heraldic rig, wearing their coats of arms all over them. They built this church and they are important.

  The nature of the donation can be made quite explicit. This kneeling donor in St Denys church, York, dressed in civilian clothes, is holding the window he has donated, just so that you know exactly the nature of his benefaction. This is analogous to those tomb figures of bishops and knights holding models of churches they have funded. And no, I don't know whether he was a wealthy beekeeper.

  Donors commemorated in glass did not have to be individuals. The guilds of the towns had the function of caring for the spiritual needs of their members as well as their conditions of work. This window in York Minster was presented by the bellfounders and some panels contain representations of aspects of the bellfounders' art. This panels shows the presentation of the window to the archbishop, with the usual supplicatory imagery and a depiction of the window in the glass itself, so everyone gets the point. It symbolises the social importance of the town trades, who are acting like aristocrats of old in their dealings with the community, as well as encouraging prayers for a group within the commnity. 

 The most famous examples of this type of commemoration are across the Channel in France, in the cathedral of Chartres, where all the various craft guilds which contributed to the building of the cathedral are commemorated in the amazing program of stained glass windows. They are not depicted praying or with symbols which specifically encourage others to pray, rather shown just going about their work, but they are included in the lower panels of the instructive windows. The examples above show the furriers and the drapers. Perhaps they somewhat predate the full expression of the concept of purgatory in church art, but their contribution to the church fabric and life is being appreciated.
  It is reasonable to regard these types of windows as funerary memorials in just the same way that we regard grave slabs or effigy tombs. They serve the same purpose and utilise similar iconography. They perpetuate memory beyond the grave.