Monday, June 30, we spent the day working on medieval church graffiti with Michael Champion. He is the project director for the Norfolk Graffiti Survey and the Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. Medieval churches were covered with plaster in many places, and paint, so that the graffiti which survives represents fairly deeply etched images. Often, these are clustered around fonts, particular images of saints and other focuses of religious devotion. The surveys are in very early stages, but offer great promise in developing new insights about medieval lay devotion.
The speed at which this seminar is progressing has been astounding. I have spent a great deal of time working on academic reading and research, when we are not running around the countryside. Thus, I have not updated this blog in over a week.
The theme for this week was Public Devotion and Artistic Interaction and covered chantries, memorials and tombs and reconstructions of holy and pilgrimage sites.
On Monday, we traveled to Wakefield to see a bridge chantry, the Chantry Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin. Bridge chantries were focuses of devotion which were built by wealthy people so those passing by on the bridge might stop and pray for them. This particular chantry was almost entirely rebuilt by Victorian ‘improvers.” A local historian and member of the Friends group for the bridge, Kate Taylor, spoke to us about the history of the building and we discussed this edifice as an example of the many ways that people worked to make sure that their time in purgatory was as short as possible and that they were remembered. I also spoke to Kate about Lofthouse Park, a place near Wakefield where POWs were held in WWI. Kate is also doing some work on POW camps in England, so I put them in touch with one another.
On the way back, Kathleen Kennedy, Ginny Blanton and I went to the University of Leeds to work in their special collections department. I found a number of deeds in an uncatalogued collection, compiled for teaching, which pertained to my current research, which was delightful.
Tuesday was a free day. I spent part of the day working on refining some of my data and had an appointment at York Minster Archives in the afternoon. I have found several dozen new widows in printed sources, and some tantalizing clues in others in the last few days.
On Wednesday, we met with Dr Sophie Oosterwijk to discussed tomb monuments and toured the Minster to look at specific examples.
On Thursday, we discussed replicas of the Holy Sepulcher which were built both on the continent and in England. These were sites of pilgrimage which allowed people who could not visit the Holy Land to imagine the experience through rather inaccurate replicas. We visited a 15th century example of a round church in King’s Lynn and then a 12th century example in Cambridge, the Church of the Holy Sepluchre. Some folks stayed around to see things in Cambridge or headed off for weekend destinations, but Beth Dachowski and I attempted to return after a short turn around town, but there were train delays from London due to breakdowns and accidents, so it was a long three hours back, but a nice conversation despite the crowded trains.
Friday was another research day. I spent the morning at the University of York library and the afternoon at the Minster Archive. I finished the giant book of wills. I went to a party (our last Friday happy hour) and had a good conversation with Jeremy Goldberg and Pat Cullum, as well as our lovely group.
I’ve always wanted to see Scotland, because I may (or may not) have Scottish roots. This weekend was a wonderful opportunity to do so because our family friends Cindy Kite and Törbjorn Bergman and their family were going to be in Edinburgh. Cindy and Törbjorn were classmates of Ken’s when he was working on his M.A. in political science at Minnesota, and he and Törbjorn are particularly close. Alex, their son, Cindy’s sister Linda and father John were also on this trip. Törbjorn was attending a conference in Edinburgh, which provided the impetus for John and Linda to travel from the U.S. to meet Cindy, Törbjorn and Alex, who came in from Sweden.
Törbjorn had sent me information on where to meet them that afternoon, but I decided to take an early train on the chance that I could see some documents at the Scottish National Archive, but when the archive did not respond to my enquiries, I decided to just wander at will and see something of the city.
My train left at 6:30 and I found myself sitting with two young women from Bejing and the daughter of one of them. Both are on exchange programs with the University of York, one in electrical engineering and the other in education. We had a nice conversation, but they were under the impression that I am a citizen of the UK, since all English speakers sound alike to them.
When we arrived in Edinburgh, I decided to head toward the apartment where we would be staying and see what I found. First, I stopped at the National Art Museum, which had a lovely exhibit of Titians. After about 90 minutes, I reached my painting saturation point and went on to Prince Road Park (XXXX) where I saw bagpipers on every corner, some beautiful flowers and a lot of interesting people. This park sits under Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the city. The castle sits on an ancient and extinct volcano. The area around the peak descends dramatically due to the action of ice around it during the last ice age. The park is situated in the lowest part of this area. I tried to visit St. Cuthbert’s church, but it was not open for visitors. I then visited an 18th century church, St. John’s, which was pretending quite unconvincingly, to be a Tudor Church. By this point, it was nearing our meeting time and I was not sure how much further it would be to the apartment, but I still arrived two hours before anyone else was due, so, seeing yet another church in the distance, I proceeded to crash a children’s music recital being held in the building. After listening to my fill of cello and recorder music, I went back to the apartment area, found a convenient wall and worked on seminar readings.
Törbjorn, Linda and John arrived shortly thereafter. I had heard a little about John and Linda from Ken, but had not met them before. We waited a while for Cindy and Alex and then proceeded to go to dinner, where we met a colleague of Cindy’s, Sara, and her parents, who were also visiting the city. We had a marvelous dinner (including haggis for Törbjorn) and then returned so everyone could sleep. The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and then toured the city atop a double decker bus. At the end of the tour, we stopped at the base of Edinburgh Castle to walk around and see a bit on foot, indulged in a lovely tea and then Cindy, Alex and I went back to make dinner (mainly Cindy) while Törbjorn, Linda and John went for a beer. After dinner, it was time for me to get to the train; Cindy and Linda walked me to the station and now the train is slightly late due to animals on the rails. But it was a lovely weekend with lots of good conversation and fun. I wish Sweden was a bit closer.
Last week was so packed full that I’ve barely had time to reflect upon the things we did, much less write about them. After the evening concert on Sunday, we were all tired, but still very enthused to begin our week of discussion on aspects of parish churches, each of which served a certain geographical area, and which were often the focus of local pious donations in the form of art or architectural improvements. Often, wealthy local families would make their parish establishments the focus of their gifts which were designed both to enhance the educational and liturgical efforts of the clergy, but also provide ongoing foci for prayers for the individuals in the family and a display of their wealth and importance to the local area.
On Monday, we began with a discussion of readings with our group, culminating in a discussion in the chapter house of the Minster. Once again, it was proved conclusively in my mind that I am, perhaps, the least theoretically-based among our group. We then proceeded to visit three parish churches with Dr. Anthony Masington, who discussed ways in which the went through as the economic, demographic and devotional environment changed. A highlight of the day was a reading of a section of “The Prick of Conscience” by the Prick of Conscience window at the church of All Saints Pavement by Steve Rosenski.
Finally, I returned to King’s Manor to watch “A Month in the Country” which Laura and Sarah had found which relates the story of a World War I veteran who is hired to uncover a medieval wall painting in a local parish church. It was a very helpful story in thinking about things for the rest of the week, as we examined medieval survivals in churches which had continued to be remodeled for a couple of hundred years after the middle ages.
Tuesday morning, I began developing a table based upon indexes of wills to plan my work at the archive that afternoon. While I made a significant dent, I still have a great deal of work to do, and this convinced me that I will either need to make my project less ambitious or find a way to arrange to come back to England for some targeted archival time in the next couple of years. We shall see what the future holds. I spent the afternoon reading interesting wills in a very large ledger at the YM Archives.
Wednesday, the real adventures of the week began with a day-long trip beginning with a walk to a local car rental company, winding through the countryside in a tightly packed van and tightly-packed car and visits to three fabulous churches with surviving medieval wall paintings and helpful commentary from Drs. Miriam Gill and Kate Giles . Due to factors such as road construction, we ended up running a bit late, and the curvy small roads led to some discomfort for some of our colleagues.
Wall paintings are believed to be a very common feature of medieval churches, which were often stripped of their color and artwork as a part of the reformation, subsequent political and theological upheavals or Victorian “improving.” Some of these efforts were as simple as applying whitewash to the offending artwork, but others involved scraping all plaster off of the walls, leaving only shadows of the previously rich devotional programs. Miriam, who is involved in cataloging and preparing conservation plans for surviving paintings, provided insight into the various ways that paintings did survive and the likely kinds of narrative and allegorical themes which were common, based upon the paintings which survive in whole or as fragments, and references to paintings in sermons. Wensley, the home of the Scropes of Bolton, was particularly interesting for me because of its association with a family I study. Kate met us at Pickering and discussed her research into the cycle of paintings there. Our final stop was Rillington, which also has a surviving wall painted dedicated to a local saint, John of Beverley.
On Thursday, we traveled again. This time, we had a tour bus and a professional driver, but we still encountered delays in our travels. We first visited Ranworth Church, which has a spectacular surviving rood screen and some wall paintings, as well as the Ranworth Antiphonal, which Kathleen Kennedy wanted to consult and spoke to us about. We then visited St. Agnes, Cawston which has extensive surviving sculptures and paint on its medieval ceiling, as well as a fantastic rood screen and wall painting.
On Friday, everyone was very tired and I spent the morning catching up with laundry, some correspondence with my colleagues at WMU and visiting the YM Archive and that big book of wills. We also had an evening happy hour and pot luck, which included a birthday celebration for Elise (Happy Birthday!) Foster. Several of the group had already left for research and activities beyond York, but those who remained had a wonderful evening full of discussions both academic and personal Despite a very long week of enforced close togetherness, we seem to have a sense of making the most of the quickly passing time we have together to learn from the disciplinary approaches and personal perspectives of the various members of the group, and I think in the long term, we will all find much to continue to consider as we use our work during the seminar into publishable and teachable material in the future months.
On Sunday night, we were privileged to have a private concert with the Ebor Singers, who performed arrangements of medieval music, primarily religious but also popular, in a nearly empty Minster. The event was narrated by Lisa Colton, a faculty member at the University of Huddersfield and an expert in medieval music (and quite a good singer too, from the snippets she did). Four singers came to the concert and sang all together, in trios and in duets in different parts of the building, so we could hear the way the building interacted with the music. The combination of the darkened, empty space soaring above us and the unfamiliar sound of the fantastic polyphony echoing through the vaults was truly inspiring and otherworldly. Not only did the vaulting make the group’s sound richer and fuller, one of our seminar participants, Hao Huang, a pianist and professor of music, explained to us that the resonance actually changed the notes to create greater harmonics. Particularly in the round Chapter House, it seemed that the singers were multiplied. To paraphrase a couple of other comments, “it was like the music reached up to help us discover the parts of the building we could not see,” and “the building itself seems to be singing.” This entire seminar, while almost overwhelming, is full of magical moments and this was a highlight among them.
After a nice dinner in Beverley and a late return to York, we were all dragging a bit for our meeting on Thursday morning to discuss all the things we have been reading together. Despite this, the discussion was lively and very interesting, particularly with the wide variety of areas of research and disciplinary backgrounds which were brought to the table.
After that, in late morning, we went to the Minster to look at a few windows in particular. Louise Hampson, who humorously began by telling us to ask questions because she can “talk for England,” described several windows both in terms of their construction, but also the interpretations, which have changed with the political and religious winds over time. One issue which really stood out to me was the way in which the conservation and care of the windows has had an impact upon their “legibility” and the way that stories about the windows which have entered local popular culture have had an impact upon their interpretation. She also told us about a very interesting catalog of English stained glass, I have tried to work with it a little, but right now it is just a shell, and I’d love to see it with a more developed metadata schema, so that as more research is completed it can be reflected in this comprehensive collection.
In the afternoon, we were oriented to the York Minster Library and the King’s Manor Library. The King’s Manor Library holds collections for art, architecture and medieval studies, as well as some nice collections donated by professors upon their retirements. The York Minster Library is the library which preserves the records of the Minster and has a relationship with both the University of York and the Minster’s Dean and Chapter.
In the evening, we met with a group of people who are intimately involved with the performance of the York Mystery Plays, which is done every four years. Most of them have served in various capacities, including artistic director, producer, performer and waggon pusher. The plays are entirely prepared and performed by volunteers, so it requires a great deal of work by the organizing board to keep everyone moving forward.
Friday and Saturday were free days. I spent Friday recovering from the week before, dealing with work issues in the U.S. via email and preparing for some archive visits Saturday was a library day. The main library on campus has some snazzy features. It is open 24/7 and almost all circulation is self-serve. Though the classification scheme is a bit funky for Americans who know LOC or Dewey, it’s made quite accessible by color-coded maps. Finally, I was able to scan everything I needed right to my York University account with almost no fuss or muss. Those accounts are gmail, so everything loads easily into a cloud-based drive for ease of access.
Today, I did a little work before meeting many of the group for Sunday Lunch at the Black Swan, a very interesting 15th century public house where I ate a Yorkshire Pudding as big as my head.
The last two days have been a whirlwind and I think everyone in the seminar is a bit overwhelmed. In addition to the opportunities to see new places and interact with a group interested in some of the same intellectual questions, each of us is also working on some aspect of research tied to the themes of the seminar and places we are visiting and learning about.
On Wednesday, we went to Beverely Minster (those interested in a short history should look here) which is dedicated to John of Beverley. Though far more imposing than most parish churches, the Beverley Minster grew as a result of the need to serve a community with an expanding population.
The Minster has a lot of wonderful features, including a host of carved musicians. Bagpipers, trumpeters, percussionists and others ring the nave and appear all over the aisles of the church, many with a bit of a comic touch. My particular favorites were the trumpeter and the violinist. I did not find any playing the flute or guitar, or we would have the whole family’s instrumental work represented. There are also far more statues than survive in York Minster, though some are certainly later than the medieval period.
The fifteenth century misericords, or “seats of mercy” also survive. Since monks were supposed to stand throughout the services, the misericords had a small ledge they could lean on for a bit of rest. These feature wonderful carvings both along the sides of the aisles and under the seats.
We climbed a steep, narrow, winding staircase to the area above the ceiling of the church and below the roof. There we saw timbers raised in the thirteenth century to support the roof and John, the virgir who lead our tour, pointed out more recent repairs and additions, as well as concerns for future maintenance.
Speaking with John made me think more practically about the meaning of these churches in the lives of their parishoners, both in the past and today. As a historian and as the child of a minister, I have spent some time thinking about the church as an institution and the role of the clergy in the lives of the people they serve, but the importance of the building to these individuals is coming through more clearly to me as we go through these places. The changes in artistic fashion and in expression of piety do not necessarily signify an underlying change in the emotions and commitment of individuals to the places where they worship and where major milestones are celebrated and consecrated. People who have worshiped at the Minster have sometimes managed to leave a personal mark, as we see from the medieval pilgrim graffiti and the modern graffiti below.
Thanks to my colleagues Elizabeth Dachowski, Jennifer Feltman and Heather Mitchell-Buck for sharing photos with me, as my camera gave out during this trip!