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Glastonbury III – Medieval comparisons

An archipelago in a wetland. An archipelago that holds a church. The church owns the wetland, governs it almost as a seperate statelet. Only two places fit the description: Glastonbury and Ely. England’s twin eastern and western holy archipelagic wetland cities have other comparisons, too: many saints, at Ely female, at Glastonbury ancient. A great monastery. Wealth – holding fourth and fifth place respectively as England’s richest religious corporations, which makes them arguably the fourth and richest corporations of any kind. A location near the southern coast of a wetland that reaches empty to the sea, and around which are positioned many further monastic houses: Peterborough, Bath, Crowland, Muchelney. Causeway access: Soham and Alederney, Somerton and Wells: from nearby urban settlements whose history reveals a tense relationship to the Great Beast on the Island. At Ely the defining relationship is with Cambridge, trading town on the fulcrum of central and eastern England; at Glastonbury it is with Wells.

Here the comparisons begin to include interesting contrasts. The power of bishops has had an edgy relationship with both Glastonbury and Ely. Ely sat between sees — Lincoln and East Anglia — and sought independence of each of them, only to be forced into a cathedral status in the very early twelfth century. Nearby Cambridge then gained in several ways from its proximity to this centre of power, but gained most by not having a single dominating religious corporation of its own: not leasy by becoming a centre of independent learning. Glastonbury is surely one of the reasons why the bishops of Wells, having decamped to Bath after the Conquest, camp back again 150 years later; en route they even tried to take of the great monastery itself. They failed. Wells, meanwhile, becomes a cathedral community of defining wealth and complexity; but the town around it is never of more than regional significance.

Where else is ‘like’ Glastonbury’? Walsingham, another E/W pole, another great focus of miraculous Marian cults; another place to be approached arduously across water, though Walsingham is younger and never became more than a focus for pilgrims. What’s interesting is the post-medieval dimension. With their supernatural claims reduced to a pile of rubble and a series of alluring legends, each became a void; in both cases, the void began to fill several centuries later: at Walsingham with the Anglo-Catholic/Catholic/Orthodox self-reinventions; at Glastonbury with their Theosophical, the New Age, the Druidic, the Pagan. Would either place be what they are today with a collossal functioning church at the heart of them? At Walsingham, this would imply no Reformation: modern Walsingham is in many senses in any senses an argument with the Reformation. At Glastonbury, the story is more interesting. Other places possessed cults of alluring age – St Alban, for example – but no cults where as strange or as spooky as those here, implying the direct and miraculous intervention of contemporaries of Christ himself. Nevertheless, there’s nothing in this story — nothing, nothing, nothing — that suggests the pre-Christian mattered to Patrick, or Dunstan, or whoever: this is a radical and modern reinterpretation, and one that would be impossible to imagine if the place were a great church with, like all great churches, a few towers and wayside shrines and wells in the vicinity. We have to take Glastonbury out of Glastonbury, leaving a void both spiritual and architectural, to result in the Glastonbury of today.

It’s an odd thing, it has to be said. I mean, I applaud any manifestation of spirituality, without quite being able to articulate why I know something so hard to define and easy to abuse to be such a good thing. And a spirituality which takes place and nature as it’s starting point? It should be a no-brainer. I reacted against Walsingham: something dark there, something turned inside out by history and faintly desperate and oppressive in its reinventions, that Holy House made out of chunks of Dissolved nests of monks; the Feudal feeling of entering-by-permission the abbey site itself, the recreations in the wrong places of a structure commanded in dreams which must be in the original location or not be at all; the reversed chronology, time turned backwards, of country house where abbeyt should be, and then of churches, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox each a step further from the starting point even as the faith represented is more ancient. But at least they are genuined inheritors of the traditions that made the place. The darkness, the strangeness, the uncompletion of the real Glastonbury, of medieval holy places as they were lived, is far more complex and interesting than the vapid, brainless join-the-dots spirituality of this place today: like replacing T.S.Eliot with a Hallmark card.

And yet, and yet… for Glastonbury is unique, and they are responding, reinterpeting, reinventing, rehallowing, making myths anew and untelling stories in new ways. Such is how such places are made. New holy places: temples and wells where non were before. Unique-to-medieval, too:  the wealth comparisons with Ely come only by aggregating the income of the bishop with that of the convent: as a convent alone, Glastonbury is matched only by Westminster. This focus of wealth and power and holiness puts it as a case apart. Only the cathedrals of Winchester, Canterbury and Durham outstrip it: the latter two matching it in power and sanctity, the latter one matching it too for its remarkable site.  

But underling them all is Place, raw in tooth and clue. and truly, Glastonbury’s combination of site, power and sanctity put it in a close alone. Durham’s site, cliff edge above a curling river, is defensive, the power over its haliwerfolk political. Ely makes a lot architecturally out of a little geomorphically: a lowish largish island, made dramatic by its collossal church. At Walsingham there is a real magic, a subtle and unexpected change to a lush Norfolk-hilly country, but it is a quite impact. At Glastonbury, the preceding Mendip is a true bleak highland; the islands steep-sided with quiet drama, Wearyall and Tor hill great arms above the flood. And the church sits there, in the palm-lap of the dryland above the eel-clogged waters, hidden from many directions, the journey there a preparation of expectations choreographed by landscape itself.

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