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The Sleep Project IX: West Woods bluebells

May 16, 2014 3 comments

Image Three tawny owls chatter to each other with fledgling insistence, the calls bouncing from branch to branch, as if continually checking each other are ok, or saying hello, then forgetting they said hello and saying it again. Above them, but not very far above them, helicopters make practice night flights low over the woodland.

Moonlight, low and full, twists perception: bluebells are rendered invisible; a shrub low across the path becomes a physical barrier; a great pool of brightness is merely a slight gap in the forest cover. Paths are clear: you could go for a long walk in this strange, tingly, silvery lightfall. Wansdyke makes a spotlit linear opening in the trees; the stars that shine through this are close, cold, mineral-hard. I reach out and stick one in my bivvy bag, and spend the night wishing it would warm my toes up. It seems unfair to chuck it out: Betelgeuse eaten by midges and deer tics.

Between two overgrown wheel-ruts I make a perfect bed, dry, soft, supportive. Whether it be the crushed bluebells and nettles, the thin soil, the ceramic quality of the clay-with-flints, or the light, friable depths of chalk beneath, the ground seems curiously light, like a mattress.

In the depths of the night the helicopters return, their chopping blades scything the air and making an answering echo from the forest floor. It’s as if a freight train is slamming towards as a metal beast descends from above. Fugitives scatter between trees in frozen woods; orange poisonous fire vapourizes Asian villages. A six-foot black horse is hunting for us through the trees; it is ridden by a tall blond man with a frightening long-spiked Mohican. The helicopter circled for hours, but it seems I only slept for five minutes. Then I went for a walk, and found a café open among the trees: coffees, biscuits, a friendly café-lady. I realise the whole wood is full of people unicyling, cycling, running: it’s always like this at night, she says; people just don’t have time or space to practise during daylight hours. That was another five minutes of sleep that might have been two hours of fully lived reality: then, finally deep cold oblivion closes in.

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5.30am, West Woods, Wiltshire

I’m surprised, as dawn sparks the chirping of the birds, at how quickly, long before the sun is visible, the air begins to warm. Bluebells, Wild Garlic, my Doc Martins and Nikon blur from smudges to hard volumes and swaying stems. The birds are no louder here than at home; no deer come and lick my face; the air is not rich with the scent of the flowers, not could it be until there is some real heat. I realise the wildlife wants to be on the forest cover, not down here in the dark below. There’s just us, the blue-smeared undergrowth, and the bivvy bag, which has left a flattened temporary archaeology of my passing the night among them all.

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The archaeology of sleep

Chinese architecture: what makes it different?

April 30, 2014 2 comments
Central axis of the central kingdom: the Forbidden City, Beijing

Central axis of the central kingdom: the Forbidden City, Beijing

The very term Chinese religious architecture, which I’ve written about here before, and spoke about in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, is a misnomer. Pagodas are religious; imperial sacrificial altars, of which only a handful ever existed at any one time, are religious. All other building types in Han China before the C17 are barely distinguishable from each other: there is one way of doing architecture, and buildings are classified by status, not function. Exceptions are subtle: for example, Taoist temples are often on high platforms; Confucian temples sometimes have moon-shaped pools outside them; mosques of course have Arabic inscriptions and Qibla-facing prayer halls, sometimes of stone. But this kind of thing is small beer.

This is remarkable. In all the other Major Civlisations (Ancient Rome excepted) there is a country mile in terms of scale, materials and/or form between religious buildings and other types of buildings. A Hindu temple could never be mistaken for a Buddhist one; from ancient Egypt to the ancient Khmer, the only buildings to be made of permanent materials were places of worship, leaving a landscape dotted with temple ruins in which the remains of homes are barely traceable.

There are several reasons for this perfectly rational but very unusual Chinese approach to architecture. The two most pat ones both have some truth to them; firstly, this is a precociously humanistic culture, in which religious conviction is very varied and not the defining feature of society in the way it was in medieval Europe (or, traditionally, in Tibet); secondly, and in contradiction, religious ideas — spirituality, the desire to encourage efficacious and beneficient responses from a spirit-world, small daily rituals — suffuse architecture/culture of all types, so there is no reason to separate a house from a temple. This is true of many, perhaps most, traditional cultures, but in China it has had a profound impact on buildings. If the temple is a home, the home is also a temple.

Perhaps an extension of this, while the Song-era Chinese building manuals, the Yingzao Fashi, make no distinction between a temple and any other kind of building, they emphatically distinguish imperial buildings, palaces and temples alike, from others; and by the same token the oldest buildings to exhibit the key characteristics of Chinese architecture, around the start of the first millenium BCE, seem to have been at once temples and palaces.

In other words, one of the reasons for this cross-functional approach is that traditional Chinese culture placed huge store in the religious role of the emperor as the ritual glue between heaven and earth. There thus is a sense in which palace and temple are overlapping categories. One can push this too far: the notion that royal power is also divine power is the motivating force behind many great temples in many great cultures without their also literally being palaces, but nevertheless there is much in it.

Finally, there is the simple fact that China achieved an infinitely modular and flexible architectural tradition and had good reason to consider it good for any kind of building, resulting in structures grand, flexible, beautiful and practical enough to suit all needs.

The Buddhist temple at Nanchansi, Shanxi, one of the oldest complete buildings of timber on the planet.

The Buddhist temple at Nanchansi, Shanxi, one of the oldest complete buildings of timber on the planet.

Allied to this is the most striking thing about these buildings, compared to their peers in other cultures. They are rarely enormous: in all China, as far as I can see, the Temple of Confucius at Qufu, Shandong is (as far as I can see) the only emphatically religious complex to bear comparison in terms of size with (say) the great medieval Christian buildings which are frequently seen in Europe. Perhaps, if the scale of their surviving comparitors in Japan (such as the Todaiji, Nara) is anything to go by, this was different under the Tang. We don’t know — and we don’t know because  the Chinese, very remarkably, as well as never going for the truly gargantuan and emphatically religious structures which, from Angkor to Thebes, from Baghdad to Cordoba, from Tieotihuacan to Samarra, were seen elsewhere, never developed an aspiration to permanency; that is, they never did what everyone else did, which is convert an architecture of timber to one of stone, brick or tile.

This is most remarkable. It reminds us that this step, while it occurred everywhere else, is actually rather odd. What made the ancient Americans, the Buddhists, the Greeks and the Egyptians respectively, to take four early and clear examples, decide the religious buildings, unlike any other kinds of building, should be made of permanent materials, even if the result was simply a carbon copy of an archjitecture that already existed in timber or mudbrick or bound reeds or whatever, is one of the world’s great architectural mysteries, and the answer, it seems to me, is likely to be bound up with religion itself. But in China, in spite of perfectly excellent traditions of masoncraft, and various interesting exceptions-to-the-rule, this simply never happened.

This has enormous implications. It means little in China is genuinely old. In an ancient culture — while by no means the oldest architectural tradition on earth, Chinese traditional architecture is still with us, and has arguably been around longer and with even greater continuity than the nearest (just-) surviving competitor, the architecture of Classical Europe —  it is odd to find few buildings older than 2 or 300 years. It is also hard to ‘read’ structures that will look identical if renewed yesterday or thirty years or a century ago, and whose maintenance in any case requires constant replacement of parts. It creates an enormous perception gap when people from China come to view the genuinely ancient, multi-layered structures found elsewhere on earth (especially in ancient Egyptian, Christian and Islamic cultures). It plays games with outsiders’ approach to what they are seeing, and perhaps with locals’ understanding of what is old (and whether ‘oldness’ matters), too: the whole shebang of authenticity gets mixed-up.

It also means that in China we are seeing, still being built today (if ironically often in very permanent concrete), the equivalent of pre-Doric Greek temples, pre-Imhotep Egyptian temples, or pre-chaitya cave Buddhist prayer halls: a surviving mature architecture of impermanent materials. It is as if the architectural history current elsewhere is here being read backwards.

These major exceptions-to-the-global-architectural rule must also reflect centuries of lost conversations, in which incoming Buddhist, Islamic and Christian architectural traditions have to adapt themselves to the architecture of the far east, rather than vice versa; ie that their practitioners have to accept the local way of building over that they might have brought with them. The churches built by the Jesuits in China in the C17 are the first buildings to successfully insist that their way of doing things is superior to, or must be used for the religious buildings of, their culture rather than the Chinese alternatives. And all this is in spite of the existence around the borders and within the bounds of the empire, of the opposite, more globally normative, tradition. Architectures of stone, in which religious buildings emphatically stand out from other types of building in all kinds of ways, following south-east Asian traditions in Yunnan, central Asian traditions of Arab and Persian origin in Xinjiang, and a distinctive and unique blend of Indian and Chinese and indigenous in Tibet.

The Circular Mound Altar at Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven), Beijing, midwinter solstice 2012: unique survivor of an ancient tradition.

The Circular Mound Altar at Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven), Beijing, midwinter solstice 2012: unique survivor of an ancient tradition.

I’ve written before about the significance to all this of the imperial sacrificial altars. While always few in number, they are the only building type to be both emphatically religious and indigenously Chinese. The Temple of Heaven is by far the best surviving example of a kind of building that can only ever have existed in small numbers near to an imperial capital. Here the world famous and beautiful circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is more of a one-off and was often less important, both as an example of the type and in terms of its original ritual role, than the other main Circular Mound Altar.

The latter structure bring up a whole range of themes: firstly, this is an architecture of open-air ritual settings, a manipulation of a landscape, of a type that was commonplace at the birth of architecture — the henges of north-west Europe bear illuminating comparison — but which nowhere else was preserved into the modern world (it was last used about a century ago) and in the process became a sophisticated and complete architectural form in its own right. So once again, China is turning the global chronological picture on its head.

Secondly, it is a reminder of the significance of landscape in Chinese architecture: the setting of buildings is crucial, and charged with sacral ideas about how buildings and landscapes should interact if man is to be in harmony with the forces of the natural world. This wider sacred landscape survives in China’s network of sacred mountains, etc, and more crucially from an architectural point of view, it survives in the footprint of the capital city. In spite of its violent makeovers of the 1950s and since the 1990s (it’s still underway), the great north-south axis and nested enclosures of a carefully-laid out imperial capital, every detail of which reflects religious ideas about the architectural setting in which imperial power would be most divinely efficacious, survives: the ring roads and grids of the modern city are extending it out into the surrounding plain. Such planned ‘sacred cities’ existed in other cultures, but I don’t know of anything surviving of this scale and sophistication: it is in itself a work of global significance.

How many of those who visit the Olympic park know that its site is on the symettrical north-south axis at the core of the city’s cosmology? How many of those who go boating on the lake in Behai park, with its pretty Nepali/Tibetan dagoba, realise the protective role of the park itself in this layout, or that Qionghua island is a giant 3-d model of a Buddhist mandala?

Much more ubiquitous in the Chinese landscape than the imperial altars, however, was the other uniquely religious building type of traditional China: the pagoda. But this, the stretched-out and sinicised Buddhist stupa, is not indigenously Chinese: in function and symbolic design, at least, it is Indian, albeit given a strong East Asian twist, its tower like form combining the elaborately composed and tower-like stupas of Central Asia with indigenous watch towers or ges.

Pagodas existed in great variety, and were often of brick or stone: their rapid spread in the first millennium BCE must have had a dramatic impact on the appearance of the country, introducing permanent and distinctively religious structures for the first time.

It is not often noted, however, how they diversify, being placed in the landscape for all kinds of reasons not originally intended and not at all particularly to do with honouring the Buddha (such as to bring good feng shui), and ultimately almost disappeared, being replaced by the Buddha image as the essential feature of a temple in a manner not seen in other Buddhist architectures, where the stupa remains the defining structure of a temple.

I guess two buildings of ancient China are known across the world: the pagoda and the Great Wall. The two make an illuminating compare-and-contrast sequence, in which the Wall symbolises a closed, inward-looking, bureaucratic and autocratic picture of this society, while the pagoda, as well as providing the most concrete link between Chinese traditional architecture and the traditions that developed in the other major civilisations, embodies China’s oft-overlooked historic phases of openness, variety, experiment and spirituality.

In search of St George

April 23, 2014 1 comment

ImageTo mark St George’s day, an unpublished essay on his cult, al-Khidr, and a trip to his shrine at Lod, written in 2006…

Ogbourne St George, Wiltshire spent most of early June 2006 preparing to party like it was 1952. Cream teas for all villagers! Bunting! Warm beer! 

During the celebrations at the village school (3 legged race, sack race, sweeties whether you win or lose) I stared down at my daughter’s face. She beamed back, but looked more like a target than a person, her mixed-race features obscured by a red cross on a backdrop of creamy white face paint.

The Cross of St George: twenty years ago, I’m not sure many people had much of an idea what it was. When did it start reappearing? It seems to me that it was around the time Scotland and Wales got their own parliaments. Did the latest antics in Westminster really have an impact on popular culture?

Whatever the cause, the cross has had something of a resurgence in the last five or ten years, an increase in popularity which came to a head over the period of the World Cup and the Royal Jubilee in June this year. It’s as if the symbol was lying dormant, waiting for the chance to reassert itself, like some relic of the True Cross.

A brief inventory of the bunting visible from my home this June: the retirement bungalows opposite had Union Jack paper plates nailed to the posts of their garden fence. The big thatched cottage next door had a full-size cotton Jack fluttering from a telegraph pole, and bunting everywhere. The thatched cottage opposite it had a flag of similar size stretched between – and nearly covering – its two dormer windows.

In all these flags, George’s Cross crowds out its Celtic co-crosses with imperial self-assertion. On the cottage just down the road it has taken over completely: an 8 foot Cross of St George, red cross on white, dancing in the sun. My journey home is like driving down the deck of the Victory: England expects….

Our babysitter comes: she wears a Cross of St George zip-up top. The bold red line of the cross is split by the zip, running either side of her neck and on to the hood. She looks like the page for some medieval knight. People are walking around with heraldry blazoned on them: the more I think about it the more medieval the whole business seems to be.

So who is this St George, anyway? And where did this simple, powerful graphic – a red cross on a white ground (officially, argent a cross gules; or – as www.streetparties.info has it – a cross of Pantone 186 on white) come from?

Googling for George turns out to be a highly appropriate way to chase this particular saint and his dragon. George is as amorphous and constantly-changing as the world wide web itself. Here, he is an honourable Palestinian of the third century AD; there, the reinvention of every hero-God of the ancient Middle East. His story and its locations moves from age to age and from location to location, fragmenting and changing shape according to local circumstance.

What is certain is that any search for the ‘real’ George is the least interesting aspect of the saint. The oldest stories of his life date to about 150 years after his death, and are more interesting as a reflection of the mythical needs of the fifth-century church than as a statement of historical truth.

These stories present him as an upstanding Christian from Turkey – Cappadocia to be precise – who lived in Palestine, probably at Diospolis, where his remains lie. The town is today known as Lod and is in Israel. George had some standing –  he was a military governor, or the son of one. Until modern scholarship rendered even this account uncertain, this was who people thought St George was, albeit with a liberal sprinkling of miraculous powers.

Interesting to reflect that our football fans are painting their faces with the badge of an honourable, intelligent and multicultured Middle-Easterner. Perhaps they should just update the story, adopt Edward Said as his modern equivalent, and run around Wembley, Shizouka or the Stadium of Light with the crest of Columbia University picked out on their faces.

While the person these early stories describe is reasonably everyday, the things he does are not. Although the names of places and characters vary from version to version, the outline of the narrative remains the same. An evil ruler – in some versions called the governor ‘Diadanus’, in others the emperor Diocletian – unleashes a furious persecution of Christians, and George objects. What follows is a game of ‘My God is Stronger than Yours’ that does little for the idea that the new faith had an abstract moral programme worth defending. 

The evil emperor tries to kill George three times before he finally succeeds. Each time, George is brought back to life, and then performs a miracle. Each miracle is more extraordinary than the last, the punishment meted out more violent. Some of these stories have a certain poetry: George visits a poor widow and provides her with free food for life by making a wooden column in her home bud, put down roots, and grow into a huge tree – the highest thing in the city – full with ripe fruit. The size of the tree draws the authorities’ attention, and soon George is on back with the evil emperor, being tortured to death once again.

Any poetic quality the miracles may have is compensated for by the extremity of the ensuing violence: sixty nails are driven into George’s head; his body is crushed ‘like particles of dry summer dust’; his brains pour out of his nostrils like milk. That kind of thing. 

Each time George is killed the emperor tries to ensure his remains are untraceable, to avoid anyone finding them and building a shrine over them. Each time they are found and reconstituted by God, making a spectacularly cinematic appearance accompanied by various saints and angels. Each time, a few thousand more locals decide to abandon Apollo and follow George’s God, only to be slaughtered in their turn. And each time, the revivified saint goes on to perform an even more audacious miracle. He is only finally martyred after destroying all the idols in the Temple of Apollo and converting the evil emperor’s wife to Christianity, by which time 28,680 new martyrs have been created.

The quality of the story, with its one-dimensional characters, its fantastical special effects, and its X-certificate cartoon violence, is to the modern reader most reminiscent of a modern Manga cartoon or some of the more extreme games available for PlayStation 2. But however fantastical the stories, they are not unusual for their period. There is a whole crop of early saints with similar qualities: a Middle Eastern origin of uncertain historicity; dramatic miracle-making powers when pitted against the most dastardly of baddies; mass slaughters and mass conversions; a certain militarism. George originally appeared as part of a subset of these, the so-called Military Martyrs – introduced at http://www.ucc.ie/milmart/- who were especially popular in areas throughout the Middle East where Christianity had achieved some strength in a given community but was still under violent assault from the powers that be. In other words, the stories tell us more about the needs of their authors (and their audiences) than they do about any ‘real’ St George.

Googling for him, I am astonished by the range of resources available. Many are published by academic hagiographers, or Catholic organisations whose main interest is in establishing the historical ‘truth’ of a given saint’s story. There are complete translations of the earliest legends and first-rate bibliographies.  At www.newadvent.org is a good summary of the only definite conclusion all this scholarship has come to: ‘all that can safely be said is that a martyr suffered at or near Lydda [another name for Lod] before Constantine’ – that is, the stories have their roots in a real human being, name unknown, associated with Lod and killed for his Christianity sometime in the period 300-320.

Much of the study of saints seems to be driven by this interest in proving the historical truth – or otherwise – of their stories. It is hard to find anyone – in print or on the web – with much intelligent to say about these legends as literary or cultural artefacts in themselves.

The lack of similarly detailed analysis of the legends is not simply a matter of doctrinal bias. Finding something intelligent to say is not easy: myths appear and grow in ways that are as amorphous and chimeral as culture itself.

It’s astonishing, for example, to realise that the one thing everyone knows about St George- that he killed a dragon and saved a princess – doesn’t appear until nearly a thousand years after the death of the ‘real’ George. The story appears fully formed in The Golden Legend, an extraordinarily influential collection of saint’s stories compiled by Jacobus de Voraigne and published in 1275. 

Here, a terrible dragon threatens a city ‘in Libya’; his breath is venomous. To keep him at bay, the citizens send him a sheep every day. Soon, all the sheep have been eaten, and they have no choice but to select people: first men, then the young, selected by lot. When a lot falls to the king’s daughter: the king protests, sparking a popular uprising. The king relents, sadly sending his daughter to the marsh where the dragon is, dressed ‘like as she should be wedded’.

As the dragon approaches, a stranger on a white horse is passing: St George. The girl warns him to leave, but he stays with her and attacks the dragon. George quickly proves his superior strength. With the dragon cowed, he asks the princess to put her garter round its neck. Tamed by underwear, the beast submits pet-like to the will of the man and the woman. They lead it to the city, where George says he will kill the beast if the people convert to Christianity. They eagerly do so (this time just 15,000 new Christians are made, none of whom are martyred), and the dragon’s remains are scattered on the fields around the city.

Where does this story come from? There are hints of it in the original martyr’s myths: Diadanus the evil emperor, for example, is in one version also referred to as ‘the dragon’: add five hundred years of retelling, a few mistranslations, and a new cultural context and one could perhaps end up with the George and dragon story.

Whatever its origins, the story has the edge on all its predecessors in one crucial way: unlike them, it is a proper story, with dramatic tension, two or three memorable characters, a beginning, a middle and an end. The early George’s ability to call down miracles on demand is replaced by a real heroic struggle: the king refusing to sacrifice his daughter, then bowing to popular pressure; the isolated and terrified princess trying to get St George to leave before he, too, is eaten: and George himself, man against monster, unaided by deus or machina – unless you count the garter.

I have objective proof of the superiority of the ‘new’ George story over the ‘old’ one: the three-year-old-daughter test. I showed her the early images of St George – a hieratic figure with a sword and a lance – but they were of little interest: I then showed her Uccello’s George and the Dragon, which hangs in the National Gallery. It immediately prompted an interested ‘What’s that?’. I have now been asked seven or eight times to ‘tell the story again, Daddy’.

This Very Good Story leads us into some very deep waters. Agendas seem to lurk in it that take us far beyond conventional Christian moralising: why must the princess be dressed for marriage? Why does she tame the beast with her garter? Some doctrinal symbolism may be encoded in these images, but a sexual agenda is surely part of their appeal.

The story is strikingly similar to those of several Middle Eastern pagan gods, from the Egyptian Horus to the Persian Mithras, who battle with beasts and win. One of these is even associated with a spot about 10 miles from George’s shrine at Lod: the battle of Perseus with the sea monster to save the princess Andromeda is said to have taken place at the nearby port of Jaffa.

By playing a game of ‘this story is a bit like that story’, writers from the nineteenth century on have presumed much: George as pre-Christian Levantine hero-cult, grafted onto the martyrdom of some hapless local; George as an archetypal hero, representing all our struggles with the animal within. It’s attractive stuff, but the problems are historical: the George and the dragon story doesn’t occur until centuries after the period when ‘the problem’ was Christianity versus paganism.

Writers of the tenth or eleventh century, when the story is presumed to have its origins, had little need to reinvigorate long-dead pagan cults: they were more concerned about the new monotheism in the East. Islam was young, successful and  – unlike early Christianity – very happy to establish itself through political and military struggle. The battle with Islam demanded new myths: it also led to new waves of cultural translation, as the Franks of Western Europe discovered the eastern church – where St George was already a major figure – and the Saracen world beyond.

The embattled Christian cultures went on the offensive. The Crusades they launched required a new breed of morale-boosting sacred hero. A heroic, far-travelling holy soldier fitted the bill perfectly. Indeed, a new cult of religious warfare was being born which would flower into an entire culture – chivalry – and George’s reputation snowballed as it did so.

The first signs of the rebirth of George came in a battle in 11th century Sicily, where he appeared before the Norman army which took the island from its Muslim inhabitants. He pulled off a greater and more influential version of the trick at the siege of Antioch during the First Crusade in 1098, appearing before the Christian armies shortly before the city fell. The ‘appearing before the army God wants to win’ trick has been something of a Georgic staple ever since: he made miraculous appearances in Russian villages throughout Siberia prior to the 1906 Russo-Japanese war, and appeared before the English armies at Mons in 1914.

Around this time his cross appears, too. The Golden Legend describes George cutting a cross of blood on the dragon’s head; the same source tells the story of George making an appearance at the siege of Jerusalem, bearing white arms with a red cross.

It is via the crusades and chivalry that the new cult of George – and his new symbol – reached England. Although the ‘old’ George of the miracles and the evil emperor was known here from at least the eighth century, Saint George did not play a major role before the thirteenth. His reinvention as our national saint – and the adoption of the red cross as his symbol – is another example of the way St George moves from culture to culture, constantly being re-invented.

This time, the audience was the English people: the author, successive Kings and their fourteenth-century spin doctors. The academic Jonathan Bengtson has pointed out that before this time, England had no truly national saint or symbol: saints like Edward the Confessor and St Edmund were more patrons of the Royal family than of the nation; Thomas à Becket was a more populist figure, but his cult posed some thorny political problems for the Crown. The heraldic badge of the Royal family likewise symbolised ruler rather than ruled. Indeed it is doubtful if the nation in the modern sense existed at all.

The gradual creation of a semi-official cult of St George thus played a key role in the process of building an English national identity – a process which, in this instance at least, may have been quite a ‘top down’ one.

Although it was probably Richard I, returning from the Crusades, who brought the ‘new’ Saracen-swotting George to increased attention, it was Edward III – or his advisors – who realised the special potential in the story. The institutions of the feudal system had been shaken from within by the murder of Edward II by his barons; the country was also under attack from without by both Frenchman and Scot. Edward founded a new chivalrous order, the Order of the Garter. The Order bolstered the relationship between Crown and aristocracy by creating a special new group of knights. It would be headed by the King; its myths and rituals would evoke the full richness of chivalric culture. Its patron would be St George.

The Order was founded in 1348; by 1388 St George’s red cross had become a kind of corporate heraldic logo for the English army: known as ‘the George Jacque’, it was compulsory wear for every soldier. By 1416 this spiritual migrant had been fully assimilated into the national culture: the Archbishop of Canterbury officially confirmed his role as ‘special protector and patron of the English nation’.

The Fifteenth century was the overripe peak of popular ritual in pre-Reformation England, and St George appeared as the patron of guilds and the hero of mumming plays across the country. By the next century, George had merged so deeply with popular culture – and our own native stories of dragons and other beasts – that it was possible for popular tradition to have replaced Silene, Libya with Uffington, Oxfordshire as the site of the dragon battle; and for St George to turn up as a native of Coventry in Richard Johnson’s 1608 The Most Famous History of The Seven Champions of Christendom.

England is not the only culture to have adopted this saint – with his good story and simple, graphic symbol – as a special patron. Genoa, Moscow and Georgia are just a few other places who have done so: indeed, his cult travelled east as effectively as it did west. He is claimed, for example, as a special protector by the Christians of Kerala, who see him as a protector in spite of having colonised twice by George-loving nations – first Portugal, then England.

I can understand how George has taken such a deep hold in so many imaginations. Simply while researching the saint, the over-familiar story of his encounter with the princess and the dragon has become something rather compelling. I can see now how myths mutate from ‘story’ to ‘belief’; I start to wonder if woolly words like ‘archetype’ are the only way my rationality can tame this particular beast.

But perhaps it is not the story’s ‘universality’ that gives it power, so much as its openness, its mutability. Once a legend has been reduced to such basic components – a man, a woman, an animal, a struggle – you can graft just about any cultural associations onto it.

I have started to crave some fixity as I watch George shape-shifting between cultures, in libraries and art galleries, and on the internet. A couple of years ago, as part of a visit to Israel, I took the opportunity to visit the only place on earth unquestionably associated with the ‘real’ St George: the town of Lod, which lies on the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

It was not a great time to visit the country. Four weeks into the Al-Aqsa Intifada, many of the key sites of Israel and the Palestinian Authority were closed, and tension was everywhere. One day, we went to the beach: we were the only people there, apart from a lonely-looking Arab man who whose very presence made my liberal Israeli hosts so nervous we departed almost soon as we arrived.

The journey to Lod revealed an Israel far from both headlines and tourist trails; an Israel that was on the surface a beguiling mixture of first- and developing worlds. Markets heaved with Arab Israelis; newly arrived – and highly secularised – Jews from the former Soviet Union; black Jews from the Horn of Africa. Pale Orthodox Ashkenazi herded on and off buses, switching from Yiddish to Bronx English when necessary. Young Sephardim supped coffees in shades and designer jeans, the guns of military service slung over their shoulders. Music that combined Middle Eastern rhythms with the latest dance beats thundered from open car windows.

I watched this world as my bus circled the concrete estates of Lod. The town seemed to consist of endless housing blocks, indistinguishable from the 1950s estates of Brooklyn, Hackney or Vladivostock.

Soon we doubled back on ourselves. I began to think how foolish it was to expect to stumble on St George’s shrine by peering out of a public bus. Then an unmistakable landmark slipped into view: the familiar red and white flag of St George flapping in the hot air, a church tower next to it, just like home.

I left the bus, and walked across a large and rather neglected square surrounded on all sides by housing blocks. It was if some planner wanted to make a central urban space here, but the money ran out. The square was overgrown with dry yellow grasses. Hulks of ruined and ancient looking structures stood by the cracked tarmac of a playing field.

As the flag drew nearer, I saw it was flying from the roof of a house. Next to the house was a handsome church of white Jerusalem limestone, but the tower next to it was not a bell tower at all: it was a minaret. The church and the mosque shared a wall, as if trying to occupy the same piece of land.

An efficiently friendly woman from the house with the flag – an Orthodox Christian institution  – let me into the church. The interior was well-tended but a little soulless, the icons and candelabra of Orthodoxy dark beneath the crisp Byzantine-styled domes and arches. There have been several churches on this site: this one dates only to 1875. 

A whole group of early legends tell the story not of the saint’s life, but of the importance of this place. They focus brazenly on a very limited series of messages: give to the church of St George at Lod, or found a church of St George yourself, and God will repay you with a miracle or two. Jews, Saracens and pagans will come to Lod to mock the cult, but will leave both punished and converted.

The relics of St George on display here included a stone column, used in his torture. Blood was said to flow from the column for three hours each year, on the anniversary of his death; it had a gap in it which functioned as a kind of supernatural lie detector, only letting people through it if they spoke the truth.

In a small room beneath the church, I came upon supposed tomb of St George: a dark space, occupied only by a small icon, a burning candle, and some empty censers. Some legends say this spot marks the site of his home, that his body was brought here at death and successively greater churches built around it.

Standing in his presumed burial place I was struck by the impact this man, obscure in life, had in death. If only by providing a moral uplift and a dose of faith at key moments, he has had an impact on history: giving courage to an embattled early church; supporting Crusaders in their fight against the Saracen; helping build nations; and spreading images, stories and ideas from culture to culture.

There was one fringe benefit to visiting during a new Intifada: I could experience for myself just how alive many of these issues still were. Diadanus, like the modern Israeli right, wanted to stamp out the enemy in his midst; in doing so he merely created new martyrs. If St George is any example, it is perfectly possible for a martyr to be more effective in death than in life. 

A crowd was emerging from the mosque as I left the church. Mid-afternoon prayers had just finished. I approached the Imam to ask if I could go in: he looked me up and down with the gaze of one who cared little for unbelievers, then assented.

Inside, one of the worshippers was curious about my interest in the building. He was welcoming in a gentlemanly, almost graceful way; I warmed to him. We walked around the mosque together: it was a plain structure, one that had seen better days. Two large and ancient-looking Byzantine pillars frame the qibla niche that marks the direction of Mecca. I noticed that both were painted green. There was a small dome over the prayer hall and a large entrance door with an Arabic inscription on it: these, too were painted green.

I asked him if there was a reason the mosque shared a site with the church. In reply he talked of both buildings under one name. I found hard to enunciate this name correctly, so eventually he wrote it down for me, first in Arabic and then in Roman script: al-Khadir.

He said that the mosque was dedicated to this figure, and that local Arabs – Muslim and Christian alike – refer to St George by the same name too. I was fascinated: are they the same person? Does St George play a role in Islam? I sensed that these questions tested the limits of his English, and perhaps of his knowledge; but it was clear that the connection between the two figures was a deep one, and that this al-Khadir was more than an incidental figure.

Outside, I tried approaching the Imam for more information, but he was surrounded by people. I quickly started to feel like an irritant. Eventually his attention turned to me: ‘I am extremely busy’, he said, ‘Please come back at some future point.’ 

I headed off towards the bus station, feeling like a frustrated, disorientated outsider. I came to Lod hoping to pin St George down: what I found was that that somehow, he extended into another culture. A whole new world of stories and histories to grapple with. Perhaps Google was the best place to hunt for him after all. 

Back in Ogbourne St George, I learn more about Lod, and begin to understand why it looks like more like Crawley than Jericho, and perhaps why its Imams are more interested in the concerns of local Muslims than of an ignorant traveller.

At www.palestineremembered.com I find eyewitness accounts of one of the most ignoble episodes of the 1948 Israel/Palestine war: the evacuation of Lod. The Israeli army found themselves with the armed inhabitants of the town to their rear; with the authority of David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, then a Lieutenant Colonel, gave a clear order: ‘the residents of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without attention to age’. Sources say between 250 to 426 people were killed, scores of them while taking refuge in a mosque. The Chicago Sun Times spoke of ‘Blitz tactics’, and of many more deaths among the thousands of refugees. [I have checked this account against several more impartial histories of the period].

The pre-1948 Lod looked utterly different to that of today, with palm trees scattered between a maze of low, traditional houses; its souk and its mosques, and its 18,000 residents, all Arabs. By 1950 the town was in the process of being ‘modernised’: of a population of 10,450, only 1,050 were Arab. My little complex of church, church house and mosque is an island of ‘heritage’ in a town that has been ‘cleansed’ both ethnically and culturally. 

It’s not the first time, either. The Jewish town of Lod was razed by the Romans in AD66; Caliph Abdel Malik had the (then largely Christian) town destroyed in 870. Or the last: some Muslims believe the end of the world will be marked by a battle between Jesus and Satan at the gates of Lod.

 Sobered, I point Google at al-Khadir. As with St George, the resources are considerable: al-Khadir, it turns out, is both mysterious and important. A children’s book tells his story, available from islamicbookstore.com; meanwhile, an Islamic scholar gives his opinion on the subject at http://www.sunnah.org. From English versions of the Qu’ran and other core texts, to mystical commentaries by Naqshbandi sufis, there is much available. 

Al-Khadir is held by many to be one of the prophets, yet he only crops up in passing in the Qu’ran. Just about everything else about him is the subject of debate: as the Islamic scholar Ibn Katheer puts it, ‘the real name, lineage and status of al-Khadir are controversial.’ I’m reminded of Pope Gelasius who, as early as 495 claimed that the legends of St George where so historically unreliable that his ‘actions are only known to God.’

In Sura 18 of the Qu’ran, The Cave, ‘Musa’ – probably Moses – makes a journey to the ‘land where two seas meet’. Here he encounters a being endowed with special wisdom by God. This figure, unnamed in the Sura itself, is Al-Khadir.

Al-Khadir leads Moses on a further journey, during which he carries out three baffling acts: he scuttles the boat in which they both are travelling; kills a young man without provocation; and rebuilds a fallen wall, in spite of having been made unwelcome by the locals.

Moses cannot understand these actions: al-Khadir explains the reason in each case. This story, presenting Khadir as a mysterious traveller who can discern the inner meaning of events, one who can advise one of the greatest of prophets, has made him particularly important in Islamic mysticism.

Beyond the Qu’ran, the tradition of al-Khadir expands as giddily as George’s did. Many believe he still exists, and from time to time – like St George – manifests himself. He buried Adam when he died; travelled with Alexander the Great on a quest to find the spring of eternal life; and meets Elijah in Mecca every year. He is said to have saved Palestine from floods at the turn of the century; a mosque dedicated to him in Baghdad was mysteriously protected, like St Paul’s in the Blitz, from the ravages of Desert Storm.

Al-Khadir is said to turn land green when he prays, or to appear dressed in green, or to make fruitful any patch of earth he passes. One of the most widely-accepted statements about him is attributed to Mohammed himself: he said that al-Khadir ‘sat on a barren white land and turned it green’.

Images like this give him things in common with St George: some scholars – not all – translate al-Khadir as ‘the green one’; some scholars – not all – claim ‘George’ means ‘tiller of the earth’. It is often said that churches of St George and mosques al-Khadir are located in similar kinds of places: promontories, hilltops, islands. These apparent similarities are both fascinating and tantalising, begging as many questions as they answer. Only one thing is definite: all over the Middle East, the figures of St George, Al-Khadir and the prophet Elijah elide with one another. Shrines to one are often shrines to the others; stories and popular rituals concerning them are shared. These three figures bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together.

In trying to find a clear explanation for all this I come up against the limits of the sources: most comparative study of al-Khadir is driven by a religious imperative to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Qu’ran – ‘the uncreated word of God’ – rather than its cultural interconnectedness. I am reminded how my reading about St George was similarly limited, with much scholarship focused on a Christian interest in establishing which elements of his legend were historically true. Hardly anyone seemed interested in the significance of those parts that were legend.

As I write this, extracts from The Dignity of Difference, by the [British] Chief Rabbi, Jonathon Sacks, are being published in the Guardian and the New York Times. A passage jumps out at me: ‘I believe that globalisation is summoning the world’s faiths to a supreme challenge, one that we can no longer avoid. Can we find, in the human other, a trace of the Divine Other?… there are times when God meets us in the face of a stranger’. George/al-Khadir/Elijah, a wise traveller moving between the three Abrahamic religions, doesn’t always make life easy; he veers between inclusiveness and militarism.  But perhaps there’s life in the old martyr yet.

It’s the evening of 2 June, and a Jubilee bonfire is burning on the Down above Ogbourne St George. My daughter runs with the other village children in the dusk; we parents queue for overcooked sausages. Similar beacons jump hotly on the horizon. Suddenly, a group of locals push through the crowd carrying an effigy: the atmosphere shifts subtly from community bunfest to The Wicker Man.

The mask on the effigy is oddly familiar: a big wide grin between big wide ears. Are they really burning Prince Charles? Does the issue of the Royal succession matter so much to the farmers and retired bankers of the M4 corridor? No – they’re burning the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

I know Foot-and-Mouth didn’t go too well around here, but I didn’t expect this. I wait for something to happen.  There’s a bustle in the hedgerow: is Al-Khadir coming? Perhaps he will tell us why, during a once-in-a-generation celebration of national unity, it is proper to burn your elected leader. The flames crackle: is that Elijah, come to lecture us on our Glorious Constitution? Something moves up the Aldbourne road: is that St George, horseshoes striking sparks on tarmac, come to rescue the poor PM?

But no miracle occurs. This home-grown act of symbolic terrorism goes unremarked, and the flames jump around poor Tony. Our children watch, red crosses painted on their faces.

Occupy London — Paulsbury revived

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Placards announce that the Beginning is Nigh; the model of an Imminent End — whether it be Resurrection or Revolution — is buried deep in the Western psyche: we hurtle forwards, perpetually about to fall off the cliff. But the end is also the beginning, and at St Paul’s they are rushing to roll the world back in deep time: stop the future, I want to get off.

First, there’s the ancient nature of this site. The top of Ludgate Hill has almost certainly been the site of the cathedral of London since the earliest decades of English (as opposed to British) Christianity, when it stood in a liminal zone between the lost kingdoms of Kent and East Anglia. And there was a cathedral for London, site unknown but very possibly here, before the Romans left Britain (as opposed to England) to self-government after a few centuries of nation-building occupation. The country promptly reverted to a pre-historic state.

So this hilltop has seen every insurgency and objection to How Things Are from Boudicca’s rebellion onwards; more than that, well before the Norman Conquest it had emerged as Paulsbury: much more than the emerging city’s sacred enclosure — bringing with it the overarching, besworded protection of the apostle most widely assigned, today, with Christianity’s revinvention as a faith of law and authority — it was the city’s premier public space, the embodiment of its community. 

So until the Guildhall emerged as a centre of lay, civic power at some point in the late medieval era, and long before modern conceptions like Trafalgar Square, Speaker’s Corner or Greenham Common where even dreamt of, this is where everything happened. Here, beneath an enormous freestanding belltower, was held the Folkmoot, an informal but politically powerful institution of rough, citizen’s democracy. Here stood Paul’s Cross, where bishops and others vied to grab an open air pulpit for sometimes controversial, often game-changing preaching: Lollards preached here, Reformationists, the opposition to King John. And here where other, just as populist, but more spiritually focused and equally unique, institutions: the outdoor passage to the north transept, with its great ‘people’s cloister’, where burghers vied to be buried before the Dance of Paul’s, a collossal painted reminder that the end is nigh and all finery would imminently be dust, before making their way towards the Black Rood found miraculously washed up on a Thamesside beach, and the gloriously transgender St Uncumber, patron saint of the abused wife. Other cults celebrated here also fused the irrational, the imaginative and the inspired in equally varying ways, from the anti-Edward II Thomas of Lancaster to the putative tomb of rebel-leader London Boy Thomas Becket.

And now here they are again: bedecking the area between the west front, the north transept and the Chapter House with bunting, temporary art, a cluttered photocopy refuge of message from the inspired, the committed, the angry, the artificially intoxicated and the plain barking. As opposed to Barking.  Cramming their way onto the York stone flags until the twin anti-puppies of the apocalypse, Health and Safety, run in terror before them.

 A week ago, there was a buzz to all this: our curious globally overheated Indian Summer shone off the Portland facade and Grinling Gibbons swags of free bounty, the golden orb of Queen Anne and her supplicant native peoples, the half-empty shanty of freely decorated tents. People spoke in open-sided tents, announced spontaneous and creative actions from the steps, slept out on the hard stone. Nows the place is more sombre, and crawling with people from news agencies in search of voxpops. the sky is overcast, a police helicopter poises with metallic-eyed surveillance above Wren’s dome, like a hovering steel raptor; and at some point in the next few days this temporary, threatening, righteous bloomage will be washed away.

Of course all this was meant to happen in Paternoster Square. I don’t know at what point this aonze of offices left Paulsbury and became a privately owned development in the heart of the city, but the city traders based here acted swiftly when Occupy London first descended. All routes of access are sealed with crowd barriers, gaurded by police, security goons and a small army of female staff hoping to entice punters into the various high-end shops and restaurants therein, who must be losing money hand over fist. They stand there with menus, hoping to beckon passing bankers in to the empty concrete fake-Classical wasteland beyond, where a lone police car stands next to a miniature monument to the Great Fire of London.

So just how nigh is this beginning?

Bury St Edmunds

July 27, 2011 Leave a comment
Domestic houses colonise Bury's massive west front

Domestic houses colonise Bury's massive west front

Christ plays peek-a-boo in the Nottyngham porch, St Mary, Bury St Edmunds
Christ plays peek-a-boo in the Nottyngham porch, St Mary, Bury St Edmunds

History turns places inside out. By the time of the Conquest, this was, with nearby Ely, one of the most rich and powerful institutions of any kind in the country; also like Ely — and, indeed, Glastonbury and Durham — it dominated a great swathe of land which it both owned and provided a kind of spiritual protection to. For this was the seat of no ordinary cult: beheaded kings are not obvious saints, at least to those with a simplistic idea of medieval religion; and the Dane-martyred Edmund of the East Angles was a kind of spiritual patron for the entire region, a ongoing marker into the high medieval era of its special identity, just as Cuthbert was up in former Northumbria. The not-very-Christian king’s crowned head, sitting between the legs of a protecting wolf (as if in a mid-packhunt game of ‘fetch’), is the striking image that graces perhaps hundreds of bench ends, corbels and screens in this part of the world.

Also like its peers, Bury got heavily embroiled with the powers of bishops. After some turmoil at both places, ancient Anglo-Saxon saint-holder Ely abbey got cathedralised, while ancient anglo-saxon Durham minster got monks; Bury (and much later Glastonbury), in turn fought off nearby grasping bishops, of Bath and Thetford respectively: if they’d not been sucessful, we might today have no fallback Wells or Norwich cathedrals. But Bury and Glastonbury cathedrals might be with us still.

In 1066 Bury already had a French abbot; yet by the 1080s Baldwin was up there with the best of them, carving up the pre-existing town and building an imperial-scaled church on top of the very heart of the previous town centre. As per Norwich and Peterborough, it’s quite clear that the enclosure for the new building simply cut in two the previous town’s main street and marketplace.

What replaced it was unusual in various ways. The gridiron plan was nothing new: there are towns like it in England (Ludlow) and Normandy. What impresses is its relationship with the church. A central political-religious axis folds the town in half — literally, as it seems to occupy a shallow east-west valley running down to the river Lark. From the chord of the apse through the abbey gate and down Churchgate Street is a single straight line, with the saint’s shrine on the axis like an anchor to the place’s power. The other streets fold off this axis, a stepped and ordered rorschach grid, a trigram of politico/spiritual order.  Two pre-existing chuches had to be moved to make this possible: St Mary’s and St James’s thus both straddle the abbey precinct and the town, the latter associated with a second gate that was also the main route of lay access to the abbey. A new town market as set up, in the NW corner of the grid, far from the church: this survives.

This is how Bury was for the ensuing five hundred-or-so years: a collossal romanesque church, like Norwich and Ely and Peterbrough (and many smaller houses in this neck of the woods) patched-but-preserved church in the eloquent and muscular East Anglian version of the style, speaking truth to its own power. Two large new chapels added off the transepts in the later C13, one a lost link in the chain of great Dec East Anglian lady chapels. New towers. And an extraordinary west front, the widest in England, with three massive central arches, collossal polygonal towers off a western transept, a stone skyscraper of a western tower: Ely + Lincoln squared. The swaggery C12 tower beyond, fulcrum in the axis that runs shrine – high altar – church – western tower – western gate – Churchgate St: to its E, the closed world of the monastery; to its W, the open one of the town. St James’s gate, meanwhile, was damaged in a riot of 1327 (Shades of Norwich’s Ethelberga gate) and swiftly rebuilt as an enormous keep-like block draped rather unconvingly with elegant chivalrous Dec inventiveness. The rebuilding was so swift, so security conscious, that its preceding gate stood next door intact until the job was done, and the resulting strcture, today’s main entrance to the ‘Abbey Gardens’, has been off-centre in the C11 grid even since.

But the layman’s voice in this town was as ever at its most vociferous in the decades before the Reformation. Both St James’s and St Mary’s were completely rebuilt, the latter still one of East Anglia’s better late Perp town churches (which is saying something): roofs, intriguing Nottyngham porch (inventive vault, special access to parish graveyard?), first-rate inscribed cadaver and adjacent bright celure, studded with star-like glass beads; two grand tombs of the (very) late 1530s. There’s also a guildhall, already with a stone door in the C13, presumably belonging to the most influential of many town guilds.

The dissolution of the institution that defined this place was of course the next great reinvention. Here, unlike Glastonbury and Walsingham (for example) the spiritual and physical gap at the core of the town has not enabled recolonisation by ‘new’ spiritualities; instead it is a polite municipal garden, studded by ancient  rotten teeth of towering flint, to which soundchecks by Lulu and Shakin’ Stevens block my access. The town has sunk into regionally-important market-town status, its twin foci of power ironically reflecting patterns first defined in its previous makeover in the late C11.

For the market place, put here when the abbey squashed the preceding centre, remains today the commercial core of a bustling town, looked over by the strikingly upmarket C12 Moyses Hall. As a result of this refocusing of the town around commerce, Bury’s psychological centre has moved off-grid, and the great power-axis that is designed to be at its heart, like a great battery of power for the Liberty of St Edmund, is barely noticed, a polite series of pleasant, quiet brick terraces, an isolated gate that hides a battered west front that hides a public park: disconnected, defused. Even more arse-over-tit, in 1914 the bishops finally ‘took’ Bury, colonising St James’s church in the process. Edmundsbury cathedral is thus Bury’s other main attraction, off centre to but also a creation of the core grid: both this church and the market are where they are because of the post-Conquest dislocation of their predecessors. The cathedral is an odd place, with a C15/16 parish church core that has been stripped of all content, doubled in size to make it cathedral-like, even with a cloister, and its central tower only recently completed; everything here has the open polite vacancy of much modern Anglicanism.

So here is another town violently recast by the Normans, who must have been amazed to find themselves at once so suddenly enriched and placed in a land in which the levers of power actually worked, with another remarkable plan that has been sundered and dislocated by Dissolution, leaving a pleasant market town with a large park where once Edmund, and his head, and his wolf, glowered protectively over the labourers and lords of Suffolk.

Stone valve on the access of power: the abbey gate and Churchgate St

Stone valve on the access of power: the abbey gate and Churchgate St

St John’s Clerkenwell

July 20, 2011 2 comments

I’ve been trying to get in here since I was a teenager. Now it’s open: and what a strange thing it is. The English headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers, the Military Order (a strange thing in itself) that became today St John’s Ambulance. Or something. Apparently a C20 office front facing a small square in Clerkenwell, central London; cut off from it, on the other side of the Old Street, the former precinct gate, still intact C15 gatehouse in flat grey London stone (Kentish?).

The C20 office front turns out to be a post-Blitz structure that bizarrely is a church, though it looks utterly unlike one. On the inside, a bare white space hung with oil painting, a big battered hall. One wall looks C18, the other three look medieval, beneath the white paint and around the dull, renewed big Perp windows a veritable feeding frenzy of battered mouldings, conjoined walls and other arcane clues to an ancient and obscure cultural history.

This over-restored shed, battered beneath the brightness, was once the east end of the headquarters of a major order: big and flat — once arcaded, or just a shed? — as for the western half of the church, I fear to guess: perhaps only as long as the square outside, which then is its ghost result, a Reformation Rachel Whiteread opposite doppleganger?

In any case its more curiousity than treat: the treat’s downstairs. The stumps of a circular nave, an image of the Holy Sepulchre/Dome of the Rock like so many C12 (oh, Cambridge, Temple, Northampton…) and like so many (Temple, Bristol the obvious example) later replaced more conventionally. And then a complete-as-you-like crypt, bizarrely in two phases. The first is early-mid C12, just thick romanesque rib vaults and each bay seperate by a broad unmoulded tunnel like arch. This, attached to whatever lay beneath the nave, would have been very close to the crypt at Berkswell, Warws, I’ve blogged about before. But the two east bays are very fancy work of the late rC12, plain as is appropriate to a crypt, but with simple curved capitals as light-footed as waterleaf, attached shafts on bases that stick their feet out wittily at angles, ballet first position. Thinner ribs with something approaching the deep mouldings of the C13: c1180, I wonder?  ‘… consecrated in 1185’ says a guide talking to a group. Smug satisfaction. Though such facts may mean many things to the unitiated.

Bizarrely, this crypt extension (intriguingly the time gap compares to the later changes amde at Berkswell) curls round the back of the older one, making a two-bay north aisle and a single bay southern extension. The east windows feature C19 or later stepped lancets: on what evidence? If originally, they become one of the very earliest dated examples (…Portsmouth St Thomas?…). As the bay curls around, even more oddly it leaves the former outer wall of the earlier structure intact, so there are slim round-headed near-lancets and slim pointed headed even-more-near-lancets, two phases of outer wall, in a single space.

Amazingly a few bits and bobs have survived. The museum has an average quality but big mid C13 historiated boss: high vaults somewhere. Glass, mainly late. Tiles, mainly C14. Why do you always get these two things? Excellent C15 crocketing from a monument. And stuffed in the crypt are a french/German/low countries effigy, an interesting import, and a first rate cadaver, possibly in solid purbeck, lieing on a carved straw roll. An antiqaurian engraving reveals this a part of a two-tier tomb to a prior: the effigy was behind a very high and open screen; the upper level was flat, but with brasses on the rear wall; above this again was elaborate and very late cresting. Apparently on the N side of the high altar above originally. An easter sepulchre, then, and both the C12 architecture and C15/16 tomb are more fuel to the fire of my current fantasy ‘images of Holy Sepulchres’ research theme. All in all, worth the wait, then.

Pictures are on my phone, but I can’t work out how to  transfer them, being a bear of medieval brain.

Gothic Gardens

July 8, 2011 Leave a comment

If you built a cathedral — the most expensive and complex creative project a society could conceive of — would you then leave its setting entirely unlandscaped? I think not. But what kind of planting and shaping of the land went along with the making of such great churches? It’s a question suprisingly rarely asked, and the answers are tantalising.

We know quite a lot about medieval formal gardens, of course. They’re depicted in illuminations, mentioned in literature, their expenses listed in surviving accounts rolls. Recreations of them even exist. We know too that cloisters might be planted with elaborate formal herb gardens. But what of the wider setting of the great church? Was the surrounding graveyard simply a well-tended lawn, as it is today? If so, who cut the grass, and was it green, or studded with carefully chosen, even symbolic, flowers, like the gardens of Our Lady depicted in medieval paintings?

‘Our Lady’s arbour’: that’s the name given to the cloister garth at Hereford cathedral in late medieval sources, a very popular place of burial for the local laity. But Mary and gardens and architecture are linked in more intriguing ways. I can think of two gardens that were apparently positioned directly next to major Lady chapels, at the east end of Norwich cathedral and Westminster Abbey respectively. They would thus have been located adjacent to both a major work of architecture and the exclusive burial ground of the monks. Did they play a commemorative role? How did they relate to the building and the burials?

And what of the sense we get, in the 1240s, that the landscape around the newly-completed Wells cathedral is being designed to some extent: clerks, lay and canons burial grounds seperated out, with the laity ‘in the churchyard towards the west, begining by the small elms planted there by the place where the guest chamber used to be’, that is, somewhere hard by the new west front. Of course, simply building Wells involved substantial landshaping, flattening and terracing a large plot next to the old Saxon cathedral — which itself responded to and channelled the ancient St Andrew’s Pools beyond.

All these thoughts are thrown into striking relief by a new article by John Goodall ‘The chantry chapel at Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick’ (in Coventry: medieval art, architecture and archaeology in the city and its vicinity’, BAA Conference Transactions XXXIII, Leeds 2011), in which he describes the secular ‘cult’ of the hermit/knight  Guy of Warwick, with its chapel by a cliff next to a river and not far from a meadow containing a ‘fayre spring’. It’s a beguiling landscape setting, and Leland tells us that Richard, Earl of Warwick in the C15 ‘enclosed the silver wells in the meadow with pure white slike [sic] stone like marble, and there set up a pretty wood, antra in Saxo, the river rolling with a pretty noise over the stones’ (307). Goodall makes it clear that this particular Earl probably wasn’t in fact responsible for the work, but what sticks in the memory is the sense of an already charged landscape being improved and shaped, presumably in a fashion that didn’t look too artificial. If this was possible, what else might have been?

The Sleep Project VII: Midsummer among the Sarsens

June 23, 2011 3 comments
Midsummer sarsen I

Midsummer sarsen I

It’s barely dusk at 10.30, but the kids are asleep and out I nip. Why spend the night at Avebury or Stonehenge, when you can sleep with the landscape that birthed them?

No crowds, silence, and a remarkable and little known wilderness, here in the heart of one of the most densely populated regions of the planet. It’s called Fyfield Down; you can walk across it in twenty minutes; but its also a solid mile from the nearest road, and that twenty minutes is also a universe apart: a gently rolling upland of rough grass, in which every yard seems to wrinkle with its own age; and which more to the point into which are set countless great dense lumps: the sarsens, the Saracen-stones, slumbering amid the sheep-cropped herbs, waiting in ambush: geological terrorists.

What are they doing here? How did they get here? Even geologists disagree. The best bet is that much of the southern English chalk once formed the floor of a very broad, very shallow estuary — this is the chalk which itself, countless years before, was formed from the gradual impacting of quadzillions of tiny skeletons at the foot of a warm ocean — and that a huge qantity of silt came out of this estuary and dumped itself as a kind of dense sandy skin on the chalk. And that then, oh, several millenia more later, Africa crashed with its own tectonic stately weight into Europe, the Alps popped up, and somewhere at the north-western end of the resulting wrinkles the English downs where folded squashed uplifted into being — that ancient chalk, with its sandy crust. Which promptly began to break up. Further millenia of frost did the rest. Certainly the Sarsens are full of root-like holes; but how this could have made them so damn hard that us locals can barely put our shelves up with diamong-tipped drills, beats me.

Anyway, they have a way of attracting attention, these sarsens. People have called them after Saracens, as I implied; and after sheep – ‘the grey wethers’, which is Wiltshire for sheep; and they were one of the sights of the Great Bath Road which bisected

Midsummer sarsen II

Midsummer sarsen II

this landscape, following the yet-older line of the Anglo-Saxon herepath. And long, long, long before that, well, the makers of Avebury and Stonehenge were mighty impressed. All of Avebury circle; all of the local chambered long barrows, depend on the ability to manhandle these dead weights of impacted sand with their primeval rootholes; all the trilothons of Stonehenge, mighty things that tower over you with blind authority — had to be moved from here, down and up two steep scarp-slopes, and across Salisbury Plain. Everyone goes on about the bluestones at Stonehenge, and how they come from far-off Wales, and what did this mean: but floating a stone 1.5metres high along a series of rivers is nothing to what the sarsen-movers achieved. And they must have come here to get them.

Or near here. There are sarsen spreads inDorset. And the sarsens around here have been gradually rolled back by millenia of land-clearing, settlement, breaking-up for hardcore and building stone. They still crop up sometimes miles from here, in hedgerows, or blunting the tines of earthmoving vehicles. And when people started to write about them, in the C18, when they were a major ‘sight’ of the road to Bath, commentedon by Evelyn and Pepys and others, it’s clear people thought they must be artificially there; indeed it took some time to discern that Avebury was something seperate, something ‘made’, rather than a suburb of a great metropolis of slumbering saracen sheep. Avebury is the shriking of this landscape, which has itself curled back, as if in prehensile instinctive withdrawal, as man has tarmacced and pieced and ploughed away at the fringes and the valleys, leaving this last insurgent fastness.

Midsummer sarsen III

Midsummer sarsen III

As if. Time is collapsed on itself here: millenia flash by simultaneous, the hours crawl, the days are long and the nights are short. And one of the biggest shocks is to find that at the time of the Avebury-makers *this* was a great, organised, industrial-agrarian landscape, with a grid of fields laid out in cleared sandstone lumps across it as far as the eye could see, only to be remade on a different grid in the iron age, and hten abandoned to sheepwalk: the sheep that still prevent it returning to a scrubby chalkland forest. This wilderness is anything but natural. It is one of the first landsacapes of the anthropocene, the geological era in which Man is first visible as a landscape-shaping force. So much for sleeping my way back to nature.

The walk here always puts me off: the upland gallops, with their plastic guiding fences and lawn-cropped grass, always seem like the most industrial of modern rural landscapes, at once too perfected and too abandoned to the kind of fun that does no one but an oligarch any good. We lose our way in the dark, and the sarsens themselves, rendered down to light grey blotches in the shadowy grass, seems less impressive, less present-dense. On the ridgeway one of hte Solstice-travellers is playing techno; the an owl falls on something that screeches its own violent demise; a glowworm makes a neon glow on the dreamtime abstractions of moss.

Fyfield Down

Fyfield Down

I bed down on a sarsen: at once hard and affirming. The moon is rising, and sleep is the strange breed of  open-air slumber, at once catastrophically alert and strangely deep. I am aware: of the music ceasing. Of my back on the hard uneven rock, of my legs on the firm ground, thick with sheep-droppings. Of the moonlit profiles of copse, stone, hill-edge. Of moonrise. Of sleeping out atop a steep grass slope, and being caught by an angry farmer: but that was a dream, hiding imagined time within real time. Of a sudden blast of bongos and zithers coming from somewhere to the east, as Avebury greets the post-solstice dawn. Of this great thick landscape of oblivious presences. Of the way the landscape curves and dips like a great wave, and the panicking sheep rush back and forther with the rumble of a far-off tsunami. It is only random coincidence that the sheep seem energetic, rapid and hillside fixed, ancient: they are both particles, both carbon-based forms in mid-flow, and I caught between them, in mammal solufluction.

The sarsens crawl down these narrow dry valleys, flowing themselves on subterrenean frost-currents. Pepys rode through here, and Jane Austen; Coleridge would have walked it, if by then the road wasn’t turnpiked. Stukeley thought they were a kind of archaeology of the moment god set the earth a-spinning, and all the lumps of rock buried in the planet suddenly flung their centrifugal way to the surface.

Midsummer sarsen IV

Midsummer sarsen IV

It’s an hour back across the gallops, and still I’m home before everyone’s even stirred, having experienced at least a night and a day in the meantime; a geological era, a restless sleep, a restful wakening, as if it was all a dream. A midsummer’s night’s…

Midsummer sarsen V

Midsummer sarsen V

Longthorpe tower

June 5, 2011 14 comments
The Wheel of the Senses

The Wheel of the Senses

In many ways, this place is remarkable mainly for being ordinary. A small late C13 tower, attached to a small late C13 hall, not far from a small late C13 church, surrounded by the housing of suburban Peterborough, but of course originally a seperate village in the greater holding of Peterborough abbey. There were two manors here, both occupied by lesser knights holding their lands by grace of the abbey, and this hall-and-tower would have constituted the main family/admin base of one of them: this kind of thing must have once been replicated hundreds, perhaps thousands of times across the country. What’s unique is what survives inside the tower, and was only discovered in the second half of the twentieth century: the complete painting scheme for what must have been this gentry family’s private quarters.  It’s a single room, with a cross vault and lancet windows on three sides: as ever, one is reminded what a stylistic continuum existed between churches and secular buildings, even if the built forms are very different the same overall architectural language populated the landscape.

If this was ever ‘ordinary’, its reminder of the extraordinary — rich, subtle, highly personalised — visual culture in which these people lived. The first wall, that facing south, is comparitively unexceptional, if ‘spending much of one’s time surrounded by customised, colourful, live-size religious images painted on your walls’ can be described as unexceptional. The seven ages of man over the window, and a nativity below, and below that, running in and out of the sides of the windows, several disciples and an Ecclesia. Some nice birds: bitterns, for example: local, fen-edge wildfowl. The Ecclesia breaks the sequence a little; the nativity fits over the window in a rather unusual way; but the basic pattern is standard. The next wall, the east one, gets more interesting. In the window embrasure, a prince meets three deliciously gaunt skeletons, a familiar reminder of the fate that befalls even the most grand of us. Also a standard scene. If you want stark reminders of mortality and the meaninglessness of worldy status painted on your ‘living room’ wall, that is. But set into the window embasure is a little niche with a seat — nothing very grand, just a scoop out of the wall with a ledge in it — and on here is a teaching scene: a young man receiving instruction. We’ll come back to this.

On the main flat wall facing the room, the space’s piece de resistance (and, as far as one can tell, its best-painted scene): a delightful image in which a sober-looking man stands in front of an enormous wheel on the spokes of which are a series of animals. This is a diagram of the kind medieval people often used for teaching, understanding, exposition, thinking. The grand, elegant figure is Reason. The animals are a monkey (Taste), a vulture (Smell), a spider (Touch); a boar (Hearing); and a cock (Sight): not obvious choices to modern eyes, but to anyone who lives with creatures as intimately as these people did — knowing how rapidly a hunted boar will run, or how extraordinary is a spider’s reaction to the slightest intervention in its web — the choices are at once witty and spot-on.Perhaps even monkeys were more common than we realise, as pets or street attractions.  The theme is: our senses are — the Buddhist language is strikingly appropriate — a wheel of suffering, making us no better than the animals. It is our reason that sets us apart. There are other scenes, too, but too battered to be identifiable. The next wall, the north one, is harder to decode, and rather a case apart: there are no sacred scenes, and the dado area contains a fictive tapestry or tile pattern, but the main area contains substantial amounts of heraldry, some of it royal, as well as a couple of Royal figures on thrones; and over the door beneath one of them is what appears to be a BX: the beast the poos on those that attack it. This whole zone addresses the worldly, the secular and the chivalric in a way that the rest of the room does not; it may be no coincidence that it lead to the great hall. It’s also been suggested that it contains implicit political criticisms, either of the benighted Edward II or his youngest son, the ‘turncoat’ Edward of Kent. Which raises the possibility that no one expected this paint scheme to last very long before it was replaced; and adds to our list of things that we might not choose to live with: giant wall-sized permanent political satires, for example; armorial displays; pooing fantastical beasts: none of these have featured much on the ‘makeover your home’ programmes that dominate the daytime TV schedule. Just as a footnote, the theme of pooing over doors may just have had wider legs (or perhaps bottom): there is a pooing king over the door to the slype (another Significant Entrance) at Norwich cathedral. One to watch.

So the ‘heraldic’/’current’ wall faces the most ‘typical’/’religious’ one; and we might expect something both religious and unusual to face the (ritually significant?) east one. The scheme does not disappoint — indeed the west wall is perhaps the most interesting of all. The seasons of the months fly over the top of the arch. In the main scene a cowled, bearded, barefoot figure stands in a wilderness, signified by the presence of rabbits, crows, and a bare tree (the rabbits look as if they might have been painted by a six-year-old). All this is code for ‘hermit’. On the right are two secular figures, one engaged in some well-observed basket making — another local craft.  It’s been acutely pointed out that this must be St Anthony, who encountered a pair of angels in the wilderness; and that this means the angels are depicted having adopted ‘ordinary human’ form, a possibility known to medieval people but rarely demonstrated to have been shown in art. Though given this makes them incognito, one does wonder how many other ‘ordinary humans’ in medieval images might in fact be angels, and moreover how many ‘ordinary humans’ medieval people might have thought were angels, sacred beings undercover.  Anyway, it’s very interesting, this depiction of angels as ordinary people: too unusual to be able to generalise about, but that is part of the point. They might suggest — only suggest, given that we don’t have anything to compare this with — that this scheme, never in the top rank of works or for the top flight of patrons, was nevertheless customised to some extent, rather than bought in ‘as standard’; or perhaps too that certain ideas,  like ‘angels might be among us and look like us’, might appeal to this secular audience.  Underneath this scene are the two largest figures in the room, and (again) one appears to be a teacher and the other a student: the teacher wears a Doctor’s cap. And there is another little ledge in the window here, featuring another teaching scene.

So what was it all for? The family would have spent most of their daily life inthe Great Hall, repairing here for quieter or more enclosed moments. There’s a clear teaching theme in the paintings, as well: one wonders if education was expected to be at least part of the function of this room (and not an unimportant one), and we know informal schools were not at all rare. More likely, we can perhaps imagine the family spending time in here away from the fray, but with an inner circle: a couple of servants and/or clerks very much part of their daily innermost lives. Perhaps the kids are sitting with men like this in the window embrasures, working at some basic grammar, while the grown ups get on with whatever lower gentry types got on with when it was time to relax.

Which suggests again that there’s a customised, one-off element to this: either because of the room’s function, or because of this particular family or lord’s interests at this particular moment in time (which is most likely to have been the 1320s: my Favourite Decade for Art in the World).  In some ways this shouldn’t suprise us: in a world in which all images were handpainted, the cost difference between a one-off and something ‘off the shelf’ may not have been very great. And here, we do have a context: the approximately contemporary, and regionally relevant, Luttrell psalter, also by a small-to-middling lordly patron, also artistically distinctive, also highly personalised. It’s even possible we can draw parallels as to how such a scheme might have been created, cooked up in the case of the Luttrell psalter between the lord (or lady??) and his in-house mendicant monks. We know from the (much later) Paston letters how intimate the relationship between a family and its ‘personal religious’ might be, and how conducive mendicant culture was to thinking in ways that focused on an individual’s personal ‘story’, if the result had the right moral ending. So the patron and his advisor/s become to a large extent the artists, and the painters merely illustrators of themes that they might have cooked up over many satisfying and contemplative winters’ evenings in just such a room as this. Indeed the kinds of conversation in which such artworks were developed is a lost dimension of these people’s lives, creative, intellectual, self-analytical, and of course spiritual. Literate, too: there are words everywhere here, long inscriptions that would have informed and instructed, though few are legible.  And maybe, just maybe, the spritual advisor/intimate in this case is not a mendicant but a university-educated priest, perhaps from Cambridge or even (the date makes this work, but only for a few years) Stamford, hence the presence of a large teaching doctor in one of the west wall scenes. What is the theme? South wall: the Church, the pre-ordained cyle of time, circling around the nativity. North wall: a curious combination of appropriate fuedal respect and rejection of such worldly glories, en route to the hall. East and West walls: rejection of other worldly pleasures, or rather rising above them, like the hermit, like Reason, with the suggestion that if we do we might daily commune by angels (or, if we don’t, it will be noted by angel-spies). Everywhere: education, education, education. Which presumably helps us do this. The theme is repeated three times, knocking Tony Blair into a cocked hat. And everywhere, too the religious is wrapped up in the real, the worldly, the every day: these angels-in-mufti are a world away from the gloried beings who would have been imaged in the nearby church.

One more thing. We don’t have anything on this scale from any other time in the medieval period to compare this with. So such things may have been commonplace at all times, or this may be a lucky chance survival — though I suppose statistically the former is more likely. But once again, the Luttrell psalter forms a context-of-sorts, and together they may arm us to make a specific suggestion about the first half of the C14. This Decorated era is well known for its spirit of restless experiment and customised effect in church architecture: these two works suggest that that spirit might have been much more widespread, and even more interesting and varied, seeking deeply personal and complexly imagistic inspiration from the ordinary lordly home as much as from the hallowed confines of the Great Church.

Education, bitterns, saints

Education, bitterns, saints

Unpacking Glastonbury

June 3, 2011 3 comments

Glastonbury from the Somerset mainland

Researching for a tour, I’ve been trying to unpack the stratigraphy of Glastonbury’s hoary mythology. Given the complexities, this can’t be much more than provisional, but I’ve not seen it put down in one place quite like this before, so here goes.

Solid, attested archaeology at Glastonbury starts on the Tor, with a high status settlement of the C5 or 6 for which the best bet is a religious function: that is, a ‘Celtic monastery’. It only moves to the lower, abbey site around 700, when we have both documentary and archaeological evidence for the activities of Ine, King of Wessex: portions of his church lie underground towards the west end of the current abbey, for example. They stretched from the current ruined west wall at least as far as the  north porch.  Anything older? Well, the so-called hypogeum, perhaps some kind of a relic holder, beneath the altar of this church might or might not have already been there; and the well a little way west, given its location, is interesting. Ponter’s Ball, the linear earthwork isolating the Isle from the mainland, could be early medieval or iron age, but until there’s something iron age to put with it we should go for the former option. There are other possibilities, but nothing solid.

Except for one thing, and it’s the most important thing of all. Ine’s church, we are (much later) told, deliberately east of another structure, which was already there. The archaeology supports this. What was it? More anon.

Anyway, Ine’s church is enlarged twice over the ensuing centuries, the most important and ambitious coming during or after the abbacy of Dunstan, church reformer and future archbishop of Canterbury, one of the most important figures in Anglo-Saxon church history. The conventual buildings were rebuilt, too, around a quad which (though we don’t know if it had walks) may count as Britain’s first cloister, and one of the earliest anywhere.

Dunstan’s interesting for another reason: one version of his Life, written between 995 and 1005, mentions very briefly the idea that Glastonbury was founded by ‘neophytes’ — early Christian missionaries — but that they found a church on the site already, ‘built by no human skill’, and dedicated to Christ and St Mary. This is important: it is our earliest indication that the community believed itself to have uniquely early and semi-miraculous origins. It’s reasonable to assume they linked these origins to the rectangular structure that lay west of Ine’s church. Like all the Glastonbury stories, this one will now run and run, colliding with others and gathering narrative moss over the centuries.

By the Conquest the abbey was the richest in England, with vital links to the crown: three Anglo-Saxon kings were buried there, and six abbots had gone on to be archbishop’s of Canterbury. Its effectively owned the Somerset levels, running them almost as a seperate fiefdom, especially the core patrimony known as the Twelve Hides. In all these respects there are close comparisons with Ely.

The Norman Conquest is not a happy time for Glastonbury. In 1083 several monks were killed at the high altar by henchmen working for the first Norman abbot, who had attempted reform and was subsequently returned to Normandy under a cloud. He began rebuilding the church, but didn’t get beyond the east end, so it was left to the less controversial C12 abbot Herlewin and after him the mighty Henry of Blois, abbot of Glastonbury and bishop of Winchester, to knock down his predecesor’s work (and, if this had not already happened, the hoary anglo-saxon church too — but not the wooden structure to its west) and start again. The resulting church must have been one of the most ambitious and exquisite works of hte era.

At the same time — to be precise, after 1129 — William of Malmesbury was asked to produce a history focusing on the abbey’s claim to hold the relics of many saints and to establish its venerable nature. Here we have a classic Glastonbury-story-problem: his text, by far the most important document we have for its earliest history, exists only in a version produced by the monks much later (after 1184? or even after 1230?) and into which much has been inserted. However an effective precis survives in another work by him, the Deeds of the English kings, and its essentials are clear. He fleshed out the story mentioned in Dunstan’s Life, dating the coming of the ‘neophytes’ to 167 (when he had evidence for an early mission to the British), making it clear that the structure west of Ine’s church was indeed believed to be theirs, and was still there, and built of wattle and daub — but distancing himself from the claim that it was miraculously built, a claim which by now seems to include Christ’s disciples. And he asserted the presence of several other saints, perhaps most significantly Patrick of Ireland. Later the abbey would claim to hold Dunstan, too: it’s two main cults where both controversial, with very strong claimants to holding the relics elsewhere.  For all its wealth and power, this lies at the heart of Glastonbury’s history: more saints than anywhere (excepting perhaps Canterbury), yet unlike anywhere else with its profile, no truly major cult, and much that was from the first contested. *Are* we the first Christian church in Britain? *Do* we hold the relics of all these people? The narrative stones roll on. One of the spin-off documents produced after Malmesbury did his work, but still in the 1130s/50s, was a life of one of these saints, Gildas. This, by another author, introduced a new thread in the Glastonbury story: Arthur.

Then came a calamity. In 1184 the entire church, which can only have been a few decades old, burnt to the ground. In some ways even more importantly, its relics, documents and treasures where destroyed. The response is rapid, and energetic: within two years the ancient wooden church, known as the Old Church or Vetusta Ecclesia, was replaced by a small and sumptuous new one, the Lady chapel. This stands, roofless, and is one of the most exhaustingly ornate and important buildings of late twelfth-century England, the figure sculpture of its two doorways (north, facing the lay cemetery: very unusual birth and nativity of Christ; south, facing the monastic cemetery, but unfinished: Genesis stories) the very best the era could produce: a kind of stone shrine. The new main church was rebuilt, too, and completed rapidly, at least as far as the crossing: this uses gothic motifs, deliberately ignored in the Lady chapel, and appears to have had a modish Great Order elevation.

Then things slow down: the nave lay incomplete, the last stages of building with a cheaper stone. The most likely explanation is that royal support, funding this gret burst of energy, was withdrawn on the death of Henry II. He certainly seems to have had a posthumous hand in the monks’ response, the discovery in 1191 of King Arthur and Guinevere, buried 16ft beneath one of several Anglo-Saxon ‘pyramids’ (presumably obelisk-like carved stones) which stood in the monks’ graveyard to the south of the Old Church/Lady chapel. This seems to have been the last in a line of relics to have been ‘found’ after the fire, and also one of the most audacious, with none other than Gerald of Wales, self-publicist, raconteur and senior churchman, on hand to write an account. This entertaining eye-witness report tells us how Arthur and his wife were translated into the main church; it also for the first time equates Glastonbury with Avalon, a land that had cropped up in Arthurian texts forthe first time (unconnected to Glastonbury) earlier in the century. Lots of context here: the dramatic effects of the cult of Thomas Becket; the need for the Welsh, currently in mid (and ultimately incomplete) subjugation, to know their hero-king really is dead. And most of all, if speculatively, the loss of Henry II is a body blow to the fabric fund.

A new crisis blows up, with major financial implications: a series of bishops of Bath try to make Glastonbury their cathedral, or at least bring it to heel within the crisis; one result is their moving of the main seat of their see to nearby Wells; another is an agreement with the pope that must have deprived our abbey of considerable resources.  But Glastonbury retained much of its independence: ironically, if it had not, we might today have a Glastonbury cathedral standing in central Somerset.

This era, effectively the C12, is thus a dramatic and transformative one for the abbey, and our understanding of everything before it has to be seen through the prism of this C12 context. And the C12 is a transformative time for society in general: from town planning to intellectual activity, crusades to cults (not least Mary), the world was moving fast. 

Still, by the 1190s the east end is functioning – this is new stuff, dependent on work which hass now turned into a thorough review of the archaeology which may well throw up more new insights – and the monks appear to have made do with half a nave for the next century or more. They did, however, contrsuct a west front and a structure linking the Lady chapel to the main church, the Galilee: it’s variously dated but late C13 is the best bet. Now the Lady chapel was part of the church itself; whether the Galilee has a seperate function or simply enlarges the Lady chapel space is unclear. Its rather unusual, this blocking of the west front, and reflects somehow the significance and use of the Lady chapel.

During the C13, too, our various rolling mythological stones gather more moss, in the form of new versions of old charters, a compilation of texts called the Libellus, and a new chronicle, the latter written late in the century by Adam of Damerham. Among them is the first mention of a new figure, Joseph of Arimethea, and the idea that it was he who led our neophytes to Glastonbury, now dated as early as AD 63. By the time John of Glastonbury wrote a second chronicle, dated varyingly from ‘after 1340’ to ‘c.1400′, Joseph has become the bearer of two cruets containing the blood and sweat of the crucified Christ, and a also a lineal forefather of king Arthur. The rolling stones are colliding. Indeed unsuccessful hunts for Joseph’s body on the site were made in 1345 and 1367 and a chapel of St Michael re-dedicated to him in the cemetery in 1382.

Meanwhile, other developments: in 1243 an annual fair (one of four held at Glastonbury) was licensed on the Tor, which must have also been a site of religious significance as a church (St Michael) there fell down in an earth movement in 1275, the resulting tower being part of its C14 and C15 replacement. The only sense we get that the Tor had retained any special associations before this is that one of the forged charters of the C13 reinvents the story of an ancient wooden church being discovered, but making the discoverer Patrick and the site of the church, the Tor. While the Tor’s dramatic form cannot have made it just-another-hill, and the chapel on top if it makes much of its location (making it a cousin to St Michael’s Mount, St Michael de Rupe Brentor, and etc) it’s also worth remembering there were a number of other small churches and chapels on the Isle, at least two of which, St Benignus in Glastonbury, and a chapel at Beckery, are also known to have had anglo-saxon origin; such sub-sites in an important monastic landscape are not unusual, and there may be more to uncover here. So the modern focus on the Tor chapel is to some extent an act of selection, or (perhaps this is a better way of putting it) of reaction to the underlying form of the landscape.

Edward I and Guinevere, in mid-conquering of Wales, attended a solemn translation of Arthur and Guinevere to the choir of the main church in 1278; subsequent to this they lay in a grand sepulchre before the high altar, which also had the tombs of three Anglo-Saxon kinds around it. The church itself may not have drawn to completion until 1335, when the nave vault was completeed and painted; we hear of the installation of a grand new pulpitum screen around this time, too. A remarkable north porch, perhaps with a tower, went with the nave: the tower element was an afterthought. Somewhere between 1342 and 74/5, abbot Monington ‘did a Gloucester’ and recased the choir in a modish Perpendicular style: very modish indeed if this took place early in his abbacy: if only we knew. He also built a five-chapel square ended retroquite, remarkable for its archaeological faithufulness to the building of 1184 it abuts. There were two new shrines to St Dunstan, the second of which (1508) sparked a reigniting of an ancient dispute with Canterbury over who really had the poor man’s bones.

This era, c1500, effectively the abbacy of Abbot Beere, is an interesting one. He strengthened the area under the crossing (St Andrew’s arches) and vaulted the tower; after a visit to Italy he built a chapel of Our Lady of Loretto, apparently in a location of the nortth transept that mirrors England’s own Holy House, and its other great marian cult site, Walsingham. This may be partly, it seems to me, because he hollowed out the area beneath the Lady chapel at the Galilee and created a crypt dedicated to St Joseph of Arimethea, and the chapel as a whole soon came to be known as his. So Glastonbury didn’t have a Lady chapel. This crypt was a popular place to be buried, located as it was within the earth on which was by now known by one and all to have been the site of the oldest church in the country. It also obliterated any archaeological traces that church might have left. And it included a circulation route (possibly for priests rather than laity) that provided access to the intriguing (and C12 detailed) well immediately adjacent to it. There’s nothing unusual about a church being situated next to or incorporating a built-in source of fresh water, indeed it is well-nigh essential for a great church, but nevertheless the presence of this natural feature precisely on the site that is the tap root of our story is very interesting. And Beere also built a chapel in the location of a normal Lady chapel: at the east end, and dedicated to Edgar, Dunstan’s king and a key figure in Anglo-Saxon history. This was completed under abbot Whiting, and one wonders if (like the tomb of Prince Osric at Gloucester) it wasn’t designed to not-so-gently remind the king that Glastonbury held royal tombs. For that king was Henry VIII, and radical change was in the air.

The Dissolution of Glastonbury was late and terrible. Whiting was very competent many as well a powerful one; the monks of his great disciplined commune performed their offices and lived their disciplined, ritualised life style effectively and committedly right to the end. He played a passive-aggressive game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, avoiding both complete compliance and confrontation, even after all the other monastic houses in Somerset had been dissolved. In the end the authorities snapped, found a charge to try him on, and had him hung, drawn and quartered (with a couple of other monks) on top of the Tor in 1539. His head was stuck over the Abbey gate; his quarters were displayed in the key towns of the county. Glastonbury was by then the second richest abbey in the country, after Westminster: now, its monks were pensioned off and the church left to rot. Its church in its post-1184 form was the biggest in south west England, though a strippling compared to such giants as Winchester, Canterbury or York; but the C13 building of the Galilee and the only-just-done-in-time Edgar chapel made it surely the longest church in the land, if only for a few years.

Here starts what to me is one of the most intriguing, and least investigated, parts of our story. What happens when one creates an enormous architectural and institutional vaccum in the middle of all this layered and cross-fertilising mythology, and at the heart of a spectacular landscape? And does so at a time when religious ideas (and then religion itself) are in flux in a way never seen before?

What happens is that many of our narratives: the abbey’s claim to be the oldest church in the country, and the first church anywhere dedicated to Mary, and to have apostolic and/or supernatural founders, and to be Avalon, the burial place of Arthur — keep rolling, and colliding, and splitting into new sub-plots; while some of the others, such as its claims to Dunstan and Patrick, evaporate. And the geographical and institutional centre of the story becomes a ruin, living its edge to sprout new myths. Glastonbury has a hole in its heart that the last half millenium has been trying (rather succesfully of late) to fill.

I can only trace the outlline. I cannot even find the date of one key development: the addition of Christ himself to Joseph of Arimethea’s church-founding party, and the conflation of Joseph’s cruets with the Arthurian grail and the location of both somewhere on the Isle. Is it post-Reformation, or from the Life of Joseph produced at the abbey in 1520? Certainly that text is the first to mention (though it doesn’t connect it to Joseph) the existence of a thorn at Glastonbury that flowers in winter. It’s not Joseph’s thorn, his miraculously-flowering staff, until the mid-seventeenth century, it seems; there’s a kind of floral recusancy lurking in the way this humble tree gradually becomes the focus, with cuttings of it prized around the country, even as all those mighty structures of stone and gold had vanished. And there’s a kind of healing cult in the claims in 1751 that the well beneath the tor, known to the monks but not known to have had any special significance for them (remarkable though it is as a spring, both for its colour and for its abundance), cured one man’s asthma, resulting in a brief but intense role for Glastonbury as a spa and ongoing interest in marketing its waters.

But Glastonbury’s modern rebirth starts at the end of the C19, and thus at the dawn of an incrasinly post-religious, or at least post-Christian, cultural era. The rediscovery of the well next to the Old Church/Vetusta Ecclesia/Lady chapel/St Joseph’s chapel in 1825 bought rumours of a ‘holy wells’. The beatification of abbot Whiting and his brothers in 1895 led to the first Catholic pilgrimage. In 1886 a group of Catholic missionaries occupied Chalice Well House, perhaps coining the new name for what medeival people had called the Chilcewell. Bligh Bond’s excavations from 1908 are a key stage in the process by which the abbey ruins became an ‘open’ site and the remains of the church understood; their later morphing into spirit-guided investigation a harbinger of what’s to come. Indeed Bligh Bond installed the spiritually syncrestic vesica motif to cover the Chalice Wells after the war, in 1919. Alice Buckton had tried, but failed, to make the Well the site of an English Bayreuth, focusing on Arthur rather than the Ring, from 1912: in 1958 the Chalice  Well Trust was formed: what could have been a cultural site or a Catholic one was heading in the direction which today makes it a major new sacred element in the landscape, cross-faith in a generalised New Age way. I’m serious here: my visit yesterday showed it to be a beautiful place, frequented by a huge range of people, easily outgrowing its roots in post-war counterculture. Other new myths appear concurrently: Katherine Maltwood ‘identifies’ the memorable but laughably specious ‘Glastonbury Zodiac’ as a 10-mile across landscape feature in 1935; the 1971 argument that the Tor’s many terraces (lynchets or natural?) traced a specific maze pattern known to neolithic man has better ‘legs’ archaeologically (though both have worked well as new mythologies, which is a compliment), though the lack of firm prehistoric evidence of any kind on the Isle itself is a major issue here: if there is a maze, could it not be late medieval? And finally, the Glastonbury Free Festival of 1971, now Glastonbury Fayre, at Pilton (so not really part of this story at all) is a cultural event that is becoming, gradually, a physical structure as well: both perimeter wall (which now frighteningly Gaza-like from the A361) and pyramid stage have some real permanency. Somehow, just as Anglo-Catholicism and other Christianities have colonised the post-Dissolution Walsingham void, the New Age/spiritual-without-a-dogma has colonised Glastonbury, remaking old myths as creatively and with as much abandon as all its predecessors. Doubly ironic, then, that it is at blue-blood, stolid Anglican Wells, still standing just down the road, that archaeology (rather than mythology) suggests a sacred site by a spring might have become an early Christian site and the tap root of all that follows.

REVISION: July 2011. In preparing for a further tour of Glastonbury, I’ve deleted a paragraph here that related to John Dee’s visit in the C16: it seems this is the result of a confused C19 biography of Edward Kelly, and the event is almost certain never to have taken place. Dee wrote a little about Glastonbury, but it seems there is no evidence he ever visited the site.