Angel Roofs

From my friend Tim Emmett, pastor of the Waleska UMC, an interesting gallery on BBC Travel of photographs of angel roofs, which were a regular feature of late medieval English church architecture. The first caption reads:

Think of medieval England’s finest gems, and castles probably come to mind first. But the country has another type of treasure that few people know about: angel roofs. Built between 1395 and the English Reformation of the mid-1500s, these roofs are decorated with intricately carved wooden angels. Only 170 survive today. Because so little of the art from England’s medieval churches survived the Reformation, that still makes these cherubim “the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture”, writes photographer and expert Michael Rimmer in his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages.

Click the link to see a collection of Rimmer’s photographs. I had no idea these were a thing, nor that the Reformation had such a problem with them (after all, angels were biblical – unlike saints!).

Fake News

From the Atlantic:

Before ‘Fake News’ Came False Prophecy

From medieval Britain to the present, fantastic stories speaking to readers’ darkest fears have proven capable of altering reality.

The revelation that fake news deceived voters in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election generated real outrage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The top fake news stories garnered more clicks than the top real news stories on Facebook in the final three months of the campaign season. Fake news and other campaign fantasies led Oxford Dictionaries to select ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year for 2016.

But stories that gain popularity by presenting readers’ fantasies and nightmares as current events are hardly new. In medieval Britain, national and local political action was guided by prophecy. Prophecies were invoked by rebel leaders, appropriated by ruling elites, and, ultimately, censored by a government fearful of their disruptive potential. Prophecy’s effectiveness in shaping medieval politics offers a rejoinder to those who suggest that fake news and other political falsehoods can be ignored, or laughed off. Prophecy, like fake news, worked as persuasive writing because it told people what they wanted to believe or spoke to their darkest fears.

British politics provided ample opportunity to test the power of imagined worlds. When Owain Glyndŵr, Edmund Mortimer, and Henry Percy plotted against Henry IV at the turn of the 15th century, they used the popular “Prophecy of the Six Kings” to justify their actions. A later historical account has the three rebels committing to treason on the condition “that they are the people about whom the prophet speaks.” The fantasy that Glyndŵr, Mortimer, and Percy were prophesied saviors—a fantasy they themselves may have believed—had the very real effect of attracting popular support for their insurrection.

More at the link. Lesley Coote’s book Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England (Boydell, 2000) will tell you more. Of course, in our current age, going after “fake news” has the very real potential to descend into “going after news that I don’t happen to agree with,” so such a movement would need to be exercised with care. And blaming “fake news” for Mrs. Clinton’s loss borders on blaming “false consciousness,” which is always psychologically satisfying to some people but isn’t very useful if you have to operate in free elections in a constitutional republic. People want to be convinced, not condescended to.

Some Links

• From TheProvince.com: Evidence that Greeks settled in China in the 200s BC and may have helped to construct the Terra Cotta Army.

• From Curbed.com: “Definitive proof that no one did costume parties like the Bauhaus”

• From the Telegraph: “The Norman Conquest was a disaster for England. We should celebrate Naseby, not Hastings”

Thomas Becket’s Book of Psalms

From the Guardian:

Thomas Becket’s personal book of psalms ‘found in Cambridge library’

A Cambridge academic believes he has discovered Thomas Becket’s personal book of psalms, an ancient manuscript the martyred saint and so-called “turbulent priest” may have been holding when he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

Dr Christopher de Hamel, a historian at Cambridge University, stumbled across the book during a conversation with a colleague. De Hamel, author of the just-released Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, had said that books belonging to saints were generally not used as relics, and his fellow historian replied that he knew of an exception.

He showed de Hamel an entry from the Sacrists’ Roll of Canterbury Cathedral, dating to 1321, which gave a detailed description of a Psalter, or book of psalms, in a jewelled binding, that was then preserved as a relic at the shrine of Becket in the cathedral. Becket, archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170, was murdered by four knights inside the cathedral, who took on the task after supposedly hearing Henry II remark: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

De Hamel said that he read the Psalter’s description, and realised he had seen it before: an Anglo-Saxon Psalter in Cambridge’s Parker Library bears the same description on its flyleaf. It is undoubtedly the same manuscript from Becket’s shrine, he believes.

A 16th-century note says the book once belonged to Becket, but “everyone has always said it was ridiculous,” said de Hamel. “Becket is a big name and there’s a list of his books. This isn’t one of them.” But a link had not previously been made between the 14th-century inventory and the Parker manuscript.

In a piece in Saturday’s Guardian Review, De Hamel lays out how the Psalter was clearly made in Canterbury, and dates from the very early 11th century. It was probably, he said, made for the private use of an archbishop, likely Alphege, who was archbishop from 1005 to 1016, when he was killed by the Danes in Greenwich. Alphege was later canonised, and was Becket’s personal patron saint.

“People hadn’t matched it up, and suddenly there it was,” said de Hamel. “The inscription says this is the Psalter of the archbishop of Canterbury. It clearly is a private Psalter … I assume Becket had come across the book and taken it into his own possession.”

More at the link.

Henry I

Philippa Langley, discoverer of the remains of King Richard III five years ago, has made an announcement. From the Telegraph (emphasis added):

Another car park, another King: ‘Henry I’s remains’ found beneath tarmac at Reading Gaol

Britain’s kings appear to be making a habit of this.

First it was Richard III, whose bones were found under a car park in Leicester. Now it appears that Henry I may have met a similarly undignified fate.

Archaeologists have discovered what could be King Henry’s remains languishing beneath a Ministry of Justice car park on the site of Reading prison.

The bones were detected among a series of graves discovered by archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), during an exploration of the site containing the ruins of Reading Abbey.

They came across the graves, along with a number of other potentially significant archaeological finds, while scanning tarmacked land close to the Abbey’s High Altar.

The announcement on Monday of the latest discovery came five years to the day that archaeologists from Leicester University revealed they had found the bones of Richard III, beneath the Greyfriars carpark in the city. These were later confirmed by DNA testing to be those of the Plantagenet king.

The graves beneath the car park at the former Reading Gaol where discovered as the result of an ambitious project to establish the full historic significance of the Abbey.

Reading Abbey was founded by Henry I in 1121 and was always known to have been the final resting place of the King and his Queen Adeliza.

However, there has long been speculation about the precise location of his remains, as a result of grave robbers raiding the area for the silver coffin the king was reportedly buried in.

It had previously been thought Henry, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, had been buried in front of the High Altar and a full excavation will be required to confirm whether the newly discovered graves contain his remains.

A spokeswoman for Reading Borough Council, which is leading the project along with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth and the Ministry of Justice, said:

“The graves are located behind the High Altar in an apse at the east end of the Abbey. They are located east of the area where King Henry I’s grave is believed to be. No direct connection between these features and King Henry can be made using these results alone.”

So they’ve discovered some skeletons, but there’s no proof yet whose they are. They haven’t even dug them up to examine them! I’m sorry, but after Ms. Langley’s breathless announcement about the Princes in the Tower last year I am starting to think she’s a bit of a self-promoter.

William the Bastard

Marc Morris has made another discovery. From the Guardian:

Not so jovial after all: how historians misunderstood William the Conqueror

The history books refer to William the Conqueror as jovial and generous, among other surprising qualities recorded in an 11th-century Latin text written after the king’s funeral.

In fact, historians have got him wrong. A new translation of the rambling chronicle reveals that such praiseworthy adjectives were directed at someone else completely – a recently deceased abbot rather than the late king.

The discovery was made by a British historian, Marc Morris, while researching his forthcoming book on William of Normandy, whose conquest of England in 1066 altered the course of the nation’s history.

He told the Observer: “It’s very difficult assessing people’s personalities at a distance of a millennium, but academics for the past 50 or 60 years have written that … he was quite jovial, cheerful, eloquent, good-natured – not the brute you might suppose.”

Morris decided to go back to the original text, which was written by a Burgundian monk called Hugh of Flavigny after William’s burial in St Stephen’s Church at Caen in Normandy. “Every biography of William on my shelf mentions Hugh’s description of William the Conqueror in the context of the king’s funeral in 1087.”

The chronicle has been in print since the 19th century, in a multi-volume collection titled the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, but only in the original Latin – “flowery Latin at that, not the normal administrative Latin that most medieval historians – like me – can cope with,” Morris said. “I looked at this passage and thought it doesn’t look right to me.”

He asked a Latin expert, Professor David D’Avray of University College London, to translate it. The new version revealed that the adjectives do indeed appear in the text, but in relation to a little-known abbot. The praise was not about William but “this admirable man”, Abbot Richard of Verdun.

Morris said: “So this house of cards came crashing down. There’s no good evidence for a genial, jolly, jovial William the Conqueror. It’s clear from looking at academic biographies written in the past 50 years that it has always been mistranslated.”

I was actually unaware that William had a jovial reputation. I always thought that his pre-“Conqueror” nickname, the title of this post, was descriptive of him in both senses of the word, i.e. not only was he illegitimate, he also indulged in the “harrying of the North,” and this sort of thing:

During William’s siege of Alençon, a disputed town on the border of Normandy, in the late 1040s or early 1050s, residents are said to have hung animal hides on their walls. They mocked him for being the grandson of a tanner, referring to the occupation of his mother’s father. To avenge her honor, he had their hands and feet cut off.

Anglophones

An amusing observation from my friend Sasha Volokh:

We call English-speaking people “Anglophones”. But remember that Britain was settled in the 5th century not just by Angles, but also by Saxons and Jutes. Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia were Anglian kingdoms, Kent was a Jutish kingdom, and Wessex, Essex, and Sussex were the kingdoms of the western, eastern, and southern Saxons. (Those seven kingdoms together make up the so-called “Heptarchy“.)

Anyway, as you know if you’ve watched The Last Kingdom, the Vikings wiped out all the kingdoms except for Wessex in the ninth century. So if the last of the surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was the kingdom of the West Saxons, maybe that means we should be…

Saxophones?

Actually, given the termination of the names of the three southern Saxon kingdoms, native speakers of English might be called “sexophones,” and speak “Sexish” (not “Anglish”). (Although let us not denigrate the subsequent influence of Danish and Norman French on the development of our great tongue!)

St. Michael

After St. George, what could be more logical a saint to write about than St. Michael? I have been collecting material on this remarkable figure and I want to write at least something about him this summer – even if the conference I wanted to present at rejected my paper proposal (sad face). This post is an attempt at putting some thoughts in order…

St. Michael was one of the most popular saints in medieval Europe, in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy. This is rather odd, because Michael is not a saint at all, but an angel. Saints were human once, and performed some noted service to Christianity; the most prestigious ones were martyred for their faith. Saints are in heaven with God, and in the Middle Ages acquired the function of intercession: you could pray to them, and they would be deputized with answering; they might specialize in providing a particular type of miracle, and amass a particular set of devotees.

Angels are different. In both the Old and New Testaments, angels function as messengers of God. Gabriel, Uriel and Michael are the three best-known. They had never enjoyed a human existence, but were always semi-divine members of the court of heaven. As such, one would think that they would enjoy a Christian cult like that of the most powerful saints, but only Michael seems to have. (One would think that Old Testament prophets like Moses, Elijah, or Isaiah could be Christianized in this way as well, but one generally does not find churches dedicated to them, prayers addressed to them, or accounts of their lives included in saints legendaries.)

Why St. Michael should have enjoyed church and guild dedications, heard Christian prayers, had his own feast day (Michaelmas, September 29), been included in the Golden Legend, etc., is a mystery I’d like to explore more. Gabriel, despite his appearance to the Virgin Mary herself, was nowhere near as popular. The only thing I can think of right now is artistic: St. Michael was often shown battling the devil, as he does in Revelation. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons why St. George was so popular was simply because he was shown fighting the dragon; people loved the action. In England, George and Michael were sometimes paired, each one overcoming his scaly enemy.

This leads to a very important aspect of St. Michael’s patronage: he was a warrior saint. He protected and encouraged “those who fight,” as they fought. This was not entirely a Christian thing to do, but once the Church endorsed crusading (Holy War to liberate Jerusalem from the infidel), it was only natural that different saints should be accepted as specialists in warfare – whether practiced on crusade or not. Once the English managed to monopolize St. George in the context of the Hundred Years’ War (following the Battle of Crécy in 1346), the French turned increasingly to St. Michael. Colette Beaune talks about this in her Naissance de la nation France; the Norman monastery of Mont-St-Michel played a role, as did the foundation of the French Order of St. Michael in 1469.

Depictions of St. Michael followed suit. Normally, he was shown as an angel, dressed in dalmatic. As the Middle Ages wore on, however, he acquired more and more pieces of military equipment, such as helmet, breastplate, greaves, and shield. And on the shield – a coat of arms.

What these coats of arms were will be the subject of another post.

Happy St. George’s Day

In honor of this auspicious day, a gallery of images of St. George from my collection. Apologies for the poor quality of some of them.

asc

A statue of St. George by Alexander Scott Carter, in St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Huron St., Toronto (photo by my friend Bruce Patterson).

AustraliaCrusader

From my graduate school colleague, Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Mead of the Australian army.

ethiopian

Family friend Laine Rosin took this photo on a trip to Ethiopia.

georgeallenandunwin

Allen and Unwin printer’s mark.

georgevch

This is from the spine of a volume in the great Victoria County History series.

kopeck

My five-year-old found this Russian fifty kopek coin last summer. “Look daddy,” she said. “St. George!” That’s my girl!

londonchurch

Bruce Patterson took this photo in a Catholic church in London.

pam

My colleague Pam Wilson took this photo in Barcelona.

parl

This sculpture of St. George is carved on the facade of the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. I took this photo in 2006.

pmb

A war memorial in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, taken by Dr. Anne Good.

stgeorgeswell

I acquired this label on an airplane once. I like it especially because dragons are associated with water. 

english_whisky_new-full-logo_black_web1_585x780

If there is Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, then why shouldn’t there be English whisky too? And what better a character to represent it than St. George?

TrotskySlayingtheDragon1918

One of my favorite representations of St. George comes from shortly after the Russian Revolution, when Christian saints had not been entirely eradicated, but could be repurposed for Communist ends. Here St. Trotsky kills the Counter-Revolutionary dragon, complete with top hat. From Wikipedia.

party

From my friend Chris Berard, via Facebook. Happy St. George’s Day!