The Auto-Icon

One of the stranger items on display at University College London is the stuffed remains of its spiritual founder, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who believed that education should be free of church influence (unlike Oxford and Cambridge, which at the time were restricted to members of the Church of England). Bentham called this his “auto-icon” (i.e. “self-image”). The auto-icon:

was inscribed in the late philosopher’s will, which requested that a number of fixtures be put in place to preserve his remains, that they be dressed in the clothes he wore in life, and that they occasionally be brought into meetings involving his still-living friends, so that what’s left of Bentham might enjoy their company.

You might be inclined to that this was an elaborate joke on Bentham’s part, but he doesn’t strike me as the joking type. The auto-icon, according to the linked article in Atlas Obscura, has found a new and much more public home at UCL: in a glass case in the student center. (Previously it was in a closet that was only opened on request.) 

Bentham might have been an atheist, but it is interesting how the preservation of human remains is a custom that extends beyond religion. 

Shall These Bones Live?

From The Telegraph (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

Bones hidden in church revealed to be remains of one of England’s earliest saints

The discovery has been hailed as a ‘stunning result of national importance’

Bones hidden away by monks during the Reformation have been confirmed as belonging to one of England’s earliest saints who founded the country’s first nunnery. 

The seventh-century remains of St Eanswythe, a Kentish Royal Saint who was the daughter and granddaughter of Anglo-Saxon kings, have finally been identified by historians.

The relics survived the upheavals of the Dissolution of the Monasteries – in which King Henry VIII aimed to destroy the monastic system – after being squirrelled away in a lead box behind a church wall in Kent.

Her remains were discovered in 1885. However, it is only now – more than 1,300 years after her death and after carbon dating her teeth and bones – that historians believe they have finally identified England’s first abbess and one of the country’s earliest saints.

The remarkable discovery was made by Kent archaeologists and historians, working with Queen’s University in Belfast, who confirmed that human remains kept at the Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe Folkestone are almost certainly those of the saint.

The discovery has been hailed as “a stunning result of national importance” and has drawn comparisons with the exhumation of King Richard III after DNA confirmed that bones found beneath a Leicester car park in 2012 were those of the former king of England.

Read the whole thing, and the Finding Eanswythe website.

Agincourt and the Middle Finger

From Facebook:

I admit that I bring this story up when I talk about the Hundred Years’ War – only to debunk it. The version that I tell explains the specific British custom of elevating two fingers as a rude gesture.

Singer Robbie Williams insults the viewer. Wikipedia.

The idea being that you need two fingers to draw a bow, which makes more sense, and thus links up a national custom with a triumphant moment in national history! But frankly, I suspect that the French would have done a lot worse to any captured English archers than chopping off their fingers. People who killed their social betters from a distance weren’t very well liked, and would likely have paid with their lives – as did all the French prisoners, archers or otherwise, whom Henry V had executed at Agincourt, in what some historians consider a war crime. 

I’m even more suspicious of the alleged transformation of “p” to “f”. First of all, the word “pluck” begins with the blend “pl,” which would logically become “fl” – if the voiceless bilabial plosive “p” has actually transformed into the labiodentalfricative “f,” which is by no means certain. (There is an Indo-European connection between the p-sound and f-sound – see the distinction between the Latin pater and the Germanic Vater/father – but that split occurred a long time ago.) The f-word itself is Germanic with early-medieval roots; the earliest attested use in English in an unambiguous sexual context is in a document from 1310. 

And where does the distinction between one and two fingers come from? If the one-fingered salute comes from Agincourt, as the graphic suggests, then at what point did it get transformed into two fingers in England? If the two-fingered salute comes from Agincourt, then at what point was it reduced to one finger in North America? You would think that anything English predating 1607, such as the language, Protestantism, or the Common Law, would have been a part of America’s patrimony….

It seems to me that the single upturned middle finger clearly represents an erect penis and is the gestural equivalent of saying “f*ck you!” As such, it is probably ancient – Wikipedia certainly thinks so, although apparently it became popular in the United States in the late nineteenth century under the influence of Italian immigration, replacing other rude gestures like thumbing the nose or the fig sign. I suppose that the two-fingered salute could still come from medieval archery, even if it didn’t come specifically from the Battle of Agincourt, although the example that Wikipedia links to (the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter) is ambiguous. Maybe it means “five” and was a symbol of support for Henry V? 🙂 The fact that Winston Churchill sometimes made his V-for-victory gesture “rudely” suggests that it is of much more recent vintage. What it is supposed to represent I have no idea.

One final observation: any time some appeal begins with “here’s something that intelligent people will find edifying” you should be suspicious. It’s up there with “here’s something that they don’t want you to know.”

The Black Death

From Smithsonian Magazine (hat tip: Dan Franke):

Mass Grave Shows the Black Death’s ‘Catastrophic’ Impact in Rural England

At least 48 individuals were buried in a single grave in Lincolnshire, suggesting the community struggled to deal with an onslaught of plague victims

In the summer of 1348, the Black Death arrived in southwest England. The deadly disease rapidly swept through the country, ultimately killing between one-third and one-half of its population. Now, a team of researchers writing in the journal Antiquity has revealed new details about a mass grave of probable Black Death victims buried in the English countryside. The discovery offers rare insight into the plague’s “catastrophic” impact on rural communities.

The grave, located on the grounds of the historic Thornton Abbey in North Lincolnshire, was first excavated in 2013. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of at least 48 individuals, including 27 children. Differences in levels between the rows of bodies suggest the grave was “filled over the course of several days or weeks,” according to the study’s authors. Radiocarbon dating of two skeletons indicated the victims died sometime between 1295 and 1400, while ceramics and two silver pennies found in the grave helped experts narrow the date range down to the mid-14th century.

Though the researchers acknowledge that any number of factors could have driven the mass fatality in Lincolnshire, they suspect the Black Death is the “most probable cause.” Documentary evidence indicates the bubonic plague had hit Lincolnshire by the spring of 1349. What’s more, centuries-old DNA extracted from the teeth of 16 individuals buried at the site revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the disease.

The skeletons’ ages—which ranged from 1 year old to over 45—lend further credence to the theory that something devastating was at play. Hugh Willmott, a senior lecturer in European historical archaeology at the University of Sheffield and leader of the excavation, tells Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger that medieval cemeteries are typically dominated by very young and relatively old individuals, who are particularly susceptible to disease and injury.

“But what we’ve got is not that profile at all,” says Willmott. “We can tell from the proportion of individuals that everyone is being affected, and everyone is dying.”

Read the whole thing

The Original Windsor Castle

Wikipedia.

The oldest extant part of Windsor Castle is the central Round Tower, which dates from the twelfth century, although no visit would be complete without seeing St. George’s Chapel (fifteenth century, in the lower ward to the left) and the State Apartments (nineteenth century, in the upper ward to the right). Windsor is one of the more important royal castles, from which the current dynasty takes its name and derives its heraldic badge.

Wikipedia.

People forget, though, that Windsor was founded as a castle by William I shortly after the conquest – and now a vision of what that castle might have looked like has been produced. From the Independent:

the first Windsor Castle, built in 1071 to deter Anglo-Saxon rebels, is thought to have consisted of a multi-storey wooden keep on top of a large earthen mound flanked to its north and west by a two-and-a-half acre palisaded triangular courtyard (known as a bailey or ward).

It was probably built there for three very specific reasons. Being on a hill it was easier to defend and, because the Thames was unusually narrow at that point, it could be easily bridged. Indeed, it is now thought that the very first Windsor Bridge was probably built by William the Conqueror at the same time that the castle was erected. The third reason was its proximity to an Anglo-Saxon royal palace at Old Windsor – just one-and-a-half miles away.

The reconstruction of that first Windsor Castle (as it would have looked in around 1085) has just been published by the Royal Collection Trust (which manages most public access aspects of Windsor Castle) in a major new book – Windsor Castle: A Thousand Years of a Royal Palace.

Research – carried out by Dr Steven Brindle, co-author of the book and a leading expert on Windsor – has also generated the first ever archaeologically based modern reconstructions of Windsor Castle as it looked in 1216 and in 1272 (as well as in 1085). All three have just been published for the first time in the book.

Read the whole thing, which includes images from the new book. 

Barking Abbey

Interesting article by Eleanor Parker on History Today:

The Cultured Women of Essex

We should take more notice of the work of those once despised and disregarded.

‘It is asked of all who hear this work that they do not revile it because a woman translated it. That is no reason to despise it, nor to disregard the good in it.’ Many female writers have probably said, or wanted to say, something very like these words. They were written in the 12th century, around 1170, by a woman who composed one of the earliest texts from England known to be by a female author. She was a nun of Barking Abbey in Essex and, though we do not know her name, her words – and her work – demand attention.

The work she asks us not to disregard is a narrative of the life of Edward the Confessor, written in Anglo-Norman French (‘the false French of England’, the nun modestly calls it). Its author was an educated woman, able to turn a Latin source into engagingly chatty French verse and Barking Abbey must have been a congenial environment for her. Founded in the seventh century, Barking was one of the foremost nunneries in the country, a wealthy abbey which was home to many well-connected aristocratic and royal women. Its abbesses were frequently appointed from the sisters and daughters of kings and, around the time our nun wrote her Vie d’Edouard le Confesseur, Thomas Becket’s sister Mary – herself a woman of literary interests – was made abbess of Barking in compensation for her brother’s murder.

Across its long history of more than 850 years, Barking Abbey was a centre for women’s learning. It has been described as ‘perhaps the longest-lived … institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history’ and it had a strong literary and scholarly tradition that spanned the Middle Ages. In the early medieval period, authors such as Aldhelm and Goscelin of St Bertin wrote learned Latin works for the nuns of Barking; later, several nuns composed their own poetry and prose – even their own plays. In the 12th century, when women were increasingly becoming patrons, readers and, in some cases, authors of literary texts, Barking produced more than one talented writer. The first female author in England whose name we know, Clemence of Barking, was a nun there; she wrote an accomplished Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, a saint associated with female learning.

Read the whole thing, and a followup blog post about it. A choice excerpt:

I’m a UK academic writing primarily for UK audiences (not that I’m not glad to have other readers too!), but online those distinctions are blurred; other academics will pass judgement, from half a world away, on conversations they only half understand, and some of them are very resistant to the idea that in different contexts it might be necessary to speak in different languages, to ask and answer different questions. Even the basic idea that words have different connotations in different varieties of English seems to surprise them. In their particular cultural context, medieval history intersects with questions of identity and exclusion in very different ways, and they won’t listen to anyone who tries to tell them things don’t operate like that everywhere in the world. We all have to do what seems right to us in our own context, and I’m sure they are trying to do that; I only wish they were prepared to consider that the rest of us are trying to do the same, just not in the same way. Some feel entitled to demand that every discussion which touches on ‘their’ subject should address their own immediate social and political concerns – not those of (for instance) the people of Barking, of whose existence they are so loftily unconscious. Some of these people also display a deeply exclusionary view of academic status and the privileges it confers on them, and an attitude little better than contempt for the public at large; if you don’t have a doctorate, you’re not worthy of their time or attention. I’ve been observing this tendency for several years, but it’s particularly noticeable at the moment. Since these academics don’t follow British and Irish politics, they really can’t see why this is such an especially bad time to be making pronouncements on how to use words like ‘English’ and ‘British’, without any understanding of the contemporary sensitivities surrounding those terms, and they seem completely unaware of the wider social context in which UK medievalists have to consider the issue of public engagement. I think some of them truly would prefer it if they could stop the public taking any interest in medieval history at all, because that interest is, to them, always inherently problematic; but while they can decide for themselves if that’s the case in their own countries, it’s absolutely out of the question here. 

St. Edward the Confessor and St. John Henry Newman

October 13 marks the feast of the Translation of St. Edward the Confessor (which actually happened twice, in 1163 and 1269). In the latter of those years his mortal remains ended up in an elaborate tomb that you can’t normally see when you get into Westminster Abbey.

Tripadvisor.com

In other news about English saints, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90) was canonized today by Pope Francis in Rome, England’s first of the modern era. Below is a sculpture of Newman’s arms on the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto.

Agincourt Museum

From History Extra (hat tip: Richard Utz):

True-to-scale battle numbers and 15th-century life: look inside the revamped Agincourt museum

As a renewed Agincourt museum is set to open near the site of the pivotal Hundred Years’ War battle between English and French armies, History Extra spoke to Professor Anne Curry about the historical facts that drive the new attraction.

It’s one of English history’s most celebrated victories, a battle in which Henry V’s invading force toppled a numerically superior French army near Agincourt. With the help of Shakespeare and company, this triumph of the Hundred Years’ War has come to represent an ultimate battle against the odds.

The scale of the military upset is just one of the myths that will be redressed for visitors to the revamped ‘Azincourt 1415’ which opens on 17 September at the Centre Historique Médiéval in Azincourt in north-east France.

Professor Anne Curry of the University of Southampton, whose work focuses on the records for the English and French armies in 1415 at the battle, explains how when the museum first opened in 2001 it held to an “old-fashioned interpretation” that Henry V’s forces were outnumbered by as many as five to one. Professor Curry has worked with the Centre on the new exhibition.

“There had been a tendency to use printed works of the 16th century rather than returning to the sources that for the period itself, such as financial records of the Crown on both sides of the channel, or royal orders,” says Curry. Such sources can show us that Henry V set out with 12,000 paid soldiers, yet when counting the losses documented through sick lists and also the garrison left to defend the French port of Harfleur, the actual number of men available to Henry V for battle is closer to 8,500. French forces would have numbered around 12,000.

More at the link

Treasure

From the BBC (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Detectorists find huge Chew Valley Norman coin hoard

 

A huge hoard of silver coins dating back to the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings could be declared as treasure.

The 2,528 silver coins were found in the Chew Valley, north-east Somerset, by a group of metal detectorists.

Lisa Grace and Adam Staples, who unearthed the bulk of the hoard, said: “We’ve been dreaming of this for 15 years but it’s finally come true.”

The British Museum said it was the second largest find of Norman coins ever in the UK.

Mr Staples, from Derby, added: “It was totally unbelievable – to find one would be an exceptional day metal detecting.

“To find two unrelated coins would be almost impossible. And when there were more beeps, from two to 10, from 50 to 100, to wow how many are there?

“From then on it was just crazy.”

More at the link. Sure wish I could make a find like this! 

Hermits and Anchorites

Mary Wellesley in the London Review of Books revisits a distinctive aspect of medieval piety:

The cell was the size of a large cupboard. There wasn’t enough room to lie down. I’d come late on a winter afternoon; the light was seeping away. What light there was came through the ‘squint’ – the small window that looked onto the sanctuary. It was a cruciform shape and through it I could see a single candle standing on the altar. I turned on the torch on my phone. In front of the squint was an oak shelf with a dark circle on its edge where the wood had been rubbed smooth. Above it was a notice that read: ‘Please put nothing on the ancient sill. This was the prayer-desk of the anchorites for several centuries.’ I knelt in front of it. If the floor had been at the same height in the medieval period, the desk would have been too high for an anchorite to rest their elbows on. Had the indentation been made by pairs of hands gripping the edge of the ledge? I wondered at those pairs of hands. This cell had been a coffin to its inhabitants – once inside, they were never to come out. They may have been buried beneath my feet, in this tiny anchorhold in the church of St Nicholas in the village of Compton in Surrey.

An anchorite or anchoress permanently encloses themselves in a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation. The word comes from the Greek ἀναχωρεῖν (‘anachorein’) meaning ‘to retire or retreat’. Anchoritism emerged in the late 11th century in tandem with a monastic reform movement and a growth in spiritual enthusiasm that is sometimes referred to as the Medieval Reformation. In the Middle Ages in England, as elsewhere in Europe, the practice was not uncommon – there were around a hundred recluses across the country in the 12th century; over the 13th century, the figure increased to two hundred. Women significantly outnumbered men, by as much as three to one.

I came out of the church into the empty churchyard. Except for the sound of passing cars, I was alone. The anchorites who had lived in the cell probably rarely felt that. Anchorites withdrew from the world in one sense, but anchored to their church, they were at the centre of community life. Anchorholds were often situated in prominent places in medieval English towns – sometimes along the routes of liturgical processions. In London there were many cells along the old city walls. As Claire Dowding has noted, they formed a ‘ring of prayer’ encircling the capital.

Life as an anchoress began with a death. On entering their cell for the first time, the recludensus (novice recluse) would climb into a grave dug inside the cell. The enclosure ritual is a piece of macabre high drama. In places the liturgy is indistinguishable from a funeral service. When the moment for enclosure arrived, the anchoress-to-be would process with the celebrant, choir and others out of the church and into the graveyard, as the choir sang ‘In paradisum deducant te angeli’ – traditionally sung as a body is conveyed to a grave. The procession would arrive at the cell built onto the side of the church, usually – in England – on the north side, where the wind was most biting and no direct sunlight fell. Some ordines (liturgical directions) state that the recludensus should pause at the opening of the cell and the bishop should say, ‘Si vult intrare, intret’ (‘if he/she wishes to go in, allow him/her to go in’). An antiphon drawn from the Book of Tobias was sung, concluding with the words, ‘Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand.’ The anchoress would then climb into the grave, where she was sprinkled with earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – and the door of the cell was bolted.

More at the link.