Saturday, 23 July 2016

Phantoms in the sky, and fear on the walls...

If you want to take a decent photograph of the west front of a medieval abbey, priory or cathedral then the only time to do it is on a long summers evening. When the sun dips low, shines directly onto the stone face of the building, chasing away all the oblique shadows of the day. To capture all the details of the architecture, to pick out all the tiny nuances of the medieval masons, it has to be a long summer evening. Which is why, a few evenings ago, I was to be found at Binham priory in north Norfolk.

The west front of Binham priory, for all its faults, is absolutely sublime - and by far and away one of my favourite medieval buildings anywhere in England. The design is massively important in the history of English medieval architecture, for reasons that I simply won't bore you with here, and it really was, for its time, utterly revolutionary. However, as you will see, today it is far from perfect. The great west window, designed as the centrepiece of the whole priory, eventually failed - leading to it being bricked up in several stages in the late C18th and early C19th. Having said that, what is left today is still a masterpiece. The detailing of the arcading, the crocketed capitals and the dog-tooth decoration, are some of THE very best examples of the Early English style to be found in the country - and it was these I was there to photograph.

As the sun behind me sank lower and lower in the sky I took picture after picture, watching as the light changed as it played across the stone. Finally, as the light turned to an orange glow, I called it a day, packed up my camera equipment, and turned around to face the setting sun. Or 'suns' rather. For there in front of me, instead of one great orange sphere, there were two. Two suns in the sky. Quite unmistakably. For a few seconds I simply gazed in absolute wonder, faced with this strange, alien, reality. Two suns hanging low in the west...

The two suns in the sky is a rare atmospheric occurrence, or so modern science tells us, known as 'parhelion'. It is caused by the refraction of the sunlight in ice crystals or water droplets high in the atmosphere, and most usually occurs when the sun is low in the sky - at either dawn or dusk. In many cases the full effect is seen as three suns - with a 'copy' either side of the actual sun itself. The phenomenon is sometimes known as 'phantom suns', 'mock suns' or 'sun dogs'; the last term perhaps relating to Norse mythology, where it was thought that they were the dogs of Odin riding through the sky with their master. And these 'phantom suns' most certainly turn up throughout folklore, superstition and mythology all over the world, and throughout history. Though rarely seen their appearance was most certainly noteworthy, and like many celestial events, their appearance is linked to great and momentous events.

Perhaps one of the most famous instances of this phenomena appearing in English history dates back to 1461, and the Battle of Mortimer's Cross during the Wars of the Roses. As the battle began the troops of Edward of York were reportedly terrified by the apparition of three suns hanging in the sky, taking it as an omen of ill fortune. However, Edward convinced his men that, rather than predicting their doom, the three suns were a symbol from God. The three suns represented the holy trinity, and were a sign that they were blessed by the Lord, and about to win a great victory. Heartened by his words the Yorkist troops hastened into battle and, just as Edward had predicted, routed the Lancastrian forces. Edward himself, it was said, was so deeply moved by the three suns in the sky that he later adopted the sunburst symbol as part of the Yorkist livery.

The English have, it has long been reported, always been a nation that put great store in such signs and omens. Writing in the seventeenth century Bishop Sprat noted that belief in such omens and portents was something that the English, in his opinion, were more than usually vulnerable to. The English were, he believed, a superstitious and credulous nation. And the omens were many and various. Putting aside the celestial phenomena of parhelion, eclipses and comets, there were strange sightings of battles in the sky, great swarms of unusual birds , earthquakes - and even, according to  the report of two country women in 1651, flights of angels of 'a blueish colour and about the bigness of a capon'. The medieval and early modern world, it would appear, was a world of omens and portents - and none of them were good.

That is the thing about omens and portents. No matter whether they are blue-chicken-sized-angels or multiple suns in the sky, the chances are that they are going to be interpreted as the harbingers of doom. None of these omens ever appear to have been interpreted as foretelling 'a reasonably nice day next Wednesday', or even 'generally pleasant things will befall the beholder'. Oh no, that just won't do. Instead all of these omens are clear signs of extreme displeasure by (insert deity of choice), who is sending this sign as a way of informing the world that it is very shortly in for a damned good smiting... and no mistake.

And this is the thing about the medieval ideas of faith and belief. Whilst there are the little things that can be beneficial - the charms, talisman and just plain 'lucky' objects - all backing up the unquestionably beneficial prayers of holy mother Church - the large portents and omens are concerned with ill fortune and disaster. Whilst the successful harvest and good health can be ascribed to general good fortune and the rewards of a devout life, the all too common disasters and setbacks, the unexpected floods and the sudden onset of disease were there as a punishment. A punishment for a life lived not as it should be. As Keith Thomas highlights, many people prayed regularly out of fear for what would happen to them, or their loved ones, if they didn't. Therefore, with fire, robbery, tempest, death or fearful accidents an all too common occurrence the medieval church, and the faith of the parish community, was one underpinned by fear.

And it is this fear that we find on the walls of our churches, laid bare in the graffiti etched deep into the stones. We don't find the angels, but we do come across the demons. We find the marks of protection. The physical symbols that hoped to reinforce the prayers of the church, in an all too often vain attempt to keep away the forces of ill fortune. We find the marks of desperate hope. A hope that briefly burned in the breasts of an entire community; all of whom are long since turned to dust. A community for whom two suns hanging in the sky before the west from of a priory were something to be dreaded and feared rather than gazed upon in wonder...

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