Tuesday 8 September 2015

Understanding medieval graffiti: Long lost souls peering over your shoulder...

So I'm here. Sitting in a church again. Staring at the dark monochrome of the walls, all whitewash and dark stained stonework. Above me I can hear the rain, a gentle persistent hiss against the lead of the roof. Even the bright glass of the windows is dull and opaque, longing for the kiss of sunlight. The wall is in front of me. It's always in front of me - stones bonded by the sweat of men and time. Just me and the wall. And so, as one does with an old friend and an even older adversary - I simply stare - looking for a way in. Washing light across the surface, watching it illuminate the darkness of centuries, bring to dancing life the figure of the demon to my left. Another sweep of the light across the cold stone. An intricate design of latticed circles leaps from the wall, design to trap the evil from a time now lost to memory. Time out of mind. Then there are the letters, degraded, worn and near indecipherable - a prayer for health by a soul whose bones have long ago wasted to dust? The light finds them all - and yet still I look for a way in. A way past the markings. A way past the scratching on the wall. A way that no light, no matter how strong, can light a path to; a way into the medieval mind.

The rain is harder outside now and faint drums echo above me. In a dark corner of the church an intermittent and all but silent splash on flagstones; a place where water, rot and time have finally found their way in. Above me fragments of paint peeling angels now weep real tears. Their bright colours temporarily restored for a few splendid, damp, hours - before they fade again even further into the past. And yet there is nobody here to see their glory but me. Me and the figures dancing in the light on the wall - and, I fear, I understand the demons on the stones far better sometimes than the angels on high. The demons on the walls are my friends. They are my way in. They are the key to understanding.

It isn't enough to simply record what we find on the walls. It is a start. No more than that. The key though has to be understanding what we are seeing. To try and find our way into the mindset and motivations of the long-dead who left these tantalising messages for the future. Without understanding we are no more than collectors of images; seekers of historical butterflies that we happily send to the gas jar and pin to a trophy board. Without attempting to understand what we find we are drawing out the life, the humanity, of every single simple marking. Hunting treasure for the sake of the treasure. Creators of catalogues. No more. What can we truly understand and learn from the name John Abthorpe carved into the tower arch of Troston church unless we know that he was the last of his line; a childless lordling whose name would die as his flesh corrupted.  What can we understand of the plaintive inscription in the chancel at Acle unless we understand that it was made during an outbreak of the plague; a time when the very fabric of the world became unraveled and desperation brought painted demons into the church?

And so we must, if we are to understand what we see, find a way in. Find a way to worm ourselves between the stones. To understand the mind that leaves fear and demons on the wall. I wonder myself, as I sit in the darkness listening to the rain, whether archaeology alone has the key. Can a profession that thinks in terms of a 'juvenile interment' rather than 'child burial' really understand what it means to discover the mortal remains of a once beloved son or daughter? Can those who strive to be seen as scientists, echoing the words of textbooks, really understand the humanity in what they view? I am, I know, being too harsh. Some of the very best archaeologists are those who have always let the humanity show through their work. Have always remained ultimately human. And yet, after the long years staring at the walls, the way in lies elsewhere. 

To understand what we find and record we must understand, or at least try to understand, the motivations of those who created these marks. These scratches in the stone. We must look at their church of incense and bright colours rather than the drab monochrome of today. We must hunt through the borders of their manuscripts, chasing the tails of grotesques and jousting snails. We must listen to their words and their music; try to understand the chant, the melody and the dance of medieval life. We must see the splendour and embrace the squalor - and feel the lost souls peering over our shoulders as bright light washes across the stones. To do any less simply leaves us sitting in the dark, listening to the rain...

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Terry Pratchett, Jane Austen and Jonathon Jones - and why George Wickham was a cad...

I wrote a book recently. It's selling quite well so far (although that might well end after this article is published) and has received a number of favourable reviews. Those who have read it seem to quite like it. A few have been embarrassingly gushy about it. My mother has sent copies to her friends. Both of them. The idea behind the book was a simple one. To take a subject that is generally considered fairly academic and specialist and to present it in a manner that would be accessible and enjoyable to a far wider audience. To make a study of medieval church history and lay piety not just an educational tome to be waded through, but actually make it mildly interesting and entertaining as well. To examine, in a fair amount of detail, the subject of 'medieval church graffiti' in a way that won't have everyone who picks up a copy wonder if it would be a 'good read', or whether it might be better used to wedge that awkward table leg that has always wobbled and often leads to unseemly spillages of coffee/chardonnay/single malt (delete as applicable). The book begins, as I insisted it should, with a quote from the late Sir Terry Pratchett.

Playing to the mainstream you might think. Putting aside the academic pretensions to appeal to the unwashed masses; the readers of popular entertainment? Hoping to turn up in a few more Google searches? Trying to make a greying archaeologist appear a bit more... what's the term? Hip and cool? Street?

Not a bit of it I'm afraid. You see, the thing is, I'm a bit of a fan of the work of Sir Terry. I never met him, now freely admit that a couple of his early works were a touch unpolished, but am a devoted follower of his now sadly ended writing career. I'd be the first to admit that not all of his works were great; not all of his books were sparkling gems in his literary crown, and that one or two were actually a bit poor. However, that is one or two books out of a collected works that fills an entire shelf in a bookcase at the top of my stairs. Handily situated on the way to up to the bedroom or down to the garden. And each volume is well thumbed. Well loved.

Many might think that after an age or two ploughing through the minutia of churchwardens accounts from the fifteenth century, or reading sixteenth century texts on how to summon demons using no more than a few easily accessible household utensils, that an hour spent with Pratchett is a much needed escape from reality. A diversion into another reality where stress can slide away as my smile widens (this is a literary metaphor. I never smile. Live with it...) and I get the chance to wander the streets of my favourite city in the company of Vimes, the Night Watch and Nanny Ogg. A reality where the rocks are alive and a good witch CAN be grown on the chalk. A place where you can be an atheist, just so long as you don't mind a whole bunch of annoyed Gods turning up next morning and chucking rocks through your windows. The chance to visit myriad different worlds that are only a single step away, or a world that is so near that the M25 really is a demonic symbol and angels really can run an unprofitable second-hand bookshop. It is, I will admit, a damned good reason, but most certainly not the whole truth.

The real reason that I adore Pratchett, have actually grown up and old with Pratchett, is that he was, quite simply, a great social commentator. He was one of the great social historians of his time. He saw the world through his own eyes and laid it forth before his readers with his own special take on it. He ridiculed that which is ridiculous about our own world. He lambasted those who thought they deserved admiration and praise. He was critical. Critical of our times and our beliefs - and wrote it in such a way as to make it entertaining and amusing. He took the social mores of his time, turned them upside-down, gave them a shake, and had a good poke through what fell out. Pratchett, for all his faults, understood just how mind-numbingly stupid humanity could be. And then he wrote about it. His books aren't just a fantasy of a pizza shaped world riding through space on the back of four large elephants, they are a critique of our own, just as ridiculous, world. For me they do exactly what I hoped to do with my own book. They take massive and difficult subjects, subject normally left only to the academic or political commentator, and put them into the sphere of the everyday. Ideas and concepts such as war, jingoism, politics, science, immigration and religion. He took them apart and reconstructed them in a manner that highlighted the laughable, the ridiculous - and in doing so shone a light upon our own society.

That I suppose is why the recent article by Jonathon Jones in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/aug/31/terry-pratchett-is-not-a-literary-genius) so annoyed me. Not only did he freely admit to having never read any of Pratchett's work, sin enough for many, but he then went on to dismiss his work as immaterial and no more than popular reading. A sin compounded by drawing the, quite literally ill informed, comparison between Pratchett and Jane Austen. Austen may today be considered great literature, but that certainly isn't how she was considered at the time, or how she considered herself. She was writing for a single reason. To make a living. She was writing to pay the bills and, she hoped, was writing popular literature. Unpopular literature simply wouldn't pay the butcher, grocer and baker. Now I'm not going to start an argument here about how good Austen was as a writer, or whether Pratchett will stand the test of time, but I will take the comparison further. Austen and Pratchett shared an eye. They shared the ability to look critically at their own times, and put those observations down on paper for their readers to be quietly amused at. To observe, to extrapolate from that observation, and to ridicule. To lay their own societies bare to the gaze of their contemporaries and future generations alike.

Many of Austen's nuances are lost to us today, even to the Guardian's well educated columnists. Few will understand that the moment George Wickham appeared in Pride and Prejudice that all but the most ill informed reader would immediately know he was a rake. Would understand that he was 'the bad guy'. Would understand her own sharp poke at the society in which she lived.

What I suspect Jones really fails to grasp is that both Austen and Pratchett are writers than many individuals feel have given them a better understanding of the world in which they live. What he really fails to appreciate is that, for individuals like myself (and there are millions like me), they are often the same individual. A love of Austen does not harden my heart towards Pratchett, but neither does a love of Pratchett mean that Austen is beyond my grasp. I will not argue that Pratchett was a literary genius - but both are writers that deserve attention. The attempts of a middling critic to gain a moral high ground for literary snobbishness have simply shown him for what he really is. Not very well read. And that, oddly enough, makes me sad. I am sad that he has never laughed at Corporal Nobby Nobbs. I'm sad that he's never spent an evening with the Patrician. I am sad that, in a moment of self tormented fury, as he reads the Amazon reviews on his latest book, he's never shouted aloud "Where's my Cow?"

GNU Terry Pratchett