Wednesday 27 July 2016

Shattered and broken: the ungodly in the house of God...

The news these days seems just so full of horror. So full of terror, death and destruction. The temptation is to simply give up reading it at all. To close your eyes and your mind to the deliberate acts of wilful hatred, in the hope that they will simply go away. It is tempting too for us to look upon these acts from afar, condemn them amongst our friends and upon social media, and to simply refer to them as though they are the acts of the uncivilised, of the unenlightened. To take nothing away from the immense individual suffering and human tragedy of it all, for those of us who care about history and cultural heritage the news is bleak indeed. Historic sites are now, well and truly, in the front line. Sacred objects are smashed, museums looted, and entire historic cultures are being wiped from the archaeological map. A modern horror inflicted upon the ancient world. As ancient temples to long forgotten gods feel the bite of sledge hammers and cheaply bought western explosives, as four thousand year old statues are smashed and scattered, it is all too easy for the good people of Budleigh Salterton or Saffron Walden to pause over their second latte, and condemn these acts as the work of bigots, zealots and the uneducated. However, it is worth remembering that it was, in historical terms, only a very short time ago that the good burghers of Melton Constable and Bishop's Stortford were carrying out just such iconoclasm in their own local parish churches.

Most people who know anything of English history understand that there was a time when we attacked our own places of worship, stripped the images from the walls and woodwork, and smashed the splendours of the medieval church. However, when confronted with such destruction the most common reaction is to place the blame fairly and squarely upon the cropped heads of Oliver Cromwell's puritan soldiery. The parliamentary stronghold of East Anglia, swarming in our imaginations with bible-bashing puritans and roundhead ironclads, most certainly suffered such attacks during the period of the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. However, in terms of the destruction of the artworks and glories of the medieval church the real damage had been done over half a century before Oliver and his shock troops had even been born. Whilst there are cases of such seventeenth century destruction, with the notebooks of the notorious iconoclast William Dowsing still surviving in witness to these acts, the churches that they entered had already been largely stripped of their medieval beauty. To place the blame upon the roundheads is, in some respects, to follow the easy route. It is simple to look at the itinerant puritan fanatics and the visiting rough soldiery and conclude that it was violence born of indoctrination and ignorance. It is far harder to accept that such wanton destruction, such an attack on beauty and devotion, was actually carried out by the parishioners themselves. That such iconoclasm was undertaken by, in some cases, the children and grandchildren of the people who made bequests and offerings to create such objects of beauty in the first place.

In 1530 the parish church was essentially medieval in character. A place of vibrant wall paintings, bright stained glass, luminous alabasters and gaudily painted statues. A place of imagery, angels and the saints. By 1550, only two decades later, almost all of this was gone. The statues had been taken down, much of the glass was gone, the rich embroidered vestments had been sold off, and the wall paintings lay hidden beneath coat upon coat of fresh lime-wash. Whilst the changes were monumental they were also incremental. While it may be true to say that the process was begun, as many people will undoubtedly assume, in the closing years of the reign of Henry VIII, the process was a relatively slow one. Many of the major changes, changes that we still see around us today, actually took place long after Henry's death, in the short but turbulent reign of his son Edward VI.

Under the influence of 'reforming' advisors, and brought up to be a devout protestant, Edward oversaw the deliberate and piecemeal destruction of the medieval catholic church. It was a targeted and sustained attack on the fabric, furnishings and social structure of the medieval parish. Whilst some have argued that these were changes welcomed by many at a parish level, as evidenced by the lack of resistance to the changes themselves, it must be noted that the reformation was a gradual process. It was a gradual chipping away at the foundations of medieval faith and belief, until the whole structure had been built anew. It was a series of small acts, each in itself largely innocuous, that taken together resulted in fundamental change.

Bressingham, Norfolk

It was the statute against the veneration of images that left such a trail of obvious destruction that can still be traced through almost every East Anglian church. The act was uncompromising, with orders being given to ‘utterly extinct and destroy’ images ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’. It was this act that led to the covering over of wall paintings, the dismantling or defacement of rood screens, angel roofs and stained glass windows. At Bressingham in south Norfolk the masterpieces of carving that decorated every bench end were attacked with chisels, with each human face hacked from the timber. At North Elmham the world class painted panels that formed the rood screen were removed from their frames, turned upside down and used as floor boards. At Colkirk the beautiful late medieval glass panels were smashed from the tracery, only for fragments to be recovered from the churchyard centuries later. At Houghton St Giles the parish chose to leave the magnificent rood screen in place, but instead roughly gouged out the complete faces of every individual saint, whilst at mighty Attleborough church the multi-tiered doom painting above the chancel arch disappeared for centuries beneath layers of whitewash. It was, quite simply, an attack on medieval art of a scale never seen before or since; destruction on a truly horrific scale.
North Elmham, Norfolk

What is perhaps the most surprising thing is just how much beauty has survived in East Anglia's churches. Given the periods of destruction and unrestrained iconoclasm, the fact that almost every church, almost without exception, contains at least one noteworthy survival is something of a puzzle - but something also to be endlessly thankful for. It is clear that in some cases, as at North Elmham, the survival of such rare beauty was simply a matter of chance. In other cases though it must have been a matter of deliberate choice. A parish that saw those objects of, now unorthodox, beauty and chose to defy or ignore directions for their destruction. A congregation for whom the links created by such objects to their own parish past, and their own ancestors, was far too strong to simply be put aside on the orders of a distant authority.

It would, however, be wrong to assume that such objects were destroyed without thought and without care. At the tiny parish church of Wellingham in central Norfolk can still be seen one of the very last medieval rood screens made in East Anglia prior to the reformation. The upper section has been long gone for centuries, but the lower section still survives - and it is a rare survival indeed. Images of St George and the dragon, St Sebastian, and Christ accompanied by the instruments of the Passion, are almost as fresh today as on the day they were first painted. The screen was a gift to the church in memory of Robert Dorant and his wives, with the dedicatory inscription dated 1532 - a bare few years before the first stirrings of the reformation that would lay waste hundreds of screens just such as this one. However, in Wellingham, the parish appears to have taken a different approach. The parishioners chose to follow the injunction against imagery, but in the most half hearted way possible. Many of them would have undoubtedly still remembered Robert Dorant and his wives, and so the action they took was barely action at all. Although some of the faces are gone from the screen, St George's horse being one puzzling example, many of the other bear only the very lightest of scratches. A few neatly incised crosshatched lines made with the very sharpest of knives. The screen had been defaced - but you would have had to get pretty close to it, as you do today, to even notice the markings. They had done their duty by the law, the church, and the king - but more importantly done their duty to the memory of old Robert.
Wellingham, Norfolk

Such restraint wasn't just to be found at Wellingham. The stunning screen at Thornham on the Norfolk coast, donated to the church in the late fifteenth century by the wealthy local merchant William Millar, suffered similarly half-hearted scratchings - leaving us, thankfully, with another medieval jewel in the crown of East Anglian churches. Such restraint, particularly under pressure from both church and state, must have been by parish-wide agreement. A tacit understanding to do only the very minimum that was required. Whilst the fundamentalists may have held sway within the administration what occurred at a parish level was, quite frankly, the business of the parish. Sadly such cases were not the norm.

Thornham, Norfolk

At Binham priory, a few miles south of the north Norfolk coast, is perhaps one of the most poignant reminders of the destruction caused by the fundamentalism of the English reformation. Encased now behind perspex is the forlorn remains of what must have once been one of the most beautiful rood screens in the region. The upper section, undoubtedly once filled with delicately carved timbers and fine tracery, has long since gone; recycled, destroyed, or simply crumbled to dust by centuries of woodworm and rot. However, part of the lower section, the dado, survives. During the reformation, as most of the priory was dismantled around it, leaving only the nave to act as the parish church, this section was redecorated. In line with the official policy of the day, the images of the saints were lime-washed over. With a new emphasis being placed upon the word of God, rather than elaborate imagery, the screen was covered instead the excerpts of religious text. This seemingly wanton destruction was also one of the most beneficial acts of the whole reformation, for instead of being defaced and destroyed, the images of bright faced saints were preserved fully intact beneath the later paintwork. Now, nearly five centuries later, the lime-wash of the reformation has begun to peel from the surface of the screen. The panels of text are literally falling away from the woodwork, and the faces of the golden robed saints, are once more being revealed in all their original glory and splendour. So here, at least at this one special site, the effects of a small part of the English reformation were only temporary, and the saints are once more returning the Binham...

Binham Priory, Norfolk

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...

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Lies and Damned Lies: why the average size of an erect penis is getting smaller...

This has been a week for statistics. Actually, it has been a month for statistics. Just about everywhere you turn someone in a suit is throwing some statistic at you. Statistics, we are meant to believe are, if not solid facts, then the building blocks for truths. They are the foundation of our learning, the cornerstones of our studies. For me too this has been a week of statistics - medieval graffiti statistics - and I have come to hate and mistrust them. I have come to see them as the shallow things that they really are, designed to mislead, designed to delude. They are, if I'm honest, a bit of a bugger...

You see, the thing about statistics is that, used selectively, they can be used to back up and legitimise just about any argument you want. And I really do mean just about anything. Don't believe me? Well try this one for starters.

'It is the opinion of this house that the average size of an erect penis for a western European male is actually diminishing over time'.

First of all we have to start with the irrefutable facts. Today, according to a study published in 2016, the average size of an erect penis for a British male is 5.16 inches. That's right everyone. Nor six inches - but 5.16 inches. This figure appears to be a fairly constant, with another study published in the 1940s also coming up with a figure of between 5 and 5.3 inches. However, due to the benefits of a better health care system, better education amongst parents and far better levels of infant nutrition, the average overall physical size of the British male is increasing. In 1954 the average British male was 5ft 7inches tall, and weighed 11st 6lb. In 2016 that has increased to 5ft 9inches, with an average weight of 12st 6lb. So, in the intervening six decades the average British male has become 2 inches taller and a stone heavier in weight, but the size of their erect penis has remained roughly the same. Therefore, in terms of penis to body mass ratio, the average size of average erect British penis is proportionally smaller.

Now if I really wanted to add the air of authenticity to this argument I could fall back on the art historical evidence - very selectively obviously. First of all there is all the Roman art and artefacts - many showing certain Roman individuals with incredibly large erections - implausibly so in some cases - but who are we to argue with historical 'fact'. Then you can bring in a whole series of C18th engravings and prints, in which the average sized penis appears to be well over 9 inches. Bringing it even further up to date, you can show images of the amazing graffiti at Bempton army base, itself now a matter of historical record, which indicates that 8-10 inches was the average during the Second World War and immediate aftermath. No wonder Hitler lost...

Okay, okay... you will all have noticed by now, I hope, that the above argument is based entirely upon either the selective use of evidence, or the manipulation of certain statistics; statistics that were never really meant to be comparable in the first place. In a debate relating to penis size it is really pretty easy to spot the flaws in the argument. However, such misleading and manipulative use of statistics can be found around you just about every day - perhaps more so given the recent political climate. In the last few weeks I have heard both politicians and respected political commentators using terms such as 'the majority of the British population voted for Brexit'. Last week it was a senior politician on the BBC using those exact words.

Frankly they should all know better - and so should we. What they are TRYING to say is that the majority of the people who could be bothered, or were allowed, to vote in the recent referendum voted to leave the EU. Seventeen million of them. However, as any politician and political commentator should know, the population of the UK is approximately 64.1 million. So, all politics aside, and with the very best will in the world, I still can't get 17 million, as a proportion of 64.1 million, to be any more than about 27% - and that's allowing for my poor level of education in a state school obviously. Lies, damned lies - and statistics.

The problem of course is that the study of history, be it political history or archaeology, is utterly devoted to the use of statistics - even the study of medieval graffiti. Rarely a day goes past without me being stopped in the street and asked 'what proportion of ritual protection marks are made up of compass drawn designs'? Okay... maybe not - but you get the idea. So imagine my interest then, when an article landed on my desk last week dealing with medieval graffiti - an article that, based upon certain statistics, had drawn some very, very interesting conclusions. Obviously I'm not going to mention the author - because we have already discussed the matter at length, and the article is currently being heavily revised. However, it is worth looking at the two main conclusions of the original article.

1. That the majority of medieval church graffiti is found on the pillars and exposed stonework of areas such as door surrounds, thereby indicating a deliberate choice and placement of those areas by the authors of the graffiti. Such a choice of these harder stone areas strongly suggests that the author associated permanence with an enhanced potency in regard to devotional inscriptions.

2. In light of the findings of Easton and Champion there are strong indications that the early modern period saw a shift away from the creation of graffiti inscriptions in churches and towards vernacular buildings. There is little evidence for ritual protection markings in pre-reformation domestic properties and, as Easton suggests, these appear to be largely confined to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Both of these arguments were backed up with lots and lots of lovely data and statistics - some of which were actually drawn from this survey - and both conclusions appeared superficially reasonably compelling. Difficult to argue with. Except that, in reality, and exactly like my argument above, they are both complete cock!

In some respects the first conclusion is slightly more difficult to question, largely because it is entirely true. In 80%+ of churches this is exactly where we do find the graffiti - on the exposed stonework of pillars, door surrounds, chancel arches, etc. However, this is to take the known statistics in isolation. To just deal with the figures and completely ignore the wider picture - the context from which those statistics were drawn. And the context is this. In almost all churches, even to this day, the internal face of the walls was plastered. Today very little of this medieval plaster survives, particularly not in the lower areas of the walls; the areas in which we normally find graffiti inscriptions. However, at sites where medieval plaster does survive, such as in areas at Swannington or Troston, then these too are covered in early graffiti. Therefore, the distribution pattern that we see in the graffiti is a false one. It is NOT a distribution pattern of medieval graffiti, but a distribution pattern of 'surviving' medieval graffiti - and the two are very different things.

The second conclusion is, it must be said, on the face of it, based upon good data. We do find most ritual protection marks in a domestic setting on buildings that post date the reformation. Easton's conclusions ring true. However, once again, we are looking at data and statistics that are, at best, incomplete - and as a result just as misleading. Put it this way, if you are mainly looking at post-reformation buildings then that is where you are going to be drawing your data from. Medieval domestic buildings are far rarer survivals, and those that do survive have, like all older houses, suffered restoration and renovations beyond count. In essence, we simply don't have the surviving medieval housing stock available to survey in the same way that we do have from the post-reformation period. However, in the few cases we have been able to look at such structures, then ritual protection marks ARE present - but the overall number of sites examined to date means that these sites barely dent the statistics. They may be all we have - but statistically they don't really count.

So what then is the lesson from all this? Is there indeed a lesson at all? I suppose it is simply to urge caution. To always question every statistic that is thrown at you, whether to do with medieval graffiti or politics, and look more closely at both the data itself, and the context in which it was created. Statistics alone are rarely meaningful, particularly in relation to historical research. They are, quite simply, lies, damned lies, and statistics - and nine out of ten cats agree with me on this...