Sunday 30 December 2018

My cult is bigger than your cult: judging the popularity of saints in the Middle Ages

December the 29th was the feast of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket. Just in case you didn't know. You might not I suppose. It is possible that there are those out there who don't spend their lives dealing with medieval saints and pilgrimage, and therefore might have missed this momentous event. However, if you have an interest in medieval history, and happen to be on social media, then it was pretty difficult to miss. There were medievalists tweeting and posting images of beautiful pilgrim badges, amazing stained glass, and a few rather gory wall paintings, whilst others discussed the location of his shrine at Canterbury cathedral, or the archaeology of cathedrals themselves. It was rather like Christmas day all over again for the average medievalist. However, it left me with something of a question. It was clear that the cult of St Thomas was incredibly popular during the later Middle Ages, with all these works of art, written references, and archaeology telling us so, but how do we judge the popularity of lesser known saints from the period?

So how do you judge exactly how popular a saint was during the Middle Ages? The obvious thing to do was ask the experts, and garner a few opinions from others as to how they would determine the general popularity of a medieval saint? So, in time honoured tradition, I posted the question to twitter. The results were certainly plentiful, and there were a wide variety of answers soon filling my twitter feed. However, it soon became clear that nothing was really very clear at all. That there was no single answer, and that each source of evidence was likely to produce different, and sometimes outright contradictory, results.

One of the first suggestions was that the number of churches dedicated to a particular saint could be deemed a general indicator as to how widespread was the devotion to that particular cult. Churches, unlike works of art or manuscripts, are fairly solid and enduring pieces of evidence. However, it was also pretty clear that, what seemed at face value a fairly straightforward indicator, was anything but clear. In the first instance there is the little known fact that church dedications are nowhere near as stable and unchanging as many people perceive them to be. In short, they changed. South Lopham in Norfolk began life dedicated to St Nicholas, but today stands as St Andrews, Binham Priory is today dedicated to the Holy Cross, but undoubtedly began life as St Mary's. Studies of Norfolk church dedications (we have 650+ surviving medieval churches after all) have suggested as many as 20% of modern church dedications are not the same as the original medieval dedication.

Binham Priory

There are also still churches today where we are a little unclear as to what the original dedication was, or if there even was one. Take Great Witchingham in Norfolk, commonly referred to today as St Mary's - the most common dedication in England. However, it has been argued that the original dedication was to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a dedication you will find in several guidebooks and websites, whilst others argue, based upon the evidence of the carved porch spandrels, that the original dedication was actually to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Exactly what it was in the medieval period - we don't know. It has also been a long held belief amongst some scholars that church dedications may have had nothing to do with the veneration of a particular saint, but rather reflect the name-saint of the principal donor, or even the saints day upon which the church was consecrated.

Then there are the saints that we know were popular in the late medieval period, and yet almost never appear as church dedications, or amongst most surviving art works of the period. The most obvious is perhaps St Christopher, whose image was to be found upon the walls of most medieval English churches, and is the most common single saint to be found amongst surviving medieval wall paintings. Reference to these images are also frequently to be found amongst the written records, and yet, despite this near universal popularity, you will find a bare handful of churches dedicated to the saint, and even fewer depictions in the other surviving artworks of the period. For example, you will look in vain for the saint on East Anglian rood screens. The same is true of St Barbara, who is commonly depicted on rood screens and panel paintings, and is amongst the most popular saint depicted on late medieval copper alloy pilgrim badges, and yet has only two known medieval churches dedicated to her - both now lost.

It is also worth remembering that a church dedication represents only a single moment in time. St Remigius for example, has no less than four medieval churches dedicated to him in the county of Norfolk (out of only six in the whole of England), and yet you will hunt in vain through the documentary records and wills, the images on rood screens and wall paintings, for reference to this fifth/sixth century evangelist who reputedly baptised the king of the Franks (or was Bishop of Lincoln, or rector of Hethersett - depending upon which source you choose to believe). If church dedications alone were an indicator of popularity then Remigius can be regarded as being far more popular than St Christopher or St Barbara.

Almost all of the arguments above can also be applied to other strands of evidence, such as the time taken to officially recognise a saint, or precedence of festivals and feasts. This is particularly true when looking at a period when 'unofficial' cults could take a firm hold in a very short space of time, and yet never resulted in the formal acceptance of the potential new saint. Consider for example the popular cults of Richard Caister of Norwich, John Shorne of Long Marston, and king Henry VI. All three of these individuals had popular cults grow up around their memories in the fifteenth century, and yet none of the three were ever formally canonised.

All of these informal cults are exceptionally visible in many of the strands of evidence, with all three attracting pilgrims to their sites, having pilgrim badges created in the honour, and being depicted in stained glass, on rood screens, and in wall paintings. However, you'll find none of them amongst the lists of the festivals and feasts of the medieval church. You'll find no formal and orthodox dedications to their memory. As saints, they do not formally exist, and yet we can see evidence of their popularity on myriad levels. There are almost as many surviving medieval pilgrim badges attributed to Richard Caister of Norwich as there are to St Alban, and Henry VI appears nearly as often on East Anglian rood screens, and amongst references to church statues, as Mary Magdalene.

So where then does that leave us?

One would consider the documentary evidence, particularly at a parish level, to be a fairly solid source of evidence, but even here things are not always as they seem. Take for example the tiny Devon parish of Morebath, whose accounts and records have been subject to detailed study by Eamon Duffy in his excellent book - 'The Voices of Morebath'. On the 30th August 1520 the village welcomed a young and enthusiastic new priest, ChristopherTrychay, who was to remain in the parish for the next fifty-four years. However, the priest brought more than just zeal and enthusiasm with him to his new parish. In his first year it is recorded that he personally paid for the creation and gilding of a statue of St Sidwell, a local saint popular in the Exeter region, that was placed within his new church. Over the coming decades Trychay fostered the cult of the saint in the parish, encouraging gifts and small acts of devotion, bequests and benevolences, so that by the eve of the reformation the cult of St Sidwell in Morebath was almost as prominent as that of the Virgin Mary - with at least two young girls within the parish having been named after Sidwell.

Seen from an outside perspective, the growth of the cult of St Sidwell within the parish would appear to clearly evidence the local growth in popularity of what was clearly a local saint. A superficial examination of the paperwork would support this, and might even lead a historian to ponder how such localised cults become established? However, the deeper research into this particular parish has allowed us to understand that the growth and popularity of this particular cult was actually the direct result of the personal zeal of one particular parish priest; one man whose own devotion to the saint has led to a complete bias of the written evidence. If this was the case in Morebath it raises the question of how often this may well have been the case elsewhere?

It becomes perhaps more complex still if we consider other areas of written evidence. My own research has clearly indicated that even such seemingly straightforward sources such as post-mortem pilgrimage bequests - when an individual left money in their will for others to undertake pilgrimages on their behalf - were more likely to appear within surviving wills from particular locations than from others. In essence, such bequests appear in geographical clusters, suggesting either that those making their wills were influenced by the individuals writing them (scribal influence), or they were simply emulating the actions of others in the same locality - a post-mortem 'keeping up with the Jones'.

And if you think all that is just a bit confusing - it actually gets even worse. Certain saints appear largely in only one strand of evidence, and are almost entirely absent elsewhere. Take for example the late medieval cult of Catherine of Sienna. Jennifer N. Brown has convincingly shown that the saint became incredibly influential in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, particularly amongst literate female followers, with extracts of her writings surviving in numerous sources. However, the saint almost completely fails to make the translation from the written works to being depicted in popular religious art. Despite Catherine's demonstrable importance she appears only on a single retable (the Dartmouth, or Battel Hall, retable), and a rood screen in Devon. A third possible depiction, on the rood screen at Horsham St Faith in Norfolk, now appears more likely to be a depiction of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven - and why anyone ever thought it might be Catherine is something of a mystery.

In complete contrast to Catherine of Sienna is the story of 'Mistress Ridibowne'. She appears on the fifteenth century painted rood screen at Gately in Norfolk, with additional references to pilgrimage bequests in a very small number of Norfolk wills, and the 'possibility' that there was a further image of her at Hackford church - also in Norfolk. The thing is, we have absolutely no idea who she was. Although it has been suggested it might be referring to Christina of Markyate, and it is clear that the cult involved a minor site of pilgrimage, she really is a complete enigma. What is perhaps worse is the fact that she isn't alone. We have references to other bequests and offerings to minor shrines and cults that are just as much of a mystery.
Gateley rood screen figure

So where then does this leave the original question I asked on Twitter? How is it possible to judge the popularity of an individual saint in the medieval period? Well, I think the only true answer is that there is no one clear way; no single strand of evidence that can reflect the reality of late medieval piety, particularly on a parish level. We can say the St Thomas Becket and St Mary were incredibly popular in the later Middle Ages, and judge other cults from relics, pilgrims, and bequests, but once you get down into the nitty gritty of judging actual popularity, no one single strand of evidence will ever tell us more than a single 'version'; a truth that may well be supported by other forms of evidence, or, as we have seen, may well be totally contradicted by them.

There were other suggestions made by those on twitter that I do particularly like. For example, if the number of supposed relics claimed by various churches adds up to more than one whole individual - and I'm thinking of multiple claims to objects such as Aaron's rod, or the foreskin of Christ here - then they were undoubtedly popular. A saint with eight arms, three skulls, and five legs was undoubtedly a sought after individual. Likewise, I see a bright future for the idea of Medieval Saints Top Trumps.

Monday 3 December 2018

After all, it is only graffiti...

Over the last eight years St Mary's church at Troston in Suffolk has received a fair amount of media attention. Whilst the church was already known for its really quite spectacular medieval wall paintings, much of the new media attention has been focussed upon the regionally significant collection of early graffiti to be found on the walls. Today was the turn of TV presenter and generally sound chap Clive Anderson, who was there to film a short section for a new documentary. You may not all rate him as a presenter, and you may not all find him funny (although his take-down of Piers Morgan to his face still ranks as one of the high points of modern television in my eyes), but you have to admire his courage - for today he was subjected to four hours in a cold church, listening to me rant on about how wonderful the medieval graffiti there really is. And the graffiti at Troston REALLY is that good. It has everything. Animals, people, faces, ships, dates and demons. Lots of demons. It really is rather special.

However, it soon became apparent on today's trip that not everything was well with the Troston graffiti, and that something very serious is taking place at the junction between the tower and nave. These two images show the same wall only two years apart - the image on the left having been taken this morning. The fifteenth and sixteenth century graffiti inscriptions (as well as later examples) are literally crumbling to dust, and flaking from the walls. Having survived for over five centuries something has changed, apparent by the very obvious damp levels rising through the stonework. The result is a mass of mineral salts leaching from the stonework, and some very serious delamination of the stone of the tower arch on the north side.

Luckily the graffiti at Troston is well recorded, and has been previously published - but that is all that will soon be left of this regionally significant collection of medieval and Tudor graffiti. The published record.

The problem of course is that this isn't just happening in Troston church, but at dozens of other sites across the region. These inscriptions are being lost at a fantastic rate. Some are being lost to development, where the church undertakes 'improvements' without first surveying for significant graffiti. Others are lost due to changes in the church environment, often the result of poor maintenance and lack of funds to repairs the churches. Sometimes the losses are just through carelessness.

However, it is wrong to blame the churches and churchwardens. In most cases they are underfunded and over worked - with many churches now looked after by a tiny team drawn from a tiny, and shrinking, congregation. They are largely doing what they can with the resources that they have available to them.

In terms of getting their graffiti recorded, particularly prior to building works or renovations, a lot of churches have never even considered the concept. It simply isn't on their radar. And why would it be? They aren't experts in church archaeology, or buildings surveyors. They are just a bunch of good people doing what they think is best - and they'd be as horrified as anyone else out there if they thought they were doing long term damage to the buildings they so very clearly love. So where then does the blame lie - because it really is finger pointing time. Because I'm fed up with walking into churches to find our history literally falling from the walls. I'm fed up with picking up the fragments of the past from the floor; fragments that didn't have to be there in the first place. I'm fed up with the look of horror on the churchwarden's faces when you have to break it to them that their own parish past is literally slipping through their finders, and that what they now see before their eyes will be lost long before their own grandchildren ever have a chance to see it for themselves.

So where then do the problems lie? Well, if we are honest here, the main problem (and it certainly isn't the only one) lies with the planning process. A lot of people may not realise it, but historic churches don't actually have to follow the traditional planning process. Unlike us mere mortals they don't have to apply for planning permission via the local authority, and follow national planning legislation. Instead, due to an agreement drawn up way back in the mists of time, churches have to submit their plans to their local Diocese Advisory Committee (DAC), who will, if they are satisfied, issue a document known as a 'faculty' (essentially the equivalent of planning consent issued by a local authority). As part of the faculty process the DAC should also issue guidelines and conditions - such as mitigation measures based upon the likelihood of things like medieval wall paintings being present. Unfortunately, even after nearly a decade of ranting on about the importance of historic graffiti, you won't find too many DACs that give any thought, let along conditions, relating to historic graffiti.

Now don't misunderstand me here. We do have some wonderful DACs across the country, full of technical experts who really do their utmost to preserve the historic environment. However, we have some really shockers too. Truly. Horrifyingly corrupt. DACs that include barely any archaeological representation, yet are loaded instead with architects. No doubt they are good architects, with many years experience of working on churches, but these are also the same individuals who are working with local parishes to draw up plans and schemes that are eventually submitted to the DAC for approval. The same DAC that they sit upon. The same DAC that all their architect mates sit upon. You'd be amazed at the percentage of their schemes that get passed and have a faculty issued. Or maybe you wouldn't. Indeed, there are a number of DACs across the country that need completely disbanding - quite possibly with an axe - and being reformed. Preferably with new members who don't have a financial interest in passing their own, or their mates, schemes.

Sadly though it isn't just the DACs that are the problem. The blame also lies slightly higher up the ladder, with those statutory organisations who are meant to be issuing guidelines and advice when dealing with historic fabric. There are guidelines issued for just about everything in the historic environment - the care of wall paintings, care of monuments, care of stained glass, etc, etc. Lots and lots of guidelines. You might think then that, after nearly a decade of me and others banging on about historic graffiti, and half a century after Pritchard published 'English Medieval Graffiti', someone out there might have noticed that we have a rather massive corpus of early and often unique material scattered across the walls of our churches and cathedrals - and that it is at risk. That it is in danger of literally falling from the walls. That some form of guidelines might be in order.

The reality is that historic graffiti, for however many reasons, still isn't seen as a mainstream historic resource. It isn't seen as something worth issuing guidelines for. It isn't seen, by the powers that be, as important. Indeed, it can be argued that it just about the only area of true heritage at risk in the UK that isn't receiving any special attention whatsoever. There is no risk register, no guidance on protection, and certainly no money available for recording or even archiving purposes. If a bat decided to crap on it, that might be a different story, but as it stands any builder, churchwarden, or even architect, can destroy it, or allow it to be destroyed, at will.

Think about that for a moment. If this had been a medieval wall painting that was falling off the wall, or that someone (God forbid) had tried to repaint, then there would be an outcry. There would be guidelines and processes, and quite possibly funding (I did say 'possibly'), to actually do something about it. In this case there isn't even a process. It is, after all, only graffiti.