Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday 31 December 2022

A timely reflection upon Pope St Sylvester

In my previous post I said that the death of Pope Benedict XVI on the feast of a confessor Pope seemed very apposite. Here, courtesy of the wonderful Divinum Officium online Breviary, are the Mattins readings about St Sylvester. What strikes me is his concern with the sacramental life of the Church, its regulation and dignity, and with creating beautiful and noble churches, as well as approving sound doctrine. Is it not right and fitting to think of 
a Pope Benedict as being faithful to that tradition?

Sylvester was a Roman by birth, and his father's name was Rufinus. He was brought up from a very early age under a Priest named Cyrinus, of whose teaching and example he was a diligent learner. In his thirtieth year he was ordained Priest of the Holy Roman Church by Pope Marcellinus. In the discharge of his duties he became a model for all the clergy, and, after the death of Melchiades, he succeeded him on the Papal throne, in the year of our Lord 314, during the reign of Constantine, who had already by public decree proclaimed peace to the Church of Christ. Hardly had he undertaken the government of the Church when he betook himself to stir up the Emperor to protect and propagate the religion of Christ. Constantine was fresh from his victory over his enemy Maxentius, on the Eve whereof the sign of the Cross had been revealed to him limned in light upon the sky; and there was an old story in the Church of Rome that it was Sylvester who caused him to recognise the images of the Apostles, administered to him holy Baptism, and cleansed him from the leprosy of misbelief.

The godly Emperor had already granted to Christ's faithful people permission to build public churches, and by the advice of Sylvester he himself set them the example. He built many Basilicas, and magnificently adorned them with holy images, and gifted them with gifts and endowments. Among these there were, besides others, the Church of Christ the Saviour, hard by the Lateran Palace; that of St. Peter, upon the Vatican Mount; that of St. Paul, upon the road to Ostia; that of St. Lawrence, in Verus' field; that of the Holy Cross at the Sessorian hall; that of St. Peter and St. Marcellinus, upon the Lavican Way; and that of St. Agnes, upon the road to Mentana. Under this Pope was held the first Council of Nicea, presided over by the Papal Legates, and in the Presence of Constantine, and three hundred and eighteen Bishops, where the holy and Catholic Faith was declared, and Arius and his followers condemned; which Council was finally confirmed by the Pope, at the request of all the assembled Fathers, in a synod held at Rome, where Arius was again condemned. This Pope issued many useful ordinances for the Church of God. He reserved to Bishops the right of consecrating the Holy Chrism; ordered Priests to anoint with Chrism the heads of the newly baptised; settled the officiating dress of Deacons as a dalmatic and a linen maniple; and forbade the consecration of the Sacrament of the Altar on anything but a linen corporal.

This Sylvester is likewise said to have ordained that all persons taking Holy Orders should remain awhile in each grade before being promoted to a higher; that laymen should not go to law against the clergy; and that the clergy themselves were not to plead before civil tribunals. He decreed that the first and seventh days of the week should be called respectively the Lord's Day and the Sabbath, and the others, Second Day, Third Day, and so on. In this he confirmed the use of the word Feria for the weekdays, the which use had already begun in the Church. This word signifieth an holiday, and pointeth to the duty of the clergy ever to lay aside all worldly labour, and leave themselves free to do continually the work of the Lord. The heavenly wisdom with which he ruled the Church of God, was joined in him to a singular holiness of life, and an inexhaustible tenderness towards the poor; in which matter he ordained that the wealthy clergy should each relieve a certain number of needy persons; and he also made arrangements for supplying the consecrated virgins with the necessaries of life. He lived as Pope twenty-one years, ten months and one day, and was buried in the cemetery of Priscilla on the Salarian Way, in the year 335. He held seven Advent ordinations, and made forty-two Priests, twenty-five Deacons, and sixty-five Bishops of various sees.

Pope Benedict XVI

The announcement this morning of the death of Pope Benedict XVI was no surprise after the indications given this week about his health but there is still the sense of diminishment. In that way it is very similar to the feelings one felt at the death of the late Queen last September. The inevitable has finally happened. There is still a sense of real loss, but also immense gratitude for a life well lived in the service of high ideals. In a sense too we mourned his passing in 2013, but still appreciating the fact that he could enjoy a prayerful retirement as we prayed for his continued influence in the life of the Church.

There is something apposite in the fact that he has died on the feast of a canonised Pope - St Sylvester so important to the Constantinian Peace of the Church.

Pope Benedict had a remarkable life that encapsulates that of the Church since 1945, and most of it at the centre as a participant at Vatican II - and for his concern as to the direction the Church appeared to be taking in its wake. Against that background as an academic theologian, as Cardinal, both in Munich and then at the CDF, and finally as Pope here wasa first class mind and a man of great personal kindness. 

The first German born Pope since the mid-eleventh century and the beginning of what became the Hidebrandine reform, and the first Pope to abdicate since 1415, or, in so much as it was a personal rather than a political choice, arguably since 1294 his Pontificate is a reminder of the antiquity and centrality of the Papacy in our culture. Amongst so many intellectual gifts he had a deep sense of history in terms of his own life and that of the Church.

He bequeaths a great legacy as an erudite, elegant and eloquent theologian. That is a very rich inheritance for the Church and the faithful. 
Cardinal Nichols, with his usual clarity expresses all that in his statement on the news.

Pope Benedict was elected just after my reception into full peace and communion in 2005. In that, and in so much more, I am very much a “Benedict XVI Catholic” - and proud to be one. I saw him on his visit to this country both as he was conveyed from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey and then again at the Birmingham Mass where he beatified John Henry Newman 

In particular he touched my life and practice with his two moto propriu decrees on the liturgy and on Anglican converts. 

I rejoiced at the freedom accorded by Summorum Pontificum to the celebration of the traditional Roman rite, to which I am ever more drawn. This was also an elegant and pragmatic solution to the liturgical problems facing the Church.

Anglicanorum Cœtibus was also elegant and pragmatic, seeking the ideal of unity and respectful of cultural history. Although I was already a fully practising Catholic it was an initiative that I was anxious to support as a former Anglican. It is a great pity that more people have not - so far - responded positively to it.

On his election as Pope he described himself as a humble labourer in the vineyard. I think that is how he truly saw himself, even if so many others saw him as a giant.
He is indeed one of those to whom the Dominical words “Well done thou good and faithful servant” can be applied.

May he rest in peace

Friday 30 December 2022

The Glastonbury Thorn

As we come in this Christmas season towards the Octave Day of Christmas and the celebration of the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, on which the Circumcision of Out Lord took place, it seems appropriate to share a good piece from the Catholic World Report about the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. The article can be seen at The Glastonbury Thorn: a resurrected symbol of Christmas

I have always known the story of the Holy Thorn and its Christmas flowering, long before I appreciated its incarnational imagery or visited and came to know Glastonbury. On one of my visits I did walk up to the thorn on Wearyall Hill which was subsequently vandalised as the article describes. I am very glad it has now been replaced. 

In 1996 I spent Christmas in Glastonbury and did see the thorn trees at the historic St John’s Church in flower.

There is one comment in the article which I would query. Although the first literary reference to the Thorn may be from anout 1535 I think it featured in the rich fabric of Glastonbury devotions well before that. The fourteenth century third great seal of the abbey has on one side the Blessed Virgin and Child flanked by those ever popular virgin saints in medieval devotion Catherine and Margaret and on the other side St Dunstan flanked by SS Patrick and Benignus. In this work Our Lady does not hold a fleur de lys as in earlier abbey seals but rather a tree eradicated - that is with its roots displayed - and the tree bears flowers. Though assumed by some to be roses, a flower so often associated with Our Lady, but at Glastonbury this is surely meant to signify the blossoming Holy Thorn. Thus new life is linked to the Passion, with the thorns amidst the red berries symbolic of the shedding of Christ’s blood.

This seal, of which there is a drawing at Image: Glastonbury Abbeywas the basis for the twentieth century statue of Our Lady of Glastonbury

The modern statue of Our Lady of Glastonbury

Image: paulwestonglastonbury.com 

There is an interesting travelogue, printed in an early Yorkshire Archaeological Journal ( if my memory serves me aright ), written by aYorkshireman who, after the calendar change of 1752, journeyed all the way from the West Riding in his home county to Glastonbury, to see if the Holy Thorn had adjusted itself to the new date of Christmas and was flowering when it should ….

Our Lady of Glastonbury Pray for us

Thursday 29 December 2022

Medieval vestments at Canterbury

Today being the feast of the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury is a suitable day on which to write about the vestments of one of St Thomas’ immediate successors, Hubert Walter, who died in 1205. When his tomb was opened in the nineteenth century his vestments were found to be largely intact and they have been preserved in the cathedral collection. The Friends of Canterbury Cathedral have now had one of the probably Iberian iridescent silk textiles recreated to provide new copes for the Canons.

There is a short online article about this at Medieval fabric is proudly displayed in Refectory Restaurant

From what the article says the vestments are yet another reminder of the splendour of medieval textiles and their use in the liturgy. The new copes can complement the copy of the set of vestments at Sens that are traditionally said to have been used by St Thomas during his exile there in the 1160s.

Monday 26 December 2022

Christmas Mummers and Wren Day

The BBC News website has a piece about Boxing Day traditions such as Wren Day - not for bird lovers I think - and Mummers, especially in the western parts of these islands.  It is good to see traditional customs being enacted and recorded, however odd they may appear. The Mummers play with its theme of death and rebirth features in Ngaio Marsh’s detective story “Off with his Head”.

The BBC article can be seen at The Boxing Day hunt, but not as you know it

Writing of traditional Boxing Day customs my inbox was polluted the other day by a petition to stop the Ledbury Hunt meeting in Ledbury town centre, as is their established wont, on Boxing Day from an anti-hunt fanatic. I did NOT sign it ….

St Stephen the Protomartyr

Today is the Feast of St Stephen, the first chosen amongst the first deacons of the Church and, of course, the first martyr.

Here, courtesy of the Divinum Officium website, from the readings for the traditional Office of Mattins, are part of a sermon for the day by St Fulgentius of Ruspe (462/7- 527/33):

Yesterday we were celebrating the birth in time of our Eternal King; today we celebrate the victory, through suffering, of one of His soldiers. Yesterday our King was pleased to come forth from His royal palace of the Virgin's womb, clothed in a robe of flesh, to visit the world; today His soldier, laying aside the tabernacle of the body, entereth in triumph into the heavenly palaces. The One, preserving unchanged that glory of the Godhead which He had before the world was, girded Himself with the form of a servant, and entered the arena of this world to fight sin; the other taketh off the garments of this corruptible body, and entereth into the heavenly mansions, where he will reign for ever. The One cometh down, veiled in flesh; the other goeth up, clothed in a robe of glory, red with blood.

The One cometh down amid the jubilation of angels; the other goeth up amid the stoning of the Jews. Yesterday the holy angels were singing, Glory to God in the highest; today there is joy among them, for they receive Stephen into their company. Yesterday the Lord came forth from the Virgin's womb; today His soldier is delivered from the prison of the body. Yesterday Christ was for our sakes wrapped in swaddling bands; today He girdeth Stephen with a robe of immortality. Yesterday the new-born Christ lay in a narrow manger; today Stephen entereth victorious into the boundless heavens. The Lord came down alone that He might raise many up; our King humbled Himself that He might set His soldiers in high places.

Why brethren, it behoveth us to consider with what arms Stephen was able, amid all the cruelty of the Jews, to remain more than conqueror, and worthily to attain to so blessed a triumph. Stephen, in that struggle which brought him to the crown whereof his name is a prophecy, had for armour the love of God and man, and by it he remained victorious on all hands. The love of God strengthened him against the cruelty of the Jews; and the love of his neighbour made him pray even for his murderers. Through love he rebuked the wandering, that they might be corrected; through love he prayed for them that stoned him, that they might not be punished. By the might of his love he overcame Saul his cruel persecutor; and earned for a comrade in heaven, the very man who had done him to death upon earth.

The rich symbolism of the life and death of St Stephen and in its commemoration is amply displayed by this eloquent Church Father, as it is also, in a visual form by this painting, now in Edinburgh:

Sunday 25 December 2022

Papal theological teaching about Christmas

From the lections at Mattins in the traditional form for Christmas Day: 

Lections 4,5 and 6:

From the Sermons of Pope St. Leo the Great 440-461

1st for Christmas 
Dearly beloved brethren, Unto us is born this day a Saviour, (Luke ii. 11). Let us rejoice. It would be unlawful to be sad to day, for today is Life's Birthday; the Birthday of that Life, Which, for us dying creatures, taketh away the sting of death, and bringeth the bright promise of the eternal gladness hereafter. It would be unlawful for any man to refuse to partake in our rejoicing. All men have an equal share in the great cause of our joy, for, since our Lord, Who is the destroyer of sin and of death, findeth that all are bound under the condemnation, He is come to make all free. Rejoice, O thou that art holy, thou drawest nearer to thy crown! Rejoice, O thou that art sinful, thy Saviour offereth thee pardon! Rejoice also, O thou Gentile, God calleth thee to life! For the Son of God, when the fulness of the time was come, which had been fixed by the unsearchable counsel of God, took upon Him the nature of man, that He might reconcile that nature to Him Who made it, and so the devil, the inventor of death, is met and beaten in that very flesh which hath been the field of his victory.

When our Lord entered the field of battle against the devil, He did so with a great and wonderful fairness. Being Himself the Almighty, He laid aside His uncreated Majesty to fight with our cruel enemy in our weak flesh. He brought against him the very shape, the very nature of our mortality, yet without sin. (Heb. iv. 15).His birth however was not a birth like other births for no other is born pure, nay, not the little child whose life endureth but a day on the earth. To His birth alone the throes of human passion had not contributed, in His alone no consequence of sin had had part. For His Mother was chosen a Virgin of the kingly lineage of David, and when she was to grow heavy with the sacred Child, her soul had already conceived Him before her body. She knew the counsel of God announced to her by the Angel, lest the unwonted events should alarm her. The future Mother of God knew what was to be wrought in her by the Holy Ghost, and that her modesty was absolutely safe.

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Ghost: Who, for His great love wherewith He loved us, hath had mercy on us and, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, ( Eph. ii. 4, 5), that in Him we might be a new creature, and a new workmanship. Let us then put off the old man with his deeds (Col. iii. 9); and, having obtained a share in the Sonship of Christ, let us renounce the deeds of the flesh. Learn, O Christian, how great thou art, who hast been made partaker of the Divine nature, (2 Pet. i. 4), and fall not again by corrupt conversation into the beggarly elements above which thou art lifted. Remember Whose Body it is Whereof thou art made a member, and Who is its Head, (1 Cor. vi. 15). Remember that it is He That hath delivered thee from the power of darkness and hath translated thee into God's light, and God's kingdom, (Col. i. 13.)

Lection 7:
Homily by Pope St. Gregory the Great 590-604.

8th on the Gospels 
By God's mercy we are to say three Masses today, so that there is not much time left for preaching; but at the same time the occasion of the Lord's Birthday itself obliges me to speak a few words. I will first ask why, when the Lord was to be born, the world was enrolled? Was it not to herald the appearing of Him by Whom the elect are enrolled in the book of life? Whereas the Prophet saith of the m reprobate: Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous. (Ps. lxviii. 29). Then, the Lord is born in Bethlehem. Now the name Bethlehem signifieth the House of Bread, and thus it is the birth-place of Him Who hath said: I am the Living Bread, Which came down from heaven. (John vi. 51).  We see then that this name of Bethlehem was prophetically given to the place where Christ was born, because it was there that He was to appear in the flesh by Whom the souls of the faithful are fed unto life eternal. He was born, not in His Mother's house, but away from home. And this is a mystery, showing that this our mortality into which He was born was not the home of Him Who is begotten of the Father before the worlds.
Reproduced from Divinium Officium

What is so striking is not just the eloquence of St Leo and the rather endearing matter of factness of St Gregory but also the breadth and profundity of what they are saying - ideas which were to flourish in the later centuries of the life of the Church but which are formed, rooted and formulated in the post-Apostolic age. This is the true development of doctrine as discussed by St John Henry Newman in action.

The Nativity

Piero della Francesca The Nativity, dated to 1470–75, 

National Gallery, London

For something about the picture see my recent blogpost The restoration of Piero della Francesca’s “Nativity” and also an article from The Spectator from 2018 at Birth of a masterpiece

An online piece by Ian Visits makes the following two points about the painting which are m, I think, worth sharing.

The two shepherds and St Joseph are relegated to the background whilst the Virgin and Childand the Angels are to the fore, and the clothes and appearance of the figures emphasises the point. This coincides I realise with the fact that in the 1470s devotion to St Joseph had not really developed let alone become an established part of Catholic piety. For that one must look a century later to one of the legacies of St Teresa of Avila. Thus Piero indicates the difference by rendering the mortals sunburnt and drab, whilst the Virgin and Angels have pale skin and bright clothing. 

Secondly in the foreground Piero has depicted a common Tuscan landscape with sandy soil thathas plants growing and the plain areas are paths to the stable and down the hill. Originally the dark plants were a lighter green but the paint has darkened with age which short of extensive overpainting cannot be undone.

A joyful celebration of the Nativity to you all.

Saturday 24 December 2022

The date of Christmas

Live Science recently had an interesting post about why Christmas Day falls on December 25th. Like, I suspect most people who reflect upon these things, I thought this was because the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord displaced the pagan Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, and, more specifically, that of Sol Invictus which was observed on December 25th.

The idea of the association of pre-Christian Hellenistic and Roman festivals with what became the great Christian celebration is also referred to an interesting article on the Greek Reporter website in its account of ancient Greek mid-winter festivities and their legacy at How Was Winter Solstice Celebrated in Ancient Greece?

That is also a reminder of a major aspect of the world which existed alongside that of Judaism and of those as backgrounds to the Nativity.

However as the Life Science article sets out that displacement of paganism m may not be the case, and the Church’s own calendar may have itself been self-determining as can be seen at Why is Christmas celebrated on Dec. 25?

If the calendar count-back theory is accepted then it is further proof of the antiquity of the Church’s Calendar and by linking Incarnation, Nativity and Passion-Resurrection suggests the emergence by that date of a unified liturgical understanding of Christ’s mission and actions, and not that we are seeing a demotic piecemeal remembrance of Salvation history.

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Talking Turkey

Despite all the concern about the impact of bird flu and the overall economic cost of the traditional Christmas meal I imagine that we shall as a nation consume a great number of turkeys over coming days. 

The introduction of turkeys into England from
North America came about in the sixteenth century, with their apparent arrival in 1526. Originally turkeys were apparently not kept to eat but as novelty fowl. Soon however their edible properties were discovered and the rest, is as the saying goes, history - and cookery.

When exactly the English started eating Turkey is a bit unclear but an online piece from the 
londonist.com website has a report suggesting that the first dateableevidence comes from the Bishop of London’s residence at Fulham Palace with bones dated to the range 1480 -1550. That would suggest the Bishop of London who enjoyed this early turkey meal was Cuthbert Tunstall, John Stokesley or Edmund Bonner. The article refers to other turkey bones which have been found recently  in Exeter and assigned to 1520-1550. So there is a coincidence of dates and that suggests that turkeys moved from being ornamental fowl to table fare pretty quickly.  I saw online that at that time it was probably served not as a whole roast fowl but as a constituent of something like a game pie.

Turkeys are said to have been introduced to England by the Yorkshire based William Strickland. He had travelled to North America with Sebastian Cabot and in 1526 travelled back with six live turkeys he had been given by the indigenous inhabitants. In 1542 he bought the estate at Boynton near Bridlington and in 1550 his crest as recorded by the College of Arms is the earliest drawing of a turkey in Europe. There is a life of Strickland who later became a puritanically minded Elizabethan MP for Scarborough at William Strickland (navigator) something about his descendants family home at Boynton Hall and an introduction to their home village at Boynton, East Riding of Yorkshire

In the village church are family memorials with the Turkey crest and a relatively modern, and unique, lectern in the form of, obviously, a turkey. 

The history and traditions of Pork Pies

Although they are eaten all year round pork pies are very much part of traditional English Christmas fare. Like many people I shall have one on hand to sustain me through the festive season.

Country Life had an article recently about the history of this so familiar food but yet one that by being familiar one rarely thinks about its history as one has another portion.

Some of the answers such as to what makes a Melton Mowbray pie distinct from other pork pie, such as those from “oop North”, can be found in the article which can be seen at The secret history of the humble pork pie

Tuesday 20 December 2022

Christmas Past

With the approach of Christmas I thought it might be of interest to share some online articles about Christmas celebrations of yesteryear and their continuing legacy.

The first is from History Extra and looks at Welsh Christmas customs. Some are more ancient than others.

I do recall once reading - I think in Studies in Church History - of an instance of how a tradition of staging a Nativity scene had survived in Wales into the late eighteenth century 

This is a reminder that Wales remained in religious terms conservative and inclined to Catholic and High Church traditions long before the rise of our stereotypical image of Wales as “Chapel” - this I gather is a relatively late phenomenon. The image of Wales as dominated by Nonconformity is a legacy of energetic Nonconformist historians of past generations who ignored its Recusant and Tractarian heritage.

The article can be seen at Welsh Christmas traditions through history

There is more about the Mari Lwyd ( not in any way to be confused with the homonymous music hall singer ), and about how to make one, in a video from The Welsh Viking which can be viewed at Mari Lwyd: WELSH SKULL HORSE GHOST THING

The second online article is from History.co.uk looks at Christmas games that were played in the past and can be seen at The 12 games of Christmas: History's forgotten festive pastimes

Reading it the story from John Aubrey about people playing Mould-My-Cockle-Bread reminded me of unsavoury stories one used to hear about what used to happen with or on the office photocopier during firm’s Christmas parties …..

I also happened upon several interlinked articles from Ancient Origins about Christmas celebrations in the past and about the origins of various seasonal traditions. These can be seen at Medieval Great Halls Were at the Heart of the Festive Season, with something about festive fare at What Would You Have Eaten for Christmas in Medieval Times?, whilst other aspects of this season are covered at Ancient Origins of Favorite Christmas Traditions PLUS Those You May Never Have Heard About and at The Holly and the Mistletoe: Ancient Roots of Christmas Symbols

Climate change and the Hunnic invasions

Our current awareness of the impact of climate change, its causes and consequences has led researchers to look at past history to see if similar or analagous factors played a part or even determined events then. I have linked to some examples of this in previous posts.

The latest instance of this is a recently published study based on tree-ring evidence for significant droughts in the early to mid-fifth century which correlate to major raids into the western Roman Empire by Attila the Hun. Whilst it is not suggested that there is a single simple cause and effect relationship the argument would suggest that this warlike tribe in the central Danube basin felt compelled to go on the quest for adequate pasture for their herds and to seek resources across the Imperial frontier. 

Whether this portends a new interpretation of Attila the Hun as a fluffy eco-warrior is another, and non-academic, matter altogether …. 

A pledge of significant new archaeological work on Hadrian’s Wakk

The National Lottery has made a substantial grant towards the proposed five year long investigation of the hitherto unexcavated and substantial Magna fort on Hadrian’s Wall. The site is near to the important fort and civilian settlement at Vindolanda and the grant is being made to the Vindolanda Charitable Trust. One of the aims of the excavation is to investigate how changes in the environment are affecting archaeological sites along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, and, presumably, elsewhere.

The site is also close to the Roman Army Museum which is very interesting as an accompaniment to a visit to the Wall. I visited it once some thirty odd years ago.

The report about the proposed work at the site of Magna can be seen at Huge Roman fort to be excavated in lottery-backed project

Friday 16 December 2022

Understanding more about the world of Stonehenge

Live Science has a report about the latest research on a burial found in 1801 about ten miles from Stonehenge, and long interpreted as that of a shaman and his wife. The finds are now in the Devizes Museum. This new research has found evidence suggesting that the tools in the grave had been used for gold beating. That fact may well suggest a more complex social role for the couple, and to the religious dimension of metallurgy in early societies.  

The wider implication is a further pointer to the landscape around Stonehenge as a ritual one, and that the whole complex of stones, earthworks and burials was a major focus of cult activity and devotion for many centuries.

Thursday 8 December 2022

St Birinus at Dorchester

December 5th was the feast of St Birinus, the apostle of Wessex, who is especially associated with Dorchester on Thames. In past years I have been lucky enough to attend the Solemn Mass for the feast in the wonderful Catholic Church dedicated to him there, designed by William Wardell in the middle of the nineteenth century and wondrously restored and augmented in its decoration and furnishing by its present priest Fr John Osman.

Fr Hunwicke has posted with typical style and sense of history  about St Birinus and devotion to him at Dorchester in his recent post S Birinus, of Dorchester, is celebrated on December 5

There is more about St Birinus from the Wessex Society at St Berin, Apostle of Wessex 

From that website here is the modern icon in St Birinus Church Dorchester of the saint baptising King Cynegils accompanied by his sponsor St Oswald of Northumbria:

Alexander the Great goes to Versailles

Straying somewhat from its usual page of reference - but I am not complaining - the British Library has an article on the Medieval manuscript blog about the use of the image and story of Alexander the Great at the Court of King Louis XIV at its most splendid, if not vainglorious, cultural zenith.

Here the Sun King was conflated not with Apollo but with Alexander the all conquering in art, drama, music and dance. King Louis was a skilled dancer, performing in Court ballets, and, of course, danced the part of Alexander in one such.

The illustrated article, which is linked to a current BL exhibition on Alexander the Great: The making of a myth, can be seen at The emperor and the Sun King

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Medieval manuscripts by and for women

The British Library’s always informative Medieval manuscript blog has a post about items associated with Medieval and Renaissance women which have been digitised and made available.

The items include texts of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations in both its short and long forms. The Sloane MSS copies of the long text are our source for this version of the work and survive thanks to the efforts of English recusant nuns in seventeenth century France. That is a testimony not just to their piety but to the survival of interest in Mother Julian’s visionary and meditative spirituality long after the disruption of the sixteenth century.

Other English items are the thirteenth century Ancrene Wisse or Riwle which was translated from Middle English to Norman French and was a popular spiritual text. It occurs in a Cottonian MS in a compendium of devotional works once owned by Eleanor Cobham, the notorious wife of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester. That is in itself an interesting insight into her life. What one can construct from that is open to debate but it certainly stimulates thought. 

The Felbrigge Psalter, with its rare embroidered cover, is a witness to Franciscan female spirituality in early fourteenth century East Anglia. 

In addition there are fascinating manuscripts from convents in the Netherlands and Germany.

An Anglo-Saxon necklace from Northamptonshire

Archaeologists working on a site at Harpole in Northamptonshire have uncovered a spectacular Anglo-Saxon necklace in what had been the burial of a woman of high status.

The BBC News website has a report on the discovery. It is dated to 630/40-670/80 and has at its centre a panel decorated with a cross between Roman ( or Byzantine? ) coins and garnets. It would not look out of place today as a striking and fashionable piece of jewellery. 

A not dissimilar necklace was found in 1876 at Desborough which lies to the north east of Northampton. That necklace is now in the British Museum and the report has a link to the BM Catalogue for that item. 

CNN also has a report about the discovery with additional information and that report can be seen at Stunning necklace found at burial site of powerful Anglo-Saxon woman

Wikipedia now has a report about the Harpole burial at Harpole bed burial

Tuesday 6 December 2022

The original burial place of St Nicholas

Today is the feast day of St Nicholas.

Seven years ago I shared a post from the Medieval Religion discussion group by John Dillon on the medieval iconotof St Nicholas to mark the feast. This can be seen at  St NicholasUnfortunately some of the images have failed to embed but those that have are an interesting group.

The relics of St Nicholas were removed - i.e. physically and forcefully stolen - from his see city of Myra in the late eleventh century and taken to Bari in Apulia where the majority remain in the cathedral. 

Recent work in the church of St Nicholas at Demre, as Myra is now called, on the south western coast of Turkey has, it is claimed, revealed the original site of the burial place of the saint. The building dates from 520 and is on top of the remsins of the church St Nicholas would have known two centuries earlier. There are articles about this work from Heritage Daily at Original burial place of St Nicholas located by archaeologists and, with more detail, from Live Science at Exact burial spot of St. Nicholas, inspiration for Santa Claus, discovered in Turkish church

Monday 5 December 2022


In southern Germany and Austria, and in territories round about, tonight is Krampusnacht when the diabolical figure of Krampus appears to punish those children who have not been good or derelict in their duties whilst good children will receive presents from St Nicholas tomorrow on his feast day.

Live Science has an article about this custom which stands in relation to the feast of St Nicholas rather like Halloween to All Saints or Mischief Night to either All Saints or Bonfire Night.

I have to admit that before I saw the Live Science article I was unaware of Krampus, but I found considerably more about the tradition - including both theories and evidence for its greater antiquity - on Wikipedia

The Live Science article can be seen at Who is Krampus, and what does he have to do with Christmas? and the Wikipedia entry at Krampus

I do shudder (enjoyably) to think what those killjoy bugbears of popular imagination Child Psychologists make of it all …. unless, of course, they and Krampus are ultimately one and the same.

Saturday 3 December 2022

Reconstructing nave arcade paintings at St Albans

Medievalists.net has a report about an ingenious scheme that has been installed at St Albans cathedral to recreate in situ medieval wall paintings which survive on four of the pillars of the north nave arcade. A restored facsimile of the painting is projected by light onto the now faded and damaged originals to recreate the form they once had. 

St Albans is a treasure house of medieval painting and decoration and it is good to see this being enhanced by a modern technology that removes the need for physical intervention and overpainting whilst still recreating what past centuries saw.

This is, I assume an English version of the well known scheme at Amiens thst restores by night the polychromatic decoration of the west front of the cathedral through skilfully projected coloured lighting. It would be good to see that attempted at Wells, at Exeter, and at Lichfield to recreate the medieval schemes.

The St Albans technological version could perhaps be tried to ‘colour in’ some of the interiors of other medieval great churches - the Norman naves of Durham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury spring immediately to mind as possible venues, or the faded vault paintings in the choir of Salisbury.

The report, well illustrated with contrasting views of the surviving paintings and their virtual  projections, can be seen at Recreating Medieval Paintings with Light at St Albans Cathedral

I have long been fascinated by the surviving painted decoration of medieval churches both great and small. Once you begin to realise what was once there you will never look at these churches in the same way again. Why look at these buildings in black and white when they are meant to be in colour?

Marginalia from an Anglo Saxon nun

I do not make notes or underlinings in books, and deplore those who do today, yet like any historian I am immensely grateful to those who did so in the past. Marginalia are part of any historian’s stock in trade - for contemporary evens as much as for those of the more distant past.

An important instance of this is revealed in an article on the website of Artnet News which concerns an eighth century copy of the Acts of the Apostles now in the Selden MSS in the Bodleian. In this particular case the marginalia have been missed hitherto because they are in drypoint rather than ink. They are the work of a nun, the Abbess Eadburg.

A fourteenth century gold ring from Dorset

There have been several articles online about the discovery of this very elegant ring, and attempts to work out or create its ‘backstory’. That may be a bit fanciful or a case of wishful thinking, but it can be seen as an attempt to fill in a narrative the human mind is inevitably, maybe irresistably, drawn.

The ring is made of two entwined gold bands with a pointed diamond and on the inside the medieval French inscription “ieo vos tien foi tenes le moy”, which can be translated “as I hold your faith, hold mine”

The ring was discovered near Thorncombe which since 1844 has been part of Dorset but before that, and when the ring was lost, was a detached part of Devon.

The Mail Online account of the ring, its discovery and the attempt to reconstruct its history is about as good an account as I have seen online and is well illustrated. It can be seen at Metal detectorist mistook £38,000 medieval ring for sweet wrapper

Amongst the other reports about the ring are articles on the BBC News website at  Detectorist's medieval ring sells for £38k  and from the Bournemouth Daily Echo Gold ring found in Dorset by metal detectorist sells for £38k

The ring is of very fine quality, a delicate and balanced creation, and would still be very fashionable today. It is yet again a reminder of the skills in design and craftsmanship of past centuries. 

It is also noteworthy as being a chance find for which it is possible to assign a probable owner in the fourteenth century, and indeed a married couple who survive in records. Sir Thomas Brook as an MP on as many as thirteen occasions will grace the pages of the relevant volumes of the History of Parliament Trust. Assuming that it is from their marriage and given that he married the wealthy widow Joan in 1388 we also have a specific date for when it was made.

I hope this fine piece goes to a public collection where others can see and appreciate  it as a link to the stylish and very human world of the knightly landed classes of the reign of King Richard II.

Friday 2 December 2022

A possible portrait of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine from Bradwell Abbey

A carved female head wearing a crown that has been discovered at the site of Bradwell Abbey, whose site is now within the conurbation that is Milton Keynes, has been identified as being Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Although now referred to as an abbey the house was in fact a priory and was founded around 1154, the year that Queen Eleanor’s husband King Henry II succeeded to the throne. The small but notably strict house of Benedictine monks was one of those suppressed in 1524 and its endowments transferred to his colleges in Ipswich and Oxford by Cardinal Wolsey.

The illustrated report about the discovery of the carving can be seen at 12th century carving of Eleanor of Aquitaine discovered in an article from Medievalists.net

The same site had a piece sbout one of the surviving fragments of the buildings, the free standing and still roofed chapel of St Mary and its painted decoration in Repairs needed at medieval chapel in Bradwell Abbey

Wikipedia has a brief account of the history and the site at Bradwell Abbey

The second volume of the Victoria County History of Buckinghamshire has a much more detailed account of what is known of the history of the monastic community and it can be viewed at Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of Bradwell

Thursday 1 December 2022

The restoration of Piero della Francesca’s “Nativity”

Today the National Gallery returns Piero della Francesca’s Nativity to public display after a it has undergone major cleaning and restoration. It is one of the most well-known depictions of the birth of ist and familiar from its frequent reproduction on Christmas cards.

The Art Newspaper has an article about the painstaking restoration project which can be seen at In time for Christmas: London's National Gallery unveils newly-restored Piero della Francesca nativity scene

The National Gallery has produced a video about the restoration which is interesting viewing and can be watched at Behind the scenes in Conservation: Restoring Piero della Francesca's 'Nativity'

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am especially fond of the surviving works of Piero amongst early Renaissance painters and his role as the local artist in his home town of San Sepolchro.

Reading the article it really is a wonder that we have the picture at all to view, and indeed that only now is its symbolism being again  understood and appreciated. That is excellent news not just for art enthusiasts and historians but for historians of fifteenth century spirituality and culture.

The link to the Visions of St Bridget of Sweden and to Bridgettine spirituality which was so influential across much of later medieval Europe is interesting of itself but also helps anchor Piero in the wider milieu of contemporary devotion.

Wednesday 30 November 2022

A medieval Norwegian woman

Live Science has an article about the reconstructed appearance of a medieval Norwegian woman which has been installed in a museum in the city of Trondheim. Her skeleton was found in a churchyard in Trondheim and her date of birth assigned to the late 1200s. It is thought she attained an age of about 65. 

This appears to me to be one of the most credible of such reconstructions and the thinking associated with it as set out in the article is to be commended.

Tuesday 29 November 2022

Dunkeld Cathedral discoveries

Medievalists.net has a brief report about the discovery of a number of sculpted figures behind a tomb in the choir of Dunkeld Cathedral in Perthshire.

Less survives in Scotland than in England not only of actual medieval churches but also of their internal decoration and furnishing. Thus at Dunkeld the northwest tower and nave of the cathedral are in ruins but the choir still serves as the parish kirk. 

It was in 1600 that the choir was reroofed and I would suggest that it was at that time that the freestanding tomb of Bishop Robert de Cardeny was moved and built into the wall, thereby immuring the other carvings. There is a well illustrated account of the remains of the cathedral from Wikipedia at Dunkeld Cathedral
The article has a list with links of burisls at the cathedral. These include Alexander “The Wolf of Badenoch” (d.1405) and son of King Robert II, whose tomb in the cathedral is one of the few surviving medieval Scottish royal effigies and Count Charles Edward Roehenstart (d.1854) the grandson of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Although not one of the largest or most impressive of medieval Scottish cathedrals Dunkeld was deemed to be the third in rank after the two Archiepiscopal sees of St Andrews and Glasgow. The somewhat complicated of episcopal succession both before and after the reformation of 1560, as well as after 1689, and the restored Catholic diocese after1878 is set out, again by Wikipedia at Bishop of Dunkeld

Wikipedia has a short biography of Bishop Cardeny, the longest serving holder of the diocese of Dunkeld, at Robert de Cardeny

The description of these latest discoveries can be found at 15th century carvings discovered at Scottish cathedral