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.

Sunday 31 March 2024

Easter Day

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!
He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
As we celebrate Easter and its message of Resurrection - the Resurrection of Christ, the Resurrection that is the Church, the Resurrection that is individual to each and every Christian - may I wish all my readers a joyful, peaceful and happy Easter.

Some weeks ago I discovered whilst preparing a post about the artist Andrea Mantegna 1431-1506 this really very surprising image of the Resurrection. Dated to the last years of the fifteenth century it is a theme that is actually not that common amongst the work of great artists and very different in mood from Piero della Francesca’s wonderous masterpiece of a generation earlier which I commented on last year in Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

Mantegna’s vision, now in Copenhagen, stands in the same tradition, but is utterly different at the same time.

Christ as the Suffering Redeemer
Christ is depicted in the act of Resurrection according to Luke 24:1-2, praising the Lord with a hymn
Dated to 1488-1500 or 1495-1500

There is more about the painting from Wikipedia at Christ as the Suffering Redeemer  

Saturday 30 March 2024

Fr Hunwicke on the Exsultet

Fr Hunwicke marked Holy Saturday with a pair of splendid posts ( but when are his posts not splendid …) about the bees and how their work is celebrated in the Exsultet. He shows - draws forth in an apian way even - his erudition in Latin as in liturgy, in history and culture.

Read the two sections at EXSULTET: some notes (1) and EXSULTET: the Bee (2) …….and enjoy the Exsultet !

Conserving the Breamore Rood

The Daily Telegraph has a report on recent conservation work that has been undertaken on the late Anglo-Saxon Rood that is now located above the doorway of the church at Breanore in north west Hampshire. The newspaper account of the work and the Rood and the later paintings added to create a landscape background can be read at Rare Anglo-saxon ‘rood’ in Hampshire successfully restored
I visited Breamore many years ago to see both the church and the fine Elizabethan Manor House. Both are very well worth seeing if you are in the area. It is a seemingly very peaceful and tranquil corner of England.

Three impressions remain from that afternoon. Firstly there is the scale and grandeur of the composition of the Rood. There is a similar figure nearby at Romsey Abbey. It is a powerful and striking reminder that late Anglo-Saxon England could create big and bold statements of faith.

The second was the fact that several centuries after it was carved the parish created a special place to ‘enshrine’ it, and provided the background painted decoration to try to give the illusion of real space. Not only does this have a charm all its own but also shows a late medieval desire to enhance what they had inherited and clearly loved.
The third thing is, alas, the wickedness of the bigots who destroyed the figure in the belief that they were doing Christ’s work. If, as the article, suggests, this was a result of the Edwardian reformation after 1547 then the shock to the conventional believer in the parish must have been intense. The long arm of the ‘Reformers’ reached not just to Breamore as to every other parish but up into the little chapel over the porch on a mission to destroy. It is hard to feel sorry for the fact that the national authors of such things came to a bad end. The peace and tranquillity of Breamore were shattered the day the Rood was so brutally defaced. So to, in innumerable similar acts, was the peace and tranquillity of this country.

Hot Cross buns

Like, no doubt, so many people yesterday I enjoyed as my ‘small collation’ a hot cross bun at two  points in the day and I looked forward to more today when I was to finish off my stock of these traditional treats.

Country Life has reissued online an article of theirs from 2019 about the history and folk-lore of the hot cross bun. It can be seen at Curious Questions: Why do we eat hot cross buns at Easter?

To the examples of the longevity of individual hot cross buns I can add another example. In the collection of the Museum in my home town of Pontefract is a survivor from the Crimean War - a hot cross bun taken by or sent to a soldier from the town when he served in the Crimean War. Having survived the fighting of 1854-56 both soldier and hot cross bun returned to their Yorkshire home town. Eventually it made its way into the Museum collection. 

Thursday 28 March 2024

The Ambrosian Rite for Holy Thursday

The New Liturgical Movement website has a lengthy and detailed account of the liturgy for Maundy Thursday observed in the Ambrosian Rite in Milan. It can be viewed at The Ambrosian Mass of Holy Thursday  

Papal Ceremonies for Maundy Thursday

The Liturgical Arts Journal has a very interesting account of Papal ceremonies observed on Maundy Thursday in the past, both recent and others which are somewhat more distant. It has some fasinating illustrations and can be seen at Tapestries of the Papal Court for Holy Thursday

A Scottish equivalent to the Royal Maundy

Quite by chance, and it was an entirely fortuitous thing, whilst I was researching an entirely different topic today I came upon a reference I had not seen before to a Scottish royal custom that is very similar to the English Royal Maundy.

In the new circumstances of the Union of the Crowns and the consequent absence of the King in London the Scottish Privy Council discussed continuing the established tradition of royal charity linked to the age of the monarch, which is usually presented as a particularly English custom, created by King Henry IV. How ancient the Scottish custom was, or when it fell into dissuitude I have not had time to discover, nor whether it was linked to Maundy Thursday.

The extract from the Privy Council records is as follows:

June 2 [1607]. – The Privy Council refer to ‘a very ancient and lovable custom’ of giving a blue gown, purse, and as many Scotch shillings as agreed with the years of the king’s age, to as many ‘auld puir men’ as likewise agreed with the king’s years; and seeing it to be ‘very necessary and expedient that the said custom should be continuit,’ they give orders accordingly. 

Sunday 24 March 2024

Patristics for Palm Sunday

Last year on Palm Sunday I reproduced two sets of readings from the Traditional Breviary Office of Matins. They are from a sermon by St Leo the Great and St Ambrose’s commentary on St Luke.
I think both are very well worth reading as we enter Holy Week and therefore I am inking to them both for anyone who would like to read, or re-read them:

St Ambrose on Palm Sunday

Quite apart from their apposite wss at this point in the liturgical year they are also fine examples of the style of both authors.

The Palmesel

In the middle ages in what is now Germany and its neighbouring lands it was the practice to process into church on Palm Sunday with a carved figure on wheels representing Our Lord riding a donkey. This was the Palmesel. It is first recorded over a millenium ago in the later tenth century.

The history of the custom and the extent of surviving examples, together with links to other resources and examples, is set out by medieval.eu at The Story of Christ on a Donkeyand the Medieval Palmesel

Here are some surving examples:

 File:Palmesel MNMA Cl23799.jpg

Late fifteenth century linden wood from south Germany, possibly Swabia.
Musée de Cluny Paris
Image: Wikipedia 

File:Palm Sunday Processional Figure, Christ Riding a Donkey, Austria, c. 1450, wood with polychromy - Chazen Museum of Art - DSC02015.JPG

An Austrian example from circa 1450 now at the Chazen Museum of Art University of Wisconsin-Madison
Image: Wikipedia 

The Metropolitan Museum in New York has at least two examples - one if featured in their online catalogue at Palmesel | German | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Victoria and Albert Museum has a Palmesel which is described at Christ on an ass | Unknown | V&A Explore The Collections


‘Christ on the Ass’, c. 1480. Limewood and pine, painted and gilded. Southern Germany. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


The Walters Museum in Baltimore has a late fourteenth century example which is illustrated and described in Palmesel | The Walters Art Museum

The Historisiches Museum in Basel has five  examples and they and the tradition are discussed at Collection: Object description
In the museum at Schnütgen is a fine example in lime wood, softwood and polychrome which was made in Cologne circa 1520. It can be seen at https://picryl.com/amp/media/christ-upon-the-donkey-for-the-palm-procession-cologne-c-1520-limewood-and-245732

The museum in Kraków also has an example and the website also discusses the custom in an article at Jesus Christ Sitting on the Palm Sunday Donkey
Polish Palm Sunday ceremonies are discussed in an academic article from Western Michigan University at viewcontent

In southern Europe the tradition survives in Spain in the processions of Santa Semana but I am not aware of medieval examples surviving - the ones I have seen illustrated appear in a splendidly Baroque form.

Palm Sunday - The Entry into Jerusalem

Today is Palm Sunday and to help celebrate Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week here are two wonderful paintings envisaging the event from the early fourteenth century and the early flourishing of the Italian renaissance. The similarities between them are hardly surprising given their historical and geographical proximity, and the clear links between the two artists. 

Jesus Christ Painting - The Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto
Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem 
Giotto di Bordone (circa 1257-1337) completed 1305 
Scrovegni Chapel /Arena Chapel Padua
Image: pixels.com

Christ's entry into Jerusalem
Pietro Lorenzetti (1280-1348), active circa 1306 -1345. Painted 1316/7-1319
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi
Image: Wikipedia 

These great paintings well illustrate the sculptural influences working on the artists as well as their rich colour palettes. They offer dignity and serenity to their viewers in a time that had not that much serenity or dignity in either Italy or Europe as a whole. 1317-19 had witnessed a famine which stretched across the continent, political life was turbulent and violent in Italy - no surprise there - but also in France after the death of King Philip IV, in England under King Edward II and the continuing war with Scotland. The Hundred Years War was in the offing. Political authority was collapsing in much of Northern Europe from Denmark to Poland, and conflicts came and sent over the succession and government of the Central European kingdoms. The Papacy had left Rome and was soon to settle in Avignon. The population was still rising but resources were getting tighter. The climate was possibly beginning to get worse. So all in all not that promising, almost familiar to us today. Nonetheless the arts flourished not just in painting but sculpture, architecture, and very soon in vernacular literature. So great art is a sign of hope in troubled times ( though where it is these days is an open question ), and great art depicting Christ’s coming to His Passion in troubled times should give us hope, the hope of Easter.

Saturday 23 March 2024

Medieval spectacles

Medieval spectacles, and by that I do not mean High Masses, Coronations, Joyeuses Entrees, Tournaments and the like - all eminently worthy of study - but rather, the medieval pair of glasses are something which may well attract the attention, indeed the eye, of those of us interested in medieval life, and who have to do so from behind modern spectacles. 

Medievalists.net recently had an article bases on one in Notes and Queries which demonstrated that by the period 1433-44 spectacle makers, probably from the Low Countries, were established in Southwark, and thus anyone living or passing through London could potentially acquire a pair.  This is earlier than the first recorded shop specialising in glasses cited by Wikipedia infra which was recorded in Strasbourg in 1466.

Reading glasses were nothing new. Developed from Arabic translations of ancient writers from at least the eleventh century by the late thirteenth century the idea of linking two magnifying lenses had apparently resulted in the typical late medieval type in the 1290s, the work of the Florentine Salvino d’Armate. In 1352 they are first depicted in an Italian fresco. 

In England prototypes are referrrd to by two great Oxford scholars - Robert Grosseteste, the future Bishop of Lincoln writing in the years 1220-35, and Roger Bacon OFM writing in the period 1262-8. This might suggest that the Oxford Franciscan house, which both men knew, was one of the first places in England to see spectacles in use.

The 1326 inventory of the possessions of the murdered Bishop of Exeter, Walter Stapledon, who was the builder of much of Exeter Cathedral and founder of Exeter College in Oxford, included a pair of glasses valued at two shillings. This, save for Grossteste’s description a century or so earlier, is the first certain reference, to my knowledge, to an English bishop owning spectacles.

In south aisle of the beautiful church of All Saints North Street in York is a stained glass window of circa 1410 showing a man with a pair of typical glasses of the period.

The earliest surviving pair, found in Germany, date feom about 1400.  

During the fifteenth century depictions increased in both Netherlandish and Italian art and the statue of St Matthew in the King Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey assigns him a pair of rectangular lenses as a legacy of his time as a tax gatherer.

Meanwhile in addition to the original lenses to assist hyperopia ( farsightedness) in the course of the fifteenth century lenses to correct myopia ( nearsightedness ) were created.

Wikipedia gives a history of the development of these aids towards the end of its general article Glasses

In the sixteenth century they continue to be shown as an attribute of scholars and those dealing with money. Monarchs also used them, even if not depicted with such an indication of human frailty.

In England it is thought that King Henry VIII may well have used them in his later years as his ailments increased. Amongst his children both King Edward VI and Queen Mary I wore them.

I was quite surprised to come across a description by an ambassador of a meeting with King Edward in the garden of one of his palaces, in which he described the King as tall for his age and wearing glasses. There is no reason why King Henry VIII’s son should not be tall but the portraits somehow nearly always convey a slight, boyish figure. Add to that glasses and one sees him as a bespectacled gangling teenager rather than the boy-king of Reformation iconography.

Queen Mary I is normally believed to have worn glasses, possibly as a consequence of the medical conditions which are thought to have plagued her final years. This may account for the squint or frown that appears in so many of her formal portraits by Antonio Mor.

Whether Queen Elizabeth I wore glasses is less clear, although given that she significantly outlived her half-siblings who did, it is perhaps likely. Neville Williams’ biography records her selling off a pair of gold rimmed spectacles - they were probably inherited and not needed by or of use to the Queen 

Thursday 21 March 2024

Keeping medieval cities clean and fragrant

I think I have posted in the past about the problems caused by waste in medieval European cities and the efforts made to remedy the problem. The other day I chanced upon an article which drew on an Anglo-Norwegian study of these matters and appears to offer a balanced interpretation of what was happening and what was being attempted. It is from Science Norway and can be seen at How dirty and stinky were medieval cities

One of the problems with the written source material. I think we all can recognise the loud tone of protest coming from the exasperated householders or councillors by seeing its similarities to modern complaints ( and how they may be expressed ) about mess and nuisance, the noise and smells from factories, and the problem of bad neighbours. In not a few ways such problems foistered upon communities or caused by industrial processes that have an impact on the lives of others are familiar and understandable. So-called ‘nimbyism’ is nothing new - it is part of the human condition.

There is also the idea that things improve at a steady and consistent pace. We fail to shake off the ‘Enlightenment’ and nineteenth century concepts of relentless and consistent improvement and ‘progress’ to a better and cleaner urban environment. The reality may be that things got worse with increasing population and increasing industry until an era of active legislation and technological improvements wrought really substantive change. Early and mid-Victorian London had little to boast about to preceding centuries. Each era tried its best to address the particular problems they faced and equipped with the means at their disposal in dealing with such problems.

The medieval fear of the malign effects of miasma May strike us as somewhat strange, yet paradoxically it may well have contributed to pressure to keep things cleaner than they would have been otherwise. An enthusiasm for clean air is not an invention of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. 

The fact that we have records of regular complaints and frequent responses as well as archaeological evidence of what was done suggests not that everything was wonderful or dreadful in any particular past era but that it was ‘normal’ for its own time.

Monday 18 March 2024

A Greek visitor to Eboracum

The York Press has an article about the latest research into two linked items in the Yorkshire Museum in the city. They are a pair of votive tablets, unique in Britain, offered by a Greek called Demetrius. Discovered when the 1840 railway station was being built it has remained a matter of discussion as to whether they were offered by Demetrius of Tarsus, who had been sent by the Emperor Domitian to visit the new colony of Britannia to report on Druidism, and presumably how the Roman occupation was developing. Eboracum itself had been founded in the year 71.

I must admit that from my visits to the venerable and splendid Yorkshire Museum I was unaware of these plaques and their possible background. 

There is a bit more about Demetrius in a blog on The Edithorial from 2014 which can be seen at From Tarsus to Wales: the earliest Greek in Britain?

A quick search on the Internet yields links to several academic articles - including the one cited in the newspaper story - and accessible via JSTOR. One however which fleshes out the story very well can be seen directly and places Demetrius in the British Isles in 83-84 as part of Agricola’s campaign to push the frontier northwards. It can be seen at ‘Holy Men on Islands in Pre-Christian Britain’ here

Demetrius was apparently a teacher of literature and a man of enquiring mind. Inevitably one wonders, the more so as we do not know his age, if he had ever encountered a Jewish chap called Saul from their home city.

Sunday 17 March 2024

The restored murals at the Oxford Oratory

The restoration of the murals on either side of the Sanctuary at the Oxford Oratory, about which I wrote recently, has now been completed. Painted for the Jesuits who then cared for the parish by the Catholic artist Gabriel Pippet ( 1880-1962 ) in the years 1905-7 they were fated to be painted over in the 1950s by the Jesuits in their last years at the church.  

There is more about Pippet and these murals, which were his earliest commission, his later work at Oxford and, most notably, at the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart and St Catherine of Alexandria in Droitwich, on the Oxford Oratory website at Uncovering the Sanctuary Murals

The paintings depict St Aloysius’ First Communion at the hands of St Charles Borromeo, St Aloysius leaving home to join the Jesuits, his profession, and his death.

It is splendid to see these paintings revealed and restored. They look very fine and notably better than when they were partially, and very briefly, uncovered over a decade ago during the previous phase of work on the Sanctuary. 


Image: Oxford Oratory

Saturday 16 March 2024

More about this year’s Constable’s Dues

The internet presented me with a report from the Plymouth Herald about the presentation of the Constable’s Dues this week at The Tower of London. The barrel of port on this occasion was presented by H M Royal Marines as part of their 360th anniversary celebrations - a doubly appropriate presentation as the Constable is a Marine himself.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

The Constable’s Dues

Tomorrow, March 14th, the Tower of London will once again see the custom of the Constable’s Dues enacted. This apparently originated, or was codified, in the reign of King Richard II. Originally these rights were extensive and included live animals that fell into the Thames as well as the Constable of The Tower being entitled to a share of cargoes on all vessels entering the Pool of London in recognition of his position as the man responsible for the defence of both the Tower and the City. His customary right was limited to a handful of the cargo or what a hand could carry. These rights have in recent centuries ceased except for the tradition of visits once or twice a year as operational commitments permit by the vessels of the Royal Navy, and, on occasion, by ships of allied navies. On these occasions the ship presents a small barrel of wine or spirits after marching it ceremonially into The Tower and delivering it to the Constable in a ceremony on Tower Green. 

ianVisits reports on the story of this week’s ceremony at A helicopter and boats to perform a rare ceremony at the Tower of London

Wikipedia has an article about the office of Constable and sets out the variety of the traditional dues that were payable at Constable of the Tower

The Internet has a number of illustrated online articles about the ceremony of the Constable’s Dues, each of which seems to add extra facts or detail.

ianVisits has a description of the 2012 ceremony at Attending the Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues

Historic Royal Palaces, who manage the opening of The Tower to the public, describe the ceremony in The Constable's Dues

Hidden-London writes about the event at Constable's Dues

The Forces.net website reports on the 2019 ceremony at The Royal Naval Tradition Of Paying The Constables Dues

The Crown Chronicles has an account at Tell me about... the Constable's Dues at the Tower of London

The Londonist has an article from 2017 at What Is The Ceremony Of The Constable's Dues? 
The London Historians Blog wrote about the ceremony in The Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues

The Daily Express reported on the presence of the Princess Royal and the Secretary for Defence at the 2021 ceremony in Princess Anne attends historic ceremony from middle ages - 'Never become just a symbol'

The Spitalfields News has a piece from 2011 about the Dues at Constable’s Dues at the Tower of London and the East London Advertiser has one from 2019 at Commander of HMS Enterprise rolls out the rum to pay his ‘dues’ at the Tower of London

Tuesday 12 March 2024

Reassessing Silchester

PhysOrg has an interesting article about a new interpretation of the Roman city at Silchester in Berkshire. Then known as Calleva Atrebatum it is one of the few Roman cities in Britannia to have been completely abandoned and is not, as a result, overlaid by medieval and later development. 

This recent project has established that it had more houses than were discovered in the nineteenth century excavations and has used the latest multiplier to calculate what the Roman population might well have been.

It also has a link to a 2017 article which describes a temple complex apparently commissioned by the Emperor Nero and which indicates his interest in developing Calleva Atrebatum. It can be seen at Third Roman temple in Silchester may have been part of emperor's vanity project

Many of the finds from Silchester together with such things as a model reconstruction of the church found there - virtually the only one identified from the late Imperial period in the country - can be seen in the excellent museum in the centre of Reading.

Saturday 9 March 2024

Kit bags across the centuries

The Daily Telegraph recently had an illustrated article about a photographer’s creation of a series of photographic images to illustrate the contents of kit bags ( or their equivalent ) over the centuries. Most are perforce modern or relatively so, but one is reconstructed from the seventeenth century civil war, and one reimagined from the battle of Hastings.

Looking at the amount each kit bag holds and thinking of its weight inevitably brings one as a medievalist to a persistent popular misconception. This is, of course, that medieval men in full armour must have been weighed down and almost immovable in their steel suits.
 First of all if that was the case, one might ask why did they bother wearing armour that made them both unmanoeuvrable and also vulnerable to their opponents and the terrain. The answer is, of course, that they could move and fight very well. 
Secondly it has been calculated that the modern soldier carries as much, if not more, weight into battle as a medieval man fully armoured.

There are a number of videos online that illustrate the mobility of men in armour. Here are three created by a Swiss academic, Daniel Jaquet, who appears in all of them.

Le combat en armure au XVe siècle looks at the flexibility that is possible and Can You Move in Armour? reconstructs the fitness routine - or showing off - of Jean Le Maingre, Maréchal Boucicaut, who was taken prisoner at Agincourt, and died a few years later as a captive in England.

Thirdly there is also, to show the comparison with modern equipment, the superb, and almost hypnotic, Obstacle Run in Armour - a short film by Daniel Jaquet

It is worth adding that Dr Jaquet is something like ten years older than the two men he is competing against.

My father’s World War II RAF kit bag is long gone - I think I just remember it - but I was too young to really think about it. I think that in the post-war world he used for a while as a golf club bag. As he died just before my sixth birthday I never was able to ask him about his wartime experience and only know what my mother recalled. I suspect that like many men caught up in those events he largely preferred to move on, although one, penultimate, family holiday did take us back to revisit St Aldhelm’s Head in Dorset where he had worked on radar.

Friday 8 March 2024

The relics of St Thomas Aquinas

In my post yesterday I mentioned that St Thomas’s relics were transferred to the Dominican church in Toulouse in 1369. From 1789 until 1974 they reposed in the basilica of St Sernin in the city and were then returned to the Dominican church, Les Jacobins. Although it is no longer a functioning church and cared for as an historic monument the relics were enshrined beneath an altar, and the building is still the resort of pilgrims.

Today I came across a link to an article on the website of the Catholic News Agency  about the new reliquary which was provided for the skull of the saint at the beginning of 2023 and the year of celebrations leading up to the anniversary of his death. It can be seen at Skull of St. Thomas Aquinas unveiled for 700th anniversary of his canonization (sic)

When I was posting yesterday and looking for images of St Thomas the fact that there is no single received image of what he looked like. Different artists have been largely free to depict him as they wished. The articles I saw that referred to his relics suggested that there has been confusion as to which indeed was his skull. Assuming that the one now with his other bones in Toulouse is his then it should be possible for one of the modern experts in these matters to reconstruct his appearance from the original or indeed even from photographs.

Thursday 7 March 2024

St Thomas Aquinas 750

Today is the 750th anniversary of the death at the abbey of Fossanova of St Thomas Aquinas in 1274.

St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

St Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274
Painting by Fra Bartolommeo 1472-1517
Museo di San Marco Florence
Image: Media storehouse
Wikipedia has a lengthy introduction to his life, works of theology and philosophy and his reception and legacy at Thomas Aquinas

It also has an article about his canonisation in 1323 and the fate of his relics at Canonization of Thomas Aquinas

There is an entry for the Cistercian house where he died at Fossanova Abbey

I can make no claim to detailed knowledge of Thomism but to look at his writings is to look at a calm, ordered, disciplined system of thought that has endured, and whose range and harmony has helped ensure its centrality to Catholic thought.

As the Wikipedia article indicates one of the most striking things is the sheer volume - or, if you will, the sheer volumes, of St Thomas’s writings. It is claimed that he was capable of dictating two or more different works simultaneously to his scribes. He wrote both his encyclopaedic works and ones of matters of the moment, and also composed liturgical works such as the propers for Corpus Christi.

St Thomas Aquinas
Painting by Fr Angelico circa 1395-1455
Image: basilicacateriniana.it

This took place not in remote monastic seclusion but in a lifetime of less than fifty years which involved relocations from Naples to Cologne, to Paris, to Rome and Orvieto, back to Naples and his final journey towards Lyons. Much of that time he was teaching his fellow Dominicans on a regular basis.

It was also a life lived out against a background of intellectual ferment and political turmoil. The clash of Papal and Imperial claims occurred in a Europe threatened by the Mongol invasion, and in the case of central Europe it’s consequent devastation. Elsewhere there were localised conflicts on the margins between Christian and Muslim in Iberia, and with pagans in the Baltic, the uncertain future of the Christian presence in the Holy Land, the crusades of St Louis and vigorous internal political unheavels, not least in England in the reign of King Henry III. St Thomas’s native Sicilian kingdom was at the very centre of this. His family were by no means unaffected as the reign of the Emperor Frederick II took its course to 1250, the subsequent fighting for possession of the kingdom and the establishment of the Angevin dynasty from 1266-68 onwards. This was a turbulent, violent and bloody time, far removed from theological and philosophical contemplation.

That said it is important to understand that these were not distinct and different works, but one in which the Doctor Anglelichs lived and prayed and thought and wrote and had his being.

I was fortunate enough today to be able to attend online a Mass for the feast in the usus antiquior celebrated by a Dominican tertiary on the traditional day, rather than the modern one, assigned in 1970 which is the anniversary of St Thomas’s relics translation to the Dominican house in Toulouse on January 28th 1369.

Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas, Doctor Anglicus
Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1366
Fresco in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence
Image: Wikipedia 

St Thomas Aquinas, pray for us

Tuesday 5 March 2024

The late arrival of a Faroese jumper

The BBC News website has an interesting story about the opening of a package sent from the Faröe Islands to Copenhagen in 1807 which was intercepted by the Royal Navy off the Norwegian coast in the naval engagements  around the second Battle of Copenhagen. Preserved as a war prize the parcel has now been opened. 

The most striking item inside is a Faroese jumper intended for the fiancé of the intended recipient. 

What makes it so special is its colour. It 
comes from remote island communities, not a court or commercial centre, yet is vibrant in its dye colour - a further example to rebut the contemporary idea we so often encounter in film and television that almost everything was drab in the past.

Similarly a pair of stockings are shown which are of fine quality - something you might otherwise imagine being sent from Copenhagen rather than to the capital. They were clearly the product of a sizeable domestic industry using island resources from the total numbers recorded on the vessel.

There are two illustrated articles about the discovery which can be seen at National Archives: Faroe Islands jumper uncovered 200 years on and Centuries-old Faroese jumper unwrapped at National Archives

Monday 4 March 2024

Policing morals at Cambridge University - and at Oxford

The tradition of the Proctors policing the streets of Cambridge and in particular their concern to keep loose women off those streets and to protect male undergraduates from being led into temptation is discussed in an article on the BBC News website which can be seen at 'When to be poor, pretty and petulant was a crime'

Given the fallen state of human nature such efforts, however superficially successful, were no doubt unavailing. 

I noticed that this was under an Elizabethan statute. The sixteenth century appears to have been part an age of a ‘moral panic’ which possibly began in the last years of the fifteenth century, and which took in all forms of digression from what was considered the social norm. Sexual morality was but one aspect of deviance that attracted the attention of the relevant authorities across Europe. The concern with heresy and witchcraft, of political dissent, as well as reinforcing perceived hierarchies in families and communities was shared across Catholic and Reformed traditions. The conventions inherited from previous centuries were now enforced in a way that went from the occasional to the routine.

I am not sufficiently informed as to the history of Cambridge as to the minutiae of such policies there. Medieval Oxford was known to have areas noted for prostitution outside the city walls and had one very explicitly named street in the very centre - now re-named. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the St Thomas’ area was notorious for its houses of easy virtue and the great Tractarian Canon Chamberlain from the parish church was a vigorous opponent of them. Regular parish visiting to the houses of ill-repute helped to close them down and he faced down physical threats from the girls’ ‘protectors’.

If the University students were traditionally catered for in these matters - and certain streets and street corners were well known to be meeting places up to the 1960s - then the advent of military bases in the twentieth century opened up new possibilities. I recall being regaled by a retired Oxford policewoman I worked alongside with stories of staking out a brothel in the St Ebbe’s area which provided ‘services’ for the USAF in the 1950s…

Saturday 2 March 2024

Hoping to save a twelfth century ivory for the nation

The Financial Times has a report about the attempt to raise £2million to keep an ivory carving of the Deposition of Christ from the Cross in the country. The carving was originally part of a larger scene, and arguably part of a triptych or five fold reredos, and is ascribed to a York workshop of the 1190s. As such it is a precious survival of a school or tradition of which we now have so little.

The article then goes on to look at British regulations regarding art exports, and compares them with those in France, Germany, and Italy about safeguarding heritage objects and preventing their loss overseas.

The History Blog also reported on the carving in Met acquires rare Romanesque Walrus ivory carving; UK bars export

However when I was looking further into the story to write this article I was absolutely fascinated to find that the carving has a very close link to my home area. That was certainly not well known when I lived in the area, and indeed unknown to me. 

The other surviving fragment, of Judas eating the morsel at the Last Supper, from the reredos was found in Wakefield in 1769 and is now in the V&A. It can be seen to have survived through deliberate moves to secret religious art in the town in the mid-sixteenth century. Where the reredos was before that terrible time of tragedy is unclear - possibilities include the parish church - since 1888 the Anglican cathedral - or the castle at Sandal just south of the town, the Hospitaller Preceptory at Newland to the east, or even one of the four  chantry chapels that were on the main roads into the town. Another possibility, if less likely, might be that it came from a church 
further afield.

The historical background is set out in excellent detail by Apollo at The V&A is by far the best home for this medieval sculpture and by the Independent at The story of the walrus and the English artwork at risk of being sent to the US

There is another article with valuable insights from the magazine Artdependence at V&A launches Fundraising Campaign to acquire Rare 12th-century Medieval Walrus Ivory Carving

Given that connection to where I was born and raised, and formed as both a historian and as a man of Catholic belief I obviously hope very much that the money can be found to keep this exquisite carving here, with the other fragment - one would not wish it to suffer the exile in the Met that has been the fate of the Bury St Edmunds Cross.

Images: The History Blog

Friday 1 March 2024

Gearing up for the next election

No, despite the events in Rochdale yesterday and the current surfeit of speculation and polling both in the UK and abroad, I am not going to write about secular politics in this country or anywhere else ( well, not in this post anyway ) but rather to link to a story on LifeSite News

Their article is about an opinion piece looking to the next Papal election. That election will undoubtedly be of crucial importance to the Church. Written by a member of the Sacred College of Cardinals it is about what the author believes is necessary to be addressed for the next Pontificate. The author, wisely no doubt, conceals his identity behind the pseudonym of Demos II. Demos I, who wrote a not dissimilar article about the current Pontificate a couple of years back, was subsequently revealed to be the late Cardinal George Pell.

The unredacted text can be read on the Daily Compass website at A profile of the next Pope, writes Cardinal