Five Wounds: Touching History

five-wounds-20-jan-2015-kindle

I’ve just finished reading my copy of Katherine Edgar’s Tudor novel, Five Wounds. Set during the Pilgrimage of Grace, it imagines the bloody rebellion against the dissolution of the monasteries from the perspective of a teenage girl. As the north rises in protest, Nan Ellerton is wrenched away from the world she knows by her father, and forced to choose which side she stands on.

The opening line is taken from a Book of Hours, a symbol of the religion Henry’s reforms would ultimately destroy:

Oh kindly Jesu for the wound of your left foot keep me from the sin of envy…

This prayer echoes through the whole book, a reminder of the world that is being swept away. In late medieval England, the Five Wounds of Christ were objects of deep religious emotion. Prayers like this one are found everywhere, from the scribbled margins of cheap prayerbooks to the most expensive and beautiful illuminated manuscripts. One of the first manuscripts I ever touched – the bizarre, home-made Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61 – contains not only prayers to the Five Wounds, but also a crudely-sketched image of a shield. It contains the four wounds to Christ’s limbs and the fifth heart in the centre, drawn with little dashes around the edges, as if they were stitched onto a banner. In other manuscripts there are vivid, blood-red images of the wound pierced through Christ’s side, sometimes rubbed away by devout readers who touched, and even kissed, the page.

Magic figures and the Wound of Christ from a prayer roll

London, British Library, Harley MS T. 11. Prayer Roll with Wound of Christ

What strikes me about this prayer is that, in picturing Christ’s wounds, it pictures something that is empty space, a rent in the body. It tries to make tangible that which is by definition intangible: an opening where no opening should be. And that’s how history itself often seems to work. We look back into the past and try to touch it, to feel it, to make it seem real. We try to overcome its intangibility. Five Wounds achieves this perfectly, making you want to reach out and touch Nan’s world.

The great thing about good historical fiction is the way it teaches you without you even noticing – especially if you read it as a child or a teenager. I must have been nine or ten when I first read Cynthia Harnett’s A Load of Unicorn – so, slightly younger than the intended audience of Five Wounds – and a passing description of medieval printing and paper-making stayed with me, detailed enough that it’s still what I have at the forefront of my mind when I’m reading about real medieval book culture. The detail in Five Wounds has this blend of painstaking accuracy and lightness of touch. I liked that a minor lord’s name links him to a manuscript of Handlyng Synne that still exists; a relic kept by women stands for a whole culture of medieval piety. You don’t have to puzzle out these links, but they’re there if you recognize them – or there for you to recognize later on – and that’s what makes this world seem real enough to touch.

You can read an extract of Five Wounds here.

Wolf Hall: Women Mired in Catholic Illiteracy, Take Two

St Margaret, reading. From Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours, London, BL, King's MS 9, f. 62v.

St Margaret, reading. From Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, London, BL, King’s MS 9, f. 62v.

I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about Wolf Hall. Everyone else is doing it. Yet, here I am, timing myself to twenty minutes for this. Because I loved Wolf Hall. I loved the book and I loved the first episode of the TV series. I think the candlelight works, I think it looks amazing, and, frankly, you could sell me most anything with Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance and I would be happy.

But.

Wolf Hall has a bit of a woman problem, and it’s a familiar woman problem. In order to make Thomas Cromwell sympathetic, you have to oust Thomas More. You have to get rid of that image of kindly, noble, gentle Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons, lovingly educating his daughter in Humanist ways and standing up for his conscience.

One of the ways Mantel achieves this, in the books, is to give Cromwell a family life – and, personally, I found the opening paragraphs of Bring up the Bodies, stunningly poignant and brilliant. It opens with “His children are falling from the sky” and then shows that Cromwell’s hawks are named after his dead daughters. In the TV series, this family intimacy plays out in a scene where Cromwell sits with his daughter on his knee, letting her leaf through a gorgeous facsimile prayer book, while she comments that she’d like to learn Greek, as well as Latin. Kate Maltby, who’s been tweeting the series, has written a lovely review that comments on the historic validity of this, linking Cromwell’s daughter to other precocious young women educated in Greek. From the medieval side, I found both Cromwell’s closeness with his daughters, and his reading-aloud of his son’s letter, nicely authentic: I could see echoes of the Paston family there, and Rachel Moss has shown that our image of distant medieval fathers is misguided.

No, my problem is with Cromwell’s wife. You see, this scene is echoing bits of A Man for All Seasons: feminist papa, precocious daughter … someone has to represent the annoying intrusion of Tradition and Caution. And, just as in More’s household it’s his wife Alice, so too here, it’s Cromwell’s wife who looks dubiously instructs her daughter to leave her Latin learning for her breakfast. In the older film, More’s wife Alice is a caricature medieval Catholic woman, uninterested in More’s Humanism, emphatically rejecting to his offer to teach her to read. I’ve noted before that illiteracy this strikes a false note, it typically being medieval women who taught children to read. It belongs to a stereotype of medieval Catholicism as backwards and unbookish, a yoke energetic Humanist men (and their daughters) were throwing off, while their wives clung to it.

It’s slightly disappointing, then, in Wolf Hall, to see Elizabeth Cromwell lean across the breakfast table, disapprovingly, to hand her husband a parcel whose contents are obviously something subversive. “If you want to know,” he begins, and she cuts him off: “I don’t what to know”. It turns out that the parcel contains a book, an unbound New Testament in Tyndale’s translation. Cromwell eagerly proselytises:

“You should read it for yourself. It’s in English, that’s the point, not Latin. How can that be heresy? Read it and you’ll see how you’re misled. No mention of nuns, monks, relics, popes …”

This little speech, sounding a bit too much like a twenty-first century Biblical literalist’s view on the subject, gets shot down by Elizabeth: “My prayerbook is good reading.”

This is as neatly-drawn an opposition between (misleading, outdated Latin) Catholicism and Brave New English Proto-Protestantism as you could wish. For Cromwell, the austere, unbound, plain-looking English New Testament holds the promise of religious and social revolution, freedom from the lies of the medieval Church.

It bothers me that this scene feeds, subtly, into the twenty-first century idea of ‘The Medieval,’ which has become a code word for primitive, superstitious (and, often, Middle Eastern or Islamic) attitudes and actions. I don’t particularly like the gendering of religion in this way, in which women are repeatedly the representatives of a medieval Catholicism characterised by illiteracy and misleading superstition. I don’t like the way that it covers up a pretty well-known history of women as educators and book users. I’ll keep watching, but I’d like to know what you make of these quibbles.

Women, Hawks, and English Literature Exams

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At Cambridge, if you study English, you sit two compulsory final exams: one in Tragedy, and one in Practical Criticism, which is close reading of a selection of texts and extracts. On the spur of the moment, you have to work out how to take the text to pieces, and how to put it back together again in some form of coherent argument. I can’t honestly remember very much about my own Prac Crit exam, except that it over four hours long, it was a very hot summer and the room where I was taking my exam had malfunctioning heating, which couldn’t be switched off. But I was reminded of it the other day, as we discussed why this exam can seem so intimidating.

I know lots of people I know claim that doing English Literature ‘ruined’ books for them, that taking a book to pieces as you do when you’re doing close reading spoils it. The original idea of Practical Criticism – as it was developed by critics in the early twentieth century – was that students should learn to read texts without knowing the most basic details about them, such as the name of the author (and therefore, his or her gender) or the date he or she was writing. In theory, this should be freeing. It’s quite close to the anti-hierarchical aims of Feminist Pedagogy. And yet, it is still intimidating, and that sense that something has been pulled to pieces and laid bare can, I think, relate as much to us as readers, as to the texts we read. In short, you can feel very exposed doing close reading.

I love close reading (and I’ve done a bit of close reading in this post, largely as an antidote to writers’ block). But, as I did it, it occurred to me how difficult it is to untangle questions of gender and exclusion from English Literature, even when we think we’ve stripped back texts to their most basic, unmediated forms. So I thought I’d share what I was thinking.

This post also gives me the chance to link to this lovely piece about Tudor falconry, because, as you might guess from the image above, this post is partly about hawks. The other night, I went to a book talk in Heffers in Cambridge, because I wanted to see Helen MacDonald talk about her book H is for Hawk, which I read just before Christmas and which I’ve mentioned on here before. With her were David Cobham and Bruce Pearson, who wrote and did the images for The Sparrowhawk’s Lament. I’ve not read it (and I really want to now), but the book charts the state of British birds of prey, many of which are in very low numbers. MacDonald asked Cobham how he’d come to the title for his book, and he replied that it comes from a medieval poem, which he’d read in hospital while waiting for a serious operation.

Obviously, I pricked up my ears. It turns out that the poem he titles ‘The Sparrowhawk’s Lament’ is one of the many medieval lyrics that use the Latin refrain ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’ – ‘The fear of death troubles me’.

As Cobham was being anesthetised, so he says, he thought he heard the ring of an Angelus bell, and the sound of a choir singing the Latin line – which is, of course, from the medieval Office of the Dead. This eerie anecdote made me think about the poem, and so I sat down to do some close reading on it. I’ve not pulled it together, but just left it as a sequence of comments to show you how I read the poem.

The burial of the dead (from the Office of the Dead). London, BL MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 211r.

The burial of the dead (from the Office of the Dead). London, BL MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 211r.

 The poem like this:

In what state that ever I be,
Timor mortis conturbat me.

As I me walked in one mornynge
I hard a bride both wepe and synge;                     bride=bird
This was the tenor of hir talkynge –                        substance of its reply
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I asked this bride what he mente.
He said “I am a musket gente.                                  musket=male sparrowhawk
For dred of deth I am nygh shent:                          nygh shent= nearly destroyed
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Jhesu Cryst, whan he shuld deye,
To his Fader lowde gan crye.                                    gan crye = cried out
‘Fader, he seyde, ‘in trynyte,
Timor mortis conturbat me’.”

Whan I shal deye I knowe no day
Therefore this song synge I may
What contree or place can I not seye
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I really love the language here. The Latin phrase itself is beautifut. ‘Conturbat’ suggests  disturbed motion. The verb ‘turbare’ means ‘unsettle’ or ‘disturb’ all on its own (it’s related to words like ‘turbulence’ and, I think, ‘tornado’), and the prefix ‘con’ intensifies that sense, so that you have a cumulative effect of overwhelming, spiralling movement. I think it’s probably what Yeats is getting at with the opening lines of The Second Coming: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer”.

This evocation of turbulent motion is juxtaposed with the following image of the bird, so that we have a suggestion of the hawk tossed and ruffled from the wind. This is supported by the words the bird itself uses to describe its condition: ‘nigh shent,’ or ‘almost destroyed. This word has three overlapping senses in Middle English: primarily, it refers to the physical state of being injured or hurt, a sense that is strengthened because it rhymes with the word ‘rent,’ meaning ripped or torn apart, and we know from studies carried out in psychology of reading that our brains subconsciously register rhyme words as we read. However, this first meaning of the word gives way to a spiritual meaning of ‘damned’ and a moral sense of ‘shamed’: to be ‘shent’ is to be injured in both body and soul. The line rationalising this injury is mysteriously vague: “For dred of deth I am nygh shent” could refer to the hawk’s own impending death – ie., fear of mortality, which is the usual inteprretation of the Latin line – but in this context of the speech of a bird of prey, a bird whose function is to deliver death, it could also suggest the fear of inflicting mortal wounds, which would explain the mingled fears of shame and damnation. 

This reminds me of T. H. White, whose novel The Sword in the Stone echoes this poem and imagines a goshawk half-mad with this fear and guilt, driven to kill whatever comes near it, but tormented by its own murderous impulse. White’s hawk is a real character in his novel, more than a mere personification of the fear of death, speaking – as this hawk does – almost in a human voice. Yet this hawk can also be read as a symbol, and the juxtaposition of the bird of prey with the narrative of Christ’s Crucifixion evokes another parallel, this time to a comparable medieval lyric. The Corpus Christi Carol begins plaintively “The falcon hath borne my mate away …” and the image of the falcon and its prey gives way to the image of a dead knight mourned by his lady, and, finally, to a tombstone that bears the legend “Corpus Christi”: the body of Christ. Here, as in ‘The Sparrowhawk’s Lament,’ the bird of prey foreshadows the death of Christ on the cross. It’s incredibly bleak, this image of Christ pleading on the Cross to his Father, but it gives the familiar, often over-theologised narrative a piercing immediacy: even Christ fears death.

The final stanza of this poem could seem enigmatic, even anti-climatic: instead of offering some kind of comforting resolution of these jumbled images of whirling death, the falcon, and the crucifix, it returns to a first-person speaker meditating on the utter unknowability of death. We can’t even be sure (because medieval texts don’t generally indicate one way or another, although modern punctuation can) whether or not the speaker of the last stanza is still the hawk, or whether it is now the ‘I’ of the opening lines. This anonymity of the speaking voice gives it a loneliness, but also allows it to speak for all of us – it could be anyone’s voice, facing down death.

If you look at what the rhymes are doing in this poem, you’ll see the rhyming tercets of the first two verses (rhymes across three lines, followed by the refrain, timor mortis conturbat me) give way to an imperfectly-rhymed quatrain in the third verse (deye/crye/trynyte/me) that seeks to incorporate the refrain into the rhyme scheme. And, finally, the last verse is a perfectly rhymed quatrain, with the refrain entirely incorporated, as if to still the turbulent movement and spiritual turmoil the line articulates. The Latin line initially jars the rhyme scheme and cannot be reconciled with the English speakers’ thoughts; by the end of the poem, it has become part of the speaker’s own idiom, chiming in with the speaker’s own thoughts.

This is, obviously, a poem about mourning, and a poem about the basic Christian confrontation with death. But, as I read its echoes backwards into the ancient Latin of the liturgy, sideways into the medieval Corpus Christi Carol, and forwards into Yeats and White, I think it’s also a poem about communication. How do we express fears? At what point do we manage to grapple with the language of death in such a way that it becomes part of our own vocabulary? When does the strange speech of the hawk suddenly start to make sense?

British Library MS Harley 7026, f. 16r (detail)

British Library MS Harley 7026, f. 16r (detail)

I know this poem, but not primarily as a medievalist, because in T. H. White’s Sword in the Stone (the story of King Arthur’s childhood), the birds of prey kept in the castle mews sing a version of it. This neatly links Cobham’s and MacDonald’s books, since she talks a lot about White and his writing. The version of the poem I’ve quoted above is from a manuscript written by a grocer, Richard Hill, who lived in London in the late fifteenth century. In fact, I happen to know that the Corpus Christi Carol I quoted above is in the same manuscript, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the two texts echo each other. However, the poem is much older than the late fifteenth century: in a slightly different version, it’s found in the Vernon manuscript, a huge book (it weighs over 2okg), which was copied somewhere in the West Midlands, in the 1390s. So, the poem is at least this old, and might well be even older.

It is difficult not to notice – even before I add the contextual historical information about Richard Hill – that the echoes that readily come to my mind to contextualise this poem, are echoes of male writers’ texts, or (in the case of the Corpus Christ Carol), echoes of texts whose authors are unknown. The gendered speakers of the poem are male, although we do not know the gender of the initial speaker who hears the bird ‘both weep and sing,’ and since women certainly did fly sparrowhawks, there is no strong reason to assume a male speaker. One of the most famous medieval texts on hawking, which lists each bird alongside the person to whose social status it is most appropriate (… in what state so ever I be …”) is associated with a woman, Dame Juliana Berners. More persuasively, the Corpus Christi Carol, which maps the same image of the falcon and the dying Christ onto a love story, a story of the bird’s lost mate and the lady mourning her lover, might prompt us to hear a female speaker. Like the hawk that both weeps and sings, the lady of that poem “weepth both night and day“.

In the earlier version of this poem, the version written sometime in the fourteenth century, the pronouns used to refer to the sparrowhawk are less settled than they are in this later version. In the version I quote, the hawk is a male, a ‘musket,’ and is ‘he’ (I promise I looked carefully at the manuscript, and though it’s swirly handwriting, it’s definitely ‘he’). But in the earlier version, the hawk is ‘she,’ although still a ‘musket,’ presumably because hawks (like ships or bells) are often ‘she’ even when given male names. Once we recover these facts, the significance of that ‘anonymous’ voice in the final lines comes clearer – to me, anyway. The speaker is not gendered, but – like hawks, ships and bells – anonymous speakers throughout English Literature are often, in Virginia Woolf’s words, women. Finally, Helen MacDonald points out that hawking itself is a gendered business, with hawks imagined as women to be courted, romantic partners like the mournful lady in the Corpus Christi Carol.

To recover female voices within such a male-dominated poem – and within such a male-dominated textual tradition, with its echoes of Yeats and White, the clerics of the medieval Church and the Father and Son of the Trinity – is difficult, and daunting. As is fairly often the case, it requires more contextual knowledge to find the echoes of women’s voices in this poem. This is because close reading is never really close reading in perfect isolation from the hierarchical structures of English literary culture – as the first proponents of Cambridge Practical Criticism thought it could be. It’s a tool we use, not an ideology. But, at the same time, we can’t forget that, studying hundreds of years of male-dominated literature and literary criticism, it’s a tool that can’t be separated from the ideological conditions in which it was developed.

Note

I wrote this in the middle of 1) horrible writers’ block and 2) lurgy, so please be gentle. It’s Cambridge-focussed, but the basic question – how do we learn to read literature, and can the tools we use ever be free of gender bias – is pretty relevant to all of us, I think.

‘Time Present and Time Past’: Winter Reading for St. Lucy’s Day

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In this post, I’m putting together some winter reading recommendations. A lot of these are either children’s books, or about children’s books – which I suspect isn’t coincidental.

The obvious thing to read for St. Lucy’s day is John Donne’s ‘Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day’, which is here. The poem was written while England still used the Old Calendar (the calendar some Orthodox Christians still use, in which Christmas day is January 7th), and so St Lucy’s Day, the 13th of December, is also the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, which is now relocated to December 21st. This slippage of time captures something else about this season, which is the role that nostalgia for the past and anticipation for the future play.

In Christian theology – and particularly medieval theology – the liturgical calendar is all about observing a moving programme of repetitions that are both cylic, and teleological, focussed on an end and a goal. Advent is like this: both a progression towards Christmas, and a repeating cycle year on year. In medieval liturgy, Advent foreshadows Lent, as a time of fasting and penitence, but it is also a time of excitement, building up to the celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas. So, the stories I’ve picked catch some of this sense of nostalgia and anticipation, of ‘once’ and ‘in the future,’ that characterises medieval Advent. 

The other day I picked up Helen MacDonald’s non-fiction book H is for Hawk, which is partly an account of her struggle to come to terms with her dad’s death, partly a description of what it’s like to train a Goshawk while working as a twenty-first century lecturer living in Cambridge, and partly a reading of T. H. White’s medieval-influenced book The Goshawk. I’m enjoying this book, which is full of lovely, spare descriptions of fen landscapes as seen through the eyes of a hawk, which (as MacDonald observes elsewhere), sees not three colours but four, including ultraviolet light:

“Stuart pulls off the road onto a farm track to the west of the city. The evening is warm, but there’s a torn-paper whiteness behind the sun that speaks of frost to come. I unhood the hawk. Her pale eyes stare out across the hillside of stubble and chalky till, at slopes cut with hedgerows crisped at their edge into shot-silk taffeta. She sees skeletal teasels and fencewires. Larks calling overhead. A discarded twelve-gauge shotgun cartridge by my feet. Red.”

It’s beautiful writing.

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There’s one point where MacDonald comments on White’s re-writing of Malory’s Morte Darthur (The Sword in the Stone), noting that while Malory described Merlin’s fate of imprisonment in a cave under a hill, it was White, not Malory, who gave Merlin the tragic foreknowledge of that fate. It’s not so, or at least not to my reading of the Morte. Malory has Merlin explain to Arthur (who has yet to marry Guinevere but has already set in motion the tragic events that will result in his own battle with his son Mordred):

“‘it is gods wyll youre body to be punysshed for your fowle dedes. But I may wel be sory,’ said Merlyn, ‘for I shalle dye a shameful deth to be put in the erthe quyck and ye shall dye a worshipful deth.”

This is all we really hear of Arthur’s death, since – famously – the narrative leaves uncertain whether the Arthur of the last chapters is fatally wounded or whether he will come again, “rex quondam, rexque futurus”: sometime king, and king to be. Merlin’s fate, on the other hand, comes surprisingly early in Malory’s narrative, given how large the character looms in other stories of Arthur. Tricked by his lover Nimue, Merlin is trapped in a cave in the roots of a hawthorn bush, buried alive.

frost

The cadences of Malory’s prose are constantly indebted to the Vulgate Bible (which echoes behind the King James version we are more likely to know today) and to the liturgy; when he describes how it is rumoured that Arthur is not dead but “he will come again,” I think we are supposed to catch the echo of the liturgy of Christ (another king who is dead-but-not-dead), who “will come again, to judge the quick and the dead”.

Merlin’s foreknowledge is – like the image of Arthur sleeping in Avalon, his beginning and ending summed up in that uncertain pairing of ‘sometime’ and in time ‘to come’ – tragic because nothing, neither foreknowledge nor the knowledge of the cyclic nature of time, can lessen the human experience of finality.

Susan Cooper, author of the phenomenally brilliant children’s book series The Dark is Rising, plays with this same idea of time folded over and cyclic, of Arthur’s return and Merlin’s entrapment. Her second book focuses on Will, a boy growing up in a large country family in the 1970s, who gradually discovers the presence of shadowy forces of good and evil from centuries past are hovering on the edges of his own reality. In this narrative, Merlin features as a present-day character as well as a legend from the past, whose once-time servant Haukin is driven to betray him through terror, and whom Will meets as a half-mad beggar stumbling through snowy woods. This is an echo of the medieval poet Langland’s character of Haukyn, a labourer in a torn and tattered coat who is excluded from the central character’s light-filled visions of the Christ-knight who will come to save the world. Cooper’s world is filled with anticipation and nostalgia – from Will’s anticipation of the snow he hopes will fall on his birthday (the shortest day, the 21st of December), to the nostalgic image of carol singing in which Will sees the present world fall away and imagines the carols of an earlier Christmas gathering.

Another wintery read is Alan Garner’s eerie and atmospheric description of the journey he took to write his novel ThursbitchHis journey crosses the Pennine landscape and involves a wintery encounter with a half-buried eighteenth-century memorial stone on a lonely hillside. This stone leads him to a local legend of a man found dead on a snowy hillside with the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow beside him, and on from that to what he believes to be the real location for the fictional Green Chapel of the fourteenth-century Christmas poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This mapping of the worlds of long-ago fiction onto real geography is beautifully spooky, as if we could see the ghosts of the past if we were only able to be in the right place.

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A Christmas story that makes use of this sense of time and place is The Children of Green Knowe, in which a lonely motherless boy, Tolly, goes to stay with his great-grandmother in a twelfth-century house for Christmas, where he slips through time to meet a family of children from the reign of Charles II. In the 1980s a TV series was made of it, set in the real house at Hemingford Grey, which is of course of the kind of quality you’d expect for 1986, but which makes you wish they’d remake it.

Lucy M. Boston, like Cooper, makes beautifully evocative use of weather, and where Cooper  brings to life the smell of the air before a snow fall and the restless flurrying of rooks in the treetops, Boston describes a Christmas of heavy flooding in the fens, with water cutting off the house from everything around it, with thunder and lightning that gives way to deep snow and the singing of the carol Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.

The story isn’t purely Christmassy though, or at least not purely celebratory. Listening to a carol sung in the next room and four hundred years ago, Tolly’s grandmother gives a perfect response to why Christmas carols can be sad:

‘It is lovely, only it is such a long time ago. I don’t know why that should be sad, but sometimes it seems so.’ 

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More Recommendations for Advent

Not all of these are time-travel stories, and they are not all set at Christmas (though A Traveller in Time culminates with a brilliantly plangent Christmas scene). But they all seem to me to fit the bill for nostalgia, anticipation, and a sense of time passing.

Alison Uttley, A Traveller in Time
Dorothy Sayers, Nine Tailors
Antonia Forest, End of Term (Kingscote)
Rosemary Sutcliff, Knight’s Fee and The Armourer’s House
Anya Seton, Katharine.

Please add yours in the comments.

The best ever version of the Christmas story itself, by the way, is Jan Pienkowski’s silhouette illustrations to an abridged synthesis from the King James Bible (abridged syntheses of the Bible are very medieval).

Note

The pictures are mine. As with everything else on this blog, please don’t use without permission. Thanks!

Advent at King’s College, Cambridge: A Post about Learning to Belong

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View from Garret Hostel Bridge over Clare, with King’s Chapel in the distance.

Since I started teaching this term, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes something inclusive. How do I include all of these students? How do I attract students who’re already worrying they may not ‘fit in’? At what point do I have to do something that threatens to leave some of them behind, and when can I afford to use terminology and concepts that aren’t easily accessible?

Medieval literature can seem pretty inaccessible. As a medievalist, I have a working familiarity with Latin; I know a fair bit about reading and handling manuscripts (these texts aren’t easy to read and even when printed in modern editions, they use letters we don’t usually see, like þ and з), and I rely on a lot of Christian theology which, like the Latin, can carry very awkward connotations about inclusion and exclusion.

This term, I was lecturing on the long Middle English poem Piers Plowman, which is phenomenally demanding. The impact of the exclusionary aspects of the text break down along gendered, racial and class lines, which is what makes them so difficult to teach around. To give the most obvious examples, students from State schools are less likely to be familiar with Latin; students who have never been targets of anti-Semitism may be less likely to find Langland’s habitual vitriol triggering, and I’m very conscious that my background as a high church Anglican gives me an advantage in coming to terms with the implications of a text that truly believes all non-Christians are in for eternal damnation. The effects of unfamiliarity are what we might call micro-exclusions (extending the useful concept of microaggressions). They’re tacit, but they do affect us along those lines of pre-existing discrimination.

This Sunday, I went to the Procession for Advent service at King’s College Chapel, a service that is not dissimilar in its liturgical texture, nor in its high potential for exclusion, to Piers Plowman. Now, I’ve got to admit, since I got my current job, I have been pinching myself to believe it’s not a giant mistake, and one of the things that got me most geekily excited was getting to hear King’s choir.

Church interior, from the Psalter of Henry VI (London, BL MS Cotton Domitian A. XVII, f. 12v). Henry VI initiated the building of King's College Chapel.

Church interior, from the Psalter of Henry VI (London, BL MS Cotton Domitian A. XVII, f. 12v). Henry VI initiated the building of King’s College Chapel.

You can get a bit of the idea of the structure of the service from this youtube link (sorry for the quality), but basically it’s choir singing interspersed with Bible readings. It began in darkness – and 88 metres of cathedral can get very, very dark at the altar end when the only light is coming in through the far door – and gradually, as the choir processed slowly up towards the altar, they brought candles and light with them.

400px-Candles_church

I’m no expert on liturgy, medieval or modern. And this service was set up in 1934 by the then Dean of King’s, so it’s not got a long history. Eric Milner-White served as a chaplain in the First World War, and I’ve always associated that kind of post-war atmosphere of piety with the kind of service this is.

But, despite its newness, the service made me think of the ancient pre-Easter service of Tenebrae, in which all the lights in the church are gradually put out, until at last a book is slammed shut and the noise echoes around the pitch black church. That service is threaded through the medieval narrative of Piers Plowman, in which the author imagines Christ descending into Hell in the form of a light, which leaves the world in darkness on Good Friday, but which lightens up Hell, blinds the devil, and frees the souls kept captive there.

This service is, obviously, a reverse of that one, and, in a similar way to Tenebrae or to a medieval poem like Piers Plowman, it was full of symbolic light and sound and gesture. The antiphons between readings or hymns were sung in Latin; there was a bit of post-conversion T. S. Eliot and a couple of medieval carols.

A carol written by Henry VIII: bastard in his personal life, but hey, cute music manuscript.

A carol written by Henry VIII: bastard in his personal life, but hey, cute music manuscript. London, BL MS Add. 31922, f. 36v.

I know a lot of people would find many aspects of this service, and its context in a university college chapel, highly problematic. It’s not an accessible form of worship, as you can tell from the connotations I’m finding in it. It’s not designed to be easily interpreted, and a perfect (literal) example of this was found in the notes at the beginning of the service booklet, which warned us not to expect to be able to read it during the service itself. And you don’t just wander along. You can queue for a place in the street on the day, but you’ll be sitting behind the rood screen, and the majority of people who go, are going because they have tickets. Finally, you have a sense that you’re trespassing into male-only space. King’s choir has traditionally been all male, and it did piss me off to see that the male choir had a group of women processing with them, whose job was to carry the candles … but not to sing.

I was wondering how to respond to this, as I looked back over the carols the choir sung, and particularly one Middle English carol. It’s in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Arch. Selden. B. 26, f. 14v, if you’re interested, and A Clerk of Oxford has a nice blog post about it. There’s a version on youtube here, you can look at the manuscript page (complete with music) here, and here are the lyrics (I’ve modernised thorn to ‘th’ and yogh to ‘y’ or gh, but left the rest of the spelling as is):

Nowel, nowel, nowel,
Nowel, nowel, nowel.

Owt of your slepe aryse & wake
For God mankynd nowe hath ytake
al of a maide without eny make,
of al women she bereth the belle.

And thorwe a maide faire and wys,
Now man is made of ful gret pris,
Now angelys knelen to mannys seruys,
& at this tyme al this byfel.

Now man is brighter than the sonne,
Now man in heuen an hye shal wonne,
Blessyd God this game is begonne,
& his moder emperesse of helle.

That euer was thralle, now ys he fre,
That euer was smalle, now gret is she;
Now shal God deme both the & me,
Unto his blysse, yf we do wel.

Now man may to heuen wende,
Now heuen & erthe to hym they bende,
He that was foo, now is oure frende,
This is no nay that Y yowe telle.

Now, blessyd brother, graunte vs grace
At domes day to se thy face,
And in thy courte to haue a place,
That we mow there synge nowel.

The place where this carol manuscript was copied was an exclusionary space: a monastery in Worcester, a space whose exclusion mirrors wider exclusions of women throughout medieval society. The choir who sung it in King’s Chapel are performing in a context of music and worship which, likewise, has an exclusionary history, a history of male-only space in which the Church and the university often seem to speak in one (Latin) voice. Yet, this carol balances exclusion with strong, and interestingly gendered images of community. 

The carol places Christ’s birth in the context of his coming battle with the devil, which will see Mary reign as ’emperesse of Hell’. The ‘game’ begun with Christ’s birth is this contest, and this word reminds me very much of other medieval narratives. Langland’s Piers Plowman, which was written perhaps sixty or so years before this carol is first recorded and was circulated in the same West Midlands area, imagines the conflict between Christ and the devil over the rights to the souls in Hell as a matter of wit and trickery, not just a contest of brute force. In the same way, Langland’s contemporary the Gawain-poet, also writing in the West Midlands, uses the motif of a ‘Christmas game’ to stage a conflict over the human soul of his hero.

I love the drama of that image, and I love how the carol telescopes time, so that everything from Christ’s birth to the Harrowing of Hell is condensed into this single narrative, with a glance forward even to the end of Time.

The image of the first verse is completely standard, even a bit of a cliché: Mary is ‘a maide without eny make,’ that is, a woman without a ‘make’ (= mate, or husband) and a woman without any ‘make’ (= match or peer; ie., a peerless woman). The next mention of her, however, jolts us out of cliché: 

Blessyd God this game is begonne,
& his moder emperesse of helle.

The chronology of the carol skips straight from Christ’s birth and the beginning of the ‘game’ for man’s soul, to the image of the Virgin reigning over conquered Hell. There’s a similar startling discontinuity in another medieval carol, Adam Lay Y-Bounden, which I’ve written about before, and which jumps straight from the taking of the apple in the garden of Eden, to its unexpectedly fortunate result, the coming of the Virgin Mary to be humanity’s intercessor in heaven.

The exclusion of parts of the well-known narrative lets us look at it in a new light. On the one hand, the writer has entirely excluded the human history of Mary from his carol. This image of Mary as a powerful empress rather than a human mother harks back to the older iconography (which you can still see a lot of in the Orthodox Church). It’s deliberately more awe-inspiring and less sympathetic than the later imagery of Mary as nurturing mother, and it’s slightly out of step with the fifteenth century, slightly exclusionary and distant, bringing us up short. But, at the same time, it makes me wonder whether this exclusionary image doesn’t have its positive points: it’s an image of a female figure who is primarily powerful rather than emotional, awe-inspiring rather than humble.

And the depictions of gender become even more startling. When the author describes ordinary humanity, he writes:

“That euer was thralle, now ys he fre,
That euer was smalle, now gret is she”

(‘Whoever was enslaved, now he is free./ Whoever was small, now great is she.’)

This is the sort of elegantly gender-balanced language you’d expect in a modern piece of writing, by someone rendering feminist theories of language into religious verse. And yet it fits into this fifteenth-century carol.

Finally, what puts a shiver down my spine (in a good way) is the last verse, which I’ll quote again in modern English:

“Now blessed brother grant us grace
At doomes day to see thy face,
And at thy court to have a place,
That we may there sing nowell.”

Partly, this works for me because in medieval literature, there are dozens of writers who use unexpected family relationships to imagine their bond with God. But I like both the parity and the monasticism implied by ‘brother’. Since this manuscript was copied (if not necessarily composed) in a monastery, I like to think that the writer might have been imagining Christ as if he were another ‘brother’ in religion. It suggests a real familial warmth to the relationships between monks, which I don’t think we often think about.

I do think this is interesting in terms of gender. We’re so often encouraged to think about how oppressed or disempowered groups might establish mutually supportive relationships, and we often study the bonds created in the women-only spaces inhabited by medieval nuns, or the support between medieval women from all walks of life.

But we’re less inclined to look at the emotional and familial bonds between men, perhaps because emotional and familial bonding is (in modern culture) so often seen as part of the feminine sphere and, in the extreme, as an aspect of wifework, which I’ve written about before. So, we end up reinforcing the idea that emotion and accessability are gendered, that we should always be able to imagine and relate to women’s emotions, while men’s are a closed book.

The author of this carol didn’t imagine a Christian community in which ‘he’ meant ‘all humanity’ and women weren’t mentioned, which is something some modern writers still fail to do. And I find it difficult to fault him for falling back on the exclusively male space of the medieval monastery as his personal image of the ‘court’ of heaven, because I can see how, for a medieval monk, the language of ‘brotherhood’ might provide the most immediate emotional connection.

I feel lucky to be able to read all of the resonances of liturgy and medieval context into a service like this one, a poem like Piers Plowman, or a carol like ‘Arise and Wake’. I’m conscious that people often perceive the kinds of texts I read, and the kinds of experiences I’m having at the moment, as inaccessible, and feel these kinds of text or performance are ‘not for them’. I’m trying to find ways to make these texts more accessible – not by ignoring the difficulties of interpretation they cause, but by exploring the ways in which they can question even the exclusionary situations within which they were produced. The richness of these medieval carols, of this (perhaps exclusionary) modern liturgy, of a poem like ones I teach, is something incredibly difficult to grasp. But when you do grasp it, and get through all of those micro-exclusions, you may find texts – and people – struggling with the same questions of how to avoid exclusion, how to imagine a properly inclusive community.

Update

I just thought I’d link to an account of the Carols from Kings TV service, filmed a few days ago, on Mary Beard’s blog. I was passing through King’s as the TV crew were preparing to film, and found out they light the chapel from outside, which makes sense, but also makes it look amazing as you look back across the river. Here.

Notes

It’s worth knowing that, as a college, King’s has an established tradition of active efforts to attract students who might not initially feel comfortable applying to Cambridge.

If you want to know more about medieval carols or their manuscripts, check out this blog post over at the British Library site, by Sandra Tuppen. It’s a lovely Christmassy read.

‘Bodies without Histories’: Poems and Memories

Botticelli, 'Madonna of the Book,' 1480

Botticelli, ‘Madonna of the Book,’ 1480

I should have written a post for National Poetry Day yesterday, but life got in the way, so it’s here today instead.

It’s long, but a lot of the length comes from two pieces of poetry I wanted to post.  Apparently, today, it would be de rigueur for me to write an enthusiastic blog post, not about poetry, but about my first visit to Oxford’s new manuscript library. I have been, and it is lovely, and yes, you can look out over the Oxford skyline, and yes, the stairs are excitingly futuristic and look very Battlestar Galactica, and yes, I am (just!) old enough to have looked up my first manuscripts in the old five hundred year old library built by Duke Humfrey and I am sad that no one else will get to do that now. But, Sjoerd Levelt and David Rundle have both written lovely, eloquent pieces on the subject.

Their research places them in a chain of known and named readers in this library: Professor Rundle works partly on Duke Humfrey, the fifteenth-century aristocrat who had it built, and Dr Levelt works on John Selden, book collector and historian, for whom the ‘Selden end’ of the old manuscripts reading room is named. Both of them made interesting points about what it was like to handle manuscripts belonging to these men in the very same space where those manuscripts were kept and read hundreds of years ago. You could stand in the room and imagine the exact same physical experiences – the same manuscripts in your hands, the same light slanting through the same windows – that those men had in the past. 

Memory has a corporeal aspect in some of my favourite poems, and functions a bit the way that long-lived libraries do, to let dead voices come to life again through shared books.

Start with The Wasteland. Before I had the foggiest idea what Eliot was talking about, let alone where half of these archaic-sounding lines were stolen from, bits of the poem stuck out in a non-English rhythm.  “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.” Those lines are actually from Dante’s Inferno: “si lunga tratta/ di gente, ch’ i’ non averei creduto/ che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta” (‘such a long train of people, that I would not have believed that death had undone so many’). Before that, they look towards Virgil’s Aeneid, which Dante draws on to imagine his crowd of thronging dead, and from which he borrows his imagined guide through Hell, the poet Virgil. His crowd echoes that of Virgil, who describes how “omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat,/ matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita/ magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae …” (‘all of this crowd were rushing to the banks [of the river Styx]: mothers and men, bodies devoid of life, great-hearted heroes, boys and unmarried girls …”). In turn, Virgil’s Latin is taken from Homer’s Greek in the Odyssey, where, after Odysseus summons the dead up from Hades with a libation of blood, αἱ δ’ ἀγέροντο/ ψυχαὶ ὑπὲξ Ἐρέβευς νεκύων κατατεθνηώτων/ νύμφαι τ’ ἠίθεοί τε πολύτλητοί τε γέροντες” (‘then the spirits of the dead came, thronging, from Erebus: young wives and youths, old men who had suffered much …’)

The Greek takes us in a loop back to the modernist poets, for Pound – Eliot’s contemporary and friend – begins his Cantos with a loose translation of the same Greek lines with which this book of the Odyssey begins, which then echo forward into Latin, Italian and then Eliot’s English. Each subsequent re-use of an older text reanimates that text, just as Homer’s dead are brought back to speak to Odysseus in the first place.

I absoutely love the way these poems form a conversation. And I feel hugely lucky to have got to study all of them. It’s on my mind because I’m going back to teach some of the courses where I first met some of these writers (and places are evocative, even for feministy women). But, then, a little bit of me feels as if it’s not my conversation,  just as it’s not my library – I’m a visitor on the edge of a conversation carried out between men and in the male voice. Much as I love those male voices, I wondered how we could think about women immortalised in poems and memories.

The first medieval poem that sprang to mind when I thought about women, poetry, memory and loss was this one (anonymous, for what it’s worth, ok, I admit I think here anon was a man, despite writing about a woman). Here are the opening lines, with a facing translation:

I
Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye,
Pearl, pleasing to a prince’s taste,
To clanly clos in golde so clere
To enclose cleanly in bright gold
Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye,
From the Orient, I dare swear
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
I never found her precious peer.
So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
So round, so beautiful in every setting
So smal, so smothe her sydes were,
So small, so smooth, her sides were
Queresoever I jugged gemmes gaye
Wheresoever I judged beautiful gems
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.
I set her apart, unparalleled.
Allas, I leste hyr in on erbere;
Alas, I lost her in a garden
Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
Through the grass to the ground, it slipped from me.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
I linger, wounded by love-frustration
Of that pryvy perle withouten spot.
For that special pearl, without a spot.IISythen in that spote hit fro me sprange,
Since it sprang from me in that spot,
Ofte haf I wayted, wyschande that wele
I have often waited, wishing for the joy
That wont was whyle devoyde my wrange
That once was wont to dispel my woe
And heven my happe and al my hele.
And raise my heart and happiness.
That dos bot thrych my herte thrange,
This only pierces my heart sorely,
My breste in bale bot bolne and bele.
My breast burns and swells in anguish.
Yet thoght me never so swete a sange
Yet, I never thought of so sweet a song
As stylle stounde let to me stele;
As that still moment let steal over me,
Forsothe, ther fleten to me fele
Indeed, many things flooded over me,
To thenke hir color so clad in clot.
To think of her colour, covered in earth.
O moul, thou marres a myry juele,
Oh mould, you mar a merry jewel,
My privy perle wythouten spotte.
My own pearl, without a spot.

The whole poem is much longer, and it has a gorgeously complicated, repetitive, architectural structure to it. As it unfolds, we realize that the reason the man speaking refers to this pearl as ‘she’ is because the precious stone represents a woman whom he loved and who is now dead and buried – ‘lost’ in a garden that is a graveyard, her ‘colour so clad in clot’, clothed in clods of earth.

I find this a poignant evocation of grief – especially the speaker’s contrast between the ornate beauty of the lost pearl and the gruesome glimpse of the woman’s burial, ‘clad in clot’. However, there’s no denying that even though the dead woman, the lost pearl, belongs to a poetic tradition as old as that which Eliot traces back to Homer, her precious, passive, untouchable body belongs to a wider tradition of representing chaste, beautiful women as perfect in their proximity to death. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne writes a brilliant (and disturbing) description of this kind of medieval attitude:

“Chaste female spirituality is … located in bodies without histories, locked away both from outer event and physiological change. … This writing-out of women is part of a thematic preoccupation with their death in the literature of chastity.”

[quoted from Wogan-Browne, ‘Chaste bodies: frames and experiences,’ in Framing Medieval Bodies, eds. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 24-42 (p. 24)]

On the surface, all of this is true of Pearl, just as it is of the earlier text to which Wogan-Browne refers. The repeated line referring to a pearl ‘without a spot’ echoes the medieval scriptural interpretations of the perfect female beloved as one who, like the Virgin Mary has no ‘spot’ of sin. In death, she is enclosed in the grave, ‘clad in clot,’ yet this enclosure only continues that more beautiful enclosure imagined in the first lines, where she was ‘clos[ed] in gold’. 

Admittedly, this is a complex poem. It won’t let me construct some neat theory about the ways in which dead men are memorialised through poems that let them speak again, while women, in death, are passive and silent. And I’m glad I can’t.  However, I still read those lines and wish I had something later to look towards, the way you can look from Dante to Eliot or Homer to Pound. And so, that’s where the second poem I want to quote comes from. It’s by a modernist, contemporary with Pound and Eliot, and she deserves to be better known. This is a piece from her long epic poem, Trilogy.

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino ('Our Lady of the Goldfinch'). 1505-6

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino (‘Our Lady of the Goldfinch’). 1505-6

We have seen her
The world over,

Our Lady of the Goldfinch,
Our Lady of the Candelabra,

Our Lady of the Pomegranate,
Our Lady of the Chair;

we have seen her, an empress,
magnificent in pomp and grace,

and we have seen her
with a single flower

or a cluster of garden-pinks
in a glass beside her;

we have seen her snood
drawn over her hair

or her face set in profile
 with the blue hood and stars;

we have seen her head bowed down
with the weight of a domed crown,

or we have seen her, a wisp of a girl
trapped in a golden halo;

we have seen her with arrow, with doves
and a heart like a valentine;

we have seen her in fine silks imported
from all over the Levant,

and hung with pearls brought
from the city of Constantine;

we have seen her sleeve
of every imaginable shade

of damask and figured brocade;
it is true,

the painters did very well by her;
it is true, they never missed a line

of the suave turn of the head
or subtle shade of lowered eye-lid

or eye-lids half-raised; you find
her everywhere (or did find),

in cathedral, museum, cloister,
at the turn of the palace stair.

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

We see her hand in her lap,
smoothing the apple-green

or the apple-russet silk;
we see her hand at her throat,

fingering a talisman
brought by a crusader from Jerualem;

we see her hand unknot a Syrian veil
or lay down a Venetian shawl

on a polished table that reflects
half a miniature broken column

O yes – you understand, I say,
this is all most satisfactory,

but she wasn’t hieratic, she wasn’t frozen,
she wasn’t very tall;

she is the Vestal
from the days of Numa,

she carries over the cult
of the Bona Dea,

she carries a book but it is not
the tome of the ancient wisdom,

the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new;

all you say, is implicit,
all that and much more;

but she is not shut up in a cave
like a Sibyl; she is not

imprisoned in leaden bars
in a coloured window;

she is Psyche, the butterfly,
out of the cocoon.

H. D. shows how this woman, the Virgin Mary – central to Western Art History – is seen in the eyes of painters and viewers as a conflation of exchangeable images of femininity, now one woman, now another, now pictured like this, now like that. These Madonnas, with their precious stones and beautiful settings, their enclosure in picture frames or even ‘trapped in a golden halo’, patently share in the same iconographic tradition of the medieval pearl-maiden. A poet like Pound or Eliot might have made her literary and artistic predecessors speak, but instead, H. D. offers a corrective to their view. She strips away all of the rich, evocative tradition and insists on her own poetic authority to define her Madonna. This Madonna is not a (female) ‘body without history,’ nor a (male) speaking voice reanimated, but a move towards something new. 

I hope you like the poems. 

Note

The titles H. D. gives to her Madonna are the titles of paintings, mostly by Raphael. I have to admit, I don’t really warm to Raphael. I always visualised this poem with vague images of da Vinci Madonnas. Sorry! I have absolutely no idea whether or not H. D. could have read the medieval poem Pearl. The imagery is drawn from many of the same sources, but Pearl wasn’t especially well known when H. D. was writing. 

Thirty Falling Gravestones and the Ghost Church on Kinoulton Hill

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The picture above shows the abandoned graveyard of a church that was in use for at least 600 years. I wrote a little bit about this church a few weeks ago, when I was talking about the way in which people in certain areas of this country – perhaps in particular the East Midlands – become disconnected from their medieval heritage of culture and literature, and how we need to reclaim that heritage. As an academic, I feel incredibly lucky that I get to read manuscripts that are hundreds of years old, to see the notes quite ordinary people jotted in the margins of their books, at to feel a momentary connection with lives lived in an entirely different time. But, because I’m not an archaeologist, I don’t go to look at the places where people lived as often as I might. So when I went back to see if I could find this graveyard, I found it fascinating and humbling.

Kinoulton’s old church – dedicated to St Wilfrid and probably built in the twelfth century – is now nothing more than a series of mounds and stony hummocks on a hillside, whose shadows mark out the ghost of a building.

To get to Kinoulton, these days a little modern village, you turn off the A46, the old Roman Fosseway, between Leicester and Newark. You find yourself on a steep hill looking down into the Vale of Belvoir. But instead of continuing on down, you park at the top of the hill and you follow the bridleway through the gate.

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There’s a field to the side, full of vaguely curious sheep and, when we went, bordered by a large ditch full of water. Up to this point, you’re definitely on the footpath, but I admit, I did climb the gate after this. If by some extremely long shot the owner of this land is reading: I hope this was ok, and I would love to know whether or not the graveyard is accessible, as I remember it being on the footpath when I was a child.

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Jumping over the ditch and crossing the field, you come to a sloping field, with a view across into the Vale and a tangle of brambles, thorns and unmown grass interrupted by a few wildly slanting grave stones.

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These stones mostly date from the eighteenth century, and feature the sorts of rhyming verses, couplets and quotations from the Bible that you’d expect:

“Time flies, Our Glory Fades, and Death at Hand”

reads the inscription on one tomb, flamboyantly decorated with an Angel of Death holding a scythe, bestriding a globe featuring lines of latitude and longitude and writhing, apocalyptic serpents. A dancing skeleton completes the image. There’s a wonderful picture of it on flickr – please look, if you click on it the detail is amazing. Another inscription berates ‘Pale Death’ that has killed ‘so good a wife, so kind a mother’. This form of reference reminded me of the epitaph on Mary Sidney, written in 1621:

“Underneath this sable hearse,

Lies the subject of all verse,

Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.

Death, ere thou hast slain another

Fair and learned and good as she,

Time shall throw a dart at thee.”

Strip away the better poetry of the latter and you have the same sentiment, defining a woman in terms of her relations to her male family, and the same slightly macabre reminder of the physical reality of a body lying just feet away under the tombstone. In Kinoulton graveyard, further gruesome images (which I couldn’t help finding quite appealing) come in the form of skulls with crossed bones, worried expressions on their faces:

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A more elaborate memorial is shared by several of the graves: a carved angel, with an oddly impassive face and wings spread wide. These carvings are known as ‘Belvoir Angels’ and you find them throughout the area. Although Kinoulton is now one of the smaller villages in the vale, those found here are some of the best examples that exist.

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As you can see, they’re slowly being reabsorbed into the turf of the hillside, with grass almost covering them. In summer, when the grass is shorter, this stone would be more visible, but in the winter, the grass hides them from view, and some have been badly damaged.

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The stone below, broken and chipped, hidden in the shadows of the weeds, was inscribed with the name of William Wilson, who died aged 43 in 1732.

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Some of the most elaborate gravestones are those of the Innocent family, Francis and his wife Ann, who died in 1866, and their son Thomas who died in 1755. The parish register also records a son, Francis, who was christened in the church on the 22nd of November 1747, and died only a day later.

This isn’t an uncommon story: near to the graves of Francis and Ann are those of William and Henrietta Bates, whose daughter Anna was born and died on 13th November 1785. Her mother followed her sometime in the next year, perhaps from complications of a difficult labour. Their in-laws, John Bates and his wife Mary, lost two babies born barely a year apart: eight-month-old Anna died in April of 1800 and newborn John in December. In 1802 they had another baby, Maria, but she lived only just over a year. The baptisms of two more children, Mary and John, are recorded in the Parish Register in 1803 and 1807. No dates of death are written in beside, so presumably these children survived their infancy.

Reading through the Parish Registers and matching the records with these graves made me notice how few children’s graves were still standing. A lot of the graves are broken and slanted, so, of course,  gravestones for these children may well once have existed, but might have fallen to the ground.

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A lot of people I talk to today cling to the idea that, in the past, parents could not have cared so acutely for their children as we do now, and perhaps didn’t feel the need for the memorials we would expect. This is an idea that’s long been discredited in academic circles – it was based on poor but highly influential research – and one surviving stone in this graveyard provides a sad counter argument:

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The inscription above reads:

Here lies the Body of Thos. [Thomas], the son of Joseph Page by Elizabeth his wife. He departed this life June 1st, 1720, in the 3rd year of his age. 

This stone is carved as beautifully as any of the adults’ graves, and must have been both expensive and time-consuming to make: the parents who commissioned it wanted future generations to remember their lost child.

It’s amazing to see how well-preserved these stones are, and how much skillful work went into the making of tombstones in what seems such an isolated, windswept, lonely place. Looking at them helps us to image this church bustling with life, with people whose families stretched back to medieval times.

Yet these beautiful, elaborate, solid memorials must, even when they were new, have reminded viewers how precarious memory is. At the time when the latest of these stones were placed, the new church of St Luke in the new village of Kinoulton had already been begun; the old church was already unstable on its windy, wet hillside. It’s likely some of the stone was removed to be reused, but there must have been a period when people who worshipped at the new church still remembered lost children or parents or siblings buried up on the hillside.

Today, English Heritage lists the site as one of those ‘at risk’. The official record of the gravestones includes, amongst others, the gravestone of one Sarah Dee, 20 years old: it has lain flat on the ground since she died in 1703. I remember seeing it as a child, and when I looked for pictures I saw that in 2012 someone had dug into the ground and unearthed it. But when I looked for it myself, it was hidden under the turf, and I could not even find where to dig.

A friend, looking at the images of Kinoulton’s derelict graveyard, reminded me of Penelope Lively’s story of Astercote, the medieval village abandoned following the plague. The reasons why Kinoulton Church was abandoned are far less dramatic: the building simply and quietly fell into disrepair as the village migrated away from it. But I think that these stones and the stories of ordinary people’s lives and deaths they tell deserve to be remembered and recorded, before they disappear.