What was it to be a Mesopatamian peasant, in say, 3000BCE? A pointless question in a way; this culture left little trace of what anyone but its elites believed — yet even that knowledge something remarkable, for it is also the first culture anywhere whose religion we know anything substantive about. And I have spent a few days now immersed in this belief system, an immersion that only reminds me how hard it is to recapture with full imaginative force the word of those who grow in a ‘faith’ that is simply a description of how the world is.
Our man might live in the countryside, but the focus of this countryside is the city, and the focus of the city, the temple, service to which, however indirect, is his raison d’etre. He can see it now, high and white, its geometrically buttressed walls throwing a sharp, tight rythm of shadow in the distance, raised above the city itself, dominating the flat, fertile plain, the reed-groves and waterways.
Its presence is, I think, a comforting one; it is a home: the home for a god. He or she inhabits the images in its dark, richly appointed inner sanctuary; but he or she is also everywhere else: if he is a sky god he is in the sky and the temple and any statue consecrated to his name; if the god of the sweet waters, in likewise. There are a thousand others, but a handful dominate, of which these are two. Knowledge that such beings, or perhaps one should call them natural forces with personalities, natural forces that respond to being treated well by human beings. Knowled, then, that he or she is being properly fed, and attended to, and honoured, is a reassurance.
Because these powers, duly cared for — as is the duty of humanity — are beneficient. But they are also capricious. Our peasant knows only too well how the skys and the sweet waters, and specific winds and specific conditions of the stars, and a thousand other things large and small, each animated by a named force we call a God, can break their order and fail us. Everything is animate, conscious, posessed of power, he knows; but some powers matter more than others. If the wind switches or the water’s don’t rise, the great flat plain on which he grows the food for himself and the food for the gods will bring nothing forth, and all will starve, and it will be our fault. There is a deep strain of fatalism and fear here, a certainty of our dependence on this all-powerful forces, at once distant and immanent.
Every city serves a different god; every object, every person, has a supernatural accompaniment. Great myth-cycles — Gilgamesh, Creation — might be sung when he gets home, stories of the doings of men and gods. The priests rule his city on their behalf; if its fate diminishes, it is they, more than anyone else, who are likely to have done wrong.
Their rituals are elaborate, and private; but over the ensuing millenia they will become more grand, and more political. The priests will become kings, and need theologies to justify a new phenomenon: the ruling of one city by another. The gods will become more like human personalities, with internal politics of their own, and plans and intentions. Architecture will become more vainglorious in the service of these powers: great palace and temple complexes, built around an enormous pyramid-like ziggurat of rammed earth. Cities, empires, cultures within this great continuum — in which there is nothing else in the universe but the great plain, its twin rivers, and its surrounding mountains — will rise and fall. By the time Babylon reaches its imperial pomp, in the first millenium BCE, the entire city will be built around the structures designed to houses the great, 12-day New Year festival: a processional way through gates made of bright tile, dominated by massive winged gods; a ziggurat brightly painted topped by a tiny, mysterious temple.
Yet this very festival has our peasant’s concerns at its heart, for during it the gods reconfigure the bonds on which the cycle of nature depends, and, if things go wrong, the very laws of the universe will be broken, and the forces of nature and chaos, which underly everything, and from which man himself was fashioned, will take over. And it’s all down to the king, and the rituals of scapegoat and cleansing that he and his priests enact around the city in those days, to which all the gods are brought in a mighty procession of inhabited images.
Our peasant’s faith is curiously unconcerned with death. A vaguely-imagined netherworld, configured much as a darker, less happy version of the one he inhabits, exists; people are buried with grave-gods, sometimes in elaborate subterrenan vaults. But the focus of this faith, this worldview, is the land of the living, in which mighty, capricious gods are immanent, and humanity’s duty is to serve them and ensure the annual rising of the waters, on which existence depends, recurs.
With lots more people visiting here in the wake of the recent re-broadcast of my How to build a cathedral, I thought I’d announce the imminent closure of bookings on some of my upcoming, ever-popular, in-depth-yet-accessible, blow-your-mind architecture, tours of cathedrals and other churches. Last chance, everyone!
There are just two places left on Medieval Fenland Churches, 25-27 May; and a few further slots on Medieval Cambridge (20-22 July), and Medieval East Anglia (11-15 June — an excuse to go round Norwich, Kings Lynn, Lavenham and other delights, looking at the towns as well as their churches). Great food and acommodation, too.
And then there’s just one more cathedral dayschool this year, Wells — at once the greatest and most loveable of all the medieval cathedrals — on 30 June. This, too is almost sold out.
As to next year, watch this space for (I can say this now the contract is in the post) not one but two further major books; and a nine-day residential jamboree, touring the cathedrals of England for the esteemed Martin Randall Travel.
To find out more, contact me in the first instance: jon_cannonATSIGNhotmail.com.
I can’t think of a small-children’s book more beautifully written than Where the Wild Things Are. It is a miracle of perfectly placed and poised prose: an infinite pleasure to read, time and time again. I’m not the first to say that, of course, but less often commented on is its profound debt to the medieval era.
It’s true to an extent of the story, which in its storm-in-a-teacup journeying to a land of far-off beasts and adventue, and home in time for tea has just the combination of exotica, danger, quiet poetic oddness and ultimate sealed-in safety of much medieval literature. Indeed the Wild Things are ultimately medieval creatures: gargoyles, babewyns, woodwose, wild men, at once terrifying, safe, at-the-edge.
But it’s Maurice Sendak’s pictures which show a man who has spent many happy hours looking at medeival painting, especially perhaps the Italian/International Gothic imagery of c.1350-1450 — from the Wilton Diptych to Sassetta, the stylised, stage-set mountains and trees, mismatched scales, and dreamlike larger-than-life creatures are all there; so, too is the curiously static, near-posed approach to story-telling. Giovanni di Paolo — shown here, in an oft-repeated cycle about St John, the example of which I’ve shown here in appropriately enough in Chicago rather than Siena or London — gets as oddly-close as any artist to depicting the stuff of dreams, even if he doesn’t know it. Sendak’s Wild Things do the same.
There are all kinds of intriguing patterns among the English cathedrals: the distinction between those with monastic chapters (mostly Romanesque/late C11/episodically added to) and those that were secular (mostly Gothic/wholesale rebuilds of the late C12-late C13) is one of my favourites. But there are others, too. For example, though they have very different characters and histories, all the ‘minnows’ — the poorest sees, with the smallest churches — are on the fringes. There’s Rochester and Chichester on the south-east coats, both the ghosts of lost (in Rochester’s case only posited) Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; and Hereford and Carlisle in the west and north-west, the one a sizeable and ancient see, the other a small but rugged one, an outpost of civilisation in a kind of medeival ‘third world’ in the English north-west, and also the last see to be created before the Reformation.
And then there’s the Northern Giants, Lincoln, York, and Durham: dramatically different — an end to end gothic rebuild, a series of grand projects extending over half a millenium and a substantially Romanesque church respectively — but all colossi, in exceptionally wealthy and powerful dioceses, and all along the north-east coast.
What I’d not noticed before is the pattern of rebuilding in the south west. Two gothic seculars, Salisbury and Wells, were rebuilt there around 1200, to be joined by 1280 by Exeter; the many parallels between the three ‘model’ secular cathedrals added to by the overlap of personnel in their Chapters and, in some cases, their builders and the fact that none had a true in-house saint’s cult, at least until Osmund at Salisbury was canonised in the fifteenth century. Exeter would be the last end-to-end rebuild (C12 towers excepted, as at Lincoln the C12 west front was kept and at Wells and Salisbury aspects of the preceding church encoded in the design) before the Reformation — were it not for Bath, still underway when the monastery there was dissolved. So every cathedral west of Worcester/Winchester had an end to end gothic-era rebuild, two of them later by some distance than any others in the country.
The contrast with the situation in the far east is particularly remarkable, for here, at monastic Norwich and Ely and (though these were not at the time cathedrals) St Albans and Peterborough, not to mention a host of other monastic sites, from Bury to Wymondham, colossal churches in a near-indistinguishable muscular Romanesque survive. It is as if local one-upmanship affects west country ambitions dramatically, while an equally powerful regional tradition in the east says that great churches should look romanesque, righ up until the Reformation. Oddly, this pattern turns the underlying geological one on its head: the great gathering of ancient churches in the far east, stands on the youngest rocks, in the flattest landscape; and the hilly, ancient geological palimpsest of the south west attracts the newest cathedrals, the fashionable and experimental rebuilds of the gothic era.
Spaces stretch out as you head north: medieval polities of enormous size and power: York; Durham and its more edgy neighbour Newcastle. A blackened twelfth-century tower and a battered town church swing by. The first Norman bishop, murdered in a 1070s back street.
Was Durham the single largest building between here and the north pole? One does wonder. Melrose, St Andrews, Kirkwall: serious buildings, but not on this scale. Holy Island, its older sibling, swings by on its WideOpen bay after a bewilderingly long time: things are bigger up here; bleaker, too, if the housing estates are anything to go by. You can see Holy Island from Arthur’s Seat; Northumbria has barely stopped being a buffer state.
Edinburgh, Stirling, two crag-burghs. Their subsequent history — Stirling the Renaissance focus, Edinburgh the modern one, remaking itself into a capital with spiky flair — make them very different places, but their medieval selves may not have been so different. Both dramatically set, with real crags on the doorstep; both a castle-fastness, a long road lined by burghage plots, a grand town church.
These Scots town churches are bewildering to southern eyes. Firstly, I can’t date anything. The south aisle at Stirling has plainly been made from mason’s templates cut in England in the 1310s-30s at latest, yet all the guides — Buildings of Scotland included — are happy that it is C15. The great apse looks to the Continent: there’s no Perp at all up here. The vaulted aisles speak of real ambition, yet the overall size is nothing special compared to the mightiest urban churches in England, and little of this work is well cut, beyond a certain mighty grandeur that might have been positively oppressive when filled with the undying devotions of the Holy Rude. Much the same could be said of St Gile’s, Edinburgh, whose complex story reveals a much lesser early medieval self, but also a C15 collegiate church-ification, with a tierceron vaulted chancel such as would be exceptional anywhere; and both have plain as plain can be clerestories, weirdly originally open to only one side. Style-wise St Giles is Continental Flamboyant throughout: I’m reminded of St Nicholas, Galway. Even the famous crown-like tower top redoes in English motif with Scots/Continental detailing. All in all, these two churches speak a voice of their own: massively impressive, plainly detailed, vaulted aisles, stub-transepts, side chapels added by individual patrons off the nave; little trace of anything substantive predating the C15. But I’m still adjusting to this aesthetic, trying not to see it through Sassanach-tinted spectacles. The stacked mouldings of the St Giles chancel looked like misunderstood Renaissance detailing — until I saw just the same thing in the C13 at Glasgow cathedral: indeed I wonder to what extent, with its powerful design, short transepts and lack of high stone vaults, Glasgow set the standard (and the limits) to which Scottish churches aspired throughout the ensuing centuries.
Holywell abbey is something else: well-carved, lots of good work of the late C12 and a little later, looking strongly to Lincoln but speaking a voice of its own, too. Yet it’s also nothing grander than a host of lost mid-ranking Augustinian houses might have been.
I climb Arthur’s Seat, and find the detritus of this near-shocking wilderness within the city: how many midnight shags/forgotten rave-ups/wild walks/break-ups have happened up here? And more traces of a lost landscape: here’s a neatly vaulted polygonal wellhead from some sacred spring; there, crag-like and covered in graffiti, a two-storey hermitage.
Then, on the way back, Glasgow, and arguably the only medieval building in Scotland (though I’d love to come face-to-face with Rosslyn, Kirkwall, St Andrews) that adds something significant to the Grand Narrative. Here is a serious cathedral, again full of the voice of Lincoln — translated, as it was in Scandinavia, into something of-its-own; and as at Trondheim almost unnervingly cultic — next to a little crag — today the Necropolis, but before that, what? — small, tight and intense, its windows a history of the possibilities of c.1230 (just as tracery is on the brink of invention), and its extraordinary crypt. Little was done here after the C13, and what was seems to go out of its way to fit in with past designs. And even here the transepts are but stumps, and there are no high vaults. Perhaps Scotland north of the Borders could never afford them?
Here, in the crypt, lay Kentigern: a proto-Merlin, a magical hermit saint, in the middle of this grand and Empire-blackened metropolis. The spaces around him are choreographed with shocking intensity, the visitor led down vaulted passages, moved from one subtle space to another until he reaches the shrine on its raised platform. Medieval Scotland certainly had something to offer, something powerful and of its own; something even more comprehensively lost in their more sweeping Reformation even than ours.