The Scribblings of a Codex-Curious PhD Student

Month: May 2016

An Artful Wander…

Canterbury Cathedral is a striking feature of the city’s skyline, one which I never get tired of seeing. I have been resident of Canterbury for some six years and have visited Canterbury Cathedral on countless occasions; as an expectant student exploring my new home town, as an unofficial tour guide for friends and family, and as a graduating student twice over. But it is different with each visit, altered by the time of day, the light, the point of view.  It is inexhaustible.

Our last Material Witness session Material Process: Constructing Holy Space  offered another new experience of the Cathedral as we climbed up the scaffolding of the Great South Window to see the current conservation. This window, the widest of the Cathedral, was originally built in the 1420s in Perpendicular Gothic and contains medieval stained glass from as early as the 12th century. This session made me appreciate the transformative nature of the building and its materials. The window is tilted, its materials having failed and been repaired over many years. The current project involves rebuilding the whole window, using materials and processes which replicate those of the fifteenth century. The stonemasons still carving the stone by hand, the stone still being quarried from northern France, connecting this reconstruction to the original window’s building processes and to the people who made it. This construction represents the Cathedral’s continued use as a place of worship, from its original foundation in the 6th century, to the modern day, the Cathedral is a living, changing, space, and so no two visits can be the same.

I was more than happy then, to be offered another new experience of the Cathedral as part of the bi-annual CHASE Encounters conference which took place on Friday 6th May. On an early summer’s evening on Thursday 6th May we were invited into the locked Cathedral by Canon Librarian, the Revd Christopher Irvine, who led us, key in hand, on ‘An Artful Wander’ of the Cathedral’s contemporary sculpture.

This included the remarkable altar by artist Stephen Cox (2005), carved from Aosta marble and commissioned by the people of Aosta, Italy for the St Anselm chapel of Canterbury Cathedral. The altar reflects the environment from which it was created, the valleys and mountains replicated in the stone. This piece also connects modern day worship with the medieval Saint Anselm and the construction of holy space, as it is Anselm who, born in Aosta in c.1033, expanded the Cathedral’s choir during his time as Archbishop, 1093-1109, effectively doubling the building’s length.

The piece that I found most astonishing however, was Antony Gormley’s ‘Transport’ (2010). Made from the discarded iron nails taken from the rotted medieval  timbers of St Anselm’s 12th century  building, Gormley’s sculpture is suspended from the roof of the Cathedral’s Undercroft, from above the site of St Thomas Becket’s first tomb, on display to pilgrims in the Cathedral’s crypt until 1220 when it was moved to the newly built Trinity Chapel. This sculpture embodies the transportation of Becket’s bones and is an evocative reminder of the transmutable, temporary state of the body, and the transport of the soul from life into death. The sculpture itself slowly moves, as air and light also moves through it. Its re-use of material connects the building to the body in a way which is both provocative of the historical use of the space, and that of the modern Cathedral.

This post originally appeared as a blog post for Material Witness, an interdisciplinary doctoral training programme for the interrogation of physical objects, spaces and environments by humanities researchers. You can view the original article here.

A Tear in the Page…

How did medieval people read texts? How did they use them? And why do so few survive? These are the central questions I am attempting to answer through my study of the material details of four fifteenth-century manuscripts containing the alliterative Middle English romance, The Awntyrs off Arthure.

For me, one of the most meaningful realizations of late-medieval reading practice is this detail from the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91, also known as the Thornton manuscript for its compiler and owner, Robert Thornton, a gentleman from Yorkshire who produced two large miscellanies to be read and used by his family. This folio is the opening of The Awntyrs off Arthure text. It is dirty, worn, and most importantly, has been torn across, halfway down the page. This tear has then, at some point, been lovingly sewn back together – highly unusual for a manuscript written on paper. This tear and subsequent repair, as well as the significant colouring to the folio, is suggestive of the poem having been read over and over by Thornton’s family, especially when compared to the relatively pristine condition of some of the books’ other texts.

The thread from this repair has been removed as the manuscript has undergone several stages of conservation, the pages are now mounted on modern paper leaves. We cannot be sure therefore that the original repair was done by the Thornton family in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. But the holes still remain and the damage suffered by this text exemplifies how easily so many copies of it came to be lost. Other copies of the text were not so lucky; the leaves often missing their torn halves, and in fact other texts within Lincoln MS 91 were not similarly saved.

The manuscript’s construction further demonstrates that this text was valuable to Thornton, it is written onto a new page in a single column, with a larger and more decorative initial than any other text of the manuscript (compare it to the similarly beautifully decorated, but much smaller, opening of the fourteenth-century romance Sir Ysambrace ).

Opening decorated initial of 'Sir Ysambrace'

Opening decorated initial of ‘Sir Ysambrace’

This interpretation of the material can therefore give us an alternative perspective of literary consumption that bases itself not only on the survival of texts, but also on the lack thereof. The fact so few romances survive from this period is not necessarily indicative of an unpopular status, but rather, these texts were so popular they were read until they literally fell to pieces, with the poems’ other readers perhaps not  quite as dutiful as the Thorntons of Yorkshire.


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