Dating back to the late 15th century, the first Monday after Epiphany marks the start of ploughing for spring sown crops and was once the traditional day of agricultural workers returning after the Christmas period. Historic documents however, tell of plough candles being lit in churches during January in the 13th century.
Customs of the day varied nationwide, but the most common feature was a plough (blessed in church the previous day) to be hauled from house to house in rural communities. As the continued, an army of villagers collected money for the parish during a passing street procession. Apart from dancers and musicians, an old woman called “the Bessy” or a boy dressed as such and a man in the role of the ‘Plough Fool’ often headed of the procession. Some participants paraded a Straw Bear and not surprisingly, the event also attracted much drinking, merriment and mirth throughout the day. In Eastern England, ploughs were taken around by Plough Monday mummers and Molly Dancers and were sometimes even used as a threat. If householders refused to donate to the money collectors, their front paths would be ploughed up!
A festive Plough Pudding was also eaten on the day. Originating and also ‘invented’ in Norfolk, this was a suet pastry-topped boiled pudding filled with pork sausage meat, chopped bacon and onions with sage and sugar added. It could be eaten alone, or served with boiled potatoes, vegetables and gravy. One recipe suggested a Cooking time of 3 hrs 30 minutes, but today’s microwaves would reduce that!! A similar item is still sold today by major supermarkets.
At its height, Plough Monday was most commonly celebrated in the East Midlands and East Anglia, until the English Reformation caused its slow decline. In 1538, Henry VIII forbade “plough lights” to be lit in churches, before Edward VI condemned the “conjuring of ploughs”. Ceremonies revived during the reign of Mary only to decline again during Elizabeth I’s reign. Some processions survived into the 19th century and in 1810, a farmer took his case to Derby Assizes, claiming that refusal to donate money, those pulling the plough, immediately ploughed up his drive, his lawn and a bench, causing twenty pounds worth of damage. Plough Monday customs continued to decline but were revived in some towns in the 20th, with remaining events mainly involving Molly Dancers. Some Plough Monday events were still recorded in the 1930’s before a “folk revival” in the ’60s and ’70s partly returned it to some communities.
This year however, being 2019, Plough Monday falls on the 7th January – which means, for this year at least, it clashes with St. Distaff’s Day!!
Before factory-made cloth was invented, spinning was considered one of the most demanding female chores as before the Spinning Wheel arrived, this activity was slowly and tediously done on a Drop Spindle. One pound of woollen yarn might take a week to spin and a pound of heavy cotton yarn, several weeks. Women of all ages spun threads and when normal activities resumed, they would also spin at home in the evenings, after daytime working in the factory. Spinning was the only way to turn raw wool, cotton or flax, into thread, before it became cloth.
Several times recently, readers have enjoyed descriptions of certain dates connected with historic events, famous people and more. We’ve just had New Year’s Day and next month, comes St Valentine’s Day. But there are other “named” days relating to unusual, forgotten or bygone customs and the following is one example:-
In England, as well as other European countries the days from Christmas through Twelfth Night were once considered a time of rest from the labours of spinning. The maidens returned to their work on St. Distaff’s Day, January 7th. This day was also known as Rock Day, which is derived from the German word rocken, which means both distaff and woman’s. Robert Herrick’s poem about St Distaff’s Day comes from the anthology, Hesperides, and was published in 1647:
St. Distaff’s day, or the morrow after Twelfth-Day
(from Hesperides by Rober Herrick)
Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.
The general suggestion of the poem seems to be that men and women should go back to work after the Christmas break but should do so lightly and with some playfulness thrown in before settling in for the long haul. The command ”Partly worke and partly play/ Ye must on S. Distaffs day” is probably a fair observation on the actual state of affairs, given that Plough Monday games (on the Monday after Epiphany) are well attested in many rural areas, especially East Anglia. Little it seemed was therefore taken too seriously on the first day back at work; it became a joke holiday and they called it St. Distaff’s Day. Of course, there never was a real St. Distaff, the “distaff” was, in fact, a principal spinning tool – a rod on to which flax was tied and from which, thread was pulled.
Although women resumed work on January 7th, men still stayed free until Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th Jan). If that fell on a Tuesday, they wouldn’t return until Monday, 12th January! As it was, the Plough Monday celebrations were a great deal more popular in the days leading up to the 19th century when England still had a sizable rural, agricultural population. A large number of rural customs that flourished in England in the mid-19th century were dying or dead by the beginning of the 20th as people migrated from the country to cities and lost their ties to rural life. Antiquarians and, later, folklorists and anthropologists took to the task of recording the remains of these customs, as well as hunting down snippets of information from archives. As for the plough-boys when the festival was at its height, well they used this discrepancy to no good by playing pranks on the busy spinners. The most popular of these pranks was to set fire to the tow and flax which was awaiting processing. The spinners in turn would quench the fire with buckets of water, drenching both fire and firebug.
Large and small St Distaff’s Day gatherings of the fibre-based community were held nationwide on 7th January, with little work being done that day. Records suggest that in England, St. Distaff’s Day was only ‘celebrated’ between the 13th and 17th centuries.
Whilst the term “Christmas” first became part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, meaning “Festival of Christ”, the influences for this winter celebration pre-date this time significantly.
Winter festivals have been a popular fixture of many cultures throughout the centuries. A celebration in expectation of better weather and longer days as spring approached, coupled with more time to actually celebrate and take stock of the year because there was less agricultural work to be completed in the winter months, has made this time of year a popular party season for centuries.
Whilst mostly synonymous with Christians as the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus (the central figure of Christianity), celebrating on the 25th December was a tradition that was borrowed, rather than invented, by the Christian faith and is still celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike today. Indeed the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn the Harvest God, and the Scandinavian festival of Yule and other Pagan festivals centred on the Winter Solstice were celebrated on or around this date. As Northern Europe was the last part of the continent to embrace Christianity, the pagan traditions of old had a big influence on the Christian Christmas celebrations.
The official date of the birth of Christ is notably absent from the Bible and has always been hotly contested. Following the instigation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the 4th century, it was Pope Julius I who eventually settled on 25 December. Whilst this would tie in with the suggestions of the 3rd century historian Sextus Julius Africanus that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox of 25 March, the choice has also been seen as an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan winter festivals that also fell on this date. Early Christian writers suggested that the date of the solstice was chosen for the Christmas celebrations because this is the day that the sun reversed the direction of its cycle from south to north, connecting the birth of Jesus to the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was not as popular as Epiphany on 6 January, the celebration of the visit from the three kings or wise men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, Christmas was not originally seen as a time for fun and frolics but an opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection during a special mass. But by the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, signalling the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as they are more commonly known today.
The medieval calendar became dominated by Christmas events starting forty days prior to Christmas Day, the period we now know as Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”) but which was originally know as the “forty days of St. Martin” because it began on 11 November, the feast day of St Martin of Tours.
Although gift giving at Christmas was temporarily banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins, it was soon popular again as the festive season in the Middle Ages became a time of excess dominated by a great feast, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing and singing.
Many monarchs chose this merry day for their coronation. This included William the Conqueror, whose coronation on Christmas Day in 1066 incited so much cheering and merriment inside Westminster Abbey that the guards stationed outside believed the King was under attack and rushed to assist him, culminating in a riot that saw many killed and houses destroyed by fire.
Some well known modern Christmas traditions have their roots in the Medieval celebrations:
Christmas or Xmas? Although many people frown upon the seemingly modern abbreviation of Xmas, X stands for the Greek letter chi, which was the early abbreviation for Christ or the Greek ‘Khristos’. The X also symbolises the cross on which Christ was crucified.
Mince Pies were originally baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib and the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was meant to symbolise the gifts bestowed by the three wise men. Similarly to the more modern mince pies we see today, these pies were not very large and it was widely believed to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. However, as the name suggests, mince pies were originally made of a variety of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. It was only as recently as the Victorian era that the recipe was amended to include only spices and fruit.
Carol singers. Some of us enjoy the sound of carollers on our doorsteps but the tradition for carol singers going door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times. Many carollers took the word carol literally (to sing and dance in a circle) which meant that the more serious Christmas masses were being ruined and so the Church decided to send the carol singers outside.
Anyone for humble pie? While the most popular choice for Christmas dinner today is undoubtedly turkey, the bird was not introduced to Europe until after the discovery of the Americas, its natural home, in the 15th century. In medieval times goose was the most common option. Venison was also a popular alternative in medieval Christmas celebrations, although the poor were not allowed to eat the best cuts of meat. However, the Christmas spirit might entice a Lord to donate the unwanted parts of the family’s Christmas deer, the offal, which was known as the ‘umbles’. To make the meat go further it was often mixed with other ingredients to make a pie, in this case the poor would be eating ‘umble pie’, an expression we now use today to describe someone who has fallen from their pedestal to a more modest level.
Boxing Day has traditionally been seen as the reversal of fortunes, where the rich provide gifts for the poor. In medieval times, the gift was generally money and it was provided in a hollow clay pot with a slit in the top which had to be smashed for the money to be taken out. These small clay pots were nicknamed “piggies” and thus became the first version of the piggy banks we use today. Unfortunately Christmas Day was also traditionally a “quarter day”, one of the four days in the financial year on which payments such as ground rents were due, meaning many poor tenants had to pay their rent on Christmas Day!
Whilst the excitement and frivolities of Christmas make it easy to forget the more serious aspects of the festival, it can also be argued that the tradition started by the wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh continues today, although with perhaps slightly less exotic gifts!
All of us can imagine the medieval world. Our imagination was created by our upbringing, the books we read, and the films we saw. Imagining the Middle Ages is an act that usually starts in childhood, and changes slowly as we grow older. From the brightly coloured pages of a child’s history book to the visceral panoramas of the latest season of Game of Thrones, how we see the Middle Ages changes. In most cases, however, the fundamental perspective remains the same: it’s an elite view of the medieval past, a Middle Ages composed of princes and kings, of knights and fair damsels in distress. It is a vision of the past that includes the splendour of great cathedrals and the brooding darkness of mighty castles. A past of banquets and battles. But it has little bearing upon reality.
The problem with our view of the Middle Ages is that it excludes the vast majority of people who lived in it, so it’s a highly partial and misleading picture of that world. Just like today, most medieval people did not belong to top 5 per cent of society, they weren’t kings, princes, knights, or damsels. Most men, women and children were commoners. It is no coincidence that this other, everyday, 95 per cent of the population was the one who did most of the work.
Putting aside farming, food processing and survival, it was these workers who were responsible for actually building most of what we think of when the Middle Ages come to mind. These are the people who built the magnificent medieval cathedrals, the craftsmen who constructed the dour and monumental castles. The workers whose blood and sweat bonds together the stones of every medieval church. They are the men whose deft fingers filled window spaces with blindingly bright stained glass. These are the people who built the Middle Ages. Yet we really know very little about them.
The voices of medieval commoners are largely silent. The science of archaeology tells us something about their general health, about what they wore, where they lived, and what they ate. Modern techniques such as isotope analysis can even tell us details such as where they grew up. The wonders of modern science have their limitations, however. Archaeology and isotope analysis cannot tell us what these people felt and thought, what they dreamed of and feared, what they thought was funny or what they held dear.
Most medieval documents come with the same limitations. Occasionally, the lower classes turn up in the odd surviving document, account book or legal proceedings but, with low levels of literacy throughout much of the Middle Ages, these documents are usually the work of third parties. They were written and compiled by the priests, scribes and lawyers of the elite. They refer to the lower orders, but are most certainly not in their own words. Even where they turn up in the bright borders of illuminated manuscripts, it is alongside the fantasy beasts and grotesques of the medieval imagination rather than as a reflection of reality. Their voice – the voice of the medieval commoner, of the vast majority of medieval people – is largely lost.
The past seven or eight years have seen a massive rise in one particular area of medieval studies – an area that has the potential to give back a voice to the silent majority of the medieval population. Specialists have been studying medieval church graffiti for many decades. But new digital imaging technologies, and the recent establishment of numerous volunteer recording programmes, have transformed its scope and implications. The study of early graffiti has become commonplace. The first large-scale survey began in the English county of Norfolk a little over six years ago. Norfolk is home to more than 650 surviving medieval churches – more than in any other area in England. The results of that survey have been astonishing.
To date, the Norfolk survey has recorded more than 26,000 previously unknown medieval inscriptions. More recent surveys begun in other English counties are revealing similar levels of medieval graffiti. A survey of Norwich Cathedral found that the building contained more than 5,000 individual inscriptions. Some of them dated as far back as the 12th century. It has also become clear that the graffiti inscriptions are unlike just about any other kind of source in medieval studies. They are informal. Many of the inscriptions are images rather than text. This means that they could have been made by just about anyone in the Middle Ages, not just princes and priests. In fact, the evidence on the walls suggests that they were made by everyone: from the lord of the manor and parish priest, all the way down to the lowliest of commoners. These newly discovered inscriptions are giving back individual voices to generations of long-dead medieval churchgoers. The inscriptions number in the hundreds of thousands, and they are opening an entire new world of research.
Today, graffiti is seen as both destructive and anti-social. It is widely regarded as vandalism, not as something to be encouraged on ancient monuments and historic sites. That attitude is largely a modern one. Until recent centuries, people of just about every level of society carved graffiti into ancient buildings. It simply wasn’t seen as something to be condemned. The Coliseum in Rome, or Bodiam Castle in England, to take just two examples of key European heritage sites, are covered in centuries-worth of graffiti. Many of these inscriptions were created by members of the upper classes undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ at the end of their education, and date to the 18th and 19th century. In the same tradition, early visitors to the Egyptian pyramids didn’t even need to carve the graffiti themselves – they could hire someone to do it for them. Graffiti was seen as something that was both accepted and acceptable.
Medieval masons, the people who actually built these monuments, left the earliest markings to be found on any medieval church or cathedral. The traditional story is that each individual mason would have his own personal mark, which he’d inscribe wherever he’d worked. These angular marks, known today as ‘mason’s marks’, acted as a form of quality control. They also allowed the ‘master mason’, who doubled as architect and paymaster, to calculate how much each of his workmen was due to be paid. Masons today continue this old practice of marking their work, but their marks are more discreet, hidden away between stones and in darkened corners. Occasionally, the medieval masons left something more.
Their pragmatic approach to the construction of these stone monuments meant that the walls themselves sometimes served as drawing boards. In a few cases, such as at Binham Priory in Norfolk or Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, intricate working drawings can be found etched into the stones. The designs at Binham all appear to relate to the building of the priory’s great west front in the 1240s. It is one of the earliest marvels of gothic window design to be built in England. The nameless master-mason who undertook the work was apparently unfamiliar and uncomfortable with this innovative style. Step by step, he worked out the specifics of the design on the walls of the half-finished priory church. Sadly, the great west window, which acted as a centrepiece to the design, structurally failed in the late 18th century. It then had to be bricked up – and remains so today. From the mason’s inscriptions, however, we have a clear indication of how this groundbreaking design would have looked.
Witch marks were, simply, prayers made solid in stone
Many of the markings discovered in medieval churches are all but identical. A survey of a church in northern England will reveal the same graffiti motifs and markings as those found in a church on the English South Coast. Even more remarkably, the same medieval markings recorded in most English churches are in churches across the whole of western Europe. Essentially, everywhere the medieval Christian church thrived, medieval Europeans inscribed their places of worship with the same graffiti marks. Known as ‘ritual protection marks’, medieval people believed that these symbols warded off evil influences. Today they are more commonly called ‘witch marks’.
Witch marks make up about a third of all recorded inscriptions. This means that we have many, many thousands of examples of them. Some churches, such as that at Cowlinge in Suffolk, can contain many dozens of witch marks. It is a rare church that doesn’t contain at least a small collection. These markings make clear the differences between the medieval and modern concepts of graffiti. Much modern graffiti tends to be collections of names and dates, examples of people ‘leaving their mark’ upon a place.
However, witch marks belong to the world of faith and spirituality. They were not a replacement for the orthodox prayers of the Christian church. As much as the Church might have disapproved, people used them in association, as supplements to orthodox prayers. They enhanced the spiritual, and symbolised God’s protection from the powers of evil. They were, simply, prayers made solid in stone.
What makes the witch marks even more powerful is that they were also personal. The religion of medieval England was one of hierarchy, with parishioners’ own worship and interactions being organised and mediated by the parish priest. The priest, in turn, was subservient to the local bishop and, eventually, to the Pope himself. The prayers in the stonework altogether bypass that hierarchy, and it’s a hierarchy from which almost all other historical sources from the medieval world originate. These are personal interactions and statements by everyday members of the parish congregation with ‘their’ God. There is no need of intercession by priests, bishops or the Pope. In that way, they reveal things that the official, learned histories of medieval religion never can. These are not actions based deep in medieval theology and scholarly argument. They are acts of personal faith and belief, reflecting real people’s hopes, dreams and fears.
Many of the other images on the walls were born of an agricultural society. We see windmills, horses and geese – fixtures of peasant life. These are things that they saw every day, that were important to them, and essential to their ability to feed themselves and their families. The walls are also covered in the mundane: images of the people themselves, their faces and hands. In some cases, they left full-length portraits. Staring at the medieval walls long enough will sometimes result in the walls staring back.
Beasts and dragons are also included in the graffiti. They are strange and misshapen creatures, who seemingly walked, or flew, straight off the decorative borders of an illuminated manuscript. There are images of knights on horseback, heraldry and coats of arms, suggesting that the graffiti was either created by those from the knightly classes, or perhaps those who aspired to be. The walls are full of the peoples’ hopes. They also contain their darkest fears.
Take, for example, angels and demons: the medieval church was awash with images of them. Angels were carved into the elaborate roof timbers, their wings outstretched soaring high above the congregation. Angels flew in the bright wall paintings that once adorned almost every medieval church, passing news to the Virgin Mary or leading the souls of the departed heavenward. Angels guarded the ends of dark wooden pews and pale stone fonts, carved there, bearing shields emblazoned with the arms of saints.
The demons are there, too. Grotesque beasts painted on the walls above the chancel arch, casting the souls of the damned down into the everlasting sufferings of hell. Comic demons sitting beneath the carved seats of the choir-stalls, bared backsides raised to noisily salute the clergy who perched upon them. Demons in coloured glass dance in the windows.
Demons were very real, and to be feared. This fear drove people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.
But while the medieval church was formally adorned with angels and demons, when it comes to the graffiti on the walls, there are only demons – many dozens of them, from the grotesque to the comic, dancing across the angel-free stonework.
Why are there no angels? The reason is quite simple. The graffiti on the walls shows only what those who made it thought was real and immediate. Angels were heavenly beings. They littered the pages of the Bible, but could not be expected to play a part in the lives of the people in the world. Demons, on the other hand, were very real indeed. It was demons who were responsible for any sudden illness or unexplained death. Demons brought down a blight upon the harvest crops. Demons unbalanced the mind of the simpleton, and brought on the terrifying storms that could lay waste a whole year’s crop in a single afternoon. Demons were real and to be feared. This fear drove medieval people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.
Of all the graffiti being recorded in English churches, text inscriptions are actually rather rare. They make up only about 5 per cent of all the discovered markings: again, a distinct difference with modern graffiti. The rarity is in part a result of the low rates of contemporary literacy, but it is also testimony to the power of images over the written word. Many of the text inscriptions are difficult to read even by long-practiced historians. Generation after generation of wear and abrasion has left them in a sorry state. Even those that can still be made out are sometimes less than illuminating. The poor level of education among some parish priests, and the use of shortcuts and contractions, is reflected in the sometimes appalling attempts at Latin found on the walls. In many cases, the Latin is so bad that the only person who could probably have read it was the very same person who wrote it. Sometimes the writing on the walls simply can’t be read.
So what are these ancient markings on our medieval churches? Are they simply the random scribblings and doodles of bored choirboys, or do they have a deeper significance? Is there a meaning to some of them beyond the obvious? Beyond the simple statement of ‘I was here’? Recent research suggests that, yes, they are very important.
One of the most striking types of medieval graffiti is that of medieval ships. These small images are among the best-studied of all the graffiti, and are beginning to shed light on the mystery of exactly why they were made. When the modern surveys began, it was widely presumed that ship graffiti was confined to coastal churches: simple images created by local people of the ships they saw every day. However, research has shown that ship graffiti is found just about anywhere in the country. There are examples from Wiltshire and Leicestershire, about as far from the sea as one can get in mainland England. Even more intriguing, all the examples of ship graffiti, even those found many miles inland, appear to show sea-going vessels. The church at Blakeney, on the north Norfolk coast in the east of England, can help to explain why there is so much graffiti of these little ships.
Blakeney’s church is covered in early graffiti inscriptions, and they are spread fairly evenly throughout the building. All the dozens of examples of ship graffiti, however, are to be found clustered in one clear and distinct area. Without exception, all of the images were inscribed on the pillars of the south arcade – and most are on the single pillar that sits at the eastern end. According to maritime historians, the images were created over a period of 200-300 years. Despite this, each little ship respects the space of those around them, never crossing over one another. This tells us that the earlier ships were still clearly visible when the later images were created centuries later.
People sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls.
It is, however, their location that holds the real clue to their meaning. The eastern pillar into which they are carved sits opposite the side altar in the south aisle. From the historical record we know that this altar was dedicated to a church’s patron saint. In the case of Blakeney, that was Saint Nicholas. Now better known for his association with children and Christmas, throughout the Middle Ages St Nicholas was regarded as the patron of ‘those in peril upon the sea’. The ship graffiti is clustered around the St Nicholas altar for a reason. Historians and archaeologists believe that each of these little ships was a ‘votive’ offering – quite literally, a prayer carved into the stonework. Exactly what that prayer was, we might never know. Was it a prayer of thanksgiving for a voyage safely undertaken, or a prayer for safe passage on a voyage yet to be made? The fact that some of the ships appear damaged has led some to suggest that these might be prayers for ships, crews and loved ones that never made it home.
This is the true value of searching out these ancient inscriptions on the wall. These little prayers and etchings offer one of the few avenues into the hopes and feelings of those who left their mark many centuries ago. It is not a world of knights, princes and kings. It is a world of real, fallible human beings. People who sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls. Quite simply, the medieval graffiti gives us back the lost voices of the medieval world.
Written by Matthew Champion: He is a British historian and archaeologist who is interested in architectural investigation, heritage planning and the environment, and is the author of Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches.
Julian of Norwich is variously commemorated on the 8th or the 13th of May, the alternatives being the two dates given in different manuscript sources for the beginning of her revelations. I like Julian very much – who doesn’t! – and have posted about her a number of times. Today I thought I’d post something a little different: not an extract from her book, but an account of a conversation with her. This shows her acting almost as a spiritual director, as anchorites were occasionally called on to do, and gives us her words filtered through the impressions of a woman whose spirituality was very different from her own.
Some time around the year 1413, a few years before the likely date of Julian’s death, Margery Kempe came to pay her a visit in her cell in Norwich To give you some sense of their relative ages, Margery Kempe was born around the same year (1373) that Julian had her first revelations, at the age of thirty. I think many of us would be glad to have the opportunity to talk to Julian of Norwich, although I like to think that if I was lucky enough to get that chance I wouldn’t do what Margery Kempe did – which was, not surprisingly, talk about Margery Kempe. (To be fair to her, I suppose she had gone there for advice…) Kempe’s account of Julian’s words to her is suspiciously focused on the things Kempe was obsessed with, as a laywoman struggling to find validation for her own form of intense religion devotion: the importance of trusting to personal inspiration, chastity, the holiness of devout tears (Kempe was notorious for bursting into noisy tears during Mass, much to the annoyance of her neighbours), and counsel which essentially says ‘if people don’t like you, you must be doing something right’.
The following text is from Julian of Norwich, and my translation follows below:
“And than sche was bodyn be owyr Lord for to gon to an ankres in the same cyté whych hyte Dame Jelyan. And so sche dede and schewyd hir the grace that God put in hir sowle of compunccyon, contricyon, swetnesse and devocyon, compassyon wyth holy meditacyon and hy contemplacyon, and ful many holy spechys and dalyawns that owyr Lord spak to hir sowle, and many wondirful revelacyons whech sche schewyd to the ankres to wetyn yf ther wer any deceyte in hem, for the ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd gevyn.
The ankres, heryng the mervelyows goodnes of owyr Lord, hyly thankyd God wyth al hir hert for hys visitacyon, cownselyng this creatur to be obedyent to the wyl of owyr Lord God and fulfyllyn wyth al hir mygthys whatevyr he put in hir sowle yf it wer not ageyn the worshep of God and profyte of hir evyn cristen, for, yf it wer, than it wer nowt the mevyng of a good spyryte but rathyr of an evyl spyrit. The Holy Gost mevyth nevyr a thing ageyn charité, and, yf he dede, he wer contraryows to hys owyn self, for he is al charité. Also he mevyth a sowle to al chastnesse, for chast levars be clepyd the temple of the Holy Gost, and the Holy Gost makyth a sowle stabyl and stedfast in the rygth feyth and the rygth beleve. And a dubbyl man in sowle is evyr unstabyl and unstedfast in al hys weys. He that is evyrmor dowtyng is lyke to the flood of the see, the whech is mevyd and born abowte wyth the wynd, and that man is not lyche to receyven the gyftys of God.
What creatur that hath thes tokenys he muste stedfastlych belevyn that the Holy Gost dwellyth in hys sowle. And mech mor, whan God visyteth a creatur wyth terys of contrisyon, devosyon, er compassyon, he may and owyth to levyn that the Holy Gost is in hys sowle. Seynt Powyl seyth that the Holy Gost askyth for us wyth mornynggys and wepyngys unspekable, that is to seyn, he makyth us to askyn and preyn wyth mornynggys and wepyngys so plentyuowsly that the terys may not be nowmeryd. Ther may non evyl spyrit gevyn thes tokenys, for Jerom seyth that terys turmentyn mor the devylle than don the peynes of helle. God and the devyl ben evyrmor contraryows, and thei schal nevyr dwellyn togedyr in on place, and the devyl hath no powyr in a mannys sowle. Holy Wryt seyth that the sowle of a rytful man is the sete of God, and so I trust, syster, that ye ben. I prey God grawnt yow perseverawns. Settyth al yowr trust in God and feryth not the langage of the world, for the mor despyte, schame, and repref that ye have in the world the mor is yowr meryte in the sygth of God. Pacyens is necessary unto yow for in that schal ye kepyn yowr sowle.
Mych was the holy dalyawns that the ankres and this creatur haddyn be comownyng in the lofe of owyr Lord Jhesu Crist many days that thei were togedyr”.
“And then she was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city [Norwich] who was called Dame Julian. And she did so, and displayed to her the graces that God had put in her soul of compunction, contrition, sweetness and devotion, compassion with holy meditation and high contemplation, and full many holy speeches and conversations that our Lord had spoken to her soul, and many wonderful revelations, which she told to the anchoress to learn if there was any deceit in them; for the anchoress was an expert in such things and could give good counsel.
The anchoress, hearing the marvellous goodness of our Lord, highly thanked God with all her heart for his visiting, counselling this creature [Kempe] to be obedient to the will of our Lord God and fulfil with all her might whatever he put in her soul, as long as it was not contrary to the worship of God and the benefit of her fellow-Christians; for, if it was, then it was not the inspiration of a good spirit but of an evil spirit. The Holy Ghost never inspires anything which is contrary to charity; if he did, he would contradict his very self, for he is all charity. Also he inspires a soul to all chastity, for people who live chastely are called the temple of the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Ghost makes a soul stable and steadfast in the true faith and the true belief. And a man who is duplicitous in soul is ever unstable and unsteadfast in all his ways. He who always doubts is like the flood of the sea, which is moved and borne about with the wind, and that man is not likely to receive the gifts of God.
The creature who receives these signs must steadfastly believe that the Holy Ghost dwells in his soul. And much more, when God visits a creature with tears of contrition, devotion, or compassion, he may and ought to believe that the Holy Ghost is in his soul. Saint Paul says that the Holy Ghost asks for us with mourning and weeping beyond saying, that is to say, he makes us to ask and pray with mourning and weeping so plenteously that the tears may not be counted. No evil spirit can give these tokens, for Jerome says that tears torment the devil more than the pains of hell. God and the devil are always opposite to each other and never dwell together in one place, and the devil has no power in a man’s soul. Holy Writ says that the soul of a righteous man is the seat of God, and so I believe, sister, that you are. I pray God grant you perseverance. Set all your trust in God and do not fear what the world says to you, for the more scorn, shame, and reproof that you have in the world, the more is your merit in the sight of God. Patience is necessary to you, for in that you shall preserve your soul.
Much was the holy conversation that the anchoress and this creature had, communing in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ many days that they were together”.
Margery Kempe must have cut quite a figure on the pilgrimage circuits of Medieval Europe: a married woman dressed in white, weeping incessantly, and holding court with some of the greatest religious figures of her time along the way. She leaves the tales of her life as a mystic with us in the form of her autobiography, “The Book”. This work gives us an insight into the way in which she regarded her mental anguish as a trial sent to her by God, and leaves modern readers contemplating the line between mysticism and madness.
Margery Kempe was born in Bishop’s Lynn (now known as King’s Lynn), around 1373. She came from a family of wealthy merchants, with her father an influential member of the community. At twenty years old, she married John Kempe – another respectable inhabitant of her town; although not, in her opinion, a citizen up to the standards of her family. She fell pregnant shortly after her marriage and, after the birth of her first child, experienced a period of mental torment which culminated in a vision of Christ.Shortly afterwards, Margery’s business endeavours failed and Margery began to turn more heavily towards religion. It was at this point she took on many of the traits that we now associate with her today – inexorable weeping, visions, and the desire to live a chaste life.
It was not until later in life – after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, multiple arrests for heresy, and at least fourteen pregnancies – that Margery decided to write “The Book”. This is often thought of as the oldest example of an autobiography in the English language, and was indeed not written by Margery herself, but rather dictated – like most women in her time, she was illiterate.
It can be tempting for the modern reader to view Margery’s experiences through the lens of our modern understanding of mental illness, and to cast aside her experiences as those of someone suffering from “madness” in a world in which there was no way to understand this. However, this one dimensional view robs the reader of a chance to explore what religion, mysticism, and madness meant to those living in the medieval period. Margery tells us her mental torment begins following the birth of her first child. This could indicate she suffered from postpartum psychosis – a rare but severe mental illness which first appears after the birth of a child.
Indeed, many elements of Margery’s account match with symptoms experienced with postpartum psychosis. Margery describes terrifying visions of fire-breathing demons, who goad her to take her own life. She tells us how she rips at her flesh, leaving a lifelong scar on her wrist. She also sees Christ, who rescues her from these demons and gives her comfort. In modern times, these would be described as hallucinations – the perception of a sight, sound or smell which is not present.
Another common feature of postpartum psychosis is tearfulness. Tearfulness was one of Margery’s “trademark” features. She recounts stories of uncontrollable bouts of weeping which land her in trouble – her neighbours accuse her of crying for attention, and her weeping leads to friction with her fellow travellers during pilgrimages.
Delusions can be another symptom of postpartum psychosis. A delusion is a strongly held thought or belief which is not in keeping with a person’s social or cultural norms. Did Margery Kempe experience delusions? There can be no doubt that visions of Christ speaking to you would be considered a delusion in Western society today.This, though, was not the case in the 14th century. Margery was one of several notable female mystics in the la te medieval period. The most well-known example at the time would have been St Bridget of Sweden, a noblewoman who dedicated her life to becoming a visionary and pilgrim following the death of her husband.
Given that Margery’s experience echoed that of others in contemporary society, it is difficult to say that these were delusions – they were a belief in keeping with the social norms of the day.
Although Margery may not have been alone in her experience of mysticism, she was sufficiently unique to cause concern within the Church that she was a Lollard (an early form of proto-Protestant), although each time she had a run-in with the church she was able to convince them this was not the case. It is clear though, that a woman claiming to have had visions of Christ and embarking on pilgrimages was sufficiently unusual to arouse suspicion in clerics of the time. For her own part, Margery spent a great deal of time worried that her visions may have been sent by demons rather than by God, seeking advice from religious figures, including Julian of Norwich (a famous anchoress of this period). However, at no point does she appear to consider that her visions may be the result of mental illness. Since mental illness in this period was often thought of as a spiritual affliction, perhaps this fear that her visions may have been demonic in origin was Margery’s way of expressing this thought.
When considering the context in which Margery would have viewed her experience of mysticism, it is vital to remember the role of the Church in medieval society. The establishment of the medieval church was powerful to an extent almost incomprehensible to the modern reader. Priests and other religious figures held authority equitable to temporal lords and so, if priests were convinced Margery’s visions came from God, this would have been viewed as an undeniable fact. Further to this, in the medieval period there was a strong belief that God was a direct force on everyday life – for example, when the plague first fell on the shores of England it was generally accepted by society that this was God’s will. By contrast, when Spanish influenza swept Europe in 1918 “Germ Theory” was used to explain the spread of disease, in place of a spiritual explanation. It is very possible that Margery genuinely never considered that these visions were anything other than a religious experience.
Margery’s book is a fascinating read for many reasons. It allows the reader an intimate glimpse into the everyday life of an “ordinary” woman of this time – ordinary insofar as Margery was not born into nobility. It can be rare to hear a woman’s voice in this time period, but Margery’s own words come through loud and clear, written though they were by another’s hand. The writing is also unselfconscious and brutally honest, leading the reader to feel intimately involved in Margery’s story. However, the book can be problematic for modern readers to understand. It can be very difficult to take a step away from our modern perceptions of mental health and to immerse ourselves in the medieval experience of unquestioning acceptance of mysticism.
In the end, over six hundred years after Margery first documented her life, it does not really matter what the real cause of Margery’s experience was. What matters is the way she, and the society around her, interpreted her experience, and the way this can aid the modern reader’s understanding of perceptions of religion and health in this period.
Landscapes – Isn’t it so easy and comfortable to think of them as unchanging?
Far easier, I would suggest than trying to imagine them as anything different from what we see before us. Yes, man-made structures come and go over time and that much of the ground that we are capable of walking on is constantly subject to change. But nature itself must be included in any blame-game – and, sometimes she has a lot to answer for. Take the case of Cromer for instance, a lovely town on the north-east corner of Norfolk which has, to my mind, always been there. More significantly for this story, the view that the town commands overlooking the North Sea appears to have never changed; neither has its coastline. Here, I would be wrong on all three counts for I have read historical accounts by those who are far more knowledgeable than I.
It’s a safe bet that few visitors who scan the sea just beyond Cromer Pier realise that the remnants of a village rests there; down and amongst nature’s debris, shifting sands and whatever else that drowns or lives in the depths. Those who use telescopic cameras and binoculars would be no wiser, for nothing can be seen of the lost village of Shipden; no towers at low tide and no peeling of bells when a storm rages – nothing. But, back in the 14th century and further back still, beyond 1066, it was safe on dry land although, admittedly, in constant threat. Shipden was even relaxed in knowing that there was no town of Cromer leaning on its back; there was just open ground and woodland that rose up to higher ground. The seeds of Cromer had not been cast; time was just waiting for Shipden to be removed to make way.
As events ultimately turned out, it was Shipden-juxta-Crowmere that disappeared beneath the waves, along with the land that held and surrounded it. That village was not alone in vanishing for the area north of present-day Cromer which now treads water, wasn’t exactly lucky in past survival stakes. To say that the Cromer area was spoilt for lost villages was due to the nature of the coast thereabouts and not down to the usual suspects as plague, pestilence, poor farmland or landlords who enclosed both open common land in order to accommodate their sheep at the expense of working tenants. No, the Norfolk coast also lost villages to the actions of the sea.
Standing on the high ground at Cromer, East or West Runton or towards Overstrand in the other direction, visitors have to image land that slopes gradually down to the sea to meet an entirely different coastline. It would be a coastline with much shallower cliffs, if any at all. At the end where sea meets shore, there once stood, close to Shipden, two other villages of Foulness and Clare and confirmed by 17th Century maps. I have read from more knowledgeable writers than I that Foulness jutted out into the sea, just to the north of Overstrand – a good enough reason for adding ‘ness’ to its placename – and I agree! I also was told that Foulness had its own lighthouse, some 500 metres further out than the current one at Cromer; and also, it was only from the early 18th century that this beacon finally began to collapse from the effect of storms and tides.
For those visitors unaware of Shipden and where it once stood, they need to look straight out to sea beyond the end of the Pier and for a distance of some 400 yards; it is in this approximate position that the remains of Shipden lays. To think that three entries of its existence were made in the Domesday Book of 1086; its records showing that at that period of time, the village housed 117 people, some of whom made up four and a half plough teams with more making use of three acres of meadow close by and enough woodland for 36 swine. Shipden also accommodated the Gunton Manor House which, up until 1066, was owned by the Abbott of St Benets at Holm, who previously had enjoyed:
“half a carucate to find provision for the monks, with one villain, 3 bordarers, and one carucate in demean, half a carucate of the tenants, and one acre of meadow valued at 10s. 8d”.
“The town of Cromer is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, that being included, and accounted for under the town of Shipden, the Lordships of which extended into what is now Cromer”.
Immediately following Doomsday a Godric was Steward of the Manor at Shipden which had, like most other things, come into the hands of William the Conqueror and consisted of:
“one carucate of land, 4 villains and 4 borderers, 1 carucate in demean, and 1 among the tenants, with half an acre of meadow, and paunage for 8 swine”.
“In the 3rd year of the reign of Edward I (1272 to 1307) Sir Nicholas de Weyland was lord; he married Julian, daughter and heir of Robert Burnel, and held it by the service of one pair of white gloves, and performing services to the capital lord”.
In the 12th year of the same King’s reign, Sir Nicholas was granted a Patent for a ‘Mercat’ – Scottish for a market. It was also decreed that this market would be held on Saturdays for the benefit of the fishermen and villagers. The King’s Patent also allowed for a ‘free warren and a Fair, so one can safely assume that villagers also had fun from time to time. Shipden, unsurprisingly, boasted a harbour and, from 1391, a jetty.
The turn of the 14th Century saw the signs of growing anxiety amongst the small population of Shipden. It was sometime then when John de Lodbrok, Rector of the church, John Broun, a patron, together with parishioners took it upon themselves to petition Edward III (1312 – 1377). They wanted a new church to replace the existing one which “could not be defended” for part of the churchyard had already been wasted “by the flux and reflux of the sea…….that it threatened to ruin the church”. Whatever the process entailed along its submission path and whatever difficulties and delays it may have faced, the petition clearly met with success. On April 15 in one unknown year in the 14th Century “the King grants license that an acre of land in the said village be granted to the said John, Rector, to build thereon a new church, and for a churchyard”.
“John Barnet, official of the Court of Canterbury, and sub-delegate of Pope Urban, appropriated this church of Shypden by the Sea, in 1383, reserving to the Bishop of Norwich an annual pension of 13s. 4d. and to the Cathedral, or Priory of Norwich 3s. 4d”.
Shipden was able, for a time at least, to retain its two churches; one serving Shipden-juxta-Felbrigg and the other Crowmere. However, later that same century, but in the time of Richard II (1377 – 1399) a “Patent was granted for 5 years, for certain duties to be paid for”, including “the erection of a Pier to protect the village against the sea”. Again, this project was to be doomed to failure and within a short period of time Crowmere and its churchyard was destroyed by the sea. Ultimately, the complete village of Shipden was to follow the same fate when the sea rose up further. The population was then forced to retreat inland, away from the advancing coastline and closer towards a position of guaranteed safety. That would be where the present town of Cromer now stands – a position much, much loftier in its outlook. Here, the populace finally settle and where the town’s fathers were to build a new church. Overseeing that task would be Sir William Beauchamp and the Prior of the Carthusians (or Charter House, London) who, having secured a piece of land safely above the late Shipden and adjoining to the Rectory, set about building the present Cromer church, which would be dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul.
From that point in time, Cromer grew and was, for a time, fashionable for Victorian and Edwardian tourists. A pier was built in 1901, extending its friendly hand towards the old Shipden landscape underwater; hotels, shops and homes crowded round the Church. Below the town, it’s foundations were unpinned by a promenade which afforded visitors the facility to walk on level ground. On the seaward side, concrete walls were to form the present front line against an unpredictable sea which still makes inroads from time to time and damages man-made obstacles. How long, one wonders, before this town has to retreat – to Felbrigg?
There is an old chestnut of a story that still goes round and round; it’s so much in the public domain that it would be somewhat petty for anyone to claim copyright; writers must be allowd to have their own take on it. For the reader, the gist of this story is as follows:
On the 9th of August 1888 a steam driven pleasure boat named the ‘Victoria’, picked up around 100 passengers from Great Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier for a 35-mile journey up the coast to Cromer; all on board must have been eager to seek out whatever delights Cromer had to offer – the weather was set fair! As for the Captain, he could have been well pleased that his boat was on yet another one of Victoria’s regularly and stress free trips between the two coastal towns. He could also have been in a favourable state of mind when he decided that, on reaching his destination, he would again anchor up at the 70 yard long “plain wooden” jetty, directly opposite the imposing Hotel de Paris. No one could predict nine years hence, not even the Captain, that a coal boat would smash into that same jetty and wreck it beyond repair, leaving Cromer without a pier until the present metal one was built in 1901. As for the passengers, they waited for the moment when the boat would tie up and they, as fun seekers, would be free to wander around town at will until 3 o’clock when they would have been instructed to be back on board and ready to return to the brighter lights of Yarmouth. What could possibly go wrong – but it did!
Whilst the Captain was approaching the jetty and about to start the process of manoeuvring the boat alongside, there was a sudden sound of metal against rock; the boat’s hull had hit a hard immovable object to such an extent that it had punctured a hole in the boat’s port side. The impact and resulting effects of a lurch startled more than a few; fortunately, for those in pretty dresses and smart attire the boat wasn’t sinking; it was just firmly stuck but, nevertheless, taking in a lot of water. Sensibly, but very inconveniently, everyone was taken off by a flotilla of small boats and ferried to the jetty to be later relayed back to Yarmouth by steam train.
As for the Victoria, she was firmly stuck on a stony object that the local fishermen knew as Church Rock; the alleged remains of Shipden’s 45ft high church tower which still stuck up proud from the sea bed. It was well known that extremely low tides had the potential to reveal some of the tower and sections of house walls. That day, the tide was low enough to bring both boat and the still submerged rock on to a collision course. That collision came and what excitement there had been, went. The boat was abandoned to those who would set up winches in an attempt to haul the Victoria free – and salvage her! However, such was the boat’s weight that the wet tow ropes used could not do the job, and the Victoria stayed in her position for some weeks until, in the end; she was removed by blowing up both her and the rock with dynamite. This action was on the advice of Trinity House, aimed at preventing further accidents of this type in the future. As someone once joked a paraphrase a century later – “To lose a village may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose a please steamer as well looks like carelessness”.
Invariably, when church towers drown, folks will say that the bells can still be heard; Shipden’s church bells of old seem not to be the exception for locals may still be overheard saying that the lost village’s bells will toll below the waves when the North Sea is angry. That is as it may be, but whatever other remains are down below in the depths just off Cromer Pier, they are still and quiet – waiting to be discovered – just like the few salvaged items, such as a hinge from the Victoria’s bronze rudder that was brought up sometime during the late 1980’s by the Yarmouth’s Sub-Aqua Club. Its members had, that day, the added experience of “swimming along a street in Shipden, 40ft below the sea where people had once walked”.
As far as one can see on the surface, there are no medieval dwellings existing in Cromer today. The only one that seems to have any real material evidence, apart from the church itself, is the former Hanover House (previously Shipden House) – but all the evidence is covered up. For information on the detail of this listed building see the following:
The Victorian era is famous for its nostalgia and love of sentimental customs. Many Victorian traditions had their roots going back hundreds of years and often included veiled references to Medieval Celtic folklore and pagan deities. In the Victorian era, May Day, was May 1 and considered to be the middle of spring, and was marked with a fair, parade, dances, and lots of floral decorations. The traditional celebrations often began with “bringing in the May”, which involved getting up very early in the morning on May Day, and going into the country to pick flowers to decorate the town. This was as well as making preparations for the parade and other festivities. Women were also said to bathe their faces with dew from the grass and flowers on May morning, to preserve their beauty.
Flowers were woven into garlands and wreaths, posies for people to wear, and bouquets to fill May Baskets, which were heavily decorated and hung on doors around town. Making and filling these baskets and then secretly delivering them to friends’ and neighbours’, knocking on the door and running away without being seen, was a favourite May Day amusement. If the recipient caught the one delivering the basket, they could claim a kiss! During the Victorian era, it was also considered an exercise in true generosity, giving without expecting anything in return.
The parade was traditionally led by a May Queen, supposedly the most beautiful teenage girl in the village, who was crowned with flowers and attended by several other girls. The girls all wore white, with flowers in their hair and danced and sang as they followed the May Queen, who wwould opened the fair with a speech. According to folklore, the May Queen represented the Roman goddess Flora, or the Celtic Earth goddess, the personification of Spring, and it was considered an honour for a girl to be chosen.
Dances at the May Fair included traditional Morris dancing, which was performed by groups of men dressed in green and white with flowers on their hats, often with masks or painted faces; they tied bells to their legs which would ring as they danced with swords, sticks and handkerchiefs. The movements, costumes, and noise of Morris dancers symbolized scaring away evil from the community.
Dancing around a May pole was another type of dance for May Day; the Maypole was a tall pole erected in the middle of a clearing, decorated with flowers and long ribbons attached to the top. Different age groups – especially children and the young adults – danced in specific patterns, each holding the end of a ribbon, and wove the ribbons in a pattern around the pole as they danced round and round. The May pole dance celebrated youth, fertility, and the changing of the seasons.
Other May Day activities included riding hobby horses in races, having archery tournaments, and feasting. The May Day celebrations were often concluded with a bonfire and more alcohol, which led to more rowdy and less-proper entertainments like ribald songs and unrestrained sexual activity. In response, proper Victorians minimized the connection with pagan religious tradition, and instead enjoyed the sunshine, flowers, giving gifts, and dressing up, with secular, community-oriented festivals that enabled people to take a break for some music, dancing, feasting and games.
Well dressing, also known as well flowering, remains a tradition practised in some parts of rural England in which wells, springs and other water sources are decorated with designs created from flower petals. The custom is most closely associated with the Peak District of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The custom of well dressing in its present form probably began in the late 18th century, and evolved from “the more widespread, but less picturesque” decoration of wells with ribbons and simple floral garlands.
,The location identified most closely with well dressing is Tissington, Derbyshire, though the origins of the tradition are obscure. It has been speculated that it began as a pagan custom of offering thanks to gods for a reliable water supply; other suggested explanations include villagers celebrating the purity of their water supply after surviving the Black Death in 1348, or alternatively celebrating their water’s constancy during a prolonged drought in 1615. The practice of well dressing using clay boards at Tissington is not recorded before 1818, however, and the earliest record for the wells being adorned by simple garlands occurs in 1758.
Well dressing was celebrated in at least 12 villages in Derbyshire by the late 19th century, and was introduced in Buxton in 1840, “to commemorate the beneficence of the Duke of Devonshire who, at his own expense, made arrangements for supplying the Upper Town, which had been much inconvenienced by the distance to St Anne’s well on the Wye, with a fountain of excellent water within easy reach of all”. Similarly, well dressing was revived at this time in Youlgreave, to celebrate the supplying of water to the village “from a hill at some distance, by means of pipes laid under the stream of an intervening valley.” With the arrival of piped water the tradition was adapted to include public taps, although the resulting creations were still described as well dressings.
From the time of Augustine’s mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasteries and Abbeys formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. These religious communities, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline.
Monasteries, Abbeys, call them what you like, were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. The County of Norfolk was no different in how it’s religious communities were organised and run.
Principally, two Abbeys stand out in Norfolk but only one is the subject of this blog, that of Langley Abbey. It, along with the other Norfolk Abbey of Wendling, were both communities of Premonstratensian Canons. Langley was founded on the 19th Febtruary 1195 by Roger fitz Roger of Clavering and dedicated in honour of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin; whereas the Abbey of Wendling, Langley’s daughter house, was dedicated to St. Mary and founded about 1265 by William de Wendling, one of the king’s justices. That is by way of explaining that the Premonstratensian order was not confined to Langley; indeed, the Order spread throughout the land mass which is now Europe, crossed the English Channel and found roots throughout England. The Order was, in time, to also cross the ocean and develop in America – but that is another story.
Both Norwich Cathedral and Langley Abbey were built during the century after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and both, just as all cathedrals of William the Conquerer, were constructed using Caen stone delivered by boat from France. The site chosen to build Langley Abbey was situated on the south bank of the River Yare approximately mid-way between Lowestoft and Norwich. It was positioned on the extreme edge of a gravel terrace but stretched on to the peat of the marsh lands. It’s present day ruins occupy the same spot.
The area in which Langley Abbey sits is a strangely remote part of East Anglia, the uncompromising rivers have long dictated the landscape, and the modern roads now rushing through to Norwich do so without much regard for the villages and hamlets lost in the rolling meadows and copses beyond. Langley is on the southern side of the river Yare, opposite the sugar beet factory and although its silos and chimneys appear from time to time above the rise, Langley is a quiet place. It remains one of the small, ancient parishes created very early on in the colonisation of this island by the English.
When first built, Langley Abbey housed between fifteen and twenty canons who were known as ‘white canons’, not monks in the strict sense of that name. They made up a community of priests who lived together under a Rule, modelling themselves on the Cistercian values of austerity and seclusion. What they lacked in personal wealth was offset by their Abbey which was impressive. It’s position and appearance, in Caen stone and flint, would have stood out for miles around and, in all probability, was the biggest building outside of Norwich. It was an awe-inspiring landmark at the heart of a thriving medieval community and once housed some of the most important religious leaders in Norfolk. What more did it need to make a mark on the landscape and show that the land around, and probably beyond, was completely under the control of the Abbey. The idea was clearly to blow people’s minds with amazing imagery!
During its first 100 years the wealth of Langley Abbey was almost entirely derived from contributions, grants and appropriations from more than 80 Parishes in the Diocese. During this period, when times were good, the number of Canons probably increased to over 20 with the gross income of the Abbey being estimated at about £178. Along with the daily duties and religious services, the Canons also took on the role of parish priests to the surrounding villages. This was a time when Norwich, just upriver, was one of the largest and most important cities in medieval England and Langley Abbey would have held a very prestigious position.
The surviving building that exists today formed part of the west range of the Abbey and, along with other areas of the abbey, was rebuilt and redesigned during the 14th century. The surviving Cellarium, as the name suggests, was a store room for food, wine and other goods and is thought to have possibly been used as the Abbots personal cellar. A narrow, spiral stone staircase leads up to what is believed to have been to Abbots private quarters.
Very little is reported of life at Langley Abbey until 1475, when Bishop Richard Redman was appointed Commisary-General of the Premonstratensian Order in England, which meant that he was responsible for the 29 larger English houses. Sadly for him, the abbey, which was to stand for over three hundred years, had a reputation for being one of the most wayward monasteries in England; it appears that disorderly conduct and corruption were rife! Apart from all the other indiscretions, there was a scandal when the presiding Abbot, who was responsible for the collection of funds for the crusades in the Norwich diocese, seemingly embezzled the £200 of taxes gathered in the the local area – claiming that he hadn’t received them.
Bishop Redman was charged to investigate this and all other reports of ‘wrong doing’; a task that was to occupy his mind and time for over 25 years. He made his first of many visits to Langley on 1 July, 1475 to sort things out. That was a short visit, leaving on 3 July but making sure that he dined at Beccles at the expense of Langley Abbey – perks of his position no doubt!
The Abbey was again visited by this bishop three years later, on the same day of the month. On that occasion he met with Nicholas, Langley’s Abbot who was bowed down by age and sickness, the reason given for the Abbey’s bad discipline. The outcome to their meeting was for Prior John Bristow to receive unspecified discipline and for two of Langley’s canons to be appointed to ‘look after the spiritualities and temporalities of the house’. Thomas Russell was sentenced to forty days bread and water and banished to another house for three years ‘for evil living’. Two others were apostate for going out without leave and also sentenced to forty days of penance. The practice of locking any rooms so as to prevent the entrance of the superior was also forbidden. All recreation outside the precincts would be stopped until the next General Chapter when the Prior would attend report as to whether the new rules were being observed.
Little seemed to change after Redman departed for during his next visit to Langley on 20 August, 1482 there was again much scandal reported. John Myntynge the Abbot, John Bristow the Prior and fifteen others, including a novice and an apostate, were in attendance. The Abbot was accused of some incompetence and waste with the result that his powers were temporarily transferred to two of the canons under the Abbot of Wendling. Seemingly distressing to some was the diktat that ‘common taverns near the monastery’ were not to be visited and no one was to leave the precincts of the Abbey, save those responsible for services in churches. The injunctions did not end there for there were also a variety of minor and usual orders included.
Did all this work? Well, during his tour in the early summer of 1486, four years later, Bishop Redman, having reached Langley at supper time on 27 June, seemed pleased. Then. two years later, when Langley’s Abbot Walter Alpe, Prior John Shelton and thirteen other canons were present, Redman found matters going ‘excellently well’ – but not quite, despite being informed that the Abbey’s debt had been reduced from £200 to £100. Being the Commissary-General of the Premonstratensian Order in England and maybe a person wanting his present felt further, Redman highlighted other ‘irregularities’ and left behind him further injunctions; they were banns against absence for hunting and fishing by night under pain of the greater excommunication.
Redman, it seems, must have developed a taste for maintaining discipline at Langley for he was again there In 1491 to attend the serious case of Canon Thomas Ludham who, in a quarrel, had cut off a man’s right hand; he was sentenced to forty days penance and to perpetual imprisonment. Redman made further visits in1494 and 1497, reaching Langley at supper time the 20th June. He held his meeting with the Abbot the next day, but did not leave until the 23rd, when he slept at Norwich – once more at the expense of Langley. This unusually long stay of Redman and his retinue may have been intended as a kind of punishment for the laxity he had found at Langley; on the other hand, one should not forget Redman’s track record for his acceptance of ‘hospitality’.
In the year 1500 William Curlew was elected Abbot of Langley, but was obliged to resign in 1502 for some ‘delinquencies which are not named’. On 10th December, 1502, Robert Abbot of Alnwick, as father-abbot of Langley, being too aged and infirm to ride, wrote to Richard the Bishop of Ely, giving him full authority to act in his name and to conduct an election of a new Abbot for Langley. He told the Bishop in his letter that the house of Langley was in sore financial straits, being much in debt and not having sufficient for its domestic needs or, indeed, for the spiritual benefices that it held. Robert also anticipated difficulties as to the election and authorised the Bishop to excommunicate anyone who might be rebellious. It would seem that yet a another new Abbot would solve Langley’s probelems.
For writers, like present-day Karen Maitland, Langley’s clear reputation could and would be exploited, all in the cause of developing a good plot – as in her book THE RAVEN’S HEAD , of which we shall sample an extract:
“There are some people who appear friendly, even charming, like the neighbour spraying his roses who cheerily calls ‘good morning’. But behind the chintz curtains he is adding that deadly pesticide to his wife’s tea, as he did for his three previous wives whose bones now fertilise those same roses. And, like people, places too can present an innocent face, while concealing a heart of malice.
Langley Abbey in Norfolk is one. If you see it in summer with the sun glinting from its ruined walls, snuggled in the tender green grass, it presents a romantic setting. It could be one of those follies the landed gentry liked to build in their magnificent gardens, where ladies sipped wine and listened to lovers reading poems or played at being shepherds and shepherdesses among the daisies.
But creep up on Langley on a winter’s evening and you will glimpse its dark soul. The ruins rise like giant gravestones in the darkness as the bone-white mist from the marshes slithers through them. The stones are so cold, so silent that every night-sound echoes from them – the rat-rustle of dried grass, the gallows-creak of the branches of a tree, the drip and gurgle of icy black water.
Was it that desolation, those nameless terrors that drove the medieval White Canons out of their abbey every night to hunt, drink or seek comfort in the arms of village women, anything to escape those great oppressive stones?
For centuries, Langley corrupted those who entered its walls. The Premonstratensians or Norbertines, who founded this abbey in 1195, belonged to one of the strictest religious orders. They were ordained priests who had dedicated their lives to serving the community, but had also subjected themselves to living under austere monastic rule. Yet, as each new generation arrived the muddy ooze seeped into their veins; the marsh-agues gnawed their bones, and malevolence choked their souls. Every virtuous abbot sent to reform them was instead sucked into their mire.
But what lay at the heart of Langley’s darkness? Henry VIII’s recorders unearthed financial corruption, sexual ‘incontinence’ and violence against fellow clerics. But imagine if there was something worse concealed behind those walls, something far more sinister? Don’t be deceived by Langley; don’t be taken in by its sweet, innocent face. Like any poisoner, Langley knows where the bones are buried. The question is, can we find them?
The 1500’s were obviously a seminal period for the Abbey and Langley Abbey’s dissolution took place in 1536, which meant that what assets it had were seized. It is understood that by the time of suppression in 1536 the numbers of the community were falling and the inventory of church goods showed nothing of value and the chattels were equally of little value. An obvious decline did not stop there; the buildings were also ruinous and in a state of decay. Twelve years later, the Abbey site was acquired by John Berney, Esq, when it was primarily seen as a quarry for stone and a reclamation yard for other materials. Reports from the time made if stark that the destruction of the Abbey was very thorough. The site and estate remained in the Berney family until the middle of the 18th Century when they passed to the Beauchamp Proctor family where they remained until the early 20th Century.
Little remains of this once magnificent and large Langley Abbey but extensive archaeological excavations in the 1920s by Elliston Erwood produced a detailed plan of how the Abbey was laid out. The fact that monastic buildings of that era generally conformed to a similar set of rules enabled the illustration below to be produced which shows how the Abbey is likely to have looked when it was first built.
The vaulted former Cellarium is still standing and there are remains of the church, barn and fishponds. The western range has recently been restored and now houses a full-scale model of the original monastic layout plus interpretation boards telling the fascinating story from foundation to dissolution.
But despite being a site of enormous historical and cultural importance, Langley Abbey has been shut away from the eyes of the public for hundreds of years. Now the remains of this 12th century abbey, near Loddon, has undergone restoration and is open as a fascinating Norfolk tourist attraction.
Our thanks to Jim Moon of ‘Hypnogoria’ who, somewhere amongst his many blogs, wrote the following – it is his take on a very famous and popular Norfolk myth – whoops! – tale.
In the county of Norfolk, between King’s Lynn in the west and Norwich in the east lies the market town of Swaffham. However while the town and its market have been a centre for agriculture since the 14th century, the town is perhaps better known as being home to an oft-told folk tale. It’s a tale of a good man and good fortune, and frequently is mentioned when the subject of prophecies and dreams come up. It’s a tale that has been told many times, and its earliest incarnation is found in an old tome entitled An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk by Francis Blomefield (William Miller, London, 1805-10). In Volume 11 of this truly compendious essay, we have a letter by Sir William Dugdale, dated 29 January 1652, and in it he relates the following tale:
“That dreaming one night if he went to London he should certainly meet with a man upon London Bridge which would tell him good news; he was so perplext in his mind, that till he set upon his journey he could have no rest; to London therefore he hasts and walk’d upon the Bridge for some hours where being espyed by a Shopkeeper and asked what he wanted, he answered you may well ask me that question for truly (quoth he) I am come hither upon a very vain errand and so told the story of his dream which occasioned the journey. Whereupon the Shopkeeper reply’d alas good friend! should I have heeded dreams, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ‘tis not long since that I dreamt, that at a place called Swaffham Market in Norfolk dwells one John Chapman a pedlar who hath a tree in his backside under which is buried a pot of money. Now therefore, if I should have made a journey thither to dig for such hidden treasure, judge you whether I should not have been counted a fool. To whom the pedlar cunningly said “Yes verily, I will therefore return home and follow my business, not heeding such dreams henceforward.” But when he came home (being satisfied that his dream was fulfilled) he took occasion to dig in the place and accordingly found a large pot full of money which he prudently conceal’d, putting the pot amongst the rest of his brass. After a time it happen’d that one who came to his house and beholding the pot observed an inscription upon it which being in Latin, he interpreted it, that under that there was an other twice as good. Of that inscription the Pedlar was before ignorant or at least minded it not, but when he heard the meaning of it he said, “‘tis very true, in the shop where I bought this pot stood another under it, which was twice as big”; but considering that it might tend to further his profit to dig deeper in the same place where he found that, he fell again to work and discover’d such a pot, as was intimated by the inscription, full of old coine: notwithstanding all which he so conceal’d his wealth, that the neighbours took no notice of it. But not long after the inhabitants of Swaffham resolving to reedify their church, and having consulted with the workmen about the charge they made a levy wherein they taxed the Pedlar according to no other rate than what they had formerly done. But he knowing his own ability came to the church and desired the workmen to shew him their model, and to tell him what they esteemed the charge of the North Isle would amount to, which when they told him he presently undertook to pay them for building it, and not only that but of a very tall and beautiful tower steeple.”
Now this tale has become famous the world over, and is much celebrated in the the town itself, lending its name the the Pedlar’s Hall Cafe and inspiring the carved wooden village sign for the town. However curiously, Swaffham isn’t the only place that has a tale like this. Indeed, an almost identical tale is told of Upsall Castle in North Yorkshire. In ‘The Vale of Mowbray: A Historical and Topographical Account of Thirsk and Its Neighbourhood’ by William Grainge (Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1859) we have a story he entitles “Crocks of Gold”:
“Many years ago there resided in the village of Upsall, a man who dreamed three nights successively that if he went to London, he would hear of something greatly to his advantage. He went, travelling the whole distance from Upsall to London on foot, arrived he took his station on the bridge where he waited until his patience was very nearly exhausted and the idea that he had acted a very foolish part began to rise in his mind. At length he was accosted by a Quaker, who kindly inquired what he was waiting there so long for. After some hesitation, he told his dreams. The Quaker laughed at his simplicity, and told him he had had that night a very curious dream himself, which was that if he went to dig under a certain bush in Upsall Castle in Yorkshire, he will find a pot of gold; but he did not know where Upsall was, and inquired of the Countryman if he knew, who seeing some advantage in secrecy pleading ignorance of the locality; and then thinking his business in London was completed, returned immediately home, dug beneath the bush, and there he found a pot filled with gold, and on the cover an inscriptions in a language he did not understand. The pot and cover were however reserved at the village inn; where one day, a bearded stranger like a Jew, made his appearance, saw the pot, and read the inscription, the plain English at which was –
“Look lower where this stood Is another twice as good”
The man of Upsall hearing this, resumed his spade, returned to the bush, dug deeper, and found another pot filled with gold far more valuable than the first: encouraged by this, he dug deeper still, and found another yet more valuable.”
This story has been related of other places, but Upsall appears to have as good a claim to this yielding of hidden treasures as the best of them. Here we have the constant tradition of the inhabitants, and the identical but yet remains beneath which the treasure was found; an Elder, near the north-west corner of the ruins.
Now you will notice that this text boldly mentions that the tale is told in other places, and indeed it is. For to travel further north in the United Kingdom, we find it retold yet again and at an earlier date. In The Popular Rhymes of Scotland by Robert Chambers (W. Hunter, 1826), we learn the history of Dundonald Castle:
“Donald, the builder, was originally a poor man, but had the faculty of dreaming lucky dreams. Upon one occasion he dreamed, thrice in one night, that if he were to go to London Bridge, he would become a wealthy man. He went accordingly, saw a man looking over the parapet of the bridge, whom he accosted courteously, and, after a little conversation, intrusted with the secret of the occasion of his visiting London Bridge. The stranger told him that he had made a very foolish errand, for he himself had once had a similar vision, which directed him to go to a certain spot in Ayrshire, in Scotland, where he would find a vast treasure, and, for his part, he had never once thought of obeying the injunction. From his description of the spot, the sly Scotsman at once perceived that the treasure in question must be concealed in no other place than his own humble kail-yard at home, to which he immediately repaired in full expectation of finding it. Nor was he disappointed; for, after destroying many good and promising cabbages, and completely cracking credit with his wife, who esteemed him mad, he found a large potful of gold coin, with the proceeds of which he built a stout castle for himself, and became the founder of a flourishing family.”
Chambers, much like Grainge, goes on to remark “This absurd story is localised in almost every district of Scotland, always referring to London Bridge”. And indeed not only does the tale recur in other Scottish tales, but it appears in various other places in England and Wales too. Furthermore if we hop over the Channel to Europe, we find it flourishing there too, although of course with some other national landmark standing in for dear old London Bridge. The most famous example perhaps is found in the collections of folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm:
“Some time ago a man dreamed that he should go to the bridge at Regensburg where he would become rich. He went there, and after spending some fourteen days there a wealthy merchant, who wondered why was spending so much time on the bridge, approached him and asked him what he was doing there. The latter answered, “I dreamed that I was to go to the bridge at Regensburg, where I would become rich.“What?” said the merchant, “You came here because of a dream? Dreams are fantasies and lies. Why I myself dreamed that there is a large pot of gold buried beneath that large tree over there.” And he pointed to the tree. “But I paid no attention, for dreams are fantasies.” Then the visitor went and dug beneath the tree, where he found a great treasure that made him rich, and thus his dream was confirmed” (from Deutsche Sagen (1816/1818), Vol. 1, No. 212)
However the trail does not end there. Even earlier and further south, we discover an identical tale in that famous anthology of ancient tales A Thousand and One Nights (AKA Arabian Nights). The 14th tale is called The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream and goes like this:
“Once there lived in Baghdad a wealthy man who lost all his means and was thus forced to earn his living by hard labor. One night a man came to him in a dream, saying, “Your fortune is in Cairo; go there and seek it.” So he set out for Cairo. He arrived there after dark and took shelter for the night in a mosque. As Allah would have it, a band of thieves entered the mosque in order to break into an adjoining house. The noise awakened the owners, who called for help. The Chief of Police and his men came to their aid. The robbers escaped, but when the police entered the mosque they found the man from Baghdad asleep there. They laid hold of him and beat him with palm rods until he was nearly dead, then threw him into jail. Three days later, the Chief of Police sent for him and asked “Where do you come from?” “From Bagdad” he answered. ” And what brought you to Cairo?” asked the Chief.
“A man came to me in a dream and told me to come to Cairo to find my fortune,” answered the man from Baghdad “But when I came here, the promised fortune proved to be the palm rods you so generously gave to me.””You fool,” said the Chief of Police, laughing until his wisdom teeth showed. “A man has come to me three times in a dream and has described a house in Baghdad where a great sum of money is supposedly buried beneath a fountain in the garden. He told me to go there and take it, but I stayed here. You, however, have foolishly journeyed from place to place on the faith of a dream which was nothing more than a meaningless hallucination.” He then gave him some money saying, “This will help you return to your own country.”The man took the money. He realized that the Chief of Police had just described his own house in Baghdad, so he forthwith returned home, where he discovered a great treasure beneath the fountain in his garden. Thus Allah gave him abundant fortune and brought the dream’s prediction to fulfillment”.
Now we cannot be sure of the exact age of the many tales collected in this volume, for scholars believe the first versions of the collection appeared in Arabic in the early parts of the 8th century, with various additional tales being added over the next few centuries. However what we do know is that this particular story of a most fortunate dream appears in as part of a poem by the 13th century Persian poet, Jalal al-Din Rumia, who is best known in the West as simply Rumi. In his epic collection The Masnavi, we have the poem In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad which you can read in its entirety here.
So then, here we have a tale retold in many places and at many times, indeed it is one of those small number of tales that seems to recur everywhere. And folklorists have a catalogue of such stories – this one is commonly referred to as ‘The Treasure at Home’, and under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales it is number ATU 1646. Now given that we have several important literary landmarks for the story, it is widely though that this very popular tale was spread throughout Europe thanks the massive popularity of A Thousand and One Nights, and was adapted to fit local geography and history as it was retold in different places.
However the first European edition of A Thousand and One Nights was a French version translated by Antoine Galland that appeared 1704, andwas first translated into English in 1706. We should also note at this point that the works of Rumi were not translated until considerably later, with the first English translations appearing in the late 19th century. However if you have been paying attention to the dates, we find that while the Arabian Nights theory could well account for the versions referenced by Grainge and Chambers, the oldest English version, comes from a letter written in the 1650s. Now while we cannot rule out this old Arabic tale been spread orally across Europe before its printed incarnations, it is certainly intriguing that the Swaffham version predates other European versions by a good century or more. Furthermore Sir William makes clear that it was already an old tale when he set it down in his letter, and this is supported by the fact that the original Swaffham version has a sequel built in that many other version do not – the business of the inscription and a second pot of gold. For this kind of embroidery is typical of a tale been around for a good while, gaining additional details and extra subplots as it is retold by different generations.
Stranger still is the fact that our hero is actually given a name – John Chapman – something very unusual for a folk tale. But even more intriguingly, there is some historical evidence to back up the story, for John Botewrigh, the Rector of Swaffham between 1435 and 1474 made an inventory of building and repair work done to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. And this tome is now known asthe Swaffham Black Book, and in it we discover that in the mid 15th century the North Aisle of the church was rebuilt. And what is more, this renovation work was paid for by a fellow named John Chapman. And as part of this building work, new pews were installed and two of them are of particular interest for us: for their carved ends show a pedlar and his dog. Furthermore local tradition suggests that a third which shows a lady, is a representation of the shopkeeper in the story.
Of course, none of that can displace the fact that a version of the tale was circulating in the East some centuries before, but certainly the pews and Chapman’s name appearing in the Swaffham Black Book does suggest that the story of his good fortune may have been doing the rounds while the goodly gent was still alive. Obviously Chapman, who served as a churchwarden, was a wealthy man, for construction work never comes cheap, particular in earlier times when a major building project may take years to complete. And given that in the 15th century, Swaffham was home to a thriving market, one wonders whether the tale had found its way to rural Norfolk thanks to travelling merchants, the very kind of folks Chapman would have been trading with.
Furthermore, in history we have many examples of less than virtuous men who in later life decide to bankroll various projects for their local churches. And usually these generous and charitable projects are seemingly done as a kind of penance for their earlier sins and misdeeds. Therefore it is tempting to speculate that the tale of Chapman’s fortune may well have been deliberately adopted to disguise the real origin of his wealth. And rather than repaying the good Lord for his luck by refurbishing his local church, as many versions of the tale suggest, he may well have been atoning for making a lot of money through less than virtuous means…