As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I took a trip to York and Durham. I’ve already written about going to the Yorkshire Museum to see their Vikings exhibit. While we were in Durham, we also dropped in to the museum in the Palace Green library.
We didn’t check out the main exhibit, but we did look at the archaeology gallery. It’s an archaeology gallery, for the most part. You know the drill: prehistory, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, etc., etc. But the really interesting thing about this one is the organising principle that runs through the display. It’s all about decay. There are lots of little sections that show how different materials decay and what they decay into. There’s even a cute decay mascot.
It’s Mouldy the Mould Spore, the sensational new character of 2017!
I thought it was really interesting to see archaeology presented as all about the process of decay, which, in a sense, I suppose it is.
It’s been quiet around here lately, not because I’ve been doing nothing but because I have been busy. Last weekend, to celebrate our anniversary, my wife and I went back to revisit old haunts in Durham, although we stayed in York, it being easier to find a place on that busy weekend.
Anyway, I’m sure some of these things will come up over future posts, but today I wanted to talk about our visit to the Yorkshire Museum for their Vikings exhibit.
Initially, I wasn’t too impressed. Perhaps it’s just that the exhibit is aimed at a slightly younger audience, which the British Museum one, with its slightly churchy atmosphere, definitely wasn’t, but for the first third or so I was feeling a little unmoved. Basically there was a lot of the same stuff you see in every exhibit about the early middle ages, and the Coppergate helmet, which is very nice indeed but not an exhibit all by itself.
But things turned around, pleasingly, and I found that the intro bit had been the least exciting — for me, but then, the intro bit is not usually for me. I was pleased by the way the process of discovery turned up in so many of the exhibits.
Here’s the Gilling Sword, which is lovely, even if not technically a Viking artefact. I’m pleased that it was on display next to its Blue Peter badge!
It was nice to see various hoards and smaller artefacts. There were a couple of ordinary whetstones I found fascinating because I’m a weirdo.
I really liked the section on Vikings in popular culture, which included some Warhammer 40,000 models:
Frivolous as that might sound, I actually think the Space Wolves are a pretty good example of how Vikings turn up in science fiction: they start as just regular folks with a slightly wolf-y gimmick, become full-on cartoon space vikings and then gradually turn into a more complex and nuanced culture, much as we might see the public perception of early medieval Scandinavians evolving over time but with a decade or so’s lag.
It was a fun exhibit, not huge but a good mix of things. I don’t know that I would have gone out of my way to see it, but I’m glad I got the chance to while I was in town.
If you know me, you will know that I have been fascinated with the engimatic Saint Amphibalus ever since someone (my MA supervisor, maybe) told me about him back when I was doing my MA. If you’re not familiar with Amphibalus, here’s the scoop:
Saint Alban is one of the most important British saints; I think he’s the oldest? If not, he’s close. He was (the story goes) a guy in Roman Britain who protected a priest fleeing from persecution. Observing the priest’s humble, self-sacrificing piety, Alban was moved, converted to Christianity and wound up getting martyred, as one does. In most of the early sources, the mysterious priest is just called “the priest.”
In the 12th century, good old Geoffrey of Monmouth is writing The History of the Kings of Britain, and in it he gives the priest the name Saint Amphibalus. It’s amazingly unlikely that Geoffrey had access to some evidence about the guy’s real name, assuming he ever existed at all, but what we don’t know is whether he just made the name up or whether he was recording what people were calling the priest at the time. The name may be a mistranslation based on a word for “cloak” — there’s a bit in the story where Alban and the priest swap cloaks to help the priest evade capture, I guess?
About 40 years after Geoffrey, the abbey of Saint Albans discovered the body of the saint, presumably in an effort to kickstart a lucrative relic cult that would help them out of their financial difficulties. That kind of thing happened all the time in the middle ages. Some historians believe that the bones dug up and identified as Amphibalus belonged to a pagan Anglo-Saxon burial, which I think is speculative but not implausible.
Anyway, why do I mention this? I mention it because this past weekend I was in Saint Albans visiting family, and I got to go to the cathedral for the first time. Now, there’s a lot to write about about that cathedral, much more than I can really cover in this post: it’s got a lot of preserved 12th-century material! It reuses Roman stuff! It’s sited outside the Roman settlement on a cemetery location! Christina of Markyate! In short, it’s got all the things I love about a medieval cathedral.
And it’s also got the shrine of Saint Amphibalus:
As you can see, the shrine is pretty beat up, but that doesn’t mean that Amphibalus is no longer popular. Dear me, no! In fact, we happened to turn up during the festival that celebrates the feast day of Saint Alban, so we got to see some proper material expressions of popular piety in the form of the huge puppets and various costumes used during the procession.
I know it sounds like I’m making fun, but it’s actually nice to see Amphibalus still part of the life of the community. He may be made-up, or at least heavily embellished; indeed, he may be a combination of legend and pious fraud, but I’m awfully fond of him and I’m glad he’s still around.
Seems like ages since I’ve done one of these, doesn’t it?
The little exhibition space attached to the Cambridge University Library doesn’t seem to get a huge number of visitors; it’s mainly people who are already visiting the library, I think. I understand why: it’s not very big and it’s not really near anything else. But that’s kind of a shame, because every time I’ve been there they have good exhibits.
Today I was at the library returning some books, and since I had half an hour to spare before a tutoring session I decided to see what was on downstairs. I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit currently there (until 28 October) is of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, and it’s fascinating. This collection of hundreds of thousands of Jewish manuscripts accumulated over centuries in a genizah, which is a special storeroom where worn-out manuscripts are kept, sometimes in preparation for being buried in a cemetery. These ones weren’t buried, though; they just piled up in the synagogue storage for centuries until being brought to the UK in the 19th century.
Now, the original scholars who identified and collected these texts were interested in their religious content, but that’s not what this focuses on. There are appeals for charity, prenuptial agreements, lists of brides’ dowries, letters, government documents, school exercises, doodles, cheques, family letters, medical recipes, good luck charms and lots of other documents relating to the daily life of the Jewish community in medieval Cairo and elsewhere. Some of them show the Jewish community being mistreated by the Muslim authorities or by the crusaders — Jews from the community of Ascalon are trying to raise money to ransom prisoners taken by the Franks, for instance — but others depict a society in which Muslims, Christians and Jews are coexisting peacefully if sometimes uneasily.
Text-based exhibits are interesting, aren’t they? I mean, I don’t read Hebrew, let alone Hebrew on restored medieval documents. These things could have been napkins for all the difference it makes to me. Yet I found the stories they revealed much more compelling for being in the presence of the original documents.
I think my favourite story from the exhibit was that of Karima al-Wuhsha, a wealthy Jewish businesswoman who was having an affair with a married man. When she became pregnant, she was worried that he would deny paternity so she arranged for witnesses to catch them in the act. She got kicked out of her synagogue by scandalised neighbours, but documents attest to the pious generosity shown in her will.
Anyway, it’s just a one-room exhibit, so you probably won’t go out of your way to see it, but if you ever do find yourself around the UL, it’s well worth stopping in.
Also, the free guide that you pick up from the rack by the door contains tons of source text rather than just pretty pictures. Recommended!
Anglesey Abbey, former country house of Lord Fairhaven, is one of those places near Cambridge that I’ve never been to because it’s not easy to get to on public transport. But with my wife’s family visiting, we thought it’d be nice to have a look at the house, take a stroll around the grounds, etc.
I don’t know why, but I have never been much of a stately-homes guy, despite the fact that places like Anglesey Abbey have lots of the stuff that I like about historic material culture.
Medieval things being reused as later things!
And the ever-popular thief-proof door.
Well-informed staff were on hand to answer questions and the house wasn’t too skewed in favour of imagining the luxurious life of Lord Fairhaven. The recommended tour also takes you through the kitchens and so on (where people were making cake according to period recipes) and the little imagine yourself notes on the room guides exhort you to imagine yourself not only as the people who lived in the house but as their staff, although there wasn’t a note that said Imagine yourself as … the labouring poor, suffering through the bleak depths of the Great Depression while Lord Fairhaven and his idle brood lived in swinish luxury or anything.
I think my favourite thing was this:
Ah, the last days of prewar elegance, when Britain’s elite would gather in the library, chatting about the hunt, sippin’ on gin and juice, laid back, with their minds on their money and their money on their minds.
Anyway, there are also gardens, and I understand that people like them, but I have never yet been too excited about plants in a place. There is also a second-hand bookshop, which has always been more my thing, and where I got some, er, second-hand books.
Today we headed over to the Fitzwilliam Musem for Colour, its exhibit of illuminated manuscripts with special reference to, er, colour. It was good!
Like other Fitz exhibits we’ve been to lately (especially Death on the Nile), it included a lot of focus on the technology and materiality of manuscript illuminations, rather than just considering them aesthetically. That’s always something I’m interested in, so good there, although I would have liked to have seen something on their social role. I mean, obviously they were high-status gifts, but how were they used, how displayed?
There were also some good mentions of the afterlives of these items, being passed around, cut up, copied, forged, sold to art collectors, vandalised to get the previous metals and so on. All very interesting.
I think my favourite piece was the alchemical scroll of George Ripley. I had seen images from it (or from others like it), but they don’t give you the impression of how huge it is. You really have to see it.
There was also a very cool image of the Battle of Clavijo on a Spanish patent of nobility that looked like something out of a Warhammer book (I know, I know, other way around), and a lovely image of a melancholic man. Anyway, if you’re in the area, you should go and see it; it’s informative, it’s not too large and it’s free.
The eponymous St Edmund’s Abbey in Bury St Edmunds was once one of the largest Benedictine houses in England. It got destroyed during and after the Dissolution, as these places do, and most of it is now gone, although various picturesque ruins still stud the park that now stands in its place. But not all of it is gone. Some of it was reused in a charming and practical way.
This used to be the west front of the absolutely frickin’ massive abbey church — much larger, if I read my map right, than the present-day cathedral. And then someone came along and turned bits of it into houses. Why waste a good wall? Hell, why even bother knocking down the ruiny bits? It is what it is.
There’s something about the ruins of the abbey that looks organic, like the tufa towers you get at Mono Lake.
Anyway, these days we see medieval buildings as priceless historical treasures, but right up until they were priceless historical treasures they were old eyesores that had to be turned into something practical. I like that.