Old Stone


The new rulers of England knew that there was power in stone. The cathedrals of Worcester, Canterbury, Winchester and Norwich were all completed or at least consecrated by the end of the eleventh century; St. Paul’s, Durham and Chichester were in the process of being built, as were Ely and Gloucester. The cathedral of Old Sarum had been completed by 1092. In the twelfth century the cathedral of Lincoln was being erected, and Wells begun. But this was also the century of the monastic foundations, many of them with abbeys as large and as grand as any cathedral. It has been estimated that there were approximately six hundred of these communities in England, with sixty-nine in Yorkshire and fifty-one in Lincolnshire. These monastic foundations colonised the land about them, with pastures and sheep-walks, so it can truly be said that they helped to create the landscape of England. Of the thousands of parish churches, many acquired spires so that the glory of faith aspired from the land to the sky. In the thirteenth century Salisbury and Westminster were raised in the Gothic style, while the great west front of Wells Cathedral was fashioned with its painted tableaux and gilded statuary gleaming like the gate of heaven itself.

When Julian of Norwich believed that she was dying her parish priest held a cross before her face saying, “I have browte thee the image of thy maker and saviour. Louke thereupon and comfort thee therewith.” It is a characteristic medieval scene, but the abbeys and cathedrals of England fulfilled the same purpose as the crucifix before the dying woman. The faithful saw them and were comforted.

Over four centuries the styles altered according to different modes of perception, with the broad movement of change from Romanesque to Gothic classified into the somewhat arbitrary divisions of Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular; but the statement of power and glory remained the same. Perpendicular has been described as a purely native architecture, without parallel in continental Europe, but in truth the central characteristics of English churches persist through time. The native predilection for patterning, and the delight in flat wall surfaces, have already been suggested as aspects of English taste; the combination of ingenious or elaborate surface decoration with blankness and evenness might offer interesting material to those who study the pathology of nations. But the English cathedrals are also noticeable for their emphasis upon the horizontal rather than the vertical; their naves tend to be longer than their counterparts elsewhere, and their vaults lower, thus giving the impression of “common-sense stability”which might otherwise be interpreted as solidity or dignity. They might have been fashioned by the architects of Stonehenge, so massively do they dwell and endure upon the land. Another historian has noted that “the English national style is not elegantly Gothic . . . but sturdily plain and matter of fact.”2

They are a complete statement of artistic intent, therefore, and as a result the architecture of England has been used as a metaphor for its music and literature. Fifteenth-century English music, for example, has been characterised as “the distribution of masses of sound in order to provide effective contrasts, the development of harmonic thinking, and the cultivation of a highly decorative superstructure”in the manner of Perpendicular building. C. S. Lewis compared the model of certain medieval books to that of “cathedrals where work of many different periods mixed.” 4 He names Chaucer and Malory in this context, both of them creating narratives which seem to grow incrementally and to expand according to some organic principle rather than to a well-defined logic of organisation. It has often been remarked how the structure of English cathedrals is comprised of discrete parts; presbyteries and chapels and transepts are added without any attempt at uniformity in their arrangement, so that different styles and different periods can be observed side by side. Lincoln Cathedral, for example, has been described as “a building with a series of projections stepping out at right angles to the principal axis.” This strangely fluent and harmonious development “is characteristic not only of Lincoln but of the English Gothic in general” and is “in sharp contrast to the French Gothic cathedrals.”There is no logic or authoritarian code evinced here, but a kind of inspired practicality; it might be called the aesthetics of pragmatism, if indeed any aesthetic can be adduced from it. The conservatism of English architecture has often been discussed, but it is the conservatism of organic form—literally the need to conserve itself as it develops according to its own laws of being. That is why it is also such a natural expression of native aptitude and sensibility.

If these churches are instinct with the spirit of place, then they may come alive. One thirteenth-century poet wrote of the “head” and “eyes” of the church while the roof rears up “as if it were conversing with the winged birds, spreading out broad wings, and like a flying creature striking against the clouds.”The cathedral may also adopt the shape of other organic forms. The beginning of this history was concerned with the tree worship of the ancient Britons, and it is perhaps appropriate that the long naves of the English cathedrals have been compared to avenues of trees. Sculpted out of stone are the leaves of vine and ivy, oak and wild apple, hawthorn and maple. At Southwell, Canterbury and Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, among other sacred places, are to be found carved effigies of the Green Man or “Jack in the Green” with foliage curling out of his mouth and head; Jack is the tree spirit invoked in ancient ritual.

The green men are in fact only one of a number of pagan devices fashioned out of stone in the corners and recesses of cathedrals, like old spirits banished into the darkness. You cannot see them until you venture almost too close to them. Then you may notice fauns and satyrs, goats and dragons, carved upon bosses; there are capitals filled with the wild gaiety which seems to characterise one aspect of the medieval spirit. There are also scenes of matchless detail; a man with toothache holds open his mouth in pain in Wells Cathedral and a farmer belabours a thief with a pitchfork. In Beverley a man carries his scolding wife in a wheelbarrow, and a fox is hanged by geese; in Manchester a hare grills a huntsman over a fire, and at Blackburn a fox preaches to a congregation of hens. These scenes are conceived in a native spirit of mockery; if humour and pathos can be effortlessly mingled in English drama and fiction, so the sacred and the profane are deemed to be natural companions. It is a question of not adopting any one emotion, or manner, too seriously or for too long.

This is nowhere more evident than in the grotesque miniatures which obtrude in the margins of sacred books; they are known as “babooneries” and according to Nikolaus Pevsner in The Englishness of English Art they represent a wholly native convention—“if one tries to trace the baboonery to its source,” he wrote, “one finds that it originated in England.”It is a remarkable, but not unexpected, fact. In 1383 Wycliff denounced “peyntings and babwyneries,” and in The House of Fame Chaucer celebrated “subtil compassinges . . . Babewynnes and pynacles.” There are monkeys disporting themselves in the margins of illuminated psalters, and on the top of a page illustrating the Passion of Christ are two medieval wrestlers; villagers are fighting “pick-a-back” among a Jesse Tree, while on the Beatus page of the Gorleston psalter ten rabbits solemnly and decorously conduct a funeral complete with candles and crucifix. A duck is taken off by a fox, with the word “queck” issuing from its beak, and there was a vogue for depicting men with wooden legs (a vogue which Charles Dickens would adopt at a later date). These “grotesques,” often described as “hideous,” appeared at the end of the twelfth century but spread rapidly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The secular mind may even be tempted to conclude that the real artistic interest is to be found in the margins rather than in the illuminations themselves. They are marked by bizarre medieval humour, the visual equivalent of Thomas More’s verses on farting and eating excrement, but they are also characterised by an informality and liveliness that seem decidedly English in spirit; the love of fantastic detail, too, animates them as well as a passion for fine or delicate outline. This celebration of the grotesque and the ridiculous of course resides in what one art historian has described as the “strangely English spirit that sets comic relief even in a tragedy,”but perhaps it also represents defiance of a divine order which consigns humankind to misery in this world and possible damnation in the next. In a world of illness, pain and epidemic plague, what other response is there but mad laughter?

The provenance of many babooneries is taken to be London, and that locality emphasises the fact that illumination was now a secular rather than monastic art; part of the craft guild was reserved for “lymenours,” professional artists pursuing their trade in workshops or as part of itinerant groups which toured the country. Three or four artists gathered together, like masons, and set up shop wherever they were required; it is likely, also, that each individual contributed a different skill to the enterprise so that the illuminated page was the product of several hands. This may in turn account in part for the secular appearance of the babooneries themselves, not the least of which depict scenes of ordinary medieval life with that attention to intimate and familiar domestic detail which plays so large a part in the English imagination. Henry Fielding described it well when he extolled the “exactest copying of Nature” in his fiction, and John Dryden expressed an admiration or affection for the “distorted face and antic gestures.” Hume remarked that “if we copy life the strokes must be strong and remarkable.”So in medieval miniatures we see workmen clambering up ladders, farmers ploughing, boys leaping and women dancing.

A great deal of attention is paid to foxes and geese, hens and rabbits; this might be ascribed to the notorious English fondness for animals (which is perhaps a means of displacing fondness for each other), but there may be other sources. Human senses and familiar sins were often given animal shape or “bestiarized,” where the sow becomes gluttony and the fox covetousness, and this form of caricature has left a lasting inheritance. In eighteenth-century satirical prints the Duke of Cumberland was depicted as an ox, and the Duke of Newcastle became a goose; Henry Fox was necessarily portrayed as a fox, and James Boswell as a lecherous monkey. In masquerades in the early decades of that century, also, guests were dressed “some, in the shape of Monkeys and Baboons, others, of Bears, Asses, Cormorants, and Owls.” There seems to be some primitive force at work.

There are other medieval patterns implicit in later English productions. One historian has noted that in the manuscript illuminations there is no essential concern with “human experience, human drama and emotion.” 10 There may be spectacle and crowded action, but there is no interiority of feeling; the outline, rather than the three-dimensional figure, is presented only. But these are precisely the criticisms aimed by contemporaries at Fielding and Dickens, at Smollett and Sterne. It seems to be a native fault, if fault it be, that attention is often reserved for the surface.

“Babooneries” or miniature domestic scenes arrayed in the margins of the illuminations often act as a kind of frame around the sacred text. A Chaucerian critic has in turn concluded that “the frame” of The Canterbury Tales “gives us that strong sense of real life that the poem affords.”11 In a fifteenth-century Book of Hours the central figures, of Virgin and Child and worshipper, are depicted in grandiose but stiff formal attitudes; the frame around it, however, is replete with human life and activity as a pilgrimage makes its way.

The transpositions from illumination to text are natural and inevitable. In 1250 the artists working upon the murals in the queen’s “low room” at Westminster requested a copy of the Gests of Antioch in order to illustrate scenes from it. In turn the devisers or creators of the medieval drama directly copied scenes and images from wall-paintings, stained-glass windows and roof-bosses. In a Catholic culture certain visual icons or exempla are universally recognised, and can inform every mode of art. The illustration of a royal pageant, dated 1514, shows the principal guests with costumes and attitudes taken from the stages of the “cycle drama” of Chester or York. In a culture of spectacle, the appropriate costume or uniform will be displayed. The scene of “Christ among the Doctors” is depicted in manuscript and stained glass, with the child in a seat raised higher than the doctors themselves; there is a stage direction to the same effect in a miracle play, where “they lead Jesus into their midst and make him sit in a higher seat, while they themselves sit in lower ones.” It is possible that after this movement the players remained still for a moment, forming a silent tableau as if they had become carved or painted figures. English Catholic culture was mediated through these images. In the roof-bosses of the English churches Herod “is shown contorted with rage, his legs grotesquely crossed,”12 while the same character is depicted in the Coventry mysteries in the same posture as a sign of “crossed” or thwarted human energy. These cycle plays conducted their audience through the history of the universe, from Creation to Doom, but that sacred chronology was also depicted in the wall-paintings and stained glass of the churches. It was the unifying myth, the grand context for the creation of art and literature alike. And it survives still. Stanley Spencer’s twentieth-century paintings The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard and The Resurrection of the Soldiers, where all emerge at the sound of the final trumpet, seem to derive from medieval images of the Apocalypse; the same artist’s Christ delivered to the Peopleand The Crucifixion , with the leering faces of the workmen putting the hammer to Christ’s nails, might be a detailed transcription of a scene from one of the medieval mysteries. Spencer was an English artist filled both with a mysterious sense of place and with an encompassing vision that accommodates a medieval as well as a modern sensibility. “When I see anything,” he once wrote, “I see everything.” In this context it is perhaps interesting to note that “he found it very important to paint what is in the extreme foreground. . . . It seemed to him all wrong to start at an arbitrary plane say 10 feet distance rather than at the nearest plane in one’s line of vision.” 13 He recaptures, or retrieves, an essentially medieval painterly vision.

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