Friday, 31 October 2014

'An earthy flavour'

Rochester in the rain
Not only is the day waning, but the year.  The low sun is fiery and yet cold behind the monastery ruin, and the Virginia creeper on the Cathedral wall has showered half its deep-red leaves down on the pavement.  There has been rain this afternoon, and a wintry shudder goes among the little pools on the cracked, uneven flag-stones, and through the giant elm-trees as they shed a gust of tears.  Their fallen leaves lie strewn thickly about.  Some of these leaves, in a timid rush, seek sanctuary within the low arched Cathedral door; but two men coming out resist them, and cast them forth again with their feet. 

In the waning days of October, I've been re-reading Charles Dickens' final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I first read it nearly two years ago, at a particularly impressionable period, and it hit me hard, the way novels sometimes can. It strikes some personal chords, since it's set in the kind of place where my imagination often wanders (and my work often takes me), within a cathedral community burdened by a half-remembered past.

For sufficient reasons, which this narrative will itself unfold as it advances, a fictitious name must be bestowed upon the old Cathedral town. Let it stand in these pages as Cloisterham. It was once possibly known to the Druids by another name, and certainly to the Romans by another, and to the Saxons by another, and to the Normans by another; and a name more or less in the course of many centuries can be of little moment to its dusty chronicles.

An ancient city, Cloisterham, and no meet dwelling-place for any one with hankerings after the noisy world. A monotonous, silent city, deriving an earthy flavour throughout from its Cathedral crypt, and so abounding in vestiges of monastic graves, that the Cloisterham children grow small salad in the dust of abbots and abbesses, and make dirt-pies of nuns and friars; while every ploughman in its outlying fields renders to once puissant Lord Treasurers, Archbishops, Bishops, and such-like, the attention which the Ogre in the story-book desired to render to his unbidden visitor, and grinds their bones to make his bread.

A drowsy city, Cloisterham, whose inhabitants seem to suppose, with an inconsistency more strange than rare, that all its changes lie behind it, and that there are no more to come. A queer moral to derive from antiquity, yet older than any traceable antiquity. So silent are the streets of Cloisterham (though prone to echo on the smallest provocation), that of a summer-day the sunblinds of its shops scarce dare to flap in the south wind; while the sun-browned tramps, who pass along and stare, quicken their limp a little, that they may the sooner get beyond the confines of its oppressive respectability. This is a feat not difficult of achievement, seeing that the streets of Cloisterham city are little more than one narrow street by which you get into it and get out of it: the rest being mostly disappointing yards with pumps in them and no thoroughfare—exception made of the Cathedral-close, and a paved Quaker settlement, in colour and general confirmation very like a Quakeress’s bonnet, up in a shady corner.

In a word, a city of another and a bygone time is Cloisterham, with its hoarse Cathedral-bell, its hoarse rooks hovering about the Cathedral tower, its hoarser and less distinct rooks in the stalls far beneath. Fragments of old wall, saint’s chapel, chapter-house, convent and monastery, have got incongruously or obstructively built into many of its houses and gardens, much as kindred jumbled notions have become incorporated into many of its citizens’ minds. All things in it are of the past.

This description is recognisably Rochester in Kent, which Dickens knew very well, but it could apply to many ancient cities. The setting of the novel is cathedral crypt and churchyard, amid the dust of graves and masonry, and the whole novel is obsessed with death; it is, after all, a murder mystery, of sorts, and Dickens died before it was completed. In the description above, it is (you won't be surprised to learn) the monastic graves which most appeal to me. As a lover of medieval monks, I'm always very aware when visiting cathedrals and monastery ruins that the dust of their former inhabitants is mingled with the ground you walk on and the air you breathe. Cathedrals are full of the tombs of kings and late-medieval archbishops, but the early medieval monks who mean the most to me rarely have anything to show where they were buried; at Rochester I tread unaware on the graves of Gundulf and Paulinus, at Canterbury I breathe the dust of Dunstan and Anselm, Eadmer and Osbern. (For some reason I always associate the latter with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, since it's the story of a troubled young cathedral precentor!) This is not an unpleasant or a morbid thought - actually I find it comforting. I have far more attachments among the dead than among the living, and am sometimes more at home there, too.

Durdles is a stonemason; chiefly in the gravestone, tomb, and monument way, and wholly of their colour from head to foot.  No man is better known in Cloisterham.  He is the chartered libertine of the place.  Fame trumpets him a wonderful workman—which, for aught that anybody knows, he may be (as he never works); and a wonderful sot—which everybody knows he is.  With the Cathedral crypt he is better acquainted than any living authority; it may even be than any dead one.  It is said that the intimacy of this acquaintance began in his habitually resorting to that secret place, to lock-out the Cloisterham boy-populace, and sleep off fumes of liquor: he having ready access to the Cathedral, as contractor for rough repairs.  Be this as it may, he does know much about it, and, in the demolition of impedimental fragments of wall, buttress, and pavement, has seen strange sights.  He often speaks of himself in the third person; perhaps, being a little misty as to his own identity, when he narrates; perhaps impartially adopting the Cloisterham nomenclature in reference to a character of acknowledged distinction.  Thus he will say, touching his strange sights: ‘Durdles come upon the old chap,’ in reference to a buried magnate of ancient time and high degree, ‘by striking right into the coffin with his pick.  The old chap gave Durdles a look with his open eyes, as much as to say, “Is your name Durdles?  Why, my man, I’ve been waiting for you a devil of a time!”  And then he turned to powder.’  With a two-foot rule always in his pocket, and a mason’s hammer all but always in his hand, Durdles goes continually sounding and tapping all about and about the Cathedral...

He lives in a little antiquated hole of a house that was never finished: supposed to be built, so far, of stones stolen from the city wall. To this abode there is an approach, ankle-deep in stone chips, resembling a petrified grove of tombstones, urns, draperies, and broken columns, in all stages of sculpture. Herein two journeymen incessantly chip, while other two journeymen, who face each other, incessantly saw stone; dipping as regularly in and out of their sheltering sentry-boxes, as if they were mechanical figures emblematical of Time and Death.

Erthe oute of erthe is wondirly wroghte,
Erthe has geten one erthe a dignite of noghte,
Erthe appon erthe hase sett alle his thoghte
How that erthe upon erthe may be heghe broghte.

Erthe upon erthe wolde be a kinge
Bot how erthe to erthe sall, thinkes he no thinge.
When erthe bredes erthe and his rentes home bringe
Thane shall erthe of erthe have full harde parting.

Erthe upon erthe winnes castells and towrres;
Thane sayse erthe unto erthe, "This es al ourres!"
When erthe upon erthe has bigged up his bourres
Thane shall erthe for erthe suffere sharpe scourres.

Erthe gos upon erthe as molde upon molde
He that gose upon erthe, gleterande as golde,
Like as erthe never more go to erthe scholde
And yitt schall erthe unto erthe ga rathere than he wolde

Now why that erthe luffes erthe, wondere me thinke
Or why erthe for erthe sholde other swete or swinke
For when erthe appon erthe has broughte within brinke
Thane shall erthe of erthe have a foul stinke.

(For more on this poem, see this post.)

You might mistake this for a Halloween post, but it's not; as I think I've said before, I'm not a big fan of Halloween. I do like winter rituals of the kind described in this article (East Kent's hoodening tradition is wonderfully scary) and I have happy childhood memories of Bonfire Night, but when I was growing up Halloween was only celebrated by teenagers who had seen it on American TV and wanted an excuse to intimidate the neighbours. Consequently I'm one of those people who dislikes and slightly resents it, or at least the social pressure that comes with it. Over the past few months I've been thinking a lot about the seasons as they are represented in medieval literature - witness, for instance, this growing series of posts on the Anglo-Saxon year - and the more I do this, the more I object to the media forcing their shallow, ersatz constructions of seasonal ritual upon us, in their own version of trick-or-treat intimidation. Festivals of light and darkness, and seasons for remembering the dead, are too important and too beautiful to be monopolised in this way, or reduced to one homogeneous holiday which pushes aside the rich diversity of other traditions and practices. Nothing will ever stop the media doing this, but we don't have to pretend to like it, or go along with it ourselves.

As a medievalist, I'm particularly uncomfortable with co-opting medieval art and literature into the day as it's now celebrated, as if the grinning skeletons of medieval art had anything to do with plastic pumpkins and kids dressed up as Disney characters. Almost every feature of modern Halloween is later than the medieval period, and pretending there's any such thing as 'medieval Halloween', even just in fun, is pretty misleading - one of those occasions where we remake the past in our own image, for our own entertainment, rather than making an imaginative effort to perceive the ways in which the medieval world was different from our own. There's been a lot of this circulating on Twitter this week, and it makes me squirm. I don't care what people do with manuscript images of black cats and spiders, but I have to demur at the grinning skeletons, and especially at co-opting The Three Living and the Three Dead, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Halloween. In medieval literature there is no season more appropriate than any other for a memento mori; you get them in season and out of season, in spring as much as in November, and the whole point of an image like the Three Living and the Three Dead is that at any moment you are close to death - not just on 31 October. If anything, it's an anti-Halloween image; yet I've seen one particular version (Arundel MS 83, f. 127v) posted by five different people today, without context but with some jokey comment about how it's 'seasonal'. This is a distortion. To a modern audience such images may seem strange and comic - and grim humour forms part of their power, as it does in 'Erthe upon erthe' (and the works of Dickens, for that matter) - but I don't like the idea of laughing at them; they are supposed to be strange, and disquieting, and they deserve to be taken seriously. Allow them to scare you. We're all children in the face of death, 'growing small salad in the dust of abbots and abbesses', but the purpose of such images is to teach us to be wiser, to remind us what we are:

'Quid est homo?'
Man is dethys underlyng
Man is a gest in hys dwellyng
Man is a pylgrym in his pasyng.

It's nice that there are people happy and secure enough to make a joke of this, who are so full of life that they find it easy to giggle at other cultures' representations of death; but I'll never be one of them, I think.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for 'erthe oute of erthe', which I had never come across - a wonderful poem. I have heard several people bemoaning 'Trick or Treat' this week; luckily I live far enough out of town not to suffer from it. Quite apart from the tackiness of taking over a festival of the saints in this way, it has totally destroyed up here the local tradition of Guising. A German friend of mine was talking about it the other day, and asked what I had done as a child (not brought up in Scotland), and the answer was that we bobbed for apples in a bowl of water and carved a turnip lantern (much harder work than a pumpkin). And that was all. When my daughter was little we used to bob for apples in a bowl of water, and carve a lantern: now we put candles in the windows and read M R James.

You are quite right about the misuse of the Three Living and the Three Dead. While it is good to see medieval images turning up online, it would be much better if they turned up with real understanding!

Anonymous said...

We just had three little lantern-bearing, singing St. Martin 'beggars', shepherded by their mother - one borne in arms - at the door: how ancient is that, and was it ever English? (I first encountered it in Aachen...)

An Old Mertonian

sensibilia said...

Visiting this page tracing Dickens. What a treat, your photographs are simply AWESOME! Rochester now on my list of places to visit.
Happy New Year!