This week I have been mostly – researching

I was recently commissioned by a literary webzine to write a piece on Strata Florida Abbey in West Wales.  This was one of a number of possible ideas I had pitched to the editor, but I must admit I was thrilled that this was the one they wanted, as it’s a place that’s very dear to my heart.

West doorway of Strata Florida Abbey. Mono photograph.

When I was 17 (a very long time ago), I was at school in North Wales and doing an innovative A level English course which included a large element of creative writing – this was very cutting edge in the 1980s!  My group – there were just 5 of us doing the course – was taken on a number of field trips to provide inspiration for our writing, and one of these was to Cymer Abbey, near Dolgellau.  Cymer was a small Cistercian abbey (the Cistercians were the ‘back to basics’ order of monks which emerged out of the Benedictine tradition at the end of the 11th century.  They were into simplicity, austerity and self-sufficiency).  Cymer was founded in 1198 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536.  We spent a couple of hours there, taking in the peaceful location between the hills and the Mawddach river, beside a small farm, in the spring sunshine.  We learned about the silver gilt chalice and paten (vessels used in the Mass) which had been discovered in the 19th century, treasure which was believed to have been hidden by the monks to keep it safe from the king’s men when they came to close and ransack the monastery.  This is the poem I wrote:

Cymer Abbey

The ruins lie like a cracked skull,
empty arches like toothless jaws:
bare homes of stolen treasure.
Each stone is a tombstone for a soul
through the processions of the past.
Chants sound in the vacant roof,
scents of incense in the mists of history.
The pale, thin, golden light of dawn
upon the parchment walls –
the candlelight of centuries.

OK, it’s a bit ‘A level creative writing course’, but I can kind of see why I ended up a writer, and especially a writer who loves writing about place.

My next brush with the Cistercians was a couple of years later – I was at university in West Wales, and every October a group of students would go to Strata Florida Abbey to hold a service in the remains of the abbey church.  In practice, this usually meant a service in the little Georgian parish church next door, as the weather in late autumn in Wales was rarely conducive to outdoor services in the ruins!  The video of that first visit still plays in my head – the little coach winding past the vastness of Tregaron Bog (Cors Caron), the village of Pontrhydfendigaid and the sudden right turn into an insignificant residential lane.  The lane continuing out into the countryside and then, round a corner, the first sight of the abbey ruins – in particular, the iconic west doorway.  At that point, I hadn’t read about the abbey or seen pictures of it, so I had no idea what to expect, except that the people who’d been before said it was rather special.  They weren’t wrong.

Mono photograph of detail of finial on west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey.

The abbey nestles between the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains and the River Teifi.  Even with the later house built over part of the cloister, the farmyard next door, and the parish church and extensive churchyard beside it, Strata Florida has the peace and beauty characteristic of Cistercian sites, chosen as they were for their remoteness from ‘the dwellings of men’.  The west doorway is unique in its architectural style, the spiral triscele finials a nod to the Celtic culture of the generations of Welsh princes and bards who were buried here.  I decided that I would love to be buried here, too.

In the years that passed, I visited Strata Florida whenever I could (easier once I was a grown up with a car!), and a few other abbeys too.  In my 30s, I went back to university part time for a Masters degree, and two of the modules available were on the Cistercians, because a professor in the history department just happened to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Cistercians.  Inevitably, perhaps, I ended up doing my dissertation on the Cistercians, with the title Living Water: a study of Cistercian water management in the context of twelfth and early thirteenth century monastic water systems, with particular reference to selected Cistercian sites in England and Wales (including, of course, Strata Florida!).  I have explored the latrines, drains, troughs and water pipes of almost every Cistercian monastery in England and Wales where there are any ruins remaining.  I have even infected my partner, who is, as I write this, wrangling an essay for a module on the Cistercians for her Masters degree.

Mono photograph of detail of west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey

You would think, then, that I wouldn’t have to do any research for the article I’ve been commissioned to write.  But, frankly, any excuse to get the books out again!  And fact-checking (dates etc) is important.  Also, scholarship does move on.  There have been a number of archaeological digs and research projects since I last wrote about Strata Florida, and Cadw (the Welsh government’s heritage agency, who owns and cares for the site) now has a visitor centre and facilities, as well as an excellent web page.  My most recent visit was in late 2019, and I was able to take some photographs, to accompany the article and this post.

When the article is published, I’ll post a link to the webzine.  Meanwhile, if you don’t already follow this blog, and would like to have future posts drop into your inbox, why not follow TheThreeHaresBlog by email?  I post on average about once a week.  Thanks!

Colour photograph of books about Cistercians, and a notebook.

The Festivals of Midwinter: Solstice, Yule, Christmas

December is always a struggle.  I have found  this year worse than most, with relentless rain, gloomy skies, and the lights on by 2.00pm.  To be honest, here in the UK I find it increasingly difficult from late October, when the clocks go back and evening draws in when it’s still afternoon.  I count down until the shortest day, 21 December, the Winter Solstice, when the days start to lengthen again.

Apparently, it’s not just me.  This sense of the year dying around Samhain (the end of October) to be re-born with the lengthening days after the Solstice is a part of many pagan traditions.  Festivals at midwinter seem to have been a part of human life in the north of Europe for as long as anyone knows.  And of course there is Christmas!  Curious to understand more about the origins of how we celebrate, and which of those traditions are truly ancient, I have spent the last few days reading The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton, professor at Bristol University and an expert on folklore and paganism.

Professor Hutton’s research methods are very thorough, and he explores traditions and what we think we know about their origins, teasing out what the evidence really is, and establishing when traditions were actually first recorded (often much later than I expected).

Of course, some of this is more widely known and I’d come across it already.  For example, there is no biblical foundation for 25 December (or indeed any other date) for the birth of Jesus.  Professor Hutton identifies the first mention of that date in a calendar of Christian feasts in 354 CE, probably in Rome, and finds an intriguing quote from the Scriptor Syrus in the late 4th century, who refers to it being the ‘custom of the pagans’ to celebrate the birthday of the sun on 25 December.  This continued to cause confusion during the next couple of centuries at least, with church ‘fathers’ begging believers to remember that they should be worshipping Christ, not the sun, at these festivals!  In the 5th century, one Maximus of Turin wrote delightedly about the appropriation of a pagan festival of sun worship for Christian use.

And of course there’s Saturnalia, the Roman midwinter feast, held on 17 December and the days following.  It included, says Professor Hutton, a lot of the elements we still recognise:  gifts, candles as symbols of light, the closure of shops, schools and law courts for the duration of the festivities, and (a precursor to the medieval custom) the usual order turned upside down, with masters and mistresses waiting on their servants.  Kalendae – at the beginning of January, dedicated to the two-faced God, Janus, who looked both back at the old year and forwards into the new – saw more giving of gifts, this time figs, honey, pastries and coins.

Photo of a quarter of a wreath, in mono with a pop of red for the berries.  Image copyright Lisa Tulfer 2019

Evergreen wreath

Professor Hutton points out that the with the spread of Christianity in Mediterranean countries, Easter became the principal festival of the year – but in northern Europe, the colder, darker winters meant there was still a need for merrymaking at midwinter.  “The habits of a midwinter festivity had come by the dawn of history…to seem a natural one to the British,” he says.

The Christian calendar absorbed the idea of a season of festivities around midwinter, with the Nativity celebrated on 25 December, St Stephen (the first martyr) on the 26th, St John the Evangelist on the 27th, the Holy Innocents (the children massacred by King Herod in an attempt to eradicate the infant Jesus, mentioned in Matthew’s gospel) on the 28th, the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January, and Epiphany (originally the baptism of Christ, later eclipsed by the celebration of the visit of the wise men) on 6 January.

The Anglo Saxons didn’t use the word Christmas (‘Cristes Maessan’) until 1038 – before that it was simply ‘midwinter’.  It was obviously important though, as a 12-day break from work for servants was enshrined in law by Alfred the Great in 877 CE.  The word ‘Yule’ arrives with the invading Danes in the 11th century, although Professor Hutton says that the derivation of the word “has baffled linguists.”

However, he says, we know a fair bit about midwinter/Solstice/New Year revelries, because of the attacks of churchmen upon them – especially the various divination practices, to see what the new year would bring, some of which were still being recorded by 19th and 20th century folklorists.

Some practices which we may think of as ancient are, according to Professor Hutton’s researches, fairly recent (or in any event, there is no evidence for them, and they are not mentioned, before a relatively late date).  For example, the use of a wassail bowl was first recorded in the 1320s; mummers and other kinds of ‘disguising’ were a medieval phenomenon, and mistletoe does not put in an appearance until the 17th century, with the association with kissing being a whole century later still.  Yule logs were common from the 1600s to the late 1800s, and hobby horses were around from the late 15th century through the Tudor and Stuart periods, with other animal-head processions (including the Mari Lwyd in Wales) being mostly recorded in the 19th century.  Although folklorists believed they were of pagan (i.e. pre-Christian) origin, Professor Hutton can find no evidence for their earlier existence.

Colour photograph of Yuletide Green Man plaque surrounded by holly.  Image Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2019

Yuletide Green Man

So, what customs have persisted which actually, possibly, genuinely are ancient pagan customs, which have survived by being adopted and adapted by Christianity after the church very cannily decided to celebrate the Nativity at the time of the pagan midwinter festivals?

  • Evergreens. Greenery was used for festivals in pagan Europe, and its use was generally adopted by the Church, especially in England.  Holly and ivy were originally favourites, with bay, rosemary, yew and box (and, in the 17th century, mistletoe) being added in over the centuries.  Do remember, though, that most of these are poisonous, so keep them (and especially the berries) away from children and animals if you decorate your home with evergreens this midwinter.
  • Lights and candles. On the shortest day of the year (or thereabouts!) it’s traditional to have lights and candles to symbolise the lengthening days to come, light overcoming the darkness, the start of the ascent to summer.
  • Partying. The giving of feasts (especially by landowners/masters for their tenants/workers) has been a recurring theme for two millennia.  So, when you are at the office party, remember that this tradition goes back to Roman times!
  • Presents. The exchange of gifts has been a feature throughout much of the history of midwinter celebrations, although the exact timing (anywhere between 17 December and 6 January) has moved over time.
  • Misrule. In Tudor times, the Lord of Misrule would preside over often riotous jollification, where the usual norms of behaviour were cast aside, often with the assistance of masks to aid anonymity – even at the royal court had a Lord of Misrule.  The idea of turning the hierarchy of society upside down at midwinter has persisted since Roman times.  Its medieval incarnation as the Feast of Fools, where junior clergy and choristers took over (and subverted) the liturgy, persists in the practice of electing a ‘Boy Bishop’ in some English cathedrals.  And more generally in society there is a sense that anything goes at Christmas.

So, as the dark descends on the shortest day of the year, let us light candles and Christmas lights and affirm that the light will always triumph.  Let’s deck the hall with boughs of holly, toast each other with ‘Wassail!’, exchange gifts, and generally let our hair down.  Because in the ancient times when those customs originated, as now, in Professor Hutton’s words, “feasting and entertainment were in themselves fundamental responses to the tedium and melancholy which a northern winter could engender.”

 

This article is based on The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press 1996 (new edition 2001).

 

Norwich’s Writing Quarter – a day at the National Centre for Writing and other explorations

I wonder how many of you regard a day’s professional development as a self-indulgence?  I suspect it may be something unique to writers and other creatives, but I was struck by the use of the words ‘self-indulgence’ no fewer than three times in the first hour of Saturday’s event at the National Centre for Writing.  It seems that a lot of us have difficultly permitting ourselves the investment of time and money into our development as writers.

The National Centre for Writing (formerly the Writers’ Centre Norwich) is based at Dragon Hall on King Street in Norwich, and provides resources, mentoring and events for writers – both online and face to face.  Saturday’s event was entitled The Writer’s Roadmap, and took place in the great hall, upstairs at Dragon Hall.  The wonderful Florence Reynolds is the Programme Officer, and welcomed us to a superbly organised day in a unique venue.

I should warn you (if you haven’t already gathered from elsewhere in this blog) that I am something of a medieval history nerd, so spending a day in Dragon Hall was, frankly, distracting!  According to the Dragon Hall website, there has been a building on this site for more than a thousand years – Florence told me that there is evidence of a Saxon post hut beneath the undercroft.  The present building was built around 1430 by a merchant, Robert Toppes, although one of the outbuildings is believed to be a century older.  Originally a trading hall, it backed on to the River Wensum, which via the River Yare gave access to the North Sea at Great Yarmouth.  It was part of Norwich’s major role in the trading of wool and textiles, especially to and from the Low Countries, during the middle ages, on which the wealth of East Anglia was built.  Now a Grade I listed building, parts of it have at various points been houses, tenements (housing up to 150 people in the 19th century), a pub, a butchers, and the rectory for nearby St Julian’s Church (of which more later).

We were upstairs in the Great Hall, where the one remaining carved dragon (there were 14 originally) has been rescued from under a pile of rubbish in an outbuilding, restored, and put back where it belongs in the beams of the splendid roof.  Another treat was the remnants of Victorian wallpaper, which Florence pointed out.  It’s lovely that NCW are so evidently proud of the building, and great to see that it’s in daily use and living again.

The event was both enjoyable and very useful, an opportunity to meet with other writers (we tend to be a fairly solitary lot) and also to get some high-quality input from writers with a wide range of experience.  Molly Naylor, who described herself has having a portfolio career which includes poetry as well as writing for stage and screen, spoke about working across boundaries of genre, and the importance of finding our unique ‘voice’.  Victoria Adukwei Bulley spoke about opportunities for residencies and commissions, and showed us some of the output from her residency at the V&A.

But the highlight for me was Edward Parnell, who took us through his experiences with getting his first (prizewinning) novel published and then moving, almost by accident, into creative non-fiction.  As a writer of non-fiction, I often feel that writers’ events and courses aren’t really for me as they tend to focus on fiction and/or poetry (very occasionally scriptwriting) but never non-fiction.  It was a treat to be at something which was explicitly for writers like me – and as well as being an engaging speaker, Edward was generous with his time, staying around to chat afterwards (and signing a copy of his non-fiction book, Ghostland, for me!).

At lunchtime I went exploring.  The Church of St Julian is literally across the road from Dragon Hall, and I had intended visiting many times when in Norwich but never quite got around to it because it’s a little way from the city centre.  This is the place where the woman known as Mother Julian or Julian of Norwich lived as an anchoress (a hermit attached to a church) during the late 14th and early 15th centuries.  Her cell has not survived, but a chapel has been built on the presumed location, on the south side of St Julian’s Church, and there is a shrine to her there, as well as an information centre just up the hill from the church.  Julian (note – the name we know her by is the name of the church she was attached to; we don’t actually know what she was called) wrote the earliest surviving book in English by a woman, the Revelations of Divine Love.  This work was the result of a mystical experience when she was seriously ill and near death, and was revolutionary in its emphasis on God as ever-loving (not a concept the medieval church embraced).  It survived though convoluted channels of transmission in the UK and Europe, mostly treasured by nuns, and in the 20th century became a classic text of Christian spirituality.  Perhaps the most-quoted line is “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

This part of Norwich is becoming the Writing Quarter, with the National Centre for Writing now based here, and with the history of the first female author in English at St Julian’s.  And from 2020 the Norwich Printing Museum (formerly the John Jarrold Printing Museum) will be relocating to new premises in the restored St Peter Parmentergate Church on King Street.  The collection tells the story of the printed word since the middle of the 15th century when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type for printing and the age of the printed book was born.  For anyone interested in the written word, a short walk around King Street in Norwich will take you from Julian’s quill, to the printed book, to the laptops of today’s writers.