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Posts from the ‘Middle Ages’ Category


Telling a story when words don’t get through

I believe in words. I believe in the importance of words. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I believe in the primacy of words. But words can never be exclusive media of truth, understanding and communication. Please note: they are the primary (i.e. supreme) means, not the only means. I’ve touched on this issue before. Words are still essential.

As I mentioned then, the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov attacked the myth of the image by saying:

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15 questions to ask of popular history

Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…

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How churches argued when “men were men” & other mediaeval nuggets

Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a lot of a fun. It’s a very refreshing take the social history of a time and place, offered in the guise of a Michelin guide to the 14th Century. This is not to say that it is tr

ivialising or populist in the worst sense. Much though I and the children enjoy the zaniness of Horrible Histories, they are necessarily slight and far too oversimplified.

This book is, thankfully, by no means a horrible history – although it is clear that the history of the period could certainly be horrible. It is a scholarly but wittily written book that opens eyes and even stimulates all the senses to evoke what life was really like in an unimaginable age. As befits any time-traveller’s guide, it is all written in the present tense, and thus full of possibility (like any good DK or Lonely Planet guide). It is an irresistible invitation for readers to be fully immersed in an alien culture.

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In the service of his king: What Baldwin had to do for King John

My parents have been doing what we in our family call ‘rootling’ – searching through family roots, trees and provenance. They’ve been doing some digging on their area in Norfolk and suddenly came across this utterly bizarre little mediaeval detail.

It is a scan from Blomefield’s Topographical History of Norfolk published c1739 – and I can only imagine what must of gone through the learned Mr Blomefield’s mind as he recorded the annual (Christmas, no less!!) duty of Baldwin le Pettour of Hemmingston. I just love the fact that he takes the trouble to include a quote from a contemporary Latin chronicle, just in case we doubted his word: per saltum, sufflatum, et pettum).

The mind boggles about what Baldwin must have initially done to deserve such an honour; or, for that matter, what particularly provoked King John (right) to demand such a duty. Read more »


Swedish sculptural surprises amidst Lund’s mediaeval grandeur

I’ve been in Lund, Sweden since Wednesday, as a guest of Teofil to speak for Langham at 2 conferences this week. It is a real thrill to be here for the first time, since my late Grandmother was Swedish and the country has always been part of our family’s folklore.

Lund is a lovely, ancient University town right in the south (only 40 mins by train, in fact, from Danish Copenhagen). It is dominated by the magnificent cathedral, which dates from AD1080. So with a couple of hours to spare before things kicked off on Thursday, I was able to go for a wander. It is an impressive building – I was especially taken with the wonderfully atmospheric crypt, the extraordinary astronomical clock and the severe grandeur of the original Romanesque architecture.

But a nice surprise was a temporary sculpture exhibition in a lady chapel of contemporary Swedish sculptress Lena Lervik. There were no explanations in English so I can’t be 100% sure what they were all seeking to suggest – but it was possible to make a pretty good stab. The photo above shows 2 installations – one in the foreground is clearly a pregnant Mary – it is stunning because the back is covered in gold leaf which shimmers in the subdued mediaeval light. But facing her is what I can only assume is the bronze serpent of Numbers 21 and John 3:14, observed in the shadows by a number of penitent believers. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition – for of course, John’s use of the serpent imagery points to the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross (and probably also the resurrection). In other words, the suffering of the Christ. And the way these pieces were installed (who knows if it was intentional – I’m inclined to think it was) Mary looks on, bearing the child who will suffer in this way. There is a profound poignancy here.

Here are a few other snaps from around the building (to see the whole set, click here).

Finally, I encountered this curiosity on the choir stalls. What can it mean?! 2 earnest pilgrims seeking God – only find that he’s a squirrel…?!? Or what? Not exactly the sort of piety you’d expect from a devout mediaeval carpenter… Any suggestions?