Another busy week at Canterbury Christ Church because on Wednesday Dr Michael (Mike) Bintley gave a paper to the staff and postgraduates in Humanities in St Martin’s Priory and then on Thursday Professor Louise Wilkinson was ‘up the hill’ at Kent giving a paper to the Medieval and Early Modern Studies group of postgraduates and staff members on the daughters of Edward I. I also spotted among the Christ Church tweets that the Folkestone People’s History Centre, which involves Dr Lesley Hardy of Christ Church and Dr Andrew Richardson of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, had recently held a couple of events: a lecture by Andrew on the period after the Romans left when various Germanic and other groups arrived in Kent (and England), and a family activities day last Saturday, including activities reflecting this same transitional era.

Brookland: St Thomas of Canterbury wall painting Photo: Imogen Corrigan

Brookland: St Thomas of Canterbury wall painting
Photo: Imogen Corrigan

Looking forward, Dr Martin Watts has been promoting the one-day conference on ‘Richborough through the Ages’ on 25th June at Old Sessions House, and I’m making some progress on putting together a programme for a one-day conference on ‘Early Medieval Kent, 800–1220’, probably for Saturday 10 September, again hopefully at Old Sessions House but as yet I don’t have the full line-up of speakers. So watch this space! Moreover, preparations for the Medieval Canterbury Weekend are getting to the final stage and the souvenir brochure, to be sold in aid of the Ian Coulson Memorial Postgraduate Bursary, should be off to the printers on Monday. Organisation of the bookshop at the Weekend is also well in-hand and other matters are either done or will be done next week. And looking to 2017, Christ Church will be one of the institutions involved in the 68th Sachsensymposion, alongside Canterbury Archaeological Trust and the University of Kent, that will bring together many of the eminent scholars in early medieval studies from western Europe. This will be the first time this international conference has been held in Canterbury and it promises to be an exciting occasion.

However to return to Mike Bintley’s lecture, his interest in Anglo-Saxon perceptions of landscape lay at the heart of his investigation of the Old English Andreas. His recent joint edition of this fascinating poem notes that the text contains certain clues about its production such as the use of Kentish dialect and particular scribal practices, which, in the case of this manuscript, may point to its copying in St Augustine’s Abbey’s scriptorium c.975. This rich Old English book contains 23 homilies as well as 6 poems and among those accompanying Andreas is that great poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.

Now, I’m no Old English scholar so I’m not going to pursue its place within the Anglo-Saxon canon but instead I was very struck by Mike’s analysis of the way the poet had used the urban landscape. For those unfamiliar with the story, in brief it concerns the adventure of the Apostle Matthew in Mermedonia as he, like the rest of Christ’s apostles, is sent out into the world to spread the gospel. Matthew may be considered to have drawn a very short straw in that the particular group he visits are cannibals, and pretty nasty ones too, who imprison Matthew presumably with the intention of putting him on the menu. God thus sends Andrew to save him and having arrived before the walls of Mermedonia after a long voyage he is initially successful in his rescue of Matthew and the other captives. As one might surmise the Mermedonians are not too happy about all of this and seek a substitute to dine on. The elder selected as a consequence of their heathen rites puts forward his son as a substitute, a Eucharistic reference. The Mermedonians seize Matthew and Andrew bewails his fate to God, however all turns out well in the end and the people are converted, a church is built and the idols are scattered.

So what of Mermedonia and its urban landscape? Firstly such townscapes are rare in Old English poetry and where they do occur the recurrent theme is one of physical decay, of ruins, collapsed buildings and the death not only of the builders but of authority figures as the rulers too lie dead. This use of a shared symbolic vocabulary is important as it would seem to point to a post-colonial landscape, the giants of Roman civilization are gone just as their great stone buildings crumble away and the wine-halls – places of plenty, of hospitality for host and stranger alike – are now empty. In contrast Mermedonia still has its walls, its town gates, its buildings and its roads but its people are morally and spiritually in a state of decay, theirs is ‘a world turned upside-down’. For not only do they seek to dine on the stranger, a total inversion of the unwritten rules of hospitality, but in their torturing of the saint in their midst, tellingly leaving bits of his battered body on the roadway as he is dragged through the town, they show themselves to be complete barbarians, who rely on witchcraft and thus are men beyond reason.

As Mike explained these ideas need to be considered alongside the descriptions of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers from the works of Gildas and Bede, and how these origin myths were fostered and developed in the different kingdoms in England before coming under the overarching house of Wessex. Furthermore, the reclaiming of England for Roman Christianity that in itself involved a pretty chequered narrative, required both a reinstatement of the urban, defensible landscape – Alfredian burhs, as well as the overcoming of heathen invaders. Such a reclamation would seem to have cultural, in addition to spiritual, connotations in that Anglo-Saxon England, Mermedonian-style, is perhaps not rebuilt to replicate an ancient past, but instead the ancient Roman foundations give rise to new ‘stone’ buildings. In the case of the churches they may indeed have been stone, and this might be thought to have a particular resonance at Canterbury in terms of the cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s church. However what struck me in the final passage on Mike’s handout of the poem was the phrase ‘men through the wine-town far and wide’ who sought baptism at the instigation of the saint. I may be wrong but this appears to me to bridge through memory and aspiration the past, the present and the future, for in such a town there is order, civilization, plenty – for the native and the stranger, and above all Roman Christianity, and if indeed a Canterbury context for this poem/manuscript, St Augustine’s own vineyards.

To move on to Louise’s paper, and I’ll confine this to a single paragraph which is no reflection on her excellent lecture, her assessment of the father-daughter relationship between Edward I and his offspring provided a fascinating insight into the quality and quantity of thirteenth-century royal record-keeping. Moreover Louise demonstrated, using her meticulous archival research, just how close this relationship appears to have been. And, yes, the marriages of his daughters were deployed as a means to enhance the family’s position in north-west Europe but that Edward seems to have been unwilling to parcel his young daughters off to foreign courts as passive packages of royal DNA. Indeed her analysis of the ways he kept his daughters at the English court, even sometimes after the marriage ceremony, was striking, as was their attendance on their parents as the family moved around the country, especially on pilgrimage to the great shrines of England. Perhaps even more telling were their activities as patrons and petitioners, and not just as mere ciphers but having agency for their own purposes. Thus Louise’s paper was exceedingly revealing about royal female roles in Plantagenet England. I’m looking forward to the book(s) that will result and hence will end here for this week and I’ll keep you posted about Louise’s ongoing research in future weeks.