First some advance notice: Dr Lesley Hardy will be giving a lecture to the Lyminge Historical Society on Tuesday 3 November at The Tayne Centre at 7.30pm. She will be speaking on “The Romans are Coming!”, so if you are interested do please go along to listen. Secondly, Dr Martin Watts will be going to visit the Sandwich Museum archives at the beginning of next week to examine the sources held there. These include a number of photographs showing features of Port Richborough such as the wharf area with railways, the important RoRo train ferry, and structures like the accommodation huts and workshops. Other primary sources he intends to consult are the sale posters produced for the sale of the port and its effects after the Great War, all of which should help Martin begin to piece together the port’s development, and he will also take advantage of books that have been produced to tell the port’s story. This is an opportune moment because the local archivist will be featuring the Port in a display next year to mark the centenary of 1916.
Moving between the two universities in Canterbury, but not really being part of either, means that in some ways I cannot help but develop a split personality. However, it was nice yesterday evening to see Professor Jackie Eales at the University of Kent’s MEMS [Medieval and Early Modern Studies] Festival events at the cathedral when Leonie Seliger gave a fantastic talk about the Ancestors exhibition standing before these stained glass windows in the Chapter House. I’ll come back to these windows in a minute but first I’ll just mention a few of the events that took place earlier yesterday at this postgraduate organised, end-of-year festival. Just over a decade ago the final joint Canterbury-York postgraduate weekend conference took place at the University of Kent, thus it is good to see the inauguration of another postgraduate event that celebrates the research taking place in Canterbury, and spotlights the new generation of researchers. So what happened yesterday? Well the programme offered a feast of papers in the morning, and either side of mid-morning coffee were parallel sessions entitled ‘Beyond Text’, ‘Negotiation & Transition’, ‘Early Drama at Kent’ and ‘Experience of Christianity in Medieval and Early Modern England’. There is not space to go into any detail here but it was especially pleasing to see that the contributors ranged from final year undergraduates: Natasha Bray and Angela Websdale, to Masters students: Tristan Taylor, to doctoral students: Sophie Kelly and Dan Smith, to new and established members of staff: Emily Guerry and Ryan Perry.
The work of the ‘Methuselah Master’
The afternoon brought another choice, including the ‘Would I lie to You?’ MEMS Quiz Show where the lecturers’ team of Ryan Perry, Clare Wright and I demonstrated just how good to were at lying compared to the team of students and thus triumphed conclusively, although it did help that I have a brother in Malmesbury and so knew about the ‘flying’ monk. Session Four offered a choice of one of three workshops: ‘A-Z of Manuscripts, ‘MEMS Scriptorium’ and ‘Salad Days’, the latter drawing on the 16th-century diary of Richard Stonley and led by Zoe Hudson. For those seeking something less ‘hands-on’ there were two back-to-back roundtables, the first on ‘How do we do research?’ offered a broad range of ideas both from the panel and several members of the audience, and I imagine the second roundtable on ‘Surviving Postgraduate Study’ was equally informative.
Which brings me back to the stained glass exhibition and if you haven’t visited it – do, you won’t get another chance like this again. Leonie is a great speaker, incredibly knowledgeable and one of those enthusiastic people one wants to have around. As I said earlier Professor Eales was there, and also Richard Eales whom some of you may have heard on Thursday talking about Canterbury Castle at his lecture at The Beaney and/or at the Magna Carta conference at Old Sessions House a couple of weeks ago. Also joining the party were members of the cathedral archives staff and Dr Paul Bennett, the Director of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, and it was excellent to see representatives from all four institutions in the same space and benefitting from the words of an expert, not least because Paul could add further information about the great rebuilding of the cathedral from the mid-1170s under the direction of William of Sens (2 phases) and then William the Englishman from his recent examination of the cathedral stonework.
So just a few points from Leonie’s fascinating talk: of the eighty-six original ‘Ancestors’ of Christ that once adorned the clerestory of the late twelfth-century cathedral, half have been lost through the ravages of time and neglect rather than at the hands of the iconoclasts, who were generally far more interested in destroying ‘Thomas’s glassy bones’ and anything that might be construed as in the least bit idolatrous, not Old Testament worthies. However only eight are still in the clerestory, the rest of the survivors having been moved at various times over the centuries to the great south and west windows, and it is the twenty-two from the south window that currently are receiving the loving care of Leonie and her team of conservators. Nevertheless, even with this moving about and other issues over the centuries, the glass is remarkably intact and on average less than 10% of new glass has had to be employed, a truly remarkable statistic when you consider their age and the dangers the cathedral has faced since their creation. Interestingly, the patterning of the figures places a father (or grandfather) above a son, the pairs surrounded by an intricate border (now reunited). Even before the rebuilding after the fire in 1174, Canterbury was famous for its glass and stylistically some of the cathedral’s glass is known to be the second oldest, making it a fantastic resource for scholars worldwide.
Looking specifically at the examples in the Chapter House, as Leonie demonstrated, the work of the ‘Methuselah Master’ as he is known from one of his masterpieces is exquisite because, as a Norman, he was able to blend his knowledge of Classical Roman sculpture with the best Anglo-Saxon traditions from illuminated manuscripts. Furthermore his figures highlight his ‘delight in contrasts’. Thus we have Methuselah, known primarily for having reached a great age, as a virile young man, showing confidence as he sits looking out on the world, while below his son Lamech is apparently writhing, his body tense and contorted, for it was his generation that had angered God through their corrupt practices. To make the point totally clear, as you can see above, he is depicted wearing a Jewish hat and dressed in yellow. Now colour symbolism was complex in the medieval Church and a particular colour could indicate different things depending on its use and context. Consequently yellow was often associated with St John the Evangelist due to its link to the Word (of God), but equally the Jews, as the people of the Book might be shown in yellow to highlight their Jewishness. And on the matter of colours, Leonie shared some of the secrets of medieval coloured glass-making with the audience, something she certainly would not have been allowed to do in the Middle Ages because such expertise was closely guarded for it was worth its weight in gold. Her audience would have been happy to spend even longer listening to her, but because it was getting late almost everyone then headed round to Canon Christopher Irvine’s garden for drinks. As Canon Librarian, he is a good friend of both universities which meant it was a fitting place to retire to before the final event of the day, the MEMS dinner.
Thus in a week that has seen Professor Louise Wilkinson attend the national commemoration of Magna Carta at Runnymede, Jackie Eales co-ordinate the local Historical Association’s Sixth-Form conference at Christ Church and Kent’s MEMS postgraduates run their first festival, the study of history and especially medieval and early modern studies would appear to be thriving in Canterbury.