Joseph Roth: The Collapse of empire

I was reading Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March (1932). A great novel but also another view into this thing called Habsburg Empire. Or the death of it.

Roth writes a world of certainties. Even when fate picked a man up in Tolstoyan grasp to place him in just the right place to save the life of Franz Joseph I at the battle of Solferino (in a war I know nothing of I must confess), it simply lifted him out of the peasant rut and set him on a parallel track under the title and new routines of a Baron. A clean break. A new track. Yet uncomplainingly he continued on to be what his position demanded of him. His relationship with his old peasant father was one of distances greater than miles, silences punctuated by a ritual handful of sentences written in letters.

His son the District Captain is born to and lives on this new track, a life of settled privilege. Just as many silences, preferred by his own son. The Baron is self-contained, unchanging, moving through days of comfortable rituals. I love these descriptions so detailed you can see and smell the glowing gold of their soup.

So lunch was starting. Whenever the music paused, a soft clattering of dishes could be heard from the dining room. It lay three large rooms away from the balcony, at the exact midpoint of the second floor. During the meal, the music resounded, far but clear. Unfortunately, the band did not play every day. It was good and useful; it entwined the solemn ceremony of the luncheon, mild and conciliatory, allowing none of the terse, harsh, embarrassing conversations that the father so often loved to start. One could remain silent, listening and enjoying. The plates had narrow, fading, blue-and-gold stripes. Carl Joseph loved them. He often recalled them throughout the year. They and “The Radetzky March” and the wall portrait of his deceased mother (whom the boy no longer remembered) and the heavy silver ladle and the fish tureen and the scalloped fruit knives and the tiny demitasses and the wee frail spoons as thin as thin silver coins: all these things together meant summer, freedom, home.

A warm golden shimmer hovered in the plates; it was the soup, noodle soup: transparent, with thin, tender, entwined, golden-yellow noodles. Herr von Trotta und Sipolje ate very swiftly, sometimes fiercely. He virtually destroyed one course after another with a noiseless, aristocratic, and rapid malice; he was wiping them out. Fraulein Hirschwitz took small portions at the table, but after a meal she re-ate the entire sequence of food in her room. Carl Joseph fearfully and hastily swallowed hot spoonfuls and huge mouthfuls. In this way, they all finished in tandem. No word was spoken when Herr von Trotta und Sipolje held his tongue. After the soup the Tafelspitz was served, boiled fillet of beef with all the trimmings, the old man’s Sunday entrée for countless years. The delighted contemplation he devoted to this dish took more time than half the meal. The district captain’s eyes caressed first the delicate bacon that silhouetted the colossal chunk of meat, then each small individual plate on which the vegetables were bedded: the glowing violet beets, the lush-green earnest spinach, the bright cheery lettuce, the acrid white of the horseradish, the perfect oval of new potatoes swimming in melting butter and recalling delicate baubles. The baron had a bizarre relationship with food. He ate the most important morsels with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food—its soul, as it were; the vapid remainders that then reached mouth and palate were boring and had to be wolfed down without delay. The beauteous appearance of the victuals gave the old man as much pleasure as their simplicity. For he set store by good solid fare, a tribute he paid to both his taste and his conviction; the latter, you see, he called Spartan. With felicitous skill, he thus combined the sating of his desire with the demands of duty. He was a Spartan. But he was also an Austrian.

One of the best descriptions of lunch I have ever read.

I also love this description of language merged with face merged with empire. Only one generation from peasant mind you, even that peasant did save Franz Joseph.

He spoke the nasal Austrian German of higher officials and lesser nobles. It vaguely recalled distant guitars twanging in the night and also the last dainty vibrations of fading bells; it was a soft but also precise language, tender and spiteful at once. It suited the speaker’s thin, bony face, his curved, narrow nose, in which the sonorous, somewhat rueful consonants seemed to be lying. His nose and mouth, when the district captain spoke, were more like wind instruments than facial features. … from the lips, nothing moved in his face. The dark whiskers that Herr von Trotta wore as part of his uniform, as insignia demonstrating his fealty to Franz Joseph I, as proof of his dynastic conviction—these whiskers likewise remained immobile when Herr von Trotta and Sipolje spoke. He sat upright at the table, as if clutching reins in his hard hands. When sitting he appeared to be standing, and when rising he always surprised others with his full ramrod height. He always wore dark blue, summer and winter, Sundays and weekdays: a dark-blue jacket with gray striped trousers that lay snug on his long legs and were tautened by straps over the smooth boots. Between the second and third course, he would usually get up in order to “stretch my legs.” But it seemed more as if he wanted to show the rest of the household how to rise, stand, and walk without relinquishing immobility.

Immobility and silence. It seems to be all they have. That and barracks and symbols. They make Slavic highways move around them.

THE BARRACKS LAY in the northern part of town. It closed off the broad well-kept highway, which started a new life behind the red brick construction, where it led far into the blue countryside. The barracks looked as if it had been thrust into the Slavic province by the Imperial and Royal Army as an emblem of the Hapsburg might. The ancient highway itself, which had become so broad and roomy after centuries of migrating Slavic generations, was blocked by the barracks. The highway had to yield. It looped around the barracks. If on a clear day you stood at the extreme northern edge of town at the end of the highway, where the houses grew smaller and smaller, finally becoming peasant huts, you could spy, in the distance, the broad, arched, black-and-yellow entrance to the barracks, a gate brandished like a mighty Hapsburg shield against the town: a threat, a protection, and both at once. The regiment was stationed in Moravia. But its troops were not Czechs, as might be expected; they were Ukrainians and Rumanians.

So this is part, somehow, of what is holding this Habsburg empire together. These immobilities framed within wild frontiers. A strange, stilted, graceful and hierarchical isolation. Human beings moving like wind-up dolls through an endless procession of similar days. I have trouble imagining such a world, I wonder how visible it was even from where Joseph Roth was writing. Because of course, he was writing from a time when everything had changed. So much you could look back with some longing on this embalmed order of loved and loyal servants, distant poverty and sunday afternoons that in some ways is covered in the same shimmer of gold as Herr von Trotta and Sipolje’s soup.

BACK THEN, BEFORE the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.

This perhaps, more than anything, explains nostalgia. What better way to revolt against mass murder and the speed of your own time.

Yet the empire could not hold. Carl Joseph, the grandson of the hero of Solferino cannot sit a horse much less live up to his name. He has unhappy affairs. He dreams of the peasants of Sipolje. He banishes himself to alcoholism along the borders, amongst those who know they are all already finished. The empire is crumbling, he is in himself proof. He finds his way to disgrace, and his father the District Captain moves all the mountains of bureaucracy to reach Franz Joseph and save their name. Yet the victory feels dreamlike, the ruin of the man, like the empire, remains stark in the face of it.

The district captain shifted closer to the table and asked, “And why—if you’ll forgive me—would it be just as superfluous serving the Fatherland as making gold?”

“Because the Fatherland no longer exists.”

“I don’t understand!” said Herr von Trotta.

“I assumed you wouldn’t understand,” said Chojnicki. “We are all no longer alive!”

It was very still. The final glint of twilight had long since vanished. Through the narrow gaps of the green blinds they could have seen a few stars in the sky. The broad and blaring chant of the frogs had been replaced by the quiet metallic chant of the nightly field crickets. From time to time they heard the harsh cry of the cuckoo. The district captain, put in an unfamiliar, almost enchanted state by the alcohol, the bizarre surroundings, and the count’s unusual words, stole a glance at his son, merely to see a close and familiar person. But Carl Joseph too seemed neither close nor familiar to him. Perhaps Chojnicki was correct and they all really no longer existed: not the Fatherland nor the district captain nor his son! Straining greatly, Herr von Trotta managed to ask, “I don’t understand. How can you say the monarchy no longer exists?”

“Naturally!” replied Chojnicki. “In literal terms, it still exists. We still have an army”—the count pointed at the lieutenant—”and officials”—the count pointed at the district captain—”but the monarchy is disintegrating while still alive; it is doomed! An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism. Nations no longer go to church. They go to national associations. Monarchy, our monarchy, is founded on piety, on the faith that God chose the Hapsburgs to rule over so and so many Christian nations. Our Kaiser is a secular brother of the Pope, he is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty; no other is as apostolic, no other majesty in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and on the faith of the nations in the grace of God. The German Kaiser still rules even when God abandons him; perhaps by the grace of the nation. The Emperor of Austria-Hungary must not be abandoned by God. But God has abandoned him!”

This book is beguilingly beautiful. I can do no justice to it.

The sky was very close; a good familiar shell made of a familiar blue glass, it lay within reach, over the earth. Earthly hands had pinned the stars into the nearby sky like tiny flags into a map. At times the entire blue night whirled around the district captain, rocking softly and then standing still. The frogs croaked in the unending swamps. The air smelled of rain and grass. The horses were ghostly white in front of the black carriage, and over them loomed the coachman in a black overcoat. The horses whinnied, and as soft as cat paws their hoofs scratched the damp, sandy ground.

Yes indeed, the district captain had been cheerful and exuberant when he had ridden into an adventuresome region and to his dear son. Now he was returning home, alone, from a lonesome son and from this borderland, where the collapse of the world could already be seen as clearly as one sees a thunderstorm on the edge of a city, whose streets lie still unaware and blissful under a blue sky. The doorman’s cheery bell was already ringing. The locomotive was already whistling. The wet steam of the train was already banging against the restaurant windows in fine gray beads. The meal was already over, and they all stood up. The whole battalion escorted Herr von Trotta to the platform. Herr von Trotta wanted to say something special, but nothing suitable occurred to him. He glanced tenderly at his son. But then he instantly feared that someone would notice that glance, and he lowered his eyes. He shook Major Zoglauer’s hand. He thanked Chojnicki. He tipped his dignified gray silk hat, which he always wore when traveling. He held the hat in his left hand and threw his right arm around Carl Joseph’s back. He kissed his son on both cheeks. And always he wanted to say, Don’t cause me any grief, I love you, my son! All he said was, “Stay well!”

These are the deeper silences, the things that once could not be said.

This conversation sums it up perhaps, from the District Captain’s only friend, who can see further. Who knows old ways are done and the future being built though he doesn’t understand it.

“Things were different back then,” Skowronnek replied. “Now not even the Kaiser bears responsibility for his monarchy. Why, it even looks as if God Himself no longer wishes to bear responsibility for the world. It was easier in those days! Everything was so secure. Every stone lay in its place. The streets of life were well-paved. Secure roofs rested on the walls of the houses. But today, Herr District Captain, the stones on the street lie askew and confused and in dangerous heaps, and the roofs have holes, and the rain falls into the houses, and everyone has to know on his own which street he is taking and what kind of house he is moving into. When your late father said you would become a public official rather than a farmer, he was right. You have become a model official. But when you told your son he had to be a soldier, you were wrong. He is not a model soldier.”

“Yes, yes!” confirmed Herr von Trotta.

“And that’s why we should let everyone do as he wishes, each on his own path. When my children refuse to obey me, all I do is try not to lose my dignity. That is all one can do. I sometimes look at them when they’re asleep. Their faces then look very alien to me, almost unrecognizable, and I see that they are strangers, from a time that is yet to come and that I will not live to see.

Everything was changing, communication and old order broken down, generations split asunder to become strangers. This theme of love alongside utter incomprehension between old and new runs throughout.

Jelacich, a Slovene, hit the ceiling. He hated the Hungarians as much as he despised the Serbs. He loved the monarchy. He was a patriot. And there he stood, love of Fatherland in his helplessly outspread hands, like a flag you have to plant somewhere but can’t find a roof for…But he loved his sons…He shut his eyes when he saw them reading suspicious newspapers, and he closed his ears when he heard them making suspicious remarks. He was intelligent and he knew that he stood powerless between his forebears and his offspring, who were destined to become the ancestors of a brand-new race. They had his features, his hair color, and his eyes, but their hearts beat to a new rhythm, their heads gave birth to strange thoughts, their throats sang new and strange songs that he had never heard. And though he was only forty, the rittmaster felt like an old man, and his sons seemed liked incomprehensible great-grandchildren.

The war comes, and the old is washed away, though this scene of its coming seems quintessentially traditional:

Peasants in short odorous sheepskins, Jews in fluttering black-and-green gaberdines, Swabian farmers from the German colonies wearing green loden coats, Polish burghers, merchants, craftsmen, and government officials surrounded the customs officer’s booth. On each of the four bare walls a huge poster was pasted, each in a different tongue and starting with the Kaiser’s salutation: TO MY PEOPLES! Those who were literate read the text aloud. Their voices mingled with the booming chant of the bells. Some onlookers went from wall to wall, reading the text in each language. Whenever one bell died out, another instantly started booming. Throngs poured from the little town, surging into the broad street that led to the railroad station. Trotta walked toward them into town.

It is the end. Mass slaughter. The end of empires and the birth of new nations. nothing will be the same. The only possible, improbable way to life becomes an existential refusal of what one should be for what one is. This muted demand for personal integrity that Carl Joseph seems to find at the end. That alongside the bubbling up of ethnic identities, nationalisms, dreams of freedom. This is a novel of why things had to change, yet still such a novel of loss in a tangle of emotions almost entirely unspoken.

A timely thing to read, as we face another kind of collapse. Yet I feel perhaps this one will be reversed. Our always-accelerating lives slowed down if we survive at all, but likely lacking in grace. And Strauss.

A good thing to read in Vienna, where Roth lived some time. For a while in this building below.

The Habsburg Empire

I can’t get my head around the Habsburg Empire at all. This is a great short introduction that gives its broad outlines and who’s who and some brilliant little details…I’m afraid they are more what I latched on to. It is six hundred years, a sprawling story across Europe, it is too big. Yet this is the empire that has shaped so many of the places we have visited, and in particular Vienna. (Vienna! I once started writing out sections of the Fodor travel guide to Europe starting with Austria…I don’t know why, so desperate to see and to know other places when I was little…)

The Habsburgs were always an enterprising family deeply discontented with their lot. They started carving out ‘a medly of discontinuous lordships and manors in the region of the Upper Rhine, ranging across Alsace, the Black Forest, and what is now Northern Switzerland‘. The 1st definite record of them comes with Radbot (935-1045) — Radbot! — who founded the Benedictine abbey of Muri in Swiss Aargau. About the same time he built a stone fort called Habsburg, Castle of the Ford or Castle of the Hawk depending on your preference. This is where the name came from, but they didn’t like the area so much and were busy acquiring territories towards Austria and Styria so they just gave this castle away to vassals in 1230, who then lost it.

You can still see it though.

This might be my favourite Habsburg story, perhaps because it unsettles all my ideas of aristocracy, the mythologies of their connection with a specific place, with specific lands.

The renewed Holy Roman Empire started Christmas Day AD 800 — the emperors were not initially Habsburgs (we all knew that already) but came to be elected by Habsburgs, and the Habsburgs stopped electing and themselves became Holy Roman Emperors between 1438 and 1740

A chart of the Habsburgs proper before the death of Charles VI, the passing of the throne to Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina (the beginning of the Habsburg-Lorraines), together representing 600 or so years of empire…

Thus all of the Habsburg possessions were ‘composite’ states and kingdoms, comprising several or more territories which had over time become bound together under single rulers. (9)

By Unknown – [1]., GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5961090

They also collected titles, like these two marking how much they had looted through 1648:

Don Philip the Fourth, by the grace of God king of Castile, Leon, Aragon, the Two Sicilies, Jerusalem, Navarre, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Minorca, Seville, Cerdagne, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, the Eastern and Western Indies, the islands and terra firma of the Ocean, archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Milan, count of Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, Barcelona, lord of Biscay and Molina, etc.

Ferdinand III, Elected Roman Emperor, at all times Enlarger of the Empire, King of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia etc, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Margrave of Moravia, Duke of Luxembourg, Upper and Lower Silesia, Wurttemberg and Teck, Prince in Swabia, Count of Habsburg, Tyrol, Kyburg, Gorizia, Landgrave of Alsace, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, Burgau, Upper and Lower Lusatia, Lord of the Windisch Mark, Pordenone and Salins etc.

Some of these places they genuinely owned, some of them they had owned once, some they thought they had some claim to as Rady writes:

By having these places listed, they were kept ‘active’, as possible future acquisitions should the right circumstances arise. (12)

He continues:

The Habsburgs were not just a ruling family. They were also a dynasty. A dynasty is more than a group of blood relatives, for it has a sense of its own history that guides its development through time. It is proprietary, in the sense of seeking to retain and even augment its landed inheritance, but it is also a legal community whose members have interconnected rights and obligations. (12)

They were good at forgeries. Duke Rudolf IV of Habsburg forged a charter from Julius Ceasar himself. Although it was always known as a fake, it buttressed their claims to ‘pre-eminence in the Holy Roman Empire’ from the 14th Century onwards.

His successor was Frederick who had the most splendid mother ever:

Cymburga, a woman of prodigious beauty and physical strength, who could reputedly drive nails into oak tables with her bare fist (21).

That seems a good quality in a ruler, but I don’t think the tradition was continued. Instead the Habsburgs just continued on acquiring things — women of prodigious beauty, art, statues, lands, titles, money. I suppose in these early years they must have been rather fierce, shrewd in marriages and diplomacy. But that couldn’t have been quite enough to hold such an array of cultures and languages and lands together. Rady writes:

The preferred method of 16th-century Habsburg rule was ‘conciliar’. This meant that Habsburg monarchs practised, where they could, government by committee, and functions were devolved to meetings made up largely of experts. The heads of these committees, the secretaries or ‘super-clerks’, often reported directly to the ruler, thus preparing the way for what would later become cabinet government. (34-35)

I’m still not entirely sure how all of this hung together — a dynasty supreme in the art of delegation. Coupled with a lot of brute force. Take Phillip II, of whom his leading general said

‘every individual has the feeling that one fine night or morning the house will fall in on him’ (39).

This level of force continued, even as the emperors got a bit madder over time. Of Rudolf II, his brothers reported

His Majesty is interested only in wizards, alchemists, Kabbalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies… He also has a whole library of magic books. He strives all the time to eliminate God completely  so that he may in future serve a different master. (41)

Second favourite story.

They presided over the 30-years war from 1618-1648, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, France, all the little German principalities. Rady describes the ‘refeudalisation’ of Spain through the globalization of the Empire, but by 1700 they had lost that. (This is written with their global conquests as primarily a sidenote.)

Rady writes:

In that year, the last Habsburg ruler of Spain, Charles II, died — deranged, without heir, and habitually unkempt. (59)

Third favourite story.

The Enlightenment arrives, everyone thinks Central Europe is just a bit backward. It really is. But there was a thing called the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713 that established the indivisibility of Habsburg lands and a single succession and allowed daughters to inherit — so Maria Theresa was allowed to ascend to power (they have to become the house of Habsburg-Lorraine at that point), but not without Frederick the Great of Prussia taking Silesia (they didn’t manage to get it back during the 7-years war). Rady talks about how in Britain and North America Enlightenment meant ‘an extension of popular sovereignty, curbs on government, and a new ‘science of freedom’ but in Central Europe

the Enlightenment tended towards the reverse–towards regulation, the ‘science of the state’, and the subjection of the individual to the common good, as the sovereign understood it to be. (63)

They stood against Napoleon — poorly. Vienna was occupied twice, the Habsburgs stripped of their territories. Metternich took control of foreign policy in 1809. Metternich had slept with Napoleon’s sister, had had a chat with Napoleon and realised that he had totally underestimated Russia, planned accordingly. The 1814-15 talks that concluded the Napoleonic wars took place in Vienna. The Habsburgs lost their claim to the Holy Roman Empire. Francis became emperor of Austria, finally a legitimate empire with Metternich firmly ensconced presiding over the Biedermeier period until the revolutions of 1848. 

Empire continues on, limps on through the glories of the vin-de-siecle. We come to Franz Ferdinand…this is a rather extraordinary photo of the man who got himself assassinated to start WWI.

And they come to an end with Charles I. The empire no one tried to reinstate.

Kropotkin: or things we knew already in 1880

In periods of frenzied haste towards wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamors loudly for a complete remodelling of the system of property ownership, of production, or exchange and all economic relations which spring from it.

‘The Spirit of Revolt’ 1880

Avebury in the ages of copper, Iron and steel

I knew of Avebury for stone circles and avenues, for its Neolithic wonders, I hadn’t realised the wealth of barrows and earthworks from more recent times. ‘Recent’ used loosely.

The Age of Metals (2400 BC — 50 AD) ushered in the end of the great monuments such as Windmill Hill, Knap Hill, the stone circles of Avebury and the Sanctuary. Earth continues to be moved, but increasingly in defensive ways and the relationship with the dead changes. We see new forms of burial in single graves with goods, distinctive Beaker pottery and the first items of metalwork.

But of course there is still much continuity. Many graves were built on top of older graves, into older graves. The last identifiable act of deposit into the Avebury henge ditch probably took place in the first quarter of the 2nd millenium, and it contained worked flints, sherds of vessels in two fabrics, a sheep/goat metatarsal and a carved chalk ball. I love these miscellaneous sacred items identified more with the earlier period and a very different system of value…because of course people will continue their traditions, will have memories of older ways. I wonder what this change felt like.

Individuals were now buried, not left to become fragments of bone in a collective tomb. Several of them were buried crouched at the base of the standing stones with bowls and beakers.

Burials in such locations could have been undertaken with full respect for earlier sacred traditions for which these monuments stood. But whether intended or not, these actions did bring about a change in meanings. Certain monuments were becoming ‘personalised’, in the sense that they now had close contextual relationships with particular individuals or social groups. (129)

Thus we have the beginning of round barrow mounds for 1 to 12 people. There are over 300 in the Avebury area, and having walked so many miles of it they are the most distinctive apart from Silbury hill. But even the giant mound of Silbury is oddly hidden, only visible here and there in this great rolling landscape. Here it is peeking above the horizon in the dead centre between the barrows.

Barrows line the hills, particularly along the ridgeway. Left unplowed amidst the vast arable, they are now even more visible as stands of trees, but still they would have been distinct across the horizon in ways in few long barrows were.

Here the Overton hill barrows without trees:

Few of them are wealthy individuals, only one such ‘Wessex’ burial has been found of an older woman with gold and bronze. Pollard and Reynolds write:

The peripheral situation of the Manton Barow in relation to Avebury might even bespeak of the unacceptability of ostentatious funerary displays in the zone surrounding the earlier monument complex. (134)

I know others have noted this shift from an openness and collective humility to a hierarchical display. Carolyn Merchant, for example, writes of it as taken for granted in the collection I’m working through now, Uncommon Ground. Still, to experience the materiality of this in such a place is quite something.

These stands of trees are quite beautiful.

Much has also been written, of course, about how this hierarchy connects to permanence in the landscape, and we begin to see extensive field systems and the establishment of permanent settlements on Marlborough Downs. These do not encroach on older neolithic sites and archaeologists have encountered few remains there. This is also the time of hill forts, which include Oliver’s Castle, Oldbury, Rybury and the Martinesell/Giant’s Grave complex, but we remain unsure what they really mean. Oldbury at least was occupied, but Cherhill Down where it sits had been occupied on and off since the Mesolithic. This is the one we visited but there is little left beyond a hint of ditch. A good sign about livestock though.

The builders oriented all houses and barrows south-easterly.

Marlborough Downs have a patchwork of old systems that we struggled a bit to see ourselves, but have been subject to extensive excavation and documentation.

It seems to have become an oppidum or regional centre, but by the arrival of the Romans, this was most likely ‘a bit of a backwater‘. There is much here about the shifting fortune of place.

The Romans (43-450AD)

Their material culture appeared before them — arriving over a century before the conquest of Claudius. Likewise it seems that the ‘the influence of Late Iron Age tribal geography upon the Roman administrative districts is probably considerable‘ (150). This area seems to have remained a bit of a backwater, though villas and settlements are known to have been built at Windmill Hill, East Kennett, Cherhill, Oldbury among others, with a small town at the foot of Silbury Hill. A number of settlements were tied to the Ridgeway, while others sat alongside the Roman road of ‘Yatesbury lane’. They form a highly ordered landscape, through alternation between cultivation and pasture. Though I like the note that their domestic waste was spread across fields (hence the scatter of shards and things) so not too orderly.

We traveled the old Roman road for a way.

It runs into the A4 at Silbury, it’s interesting that that is where the Romans chose to settle. We climbed Waden Hill, and there is nothing left now to see.


It’s interesting thinking about how culture shifts and hybridises — and the nature of the relationships between one people and another. The Romans started building barrows too, and potentially started leaving coins and votive offerings at older long barrows. Of these ‘hoards’ it is hard to tell what was hidden, what lost, what sacramental. They also seem to have built a temple on Overton Hill inside of the hillfort, this continuity of religious spaces is well known elsewhere. They remained occupying the land until a generation into the fifth century. But I still wonder quite who ‘they’ were. They couldn’t have been all Roman or all Celt, couldn’t have had a completely unified culture. We look backwards and see so little.

The Anglo-Saxons (450-1100)

Avebury apparently initially flourished under the Anglo-Saxons and much has been excavated but little published (by 2006, I didn’t look up papers, they are often too much for me). The hillforts were probably first defended by the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons, and then some like Oldbury Castle later reoccupied. But there is this incredible structure — the Wansdyke, a great earthwork I had never heard of.

Watts writes that Wansdyke was probably built by the Britons to keep out the Saxons advance from the north in the late 5th century, that it probably existed by 778 as the quaddum vallum mentioned in a charter, and it is described again in 825 as the Ealden Dic (Old Dyke).

L.V. Grinsell described the Wansdyke as ‘…one of the most spectacular experiences in British field archaeology‘ (as quoted in Watts). I probably agree (though my experience is limited).

Here it crests the horizon:

This part of Wiltshire seemed almost always to have a strange haze, but even on warm yet grey day, the Wansdyke is a spectacular walk. We found it again in West Woods, but there it is diminished…

Watts argues it would have in the end been taken by the Saxon advance from the south under Cynric and Ceawlin in the 6th century. He also mentions the strategic point where the dyke crosses the Ridgeway, known as Red Shore. We walked through this point without realising. Gah. Perhaps because we were looking ahead to the great long barrow known as Adam’s Grave against the sky.

This is the site of at least one, probably more battles but it is those between the West Saxons and the ‘Upper Thames Saxons’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 592 describing that ‘In this year there was a great slaughter at Adam’s Grave, and Ceawlin was expelled’ by Ceolwulf. He died the following year, and Wessex was then ruled by Ceol. (As quoted in Watts, p 63). There was a second battle there in 715 between Ine and Ceolred.

The Saxons developed a new public way alongside the Roman Road (Yatesbury road) and the Ridgeway. It is called the herepath, or Green St, now known as the Wessex Way — also a lovely way to walk.

They built a settlement using the henge as a part of the defense, and possibly also used the henge to keep livestock at need. There seems to have been a minster here, making this a clear centre yet ultimately Avebury diminished. Pollard and Reynolds write:

it is possible to suggest that Avebury is a failed small-town of later ninth- or tenth- to early eleventh-century date (Reynolds 2001b). (207)

Damn. Apparently failed towns are a new area of research, and the more I think about it the more I see why…

This is an area of open-field (planned, champagne) countryside, which generally started around the 10th century — but it is hard to know quite when it happened here. The Overton charters reference headland, furlongs and yardland. No charter exists for the area of Avebury however. Saxon graves were inserted into the barrows on Overton hill, which was common practice among those not converted to Christianity.

There was also the execution field. They write

On a clear day, if one looks due south from in front of the Red Lion public house at Avebury, the location of the gallows can be seen as a faint ‘v’ on the horizon which marks a break in the short stretch of dyke visible from the henge. A human figure is surprisingly discernible, even from such a distance…(233)

We did try it while awaiting our bus back to Swindon, and the henge seems to get in the way…

Medieval period

The henge came into cultivation in 12th and 13th centuries, without seeming to damage the stones, but this changed in the 14th century. Up to 40, and perhaps more, of the stones in both henge and along the avenues were buried, though it is uncertain of over what stretch of time. Another wave came in the 18th century, this time better documented. Some of the stones were burned as well as buried. But why some and not others? There is speculation that it was the division of land into plots, with some owners doing so and others not, which makes sense I think.

There’s one last mad story about a graveyard found at the base of Sanctuary Hill by a Dr Toope, who wrote a letter in 1685 to antiquary John Aubrey about bones having been uncovered by workmen. No evidence has been discovered, but that may be because he removed ‘bushells’ of bones to make medicine.

Nice.

Also a final observation on today’s parish boundaries still oriented to the neolithic landscape.

Watts also notes however, that parish boundaries in the area tend to cross the Wansdyke, which means they predate its construction, predate the Saxons…rather wondrous.

Pollard, Joshua, and Andrew Reynolds (2006) Avebury the biography of a landscape. Stroud: Tempus.

Watts, Kenneth (1993) The Marlnorough Downs. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press.

Neolithic Avebury

This part of Wiltshire is best know for expansive chalkland, a scatter of sarsens across the landscape. Also called ‘greywethers’, they are ‘the only remainders of the Eocene here; pockets of hard sand originally set within a softer and easily-weathered matrix’ (Pollard & Reynolds 14). We sought them out in their natural habitat.

Watts (1993) writes that before the sarsen cutters depleted them for local building, they could be used as stepping stones from Delling to Clatford. They were being squared off and sold up through 1938, the last cartloads going by barge along the Avon-Kennet canal to Windsor castle. It was a dangerous occupation, and cutters died young of silicosis and exposed on the hillsides. Curiously they don’t all split easily, and many were attempted and then left.

Of course, it was those placed here in Neolithic times that I cared most about.

This place was being used long before then, a stop over for the people of the Mesolithic — Cherwell hill was used as an ongoing camp at least, a place people stayed off and on. Earlier archeologists spouted theories left and right but seems that we are more and more reluctant to commit ourselves to any one defined belief of how people moved across the landscape in these prehistoric days. The record tells us little.

There are more signs of occupation from the Early Neolithic (4000-3000 BC), we walked near to the Roughridge pits, which mark the beginnings of creating monuments in this landscape that still remain. They were followed by two long mounds, one at least covered several burials and was constructed within sight of the Roughridge settlement.

The creation of monuments has been seen as symptomatic of new attitudes to place, landscape and the natural world (Bradley 1993,1998). Their construction served to ‘alter the earth’ in a way rarely seen during the Mesolithic, creating permanent landscape features that marked socially and mythically important places… (29)

At this time it was a ‘treescape’ rather than open downs, and trees are described as sources of food fuel and timber, but also ways to hold memory within their clearings. In some ways we can know so little, but science has brought improved ability to trace people’s passage through the underlying geology of their food (crikey), and they traveled fairly large distances. One such study shows that a woman buried with three children at Monkton-up-Wimbourne had originally most likely lived in the Mendips 80 km away, traveled to Cranborne Chase and gave birth to two children. She returned to the Mendips to give birth to the third, then returned to Cranborne Chase.

But mostly we look still to what has been buried, preserved. Evidence of settlements like Hemp Hill in carefully dug pits where objects have been buried though the structures people lived in were fleeting and have left no trace. Archaeologists believe such pits, some colour coded through soil and pottery in dark and light, marked a link, an attachment with places. They describe a certain ‘persistence of place‘ (cf Barton et al 1995), a regular returning to familiar spaces (40). I like too archaeological descriptions of their lack of imprint on the earth beyond their monuments, which ‘seem so permanent and enduring compared with the ephemeral settings of routine existence that Barrett has spoken of Neolithic life as ‘a process of becoming, a movement towards a future state which was described by reference to ancestors or to gods and where life might be spoken of as ephemeral‘ (1994, 136 p 45).

I’m not certain what I think of that, but both the sentence and the life thus lived have a certain poetry.

This is a map of Neolithic presence in Avebury’s landscape.

Map of Avebury – http://www.avebury-web.co.uk/avebury_map.html

Windmill Hill is perhaps the most significant monument over time in this landscape. We did not get here somehow, the timings and circuits were not right, but we did see it from over the path of West Kennet Avenue.

On Windmill Hill lies the greatest early Neolithic monument — a great oval enclosure enclosing nearly 8.5 ha. Bronze Age burial mounds cut into it. This hill, along with Knap Hill and Rybury also offer beautiful vistas across a country, which when wooded would have offered few such. There are various theories about the enclosures’ connection with the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture and that it represents a lost communal longhouse. There is greater consensus that such a structure is an act of enclosing space, setting it apart, surely of symbolic significance. What I love most though, is that this enclosure is not complete.

The permeability of the enclosure created by the broken sections of ditch implies a lack of concern with exclusion, of people, animals or things, allowing access and egress from many directions. This and other evidence, such as the occurrence of many different pottery styles, some in non-local clays, indicates the participation of large numbers and a range of people in activities at the site (Whittle et al 1999) (50)

It was also filled with animal burials.

We did get to Knap Hill it is splendid, the views above all as there is very little to be seen.

It stands across from a hill with a great long barrow on it — Adam’s Grave. This belongs to the period that follows those of the great enclosures. A number of these were built, more than have survived. They were

‘deliberately sited on locations that had witnessed earlier activity; as such they ‘elaborated upon a landscape which was already composed of significant locations, whether natural landmarks or places associated with particular events or practices’ (Thomas, 1999, 203 quoted on 59).

Many of them are located on vegetational or soil boundaries. Adam’s Grave is the one with the greatest view, here from below:

And here looking over to Knap Hill. This whole escarpment was wondrous looking out over the Pewsey Valley. The Saxons would fight long and hard over this, but more on that later.

West Kennet was the largest long barrow, used like the others for burials of fragments of bone over time. Both West Kennet and Adam’s Grave also contained oolitic limestone, which contrasts white with the grey stone, and had to be brought here from Frome-Bath-Atworth region.

The Later Neolithic period (3000-2400 BC) saw continued use of these areas — a continuity of memory. West Kennet barrow for instance, remained a focus of continued mortuary deposits and then became a repository for an infill of chalk, bone and other materials — but a purposeful one, with contrasting materials in different areas. They don’t make too much of these contrasts but I find them quite significant. They are not all on hills, we found this one in the West Woods covered in bluebells, obscured by saplings.

This is a period when the land was opening up, not so wooded but no evidence of cultivation until the end of the third millenium BC.

This is when Avebury stone circle was built. Deposits of worked flint, pottery, fragments of bone and skull at the bases of the greywethers. Pollard & Reynolds argue it should be seen as a continuation of whatever belief system underlay the enclosures of Windmill Hill, Rybury and Knapp Hill. Built on is it is, it is almost impossible to get a sense of the whole. It is experienced now in quarters, in bits and pieces created by the road.

A map of Avebury and its remaining stones without the village and the road driven through it.

The people here built additional structures at Beckhampton, West Kennet Palisades, the Sanctuary. Avenues connected Beckhampton and the Sanctuary (2.4 k) with Avebury, though almost nothing remains of them. That from the Sanctuary contains a sudden jog as it comes to it’s final third before Avebury — possibly to ensure a turn and then the monument opening up before you. This avenue was also laid out to cross an older occupation site, and a gap was left in its western wedge where it crossed the densest part of the old settlement. Pollard and Reynolds write:

The Avebury avenues brought together disparate places of significance in the landscape, creating connections not only between different parts of the landscape, but, because those places often had long histories of activity, between the past and the present. (105)

Nothing remains now of the Sanctuary but markers showing its complex arrangement of circles of wood and stone. It’s marvelous, and rediscovered by Maud Cunnington, ‘lady’ archaeologist of the 1930s who is never named in the signboards so you never know it was a woman running these early digs, yet who excavated a number of these places. This is directly alongside the ridgeway, but sadly also the A4.

The final monument is Silbury Hill — the largest prehistoric man-made mound in western Europe. MAN-MADE MOUND. Or human-made mound we should say. They built this, rising 37 m above the valley floor, base diameter of 160 m. Like the middens and infills of different colours, this hill was also made of contrasts. The primary mound at the base of turves brought from elsewhere.

The reasons are all opaque to us, but its presence demands a reason. There is some thought that the wooden constructions like the West Kennet palisades are perhaps versions of the Avebury circles for the living. Silbury hill a transition point. Reading about this landscape I found Silbury Hill perhaps the least interesting but seeing it…

It is extraordinary, and perhaps more so knowing that people are still not sedentary in this landscape. But they soon will be.

A last more detailed map of where we know they might sometimes be found while living, where their dead remained.

Sources:

Pollard, Joshua, and Andrew Reynolds (2006) Avebury the biography of a landscape. Stroud: Tempus.

Watts, Kenneth (1993) The Marlnorough Downs. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press.

Avebury Walk: Adam’s Grave and Knap Hill, Gopher Woods, West Woods, Fyfield Downs

This was a wopping 17.94 miles before my phone died, and the pub in Lockeridge closed down for refurbishment — so many pubs are gone. We felt the tragedy in a most visceral manner. But Knap Hill, the escarpment over Pewsey Valley was incredible. And the bluebells in Gopher Wood? Some of the loveliest I have ever seen, not to mention the hollow way leading down to Alton Priors. Road not taken…

More about these wondrous things from Neolithic times here, and for all things Roman, Saxon and Medieval here.

Avebury Walk: East Kennet to Wansdyke to the roman Road, Oldbury Castle, Avebury

I’ve finally started mapping these. This was an astonishing 16.6 miles, no wonder we didn’t make it to Windmill Hill. But it was a most splendid birthday, follow by prosecco and chocolate cake back at the Old Forge.

More about these wondrous things from Neolithic times here, and for all things Roman, Saxon and Medieval here.

The carvings of the stalls of St Katharine’s: Medieval iconography

Druce.Misericords_Page_01

This is quite a lovely pamphlet by George Claridge Druce, F.S.A. (Fellow of the Society of Antiquities) from 1917, unearthed by me years ago now (sweet Christmas, how many years ago?) while engaged in a bit of rooting through archives at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine. I’m returning to them now because I’m on holiday! And giving a bit of time to this sadly neglected blog and looking at the many things half written. I’m working on photographs as well, like the ones I took a few weeks ago at Salisbury Cathedral and full of wonder at them. Thought I’d polish this off instead of looking at the things on landscape I’ve half done as was the original intention…

Once upon a time for work I was reading a bit about misericords — like many people I so love the odd grotesqueness of much medieval carving. I was quite little the first time I saw Winchester Cathedral with all of its mysterious faces and monsters and many wonders, and remember how amazing I thought it all. Misericords are a bit harder to access, inside cathedrals and often behind ropes. It is tragic. The ones of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in Limehouse are truly glorious.

So much was lost when the old liberty of St Katharine’s By the Tower was flooded to form St Katharine’s Docks in 1825-26. Some of the greatest treasures saved were a selection of the misericords and related carvings from the mid-14th century. This is from one of the books in our library, the Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, by G.L. Remnant (1998).

In the modern chapel are fourteen stalls, thirteen with carved misericords. These misericords are in perfect condition owing to the fact that the hospital, then St. Katharine’s by the Tower, was under the patronage of successive Queens of England. Three stalls on each side are returned, and the corner-pieces are said to be faithful portraits of Edward III and Philippa, the latter closely resembling her effigy in Westminster Abbey, which was from a portrait by Liege in 1369.

Both sources I found in St Katharine’s archives argue that misericords tell us more than most things about the lives of medieval carvers — but from reading them it is obvious that they tell us in the most subjective manner possible. In fact, interpretations may tell you more about the person drawing such conclusions (and your own self, through your own reactions to the carvings and to what they say about them). In his essay included in Remnant’s A Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain (1969) M.D. Anderson writes:

Misericords are a very humble form of medieval art and it is unlikely that the most distinguished carvers of any period were employed in making them. The names of the men who actually carved particular misericords are never recorded.’

Yet, at all levels of quality, these carvings reflect the minds of the men who made them, and, if we study misericords as we might turn the pages of painters’ sketchbooks, they may teach us much about English medieval craftsmen which is not recorded in any other form.

They were considered so lowly that usually they were not required to follow any scheme of iconography, so that craftsmen had much more freedom in what they carved…Because of the freedom the carver’s work is often amusing in a naive way, and sometimes includes subjects which are mysterious, because he has divorced one incident from the identifying context of the full story or has worked from his inaccurate memory of a picture he had seen but not fully understood.

In their way, these carvings are as much a record of the early life of St Katharine’s as the Ordinances of Queen Philippa. But they are the work of men whose names have been erased from history. Anderson continues:

Biblical themes are always in the minority, and, even where they do appear, seem to have been chosen at random. (xxiv)

The moral allegories which figured largely in other forms of church imagery seem to have had curiously little appeal to the carvers of misericords. (xxv)

‘Amusing in a naive way’ is annoying, the desire to escape biblical themes and moral imperatives in carving quite wonderful. Instead inspiration comes from the natural world as well as bestiaries and secular literature. I suppose it’s why I love them so much.

At the same time it must be remembered that medieval beliefs embraced a very different kind of iconography, Anderson continues:

Medieval teachers, such as Hugh of Saint Victor and Honorius of Autun, regarded almost every object in the visible world as reflecting some spiritual counterpart, and this use of metaphors drawn from daily life was popularized by the preaching friars…Both cosmic majesty and grotesque humour have their place in the great structure of medieval thought and art. (xxvi-xxvii)

So these two impulses blended perhaps, hybridised. Anderson states that we have discarded the romantic 19th century image of ‘medieval carvers delighting in their own creative powers, as wholly original designs took shape beneath their chisels‘ (xxvii). But what he means by that is curious, in that woodcarvers often seemed to be working from some knowledge of standard designs, which were repeated with free variations alongside carvings of their own invention. Others were copied from wall paintings, manuscript illuminations, and woodcut pictures — he speculates that carvers were given rough sketches or spoiled pages only, due to the high value of books. These designs are often shared by the team of men doing such carving.

The loveliest, most curious oldest carvings (apart from those at St Katharine of course) he says are found in Worcester and Lincoln, Chester and the Holy Trinity in Coventry, and then there are some stalls rescued from Roche Abbey, now in Loversal Church, Yorkshire. There is a side mention of the ‘sinister quality’ of the face of the green man found in both Lincoln and Coventry and again at Loversal, which makes it recognizable as the same artist. Amazing, I will find them.

Like I will find this — he describes that in Bristol a naked woman has been carved leading a pack of apes into the jaws of Hell. This illustrates the supposed fate of the woman who dies unmarried, to which Shakespeare refers in both The Taming of the Shrew (II i) and Much Ado About Nothing. The apes are the souls of unmarried men.

Anyway, to St Katharine’s incredible carvings, that I would often visit, particularly when work was hard. This one is my favourite:

They have returned to the East End from Regent’s street where Druce recorded them, and sit in a lovely modernised chapel. They came back under the radical Father Groser, who dedicated his life to improving conditions for the working classes and I imagine loved them also.

I. Bust of bearded man wearing striped cap and cloak clasped at neck, with trailing drapery, knotted at back. Supporters: Left and Right, winged monster with long tail.

2. Grotesque head surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.

3. Man’s head with long, thick moustache and forked beard. He wears a flat round cap. Supporters: Left and Right, leaf

4. Man’s head, with flowing hair and full, forked beard. Supporters: Left and Right, rose.

5. Angel playing bagpipe. Supporters: Left and Right, lion-mask.

6. Lion leaping on amphisbaena. Supporters: Left and Right, snake-monster.

the amphisbaena is a winged serpent with a second head at the end of its tail. A symbol of deceit. While Anderson mentions that lions were popular due to their use in heraldry, the symbol of the apostle St Mark is often a lion, and they also often represent the resurrection. I love this one immensely.

The amphisbaena in its unmolested-by-a-lion form:

7. Wyvern, with outstretched wings. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf

Dragons tend to be a ‘symbol of the Evil One‘, and the wyvern is simply the two-legged variety.

8. Pelican in her piety, with three chicks. Supporters: Left and Right, swan, with crown encircling its neck.

The Pelican is ‘always shown feeding its fledglings with blood from its own breast. Never represented naturalistically.’ Below is this lovely bird as it appears on one of the carved armrests.

Druce gives an illustration of just such a pelican in a medieval manuscript, from which these were likely copied

On the subject of our pelican, Druce quotes extensively from the bestiaries of the 12th and 13th centuries — early encyclopedias of animals that for contained both what was known of their natural history alongside myths and moral lessons they exemplified. Medieval carvers drew heavily upon these books and their drawings to decorate England’s churches and cathedrals.

It is a bird which lives in the deserts of the Nile and is exceedingly fond of its children. When they have begun to grow up they strike their parents in the face, and their parents, being angered, strike them back and kills them. And on the third day the mother, striking her breast opens her side, and bending over her young ones pours out her blood upon their bodies and brings them to life again. So too our Lord Jesus Christ the author and founder of every creature created us, and when we were not, he made us. We, however, struck him in the face when we served the creature rather than the Creator. For that reason he ascended on the Cross, and his side being pierced there came out blood and water for our Salvation and life Eternal.

On either side of the pelican and its young are two swans that at first glance are the same, but if you look closely you can see that the swan on the left has swallowed a crown, which marks its heraldic form. There is much legend surrounding the swan as well, Druce writes

It is called ” cignus” from its singing, because it pours forth the sweetness of its song in measured tones. They say also that it sings so sweetly, because it has a long and curved neck, and that its throbbing voice must pass by a long and tortuous way to render the different modulations. Among other items there is an interesting account, adopted from AElian (Bk. XI, ch. I), of how in Northern regions swans fly up in large numbers to people who play before them on the cythara, and sing in perfect harmony with them.

It continues (and these were the days when swans were often eaten, Druce notes of the Monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘A fat swan loved he best of any rost’), that it sings

right sweetly when dying. Likewise when the proud man departs out of this life, he is still charmed by the sweetness of this present time, and what evil he has done comes back to his memory when dying. But when the swan is stripped of its white plumage, it is put upon a spit and is roasted at the fire; so, when the rich and proud man dies, he is stripped of his earthly glories, and descending to the flames of hell he will be tortured and tormented; and as he was accustomed when alive to desire food, so when going down into the pit he becomes food for fire.

9. Woman riding man-headed beast (perhaps head of Aristotle). Supporters: Left and Right, grotesque face with protruding tongue, in square-foliage design.

This begs the question, WTAF, but I love it immensely also…

10. Large leaf design. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf

11. Hawk pouncing on duck. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.

Images of hunting are common, Druce gives another manuscript example:

While hawks could symbolise cruelty, there is a more interesting interpretation also emerging from the bestiaries Druce is drawing from:

The hawk is a type of the holy man or monk “who lays hold of the Kingdom of God,” and the passage in Job xxxix, 26, is introduced to illustrate that as the hawk moults its old feathers and gains new plumage, so the religious man has thrown off the burdens of his old way of living and has put on the new wings of virtue. The hawk’s quarters , which it says should be enclosed and warm, is the cloister. As the bird, when let out, comes to the hand to be flown, so the monk, leaving his cell for good works, when sent out seeks to raise himself to the things of heaven. As it is held on the left hand and flies to the right, so it is a type of men who care for the good things of this world and the things of eternity respectively, and when it captures the dove, it is the man who, being changed for the better, receives the grace of the Holy Spirit.

12. Elephant and castle, surmounted by crowned head and surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, beast with man’s head, one bearded, the other hooded.

‘As described in the Physiologus, the elephant sometimes represents Christ, and in medieval times was always drawn with a tower on its back as the manuscript describes how eastern warriors fought from wooden towers on their backs.’

The tower is really the only thing identifying this as an elephant, really the stars of the show are the man-headed beasts.

It was most likely at some point drawn from a manuscript like this one…

A great bestiary quote about the elephant:

…the Greeks think it got its name because the form of its body resembled a mountain. For in Greek a mountain is called Eliphio. No bigger animal is to be seen, and the Persians and Indians, stationed in wooden towers placed on them, fight with darts as if from a wall. They break what they roll up in their trunks, and what they tread upon is crushed as it were like a house falling down.

If the elephant falls down, it cannot get up, for it has no joints in its knees. It sleeps, therefore, leaning against a tree, but the hunter, aware of this habit, cuts a slit in the tree, so that the elephant when it leans against it may fall down with it. But as it falls it calls out loudly, and at once a great elephant comes, but is not able to lift it up. Then both of them cry out and there come twelve elephants, but neither are they able to raise it up. Thereupon they all cry out, and immediately there comes a little elephant which places its mouth with its trunk under the big elephant and lifts it up…When the elephant was fallen, that is man, there came the great elephant, that is the law, and did not raise him up, as the priest did not raise up him that fell among thieves. Neither could the twelve elephants, that is, the prophets, as neither did the Levite him that was wounded; but the wise elephant, Jesus Christ, since he is greater than all, is made the smallest of all, because he humbled himself and became obedient unto death that he might raise mankind…

13. Winged devil eavesdropping over two busts of women. Supporters: Left, recording demon holding parchment. Right, centaur-like figure, with club and shield. (I had to do a bit of work to find this one, it sits least easily I think with our current conceptions of High Anglican tradition).

On Centaurs: ‘The man typifies Christ, the horse His vengeance on those who betrayed him.’ That’s pretty awesome.

The carvings on the armrests are also splendid, a whole collection of beast curled upon themselves

And then there is this about owls:

The Bestiaries, following Pliny, give particulars of three different kinds of owls, viz., Noctua or Nicticorax, Bubo, and Ulula, but neither in MSS. nor carvings can they be distinguished with any certainty, except that it is Bubo that is teased by other birds. This scene is illustrated in Harl. 4751 and Bodi. 764. It is a bird of ill-omen, and its slothful and dirty habits are described and made use of to denote the various misdeeds of wicked men.

These night birds are also used as a type of those who study the stars at night time and the shadowy realms of spirits, who believe that they can see to the very topmost height of heaven, describing the world by a circle. But they cannot see the light, which is Christ, nor faith in him which is close to them, because they are blind and leaders of the blind.

Yet my favourite carving is I think an owl, and he hardly seems of ill-omen. but he might not be an owl at all.

There is obviously much outdated scholarship on these lovely creatures and so much more to explore about them (the woman on the beast with Artistotle’s head? So much more to explore there…), but I enjoyed the musings of antiquity.

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