Category Archives: Architecture

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.

The Mountainous city: Portugal’s public elevators and funiculars victorian and modern

Both Lisbon and Covilhã are built on hills, and never before have I seen such an incredible infrastructure for navigating such terrain. Not that it is perfect mind, but for those with limited mobility it is quite wonderful, and that it should have been a decision to spend public moneys on such thing…brilliant. The most famous is this one, the elevador de Santa Justa from 1902, designed by Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard who was an apprentice under Gustav Eifel.

Lisbon
Lisbon

This is one victorian beauty connecting Bairro Alto to Baixa, that is therefore crammed with people and subject to long lines. We therefore did not use this elevator, but the other, secret elevator that you enter just below a bar with fake grass and lounge chairs, and that dumps you out into a shop selling beautiful purses and other goods made from cork.

We also found this funicular, although we were not able to take it, we had people to meet and cod to eat! I may actually never eat cod again.

Lisbon

Covilhã though, this was a whole new level of infrastructure — I mean, look at these two elevators leading to the most fantastic bridge. I’m not even sure which I loved more. Especially the ways that people greeted each other, held the elevators and etc etc. This is going down and across the valley.

Covilhã
Covilhã

Crossing the bridge and looking down and across old factories.

Covilhã
Covilhã
Covilhã

I loved them but first, look at these. They are beautiful going up. 

Covilhã
Covilhã

We did go down another day, you know we did. More factories later, but here is a view of the bridge from below.

Covilhã

There are funiculars here too. Not all of them in working order, and even one that zig-zagged up the great hill from the train station (we ordered it to come and waited and it did not and I tried to converse with a friendly passer-by because in Brazil I communicated all right but in Portugal they speak a language entirely without vowels and I understand nothing so I don’t know if it was broken or simply incredibly impossibly slow). This led from the University up to the town centre.

Covilhã
Covilhã
Covilhã

This isn’t even all of them. I am so impressed. I haven’t even blogged the Gar do Oriente yet.

Tiles of Lisbon

Lisbon is a beautiful city…

Dubrovnik

There is in truth something fairly incredible about how this city managed to play such a role in the Mediterranean world. I have a couple of histories that try to tie this world together, to understand the past not in terms of single countries languages cultures, but how they all came together around this great body of water in flows and connections. I love how this undermines the careful separations of cultures and continents that many histories and nationalisms invest so much in.

Agents of Empire by Noel Malcolm did this most beautifully, though I have yet to read Braudel.

Dubrovnik: A History is a little too static for my taste, but it does give a taste of how pivotal a role this city played in the complex relationship between Hapsburg Europe and the Ottoman Empire. As Tanner writes

In contrast to ruined Biograd or ravaged Zadar, Dubrovnik enjoyed a steady growth in prosperity, thanks to the diplomatic dexterity of its merchant rulers as well as their trading skills. Since its foundation in the seventh century, the city had been attacked seriously only once, by the Normans in 1071. Occasionally it was besieged by Bosnian or Serbian warlords who descended from the hinterland, but for the most part Dubrovnik successfully played Bosnians, Croats, Venetians and – later – the Ottomans off each other, periodically ceding sovereignty to one or other of the powers that encircled it without ever surrendering self-government or the right to conduct its own foreign policy.(24

I tried to imagine the conversations that must have happened in these incredible streets, in this jewel of a city.

The many thousands of tourists lined up to walk around the walls, to go up the thronging the streets, made this fairly impossible. There were torrents of Game of Thrones fans. We spent most of the week here trying to go elsewhere. Disappointing.

Of course what Dubrovnik made so clear was the asphyxiating nature of this city for so long. Here the patriciate worked so hard to maintain their purity there was no upward movement at all. Marriage to a ‘commoner’ made of you a commoner as well, and only the patriciate had any say in the running of the city. Venice, for all its faults, at least pried this open to some degree in Split and other cities under its control.

In Split, in contrast with Dubrovnik, the ‘closing’ of the Great Council to commoners in 1334 initiated a series of bitter disputes in which, once the city came under Venetian rule in 1420, the Serenissima itself became involved. The Venetian counts were inclined to promote the interests of the wealthy commoner families (as in Dubrovnik, called ‘citizens’) against those of the nobility, partly because of a genuine sense of equity but also in order to divide and rule. (188)

Harries quotes at length a Venetian count, Marco Barbarigo writing in July, 1568:

Between the men of Split there exists that hatred which prevails in most of the Dalmatian towns. This hatred comes from the fact that the nobles have their own council in which they choose public representatives every three months. These nobles are poor, as far as their fortunes go; but puffed up with empty ambition the citizens, who because of their crafts and trade live much more comfortably… On the other side these [citizens] since they are not allowed to meet and choose some officials, cannot with a peaceful spirit tolerate the privileges which the nobles have on the basis of the old laws of this city.

Harries continues with how this did not happen in Dubrovnik:

The closure of the Ragusan nobility to all but a few foreign entrants for some two centuries–and the closure of its polity to non-aristocrats for almost five–did not have the effect of stirring up similar resentment among the non-noble  inhabitants. After a time, the very impossibility of a commoner joining the patriciate’s ranks probably made for a certain acquiescence and so stability. (189)

Ah, for the days when peace and quiet exploitation could be won through complete domination rather than an almost complete domination. It’s not entirely surprising that the commoners didn’t all hang together to support the patriciate after the great earthquake, nor that their servants seems to have  been positively rude in the face of the nobility’s suffering. As Tanner writes:

By the eighteenth century Dubrovnik was a political and economic fossil. It had been many centuries since the populace had played any part in its government by acclaiming laws outside the palace of the rector (knez), but by the eighteenth century even the vestiges of representative government had been discarded. … In practice all power was concentrated in the Grand Council, which elected the Senate out of its own members. And the Grand Council was entirely composed of nobles who never married out and hardly ever allowed any new blood in. Even within this tiny noble caste marriage was forbidden between the families of the most ancient nobles of all, the Salamanchesi, and the ‘new’ nobles, the Sorbonnesi, who had been created after an awful earthquake in 1667 forced the nobles to let in some new members, to make up for the ones who had been killed. … in the eighteenth century, they began to die out. From about 200 or 300 members in the sixteenth century, the Grand Council was down to between sixty and eighty by the eighteenth century. (Tanner, M. (2001). Croatia : A Nation Forged in War.)

Words fail me there, although the suicide of an entitled class throughits own snobbishness is actually quite poetic. But the earthquake…the earthquake was incredible. This is a description from someone who lived through it:

Suddenly there was a deep rumbling, and a violent blow rocked the city… A large part of the city collapsed. Rocks poured down from Mount Srđ. A thick cloud of dust rose, spreading a pall of darkness over the ruins. the ground shook and large crevasses opened up, swallowing completely some modest dwellings in the suburbs. The city walls swayed before falling back into position. The wells emptied of water, only to be refueled with thick yellow mud, which in turn drained away, leaving them quite dry. From our over the Adriatic there arose a roaring sound similar to continuous cannon fire. The sea withdrew from the harbour entirely and the ships moored there smashed their hulls on the now-exposed rock bed. Several times the tide returned and withdrew again. Flames… (320)

Imagine the tide receding completely.

Dubrovnik

This was from an account by a Dutchman, who was trapped in rubble and gave an improbable story of his servant despairing and only recovering hope when ordered by his master to try harder to escape and bring help.

The earthquake was a turning point indeed, but things had already been unraveling a bit before this. The world was changing, the centre of gravity shifting to the wealth of the New World and the ships of the Spanish, Dutch, English. With the decay of the Ottoman Empire as well, the key strategic bridging role held by Dubrovnik no longer existed. She writes things like

Unfortunately, like the villas to which they were attached, many an orsan has since fallen prey to insensitive road schemes, socialist housing and a mindset unsympathetic to the cultivated, patrician lifestyle of the Ragusan Republic.  (318)

Mindsets like mine. Still, Dubrovnik is very beautiful. Massive walls, narrow winding streets and stairs

Dubrovnik

A saint that always carries the city in his arms.

Dubrovnik

Cats everywhere. Tanks painted in gay colours and a museum of remembrance of the ‘War of Serbian Aggression’ (but never any mention of fascism or WWII). We saw a concert in the Rector’s Palace, it was beautiful indeed to be there in the late evening.

Dubrovnik

We climbed hills (so many hills), had fabulous food, wine of the best. Saw the small archaeology museum, ethnographic museum, the absolutely fabulous natural history museum with its incredible Freddy Mercury homage.

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik

Its collection of shells.

Dubrovnik

We rode a pirate ship to the islands, saw the great ruined hotels of Kupari, visited the salt flats at Ston. Saw some of the social housing and modernist architecture and liked that very much. Found a gecko our very first day.

Kupari: the sunbathing uncanny

Kupari was an amazing place… luxury hotels built by Tito for the relaxation of military personnel. Shot up and burned out during the war. All four of them. Three are great modernist frames of still structurally-sound concrete. They have been stripped, remain full of rubble and broken glass and you can pick your way up and down stairs. Plants grow exuberant in the courtyards and into the lobbies and corridors. The four hotels sit on a cove, the beach full of local families and tourists. Occasionally some of them wandered up the concrete stairs in chanclas, sunburned bellies pouring over flowered bermuda shorts.

I didn’t blog over our trip, a terrible thing because there is so much we saw, so much that was amazing, so much that I learned. There were also so many cats.

We took a bus down the coast from Dubrovnik, terribly hot humid no windows open standing room only. We got off and walked through a bit of woods and found this. We approached through the trees and the long grass, it felt lonely and abandoned. Empty.

Kupari

Kupari

It used to look like this

Now inside it is uncanny and strange and beautiful.

Kupari

Kupari

Kupari

Kupari

We went on to the next, a great square building around a courtyard burgeoning with life. Through almost every window, an incredible view of the sea:

All Inclusive! My favourite piece of grafitti.

Kupari

Kupari

Kupari

Kupari

Kupari

I think perhaps these two might have been enough, but there were more to see. We continued. The next building was older, riddled with bullet holes. This is the only place we went, I think, where the conflict felt real.

Kupari

Kupari

Kupari

Kupari

The last building, the most interesting perhaps but I already felt full.

Kupari

Kupari

Kupari

Coming to them from the beach full of baked bodies and primary colours felt so much more unreal. We walked from shadows to bright sunlight to shadow again. We found a bar at the end of the sand blasting Beyoncé. It could almost be any beach, though sandy beaches were rare here, and perhaps it is the looming hotels that made these a bit less crowded.

Kupari

Zaragoza Cityscapes

I liked Zaragoza, and for the first time in a long time felt properly hot. The old part of town with narrow streets kept cool and shaded by the unbroken rows of several-story buildings on either side. The ways that they suddenly opened up into small plazas, most of them filled with tables and chairs for food and drink, somewhere to sit for those who bought nothing. Wonderful public spaces, full of generations. The way that this old town centre was still so residential, full of life and children and a mingling of different kinds of people. We only found the wealthy area by accident on our last day, it relied more on trees for shade, and everyone wore the same well-groomed discontented faces. I didn’t like that part so much.

We were privileged to dine at Montal, delicious food and the best of brilliant post-viva company, and it gave a better sense of these old  residences with their open colonnaded centres stretching up two stories. They are so lovely. I explain them badly, so one individual picture.

Zaragoza

Too lovely for such a terrible hierarchy of aristocrats as once were found here. We were let down into the cellar to see the museum of the great leaning tower that once stood in this little plaza, there are hundreds of drawings of it, interspersed with gated doorways beyond which sit dusty bottles of wine.

The Museum of Goya is nearby, he lived here for a time and there is such a collection of his prints as will amaze you. They are wondrous, able to rip your heart out. We started in the print room as advised, and that was undoubtedly the very best way to experience the museum.

Roman ruins, the basilica, a river and ancient bridge, the mudéjar architecture and Aljafería, the graffiti…I did very much like this city.

 

Palacio de la Aljafería, and Zaragoza’s Mudéjar architecture

El Palacio de la Aljafería is an incredible building, containing within it the material remains of many periods of Spain’s troubled history as well as the ways that each of these histories has been reimagined and retold. It is built over an Islamic fortified enclosure, and the semi-circular turrets date and base of one of the towers date from the 9th Century. They are massive — and the contrast is wonderful with the delicate columns and arches of the inner courtyard, the carvings, the sound of running water, the oratory with its traceried windows. This dates from the period of the Taifas, or the independent kingdoms of Spain before the consolidation of the Almorávides. This period saw the building of the Alhambra as well, but this building predates it, and our guidebook describes it as a model for both that glorious place and the Reales Alcazares in Seville, which I have not seen.

This was the extent of the Taifa of Zaragoza as it was expanded under Abú Yaáfar Áhmad ibn Sulaymán al-Muqtádir, who had this exquisite courtyard built.

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

This also remains.

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Other remnants sit engulfed in the architecture of Christian kings.

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Zaragoza was conquered by Alfonso I (El Batallador) in 1118, and this was converted into the Palace of the Aragonese monarchs. This period remains visible through some of the interior rebuilding, above all these carved ceilings with their heraldic paintings.

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

In 1492, a new palace was plonked down on top of both the old by Ferdinand and Isabella — 1492 was such a terrible year. They did not have anyone as capable of the work as the Mudéjar architect, Faraig de Gali, and he blended the styles together as best he could. These, then, are on the top stories, with lovely tiles and interesting (if gaudy) carved and coffered ceilings.

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

From here it enters its decline, Phillip the Second ordering it repurposed to become a fort in 1593. He built more defensive walls with pentagonal bastions at the corners and the moat and the drawbridges.

Zaragoza: Palacio de la Aljafería

You have to wonder why this fort was necessary in the middle of the Spain, the little pmaphlet states:

…the real reason for building this fort was none other than to show royal authority in teh face of teh Aragonese people’s demands for their rights as well as teh monarch’s wishing to curb possible revolts by the people of Zaragoza.

Nation building wasn’t entirely smooth it seems. The building later became a barracks. Many of the islamic carvings were removed and put into museums, and it was a very slow process (1931 declared historic, excavation and reconstruction began 1947) to convert this building into the palimpsest it represents today where original and reconstruction sit together, and they do it rather beautifully.

I remember reading of the Marranos y Moriscos, Jews and Arabs who to some extent or another or not really at all converted to Christianity and remained after Aragon and Castille conquered the Peninsula, who stayed through the Inquisition. But before this point in 1492 (and for how long after?) there were the Mudéjars. This is from the Encyclodpedia Britannica:

Mudejar, Spanish Mudéjar, (from Arabic mudajjan, “permitted to remain”), any of the Muslims who remained in Spain after the Reconquista, or Christian reconquest, of the Iberian Peninsula (11th–15th century). In return for the payment of a poll tax, the Mudejars—most of whom converted to Islam after the Arab invasion of Spain in the 8th century—were a protected minority, allowed to retain their own religion, language, and customs. With leaders assigned by the local Christian princes, they formed separate communities and quarters in larger towns, where they were subject to their own Muslim laws.

The Mudejars were highly skilled craftsmen who created an extremely successful mixture of Arabic and Spanish artistic elements. The Mudejar style is marked by the frequent use of the horseshoe arch and the vault, and it distinguishes the church and palace architecture of Toledo, Córdoba, Sevilla (Seville), and Valencia. The Mudejar hand is also evident in the ornamentation of wood and ivory, metalwork, ceramics, and textiles; and their lustre pottery is second only to that of the Chinese.

Such architecture is everywhere here in Aragon, what I think of as the heart of Spain. It is everywhere here, particularly churches, and very beautiful.

Zaragoza: Mudéjar style

Zaragoza: Mudéjar style

Zaragoza: Mudéjar style

La Estación de Canfranc — Canfranc Station

La Estación de Canfranc was an incredible place, Spain on one side and France on the other, built to be opulent in 1928 and opened by the King of Spain and the President of the French Republic. Two separate tracks of different gauges met on each side here, so passengers had to transfer from one to the other. Now it is only a station on the Spanish side, a one-car train toiling up the mountains in its three hour and forty minute journey from Zaragoza, lost in front of this faded magnificence.

Estación de Canfranc

It was a passage used by the resistance against Franco and the Nazis, an escape route for Jews and others fleeing Germany and Vichy France and a centre for anti-fascist spies and the forging and distribution of necessary travel documents and other papers. People who fled through here:

Max Ernst
Marc Chagall
Josephine Baker

I was sure Walter Benjamin had also come through here but now I can’t find anything about that, so I can no longer say and it seems possible it isn’t true at all. But still…

In 1942 the Nazis took control of the area — the only part of Spain where they did so. The gestapo began pulling people off of trains. The Nazis moved their plundered Jewish gold through the station.

The station was closed in 1970, fell into ruins. Part of it’s been brought back to some of its former glory

We walked through a damp tiled tunnel.

La Estación de Canfranc

Came out into the station

La Estación de Canfranc

Where each country has its own booths of beautiful carved wood.

La Estación de Canfranc

And outside onto the French platform into a beautiful evening

La Estación de Canfranc

From here, the French train once left the Tunel de Somport

Tunel de Samport

Tunel de Samport

It now holds a physics laboratory deep beneath the mountains to study dark matter. If we’d only known and given three weeks advance notice, we might have seen some of this, but we did not. Still, there were many trains.

Estacion de Canfranc

And this station that we kept catching sight of as we walked.

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Something more to read:

https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/canfranc-station-spain/index.html

York Minster

York Minster…it’s beautiful. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a cathedral — Wells maybe. I love them, but find it infuriating to be charged for entry.

They are such beautiful arched poems in stone, these incredibl, built over e things stretching so finely up to the sky, built with such incredible skill. I know that this sits alongside the horrible concentrations of wealth and power, I know the politics of these buildings. So dialectical.

York

I like how it sits embedded in the fabric of the medieval town.

York

The figures adorning its sides

York

And this nave that sends your heart up to the sky:

York

York

The flutes render the massive columns slender, part of this weightless skyward soaring:

York

You can wander through the ages here, it sits over old Roman walls and the more recent Anglo-Saxon church here — the Norman building is of course a declaration.

These ages are visible through the glass floors that allow you to peer through the dirt to see history’s sedimentation, and they are marked with objects in the museum below. Wonderful carved ivory

York

The doom stone in the east crypt, its devils forcing souls into hell

York

And the old Romanesque columns here, which I love just as much as the gothic, squat and patterned as they are:

York

York

While we were down there in the semi darkness the organ started, a Bach fugue, it was wonderful.

York

My last favourite things — the clock

York

This owl:

York

But to remind myself how tied this place is to wealth and all the out-of-place pomp and false mourning that money can buy, I present a collection of absurd crying cherubs.

York

York

York

York

 

Municipalities start getting real: The Social History of Housing from the mid 1800s

Part 2 on John Burnett’s A Social History of Housing 1815-1985 (Part 1 is here), about that period in the middle to late 1800s when municipalities started getting  real. But not too real, you understand, these are poor people we’re talking about. It did take a while to consider that their lives might carry more weight than the property rights of a wealthier person. It’s still a battle today after all.

So we are still (almost always) in the realm of speculative building, in a world on the cusp of some planning and regulation. It came slowly and piecemeal.

Quality of Speculative Building

Burnett quotes Henry-Russell Hitchcock here:

Workers’ housing in cities flowed out of the builders’ offices–if the more modest builders ever had proper offices–without benefit of any sort of serious designing. It was therefore something of a vernacular product, like the country cottages of the Middle Ages, although the analogy is one that must not be pushed very far. (87)

Ad hoc, local materials, built as they could very much depending on the builder and with little to no thought to infrastructure. Burnett gives Wolverhampton as an example — housing was tightly packed, water was from the most part still drawn from wells, being   piped in to only 1 in 9 houses by 1850. The sewage system was only laid down between 1869-1872. Burnett writes:

Like many other industrial towns at this period, Wolverhampton suffered from a lack of civic pride, a deep-rooted objection to interference with private property rights and an unwillingness of ratepayers to invest in the social overheads required by civilized life. (92)

I wonder about this idea of civic pride here, doubt whether such a thing has ever been widespread when it came with a price tag for unseen infrastructure with no naming rights in comparison to a library or fancy hall, but perhaps. There were certainly those who worked tirelessly to change these conditions. In this (as in some other less savoury things) Liverpool was a leader.

The Liverpool Act passed in 1846 set down regulations for houses, courts, cellars, effective sewering and draining. More importantly, perhaps, it appointed the 1st medical officer of health in the country — Dr W.H. Duncan. ‘These were the real and effective beginnings of housing reform in England‘ writes Burnett, and quotes an article in the Times:

A town of manufacturers and speculators is apt to leave the poor to shift for themselves, to stew in cellars and garrets, nor are landlords and farmers apt to care much for cottages…Something of a central authority is necessary to wrestle with the selfishness of wealth.

Yet by 1850 there still existed no such central authority. Local authorities increasingly took on the role themselves, though none as yet with a thought of themselves building housing. This period also saw the beginnings of building societies, the pooling together of savings to create the capital needed to build or buy homes (94).

Meanwhile conditions in the countryside were worsening for workers, another factor in the steadily increasing population pouring into the cities and already overcrowded slums. Burnett writes:

To read through the pages of the Official Reports of the 1860s is to journey through almost unbroken misery and wretchedness, relieved only rarely by brights spots where philanthropic landowners had erected a few neat, model cottages. In general, the accounts are of crazy, dilapidated hovels, many containing only one bedroom into which large families, grandparents and even lodgers were crowded indiscriminately, of whole families ill of fever and lying in the same room with a corpse, of holes in roofs and ceilings, damp walls, saturated floors and rooms filled, not by furniture but only by smoke. (127)

From the 1870s-WWI, the loss of the laborer from the countryside became a huge topic of discussion and cause for concern. It was felt country people were fitter than the townsman, and that keeping people in the country was needed for the maintenance of the national physique (!). I hate all of this language of the time, but it was quite a shock for wealthy people I suppose, when 40% of volunteers for the Boer war were rejected on medical grounds. It was felt that country air could have prevented that, but there was little decent housing and less opportunity. I am quite fascinated by how the rural question, tied in as it was to the idea of national fitness and Empire, became part of the push to build social housing:

Already, before that war had made ‘homes fit for heroes’ a political issue, it was clear to most informed observers that the rural housing issue could not be solved without the direct involvement of the state and a major commitment to public expenditure. Almost unconsciously the problem of the rural labourer had prepared the way for a state housing policy of infinitely greater scope and implication. (139)

But building rural housing could not solve it all either.

In the England of 1850 the industrial town was still new, untypical, its future problematic: by 1914 there could be no doubt that, for better or worse, England was an urban society–indeed, ‘the’ urban society of the western world–and that solutions had to be found to the manifold problems arising from a process which was no permanent and irreversible. (140)

The growing issues in the cities were also crying out for attention.

The removal, by whatever means, of overcrowding and slum living was already being seen as the necessary cure for disease, crime, prostitution and immorality, but the medical officers of health…knew only too well that demolition without re-housing only removed the problems elsewhere…. As early as 1874 the Royal College of Physicians, in which the medical officers were active, presented a remarkable petition to the prime Minister which condemned philanthropy, laissez-faire and ‘enabling powers’ as useless. Within a few more years, they were beginning to view overcrowding and the housing problem generally in a wider context — as part of the greater problem of poverty. (146)

Cities were also home primarily to renters — it makes you realise just how much has changed, and how much discourse and policy have naturalised home ownership. In fact home-ownership was not particularly attractive in Victorian England, even to well paid workers or the middle classes. At the end of the century, there were only 14000 owner-occupiers  ‘in the whole of the metropolis‘ which I assume means London. (147)

For the vast majority of people before 1914 the payment of weekly house-rent was normal, inevitable, and the largest single fixed charge in their budget. (147)

That said, he notes that middle classes were only paying 8-10 % of their budgets on housing, despite needing a great many rooms for large families and servants. The working classes paid more, US Commissioner of Labour estimated 11.8 % (found UK to be higher than France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland but lower than the US), Joseph Rowntree 14.9%. But still, just imagine that.

Rent took second place to food, which most estimated ‘absorbed between half and two-thirds of all earnings’ (148). Leone Levi estimated it at 71% for workers, as compared to 44% among middle classes. Many housing reformers blamed people for not devoting more of their incomes to housing, and that would allow market forces to solve the problem of scarcity. Such bastards, but it also shows the power of this idea of the market.

Burnett provides the kind of curious detail on accommodation in London that I love — half the dock laborers occupied only one room with their families, 99 % of policemen had at least two. In St George’s-in-the-East half of all families in one room, in Battersea two-thirds of all families rented 3 or more, and earned more than 25s a week (150). Many of the poor remained in the centre despite high rents to be within walking distance of work, and the corners where casual workers used to pick up work.

There also a look at how the different tenure systems prevalent in cities affected who the landlords were — coming from America where the distinction between freehold and leasehold don’t exist, I find this quite fascinating. In towns where the leasehold system prevailed, landowners tended to be small businessmen, shopkeepers, pub owners. Of course, the owners of the land itself were of a different ilk all together. Where the freehold system prevailed, landlords seem to have been a (slight) step down, and there was not the sort of last minute trading that tended to happen in the last years before the lease on a property expired. So landlords were not greatly removed from the social backgrounds of their tenants. In Liverpool, landlords of working class housing owned between 6 and 8 houses each, a pattern widely repeated.

And slowly, slowly, things began to change. Following Liverpool’s 1846 legislation, Manchester prohibited cellar dwellings by local Act in 1853, and then in 1867 regulated room sizes, window areas and every new house with small private yard. Across the country, a growing number of such regulations focused on wider streets and yards, ventilation, better lighting.

The Sanitary Law Amendment Act of 1874 allowed Local Authorities to regulate paving and drainage, and the ventilation of rooms. The Public Health Act of 1875 allowed LAs to make by-laws regulating the layout, width, and construction of new streets and buildings and sanitary provisions. Two years later model by-laws were provided, and in 1858 considerably extended. While this allowed LAs to do more if they chose to, uptake very variable, and LAs could decline invoking them altogether. Still, they were implemented enough that much of the housing built between from 1880 to 1914 became known as ‘by-law housing’, criticised for its monotony and the way in which builders were building to the lowest standard.

Burnett gives one example of a proper two up two down, from Willis Street (no longer extant) in Salford. I love these charts of old plans.

Willis Street SalfordThere are more from Little Albert Street (also no longer extant) in Easton, Bristol. There is also an early photograph…

Albert Square Albert Square

 

At the same time, transportation was changing. Industrial villages became possible at further distances from manufacturing and outside of the central cities. Burnett looks at development of provincial cities — Nottingham, York (Looking forward to digging into Rowntree’s research on York), but slums continued. There is an amazing quote from Robert Blatchford on Manchester:

Where are the slums of Manchester? They are everywhere. Manchester is a city of slums. (175)

What ‘affordable’ housing there was, was being built by charitable societies, arguably only affordable to the very top tier of the working classes, and critiqued in design:

Considerable evidence was presented to the Royal Commission on the unpopularity of block tenements, due partly to the regulations and absence of sheds and workshops, but mainly, reported Lord Compton, because they were regarded as ‘a sort of prison: they look upon themselves as being watched.’ (178)

This is also the period of new models of employer housing: W.H. Lever’s Port Sunlight (Liverpool), George Cadbury’s Bournville (just south of Birmingham), Rowntree’s New Earswick (North Yorkshire). I’m hoping to get to each of these at some point.

And again it is Liverpool who is the first provincial city to embark on council housing, building St Martin’s Cottages built in 1869.

Slowly other cities began following their example. In London, the LCC actually created its own Architects’ Department: W.E. Riley director, Philip Webb, W.R. Lethaby. They represent perhaps the height of this phase of council building before WWI

not only beginning to evolve another physical ‘solution’ to the problem of urban housing, but one which had a concern for non-physical factors such as the visual effect of the development and the quality of life of the inhabitants. (186)

Still, it was never enough.

[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]