Saturday, 24 August 2013
Some Traditions of St Bartholomew's Day
Today is the feast of St Bartholomew the Apostle - Bartlemas, or Bartlemytide, if you prefer. Although not very much is known about the apostle, in medieval England his feast-day was the occasion for various summertime festivities, most famously London's Bartholomew Fair. For me, Bartholomew's feast calls to mind the Anglo-Saxon saint Guthlac, who, fleeing the career of a soldier for the life of a hermit, arrived at his new home in the wild Lincolnshire fens on St Bartholomew's Day, 699. Thereafter Guthlac had a special devotion to St Bartholomew, who aided him in his struggle against the demons of his lonely hermitage. In the 'Guthlac Roll', a series of illustrations of Guthlac's life now in the British Library (Harley Roll Y.6), Bartholomew is shown appearing to Guthlac with an angel:
And giving Guthlac a scourge he could use to whip the demons away:
Eminently practical help for a patron saint to give! Crowland Abbey, which was founded at the site of Guthlac's hermitage, subsequently took Bartholomew and Guthlac as its joint patrons; later the Anglo-Danish earl Waltheof joined them, in heaven and in the Crowland patronage. And because tradition said Bartholomew suffered martyrdom by being flayed with a knife, the monks of Crowland used to give out knives to visiting pilgrims on St Bartholomew's Day, until the custom was stopped in the fifteenth century as too expensive. (It also seems to me a rather risky thing to do...)
At Sandwich in Kent there is a small chapel dedicated to St Bartholomew, and they keep their patronal feast-day by giving out much safer things than knives: buns and biscuits. The tradition is that after a service in the chapel in honour of Bartholomew, children run around the church (one lap) and are given a currant bun for their efforts, while the adults are given a biscuit stamped with the seal of the hospital. They call this the Bartlemas 'bun run', and it takes place on St Bartholomew's Day unless that day falls on a weekend - as this year - in which case it takes place on Monday or Friday. I went yesterday, and it was a delightful occasion. As the chances of most of my readers ever being in Sandwich on Bartlemas Day seem remote, I thought I'd share some photographs of the event with you.
I've lived near Sandwich all my life and only learned about this yearly custom on the day before it took place, but having learned of it, I couldn't resist the idea of going. I was hoping for something rather like my Oxford college's Ascension Day tradition (of throwing pennies to schoolchildren from a tower), and was not disappointed. I conclude that all over the country there are unsung people engaging in quaint traditions like this; the monks of Crowland would undoubtedly approve.
St Bartholomew's in Sandwich is in fact the chapel of an ancient hospital, probably founded in the thirteenth century for the care of travellers and pilgrims on their way to and from Canterbury. In the days when Sandwich was an important port, it must have been a busy place. From its early days it also provided accommodation for elderly residents of the town, and it is this tradition which survives to the present; it is now a complex of almshouses, with sixteen homes clustered around the central chapel. Residents must have lived in Sandwich for more than twenty years and be over the age of 50, and according to the rules of the hospital they must regularly attend services in the chapel.
The medieval dedication to St Bartholomew for a hospital echoes a number of others, of which this in Rome is apparently the oldest - of course there's the famous hospital in London, and Oxford has one too, the former chapel of a leper hospital some way out of town. But equally important, perhaps, is the fact that the Sandwich hospital was founded in thanksgiving for victory over the French on St Bartholomew's Day, 1217. The saint presides over Sandwich's chapel from the weathervane, holding the knives with which he was flayed:
The chapel is medieval, though restored over the centuries, as one or two details reveal:
When I arrived yesterday the chapel was busy, full of light and life, but here it is almost devoid of people:
By the altar lies one of the hospital's earliest benefactors, Sir Henry de Sandwich, who died in the thirteenth century:
A shield as a flower-stand is perhaps the Sandwich equivalent of turning swords into plough-shares. Henry's effigy is well-preserved, and he is watched over by smiling faces:
The rules of the hospital, which are read at the service before the 'bun run', have probably changed little since Henry's day. As often with patronal festivals, the ceremony at St Bartholomew's serves as much to commemorate the founders and benefactors of the institution, and past members of the community, as to celebrate the patron saint. This year I've been particularly thinking about the commemoration of benefactors, and so was interested to hear Henry and the hospital's other patrons remembered in prayer. This is a civic as well as a sacred occasion: the mayor was present in state, and after the hymns and readings were concluded the hospital transacted some annual business: the roll-call of brothers and sisters living in the almshouses ('hospitallians'), the reading of the rules, and the election of a new Master of the hospital. Then the children gathered outside to run:
I believe that's the mayor in front of them; the mayor of Sandwich always wears a black robe, in mourning for one of his predecessors who was killed in an attack on the town by the French in 1457. (You think I'm making this stuff up, don't you? But no...)
The children run:
Afterwards they get their currant bun, and the adults get a wonderful little biscuit stamped with the hospital's seal:
And on the back:
Just in case you think you've accidentally slipped through a time warp into Trollope's Barchester.
During the service we sang a hymn to St Bartholomew by John Ellerton (to the tune 'Hyfrydol'):
King of saints, to whom the number
Of Thy starry host is known,
Many a name, by man forgotten,
Lives forever round Thy throne;
Lights, which earth-born mists have darkened,
There are shining full and clear,
Princes in the court of Heaven,
Nameless, unremembered here.
In the roll of Thine apostles
One there stands, Bartholomew,
He for whom today we offer,
Year by year, our praises due;
How he toiled for Thee and suffered
None on earth can now record;
All his saintly life is hidden
In the knowledge of his Lord.
Was it he, beneath the fig tree
Seen of Thee, and guileless found;
He who saw the good he longed for
Rise from Nazareth’s barren ground;
He who met his risen Master
On the shore of Galilee;
He to whom the word was spoken,
"Greater things thou yet shall see"?
None can tell us; all is written
In the Lamb’s great book of life,
All the faith, and prayer, and patience,
All the toiling, and the strife;
There are told Thy hidden treasures;
Number us, O Lord, with them,
When Thou makest up the jewels
Of Thy living diadem.
The third verse references a story in John's Gospel (1:43-51) about the first meeting between Christ and Nathanael (believed to be another name for Bartholomew). I've long loved this vivid little story, with its memorable bits of dialogue: "Can any good come out of Nazareth?"; "an Israelite in whom is no guile"; "You will see greater things than these". Ellerton's hymn makes elegant use of this story and of Nathanael's extraordinary question, "How do you know me?", which, as the hymn freely admits, is made all the more striking by the fact that we know so little of this apostle; 'his saintly life is hidden / In the knowledge of his Lord'. The story of Christ and Nathanael is concerned with both knowledge and acknowledgement, as Nathanael, seeking to test for himself the truth of Philip's statement that they have found the Messiah, finds himself known and knowing in the same moment of recognition. It seems appropriate, then, that the hymn encourages us to think about knowledge and memory, the partial and imperfect state of what we know and the 'earth-born mists' which cloud our memory and record. The cynical reader (I'm sure you're out there!) might think this is nothing more than a rather mendacious way of dealing with the problem of celebrating a saint about whom we know little; but it seemed particularly appropriate in this patronal service, for it's not only the saint but the founders and benefactors and past members of the hospital whose deeds have been nearly forgotten by history. I couldn't even find a date for Henry de Sandwich's death, and the date of foundation stamped on the biscuits - 1190 - does not fit with the date of 1217 given elsewhere. I'm not sure it matters. Along with the reading of John's story about Nathanael, the other reading in the service was the passage from Ecclesiasticus: 'Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers which begat us'. And this, like the hymn with its Wordsworthian "nameless, unremembered" saints, reminds us of the value of even hidden acts: 'And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.' Many unremembered acts of charity have gone towards the support of places like St Bartholomew's, over the 800 years of its history, and we acknowledge them, although we do not know them.
We can finish with an illustration of the meeting between Christ and Nathanael which features in perhaps my favourite of Canterbury Cathedral's medieval windows, with a fig-tree which looks rather like a giant lettuce-leaf:
In the Middle Ages Canterbury possessed the arm of St Bartholomew (as well as the port of Sandwich). It had been purchased for the cathedral priory by Queen Emma, wife of Cnut, in the 1020s or 1030s. She bought it from the Bishop of Benevento, who was in England raising funds by the sale of relics, and in return for the arm the monks of Canterbury gave the bishop a fine cope as a gift. We know about this because one of the Canterbury chronicler Eadmer's most endearing stories tells how he, travelling with Anselm in Italy in 1098, spotted the very same cope being worn at the Council of Bari. Far from home, Eadmer was thrilled to see this little piece of England. He tells us that he recognised the cope from the stories of senior Canterbury monks, recalling that when he was a boy being educated in the cathedral school, three older monks - he gives us their names, Edwin, Blacman and Farman - "used to recount consistently and in sequence" all the details of Queen Emma's transaction, and the ceremony of the exchange of relic and cope. Excitable Eadmer went to tell the bishop wearing the cope of his discovery (I like to imagine Anselm tolerantly smiling all the while at Eadmer's characteristically parochial enthusiasm), and the bishop graciously confirmed the truth of Canterbury's tradition.
This story suggests all kinds of interesting things about memory and oral transmission in eleventh-century England, and the way traditions were perpetuated within communities; it's unusual to have such specific details of the means by which knowledge was transmitted from one generation to another. Young Eadmer, listening to Edwin and the others tell their story, was not very different from the children at St Bartholomew's who ran yesterday to receive their currant buns, watched over by their elders; one purpose of such ceremonies is to imprint their memory on the younger generation, specifically in this case the principle of St Bartholomew's ancient tradition of charity. The elders were once children themselves, and one day the running children may be the watching elders in their wheelchairs. Eadmer's story about Bartholomew's arm, like the tale of Nathanael under the fig-tree, encourages us to ask ourselves questions about knowledge: what do we know and how do we know it? (I almost wonder if Eadmer's recognition of the cope is actually meant to recall the story of Nathanael/Bartholomew's recognition, given that it's almost the only thing anyone knows about the saint in question.) 'To know' and 'to acknowledge, recognise' both come ultimately from the Old English verb cnawan, which covers the sense of both words; etymologically speaking, you can't acknowledge anything without first having knowledge of it. With current buns and biscuits, we ensure that our children know about their past so that one day they will remember and acknowledge it as we do, and as our elders did. When we remember our debts to our ancestors, we acknowledge and confess our inheritance from them - and perhaps in that sense we do know them, though we may not know their names.