Saturday, 20 December 2014
Some Thoughts on Canterbury Cathedral and Community
If you're in the UK, you may have been watching the recent BBC series of programmes about Canterbury Cathedral. If you haven't been, I recommend it - the series is on iplayer here. I grew up near Canterbury and know the cathedral well - and I study its medieval history, as you will have gathered if you've been reading this blog any length of time - but this series has nonetheless been full of surprises, showing a friendly side of the place which is usually kept hidden from the public behind high and forbidding walls. Away from the cathedral, the highlight for me was seeing the boys' choir visit a shrine to St Thomas Becket in Norway, continuing testament to the great popularity of St Thomas in Scandinavia - in the Middle Ages the English and Scandinavian churches had very close links, and after his murder Becket rapidly became a popular saint in the north. There's an Old Norse translation of Thomas's life, and sagas contain various references to Norwegian and Icelandic pilgrims to St Thomas' tomb: my favourite example to cite is Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, who visited Canterbury in the late twelfth century and presented the tusk of a walrus at St Thomas' shrine to thank the saint for a good catch. It was nice to see these links still valued by the present-day church.
The series is a look at the life of the cathedral, not a historical documentary, and some of its way of talking about the cathedral's history set this medievalist's teeth on edge; that's only to be expected in a programme of this kind. (At one point the narrator says the monks 'disappeared' in the sixteenth century, which is a pretty facile euphemism for what actually happened to the thousand-year-old community when Henry VIII came along.) But it's thought-provoking for a medievalist, too. I'm currently working on history-writing at Canterbury in the late eleventh/early twelfth centuries, looking at texts which provide fascinating snapshots of the cathedral community in that period. This series' focus on community has therefore been helpful for me in thinking about the context within which the texts I'm interested in were produced; as an academic it's often easy to forget that medieval writers, especially monks, were not (like me) hidden away in a library, consorting mostly with other scholars, but were working in the middle of busy communities among people who didn't necessarily care that much about history or the things which preoccupy historians. A medieval monk-historian did not get to spend his hours at will on books and writing, but had to share in the life around him, all its concerns and business, big and small. A monastic community is different from a cathedral one, of course, but there's still all the stuff of daily life to deal with: maintaining the building, managing visitors, trying to raise funds, balancing conflicting priorities.
My favourite Canterbury historians are Osbern and Eadmer, two English monks who entered the cathedral community as children, in the decade or so before the Norman Conquest. (Osbern was born probably c.1050, Eadmer c.1060.) They both grew up in the monastic community at Canterbury, and spent most of their lives there. In that period they saw a huge amount of change at the cathedral, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Conquest: the English archbishop was deposed, new Norman monks imported into the community, and even its physical fabric collapsed around them when a fire in 1067 destroyed the Anglo-Saxon church (most of what we know about that building comes from Eadmer's memories). By the time Osbern and Eadmer reached adulthood, all the certainties with which they had grown up had been called into question. They wrote, in part, to defend the good things about Canterbury's Anglo-Saxon history against ignorant or sceptical incomers. They had no doubt that Canterbury was the oldest and the most important of the English churches, which had been the home of saints and scholars for centuries. Osbern interprets Canterbury's pre-Saxon name Dorobernia (that is, Durovernum) as if it were an Old English compound meaning 'door of the barn', because it is, he says, the very door to the kingdom of England. (This etymology is hilariously wrong, because it's not an Old English word, but you can't really blame him for not knowing that - and it neatly encapsulates how important he believed Canterbury was.) By the late eleventh century Canterbury already had a roll-call of great men to be honoured, chief among them the incomparable tenth-century archbishop, scholar and administrator St Dunstan, and St Alphege, the saintly archbishop who had been martyred by Vikings in 1012. Osbern, who grew up to be a talented musician and precentor of the cathedral, wrote only about these two saints, but Eadmer was much more prolific: he wrote lives of several more of Canterbury's Anglo-Saxon saints, and much else. After Anselm was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 Eadmer became his companion and friend and eventually wrote a wonderful biography of Anselm - as well as a 'history of recent times in England' which is of inestimable value. With Anselm, Eadmer travelled through Europe and saw many great churches and many great people, but Canterbury always had the first place in his heart.
Contrary to the impression given by the BBC series, Canterbury was a destination for pilgrims long before St Thomas Becket's death in 1170, and the stories Osbern and Eadmer tell about visiting pilgrims vividly conjure up the busy life of the eleventh-century cathedral. There are touching stories of old blind women and sick children coming to be healed at St Dunstan's shrine, typical of the genre but endearingly precise in their everyday details: the little blind girl whose mother found out she could see when she ran off to chase an apple rolling away into the church, or the monk who had been paralysed for thirty years and, when cured and able to stand up, turned out to be unusually tall. The monks, of course, interacted with these pilgrims, and Osbern describes two miracles he witnessed in the cathedral when he was a child which clearly made a lasting impression on him. One day, he says, he was singing with the boys in the choir when he witnessed a young girl being healed of blindness by Dunstan's intercession, blood pouring from her eyes as the boys looked on in amazement; on another occasion he was in the church tending an altar and was asked by a sick woman to direct her to Dunstan's tomb, where she was healed - Osbern's first foray into guiding people towards St Dunstan, which was to be his life's work. And it's not just the pilgrims who are brought to life in these texts: we see glimpses of the fractured state of the cathedral community under Lanfranc, Anselm longing to stay at home at Canterbury with his monks like an owl among her chicks, monks having visions inspired by the cathedral's own saints.
Eadmer and Osbern create such a vivid sense of eleventh-century Canterbury and the people who inhabited it that it feels very real to me, as if I had seen it myself; and it was nice to watch the BBC series and think of the clergy, administrators, gardeners, stonemasons, choirboys (and now girls) filling the places of their medieval forebears. It gave me quite a different sense of the cathedral community to the one you get if you actually visit it. I love Canterbury Cathedral, but it's not a particularly welcoming place; the set-up is designed for big groups of tourists rather than visitors who want to take their time, and it's the kind of church where very posh guides hover disapprovingly around the lone wanderer while allowing hordes of schoolchildren to rampage around unchecked. The guides get uncomfortable if you look at things which don't have big signs next to them to tell you they're important. Unfortunately I care more about the Anglo-Saxon history of the place than the history they have decided tourists ought to care about, and there are no big signs pointing out the highlights of Canterbury's distinguished Anglo-Saxon history. Those six centuries of which Eadmer and Osbern were so proud are hard to find there unless you know what you're searching for; the cathedral seems to have concluded that Thomas Becket is the big tourist draw, and not much else gets a look-in. I find it particularly striking that the sites of the tombs of St Dunstan and St Alphege are marked only by small inscriptions flat on the floor beside the high altar, at the top of steps you're not allowed up - at least, I think there are inscriptions there, but since you're not allowed close enough to see them I can't actually be sure. (They're beside the high altar because they were once perceived to be central to the cathedral's history, of course.) Meanwhile, the site of Becket's tomb has an ever-burning candle and a big sign. No candle burns for Dunstan or Alphege - not even for St Anselm. Alphege did get a bit of attention for the 1000th anniversary of his death a few years ago, but on an ordinary visit to the cathedral there's really nothing. If you walked into Canterbury Cathedral today and asked for the way to Dunstan's tomb, as the sick woman did when young Osbern was tending the altar, I wonder if they could tell you; but the guides would only give you a rude answer, anyway. (The ones on TV looked so friendly, but they're not like that in real life! I wonder if churches have any idea how much unpleasant guides can damage the atmosphere of a place, or how it leaves a bad taste in your mouth to be snapped at like a suspicious character when you are trying to feel like a pilgrim. Do they care? Maybe not; you've already paid by that point.)
It intrigues me that the pre-Thomas Becket history of the cathedral should be thus largely ignored. Priorities change, and our view of the past is always shaped by the needs of the present; that's the whole story of Canterbury in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, too, which is one reason I take note of these things. I take an interest (as you may have noticed on this blog) in how English churches remember their Anglo-Saxon history, and while there's always a bit of me that's not surprised when they overlook it, it's remarkable to see how sensitively and creatively some places are prepared to respond to this part of their past. When I visited Worcester in September, for instance, they had a thoughtful exhibition about the cathedral's early history, including descriptions and images of manuscripts produced at the monastery and quotations from Old English texts, and reflections on Anglo-Saxon spirituality (the spirit of John of Worcester lives on there, perhaps). In the summer I visited Ely and Bury St Edmunds for the first time and was impressed by the quiet certainty in both cathedrals that visitors would be ready to learn about St Etheldreda and St Edmund, and their provision of outward signs of devotion (candles, prayer cards) to encourage serious reflection on the saints' lives and significance. But at Canterbury, that doesn't fit with the story the cathedral wants to promote about its medieval history. Thomas Becket is easy to sell, and a mildly cynical précis of Chaucer's worldly pilgrims entertains the tourists. (Don't get me started on the irony of perpetuating any kind of 'worldly pilgrims/greedy medieval monks fleecing their visitors' story in a church which charges a hefty entrance fee.) There's something sadly appropriate in Canterbury's readiness to forget its Anglo-Saxon past, since the very reason Osbern and Eadmer wrote about Dunstan and Alphege was, they thought, to save them from oblivion.
I don't mean to sound too critical; I want to love Canterbury as much as Eadmer and Osbern did, but the people sometimes make it difficult. This documentary series has been a nice insight into an otherwise invisible world: behind the scenes, away from the snappish guides who are the public face of the cathedral, there are many dedicated and apparently lovely staff and volunteers keeping the place alive. There always have been, even when those dedicated and lovely people were chiefly monks. (Some of the monks probably weren't that friendly to visitors, either.) It's important to be reminded that communities always have difficult people in them, and that good work is often produced amid trying circumstances. This was true in the eleventh century, and it's true today.