Sandars Lecture 2016: ‘John Caius: history as argument’

(c) Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Portrait of John Caius © Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Yesterday I attended the first of the 2016 Sandars Lectures delivered by Professor Anthony Grafton at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, which this year (in honour of the 600th anniversary of Cambridge University Library) focus on early modern Cambridge historians. The first lecture, appropriately enough, concentrated on John Caius (1510-1573), who in addition to being the re-founder of my old college (in 1557) was one of the most important East Anglian Catholics of his generation.

Grafton’s lecture tackled a central problem in the biography of John Caius: namely, why his Historia Cantabrigiensis Academiae (1574) has become a notorious example of extravagant historical fantasy (‘a farrago of invention and credulity’ according to Christopher Brooke) while many of his other works displayed an advanced level of understanding of the latest Renaissance Humanist methods of history and research. Grafton drew attention to Caius’ abiding interest in philology; he was one of the few philologists working in England in the 1560s, when he was building up the newly re-founded Gonville and Caius College as ‘a Humanist machine for character formation’. The College’s celebrated three gates served as an architectural representation of the undergraduate’s progress from Humility to Virtue and finally to Honour, as he passed out of the Gate of Honour to receive his degree in the Senate House (something I have been privileged to do three times, although a porter once surreptitiously let me out of the Gate of Honour when I was still an undergraduate). In other ways, however, Caius did not fit the image of the enlightened Renaissance scholar, and he dealt with disobedient students by beating them and putting them in the stocks.

John Kays (for whom multiple surname variations can be found in the sources) graduated at the head of the list of BAs in 1532-3 from Gonville Hall, ‘a small, clerical establishment’ with a longstanding association with the county of Norfolk (Kays was from Norwich). It may have been in Italy, whilst studying at Padua, that Kays came up with the idea of adopting (like many scholars of the era) a convenient latinisation of his surname. At Padua Caius distinguished himself by editing the works of Galen. Later, at Basel, he formed a lasting friendship with another Humanist scholar, Konrad Gessner, who apparently inspired him to write his work on English dogs. Returning to England, Caius not only re-founded Gonville Hall as Gonville and Caius College in the reign of Queen Mary, but also served as President of the Royal College of Physicians and introduced Vesalian anatomical demonstrations to England. However, Grafton argued that Caius was a devotee of the medical tradition of Thomas Linacre rather than an innovator like Vesalius. For Caius, ‘What was needed was not so much better anatomy as better philology’, and in 1555 he lampooned a physician who was unable to decline corpus correctly as unfit to practice. In other words, Caius believed that it was by producing better editions of Galen rather than by any new investigation that medicine would be restored to its pristine purity. Caius took his devotion to the ancient medical writers to such an extreme that according to Thomas Muffett, on his deathbed in 1573 Caius brought in two wetnurses and sucked on their breasts in an effort to keep himself alive – following an ancient prescription.

Caius led a dual life as a scholar and university administrator, but it was this latter role which led Caius to write his Historia Cantabrigiensis Academiae. In the sixteenth century, ‘Cambridge was sorely in need of a past’, largely because most of the University’s older documents had been burnt in front of Great St Mary’s Church during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. However, ‘strange and wonderful documents’ were created in the late fourteenth century with the purpose of establishing the University’s independence from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ely, in whose diocese the University lies. These documents were ‘serious fakes’ that served a very real and important purpose for the University. In the 1560s an argument concerning the antiquity of the University erupted between Cambridge and Oxford, when in 1564 a Cambridge orator informed Queen Elizabeth that Cambridge was older than Oxford. The Oxford orator Thomas Caius responded in 1566 with a Historiola of the University of Oxford, in which he claimed Oxford was the older institution. Archbishop Matthew Parker encouraged John Caius to vindicate Cambridge, which led to Caius’ Historia, published anonymously in London in 1574 ‘by a Londoner’. However, everyone seems to have known that John Caius was the author, and the book was not warmly received by the antiquary William Lambarde, even though he was a friend of Parker – Lambarde left it to ‘indifferent readers’ to judge the worth of the book themselves. John Leland’s verdict was more damning: ‘Truly I have never read anything more empty, more foolish or more stupid’.

Grafton established that one of the main sources used by John Caius was a Historiola of the University of Cambridge written in the late fourteenth century by the Carmelite friar Thomas Cantilupe, which resembled the sort of fabulous narratives that might be told before a jousting tournament, along with charters forged in the thirteenth century from King Arthur and the seventh-century Popes Honorius I and Sergius I. Caius consulted copies of these documents contained in the so-called Black Book of the University. Caius knew that the Black Book itself was not particularly old, and that William Buckenham, Master of Gonville Hall 1508-10 and Vice-Chancellor of the University (who may well have talent-spotted the young Caius in Norwich) had added material to it. However, Caius defended his work, and Cantilupe’s Historiola, against the criticisms of Leland and others by claiming that he could bring forward the same evidence in any form his opponents demanded – even illuminated in gold. Grafton argued, intriguingly, that this statement of Caius was a reference to the richly decorated Liber privilegiorum et libertatum universitatis Cantebrigiensis presented to the University in 1590 by a fellow alumnus of Gonville Hall, the recusant antiquary Robert Hare of Bruisyard, Suffolk (c. 1530-1611). Grafton suggested that Caius may have seen and had access to Hare’s ‘new register’ (which contained copies of the documents cited in Caius’ Historia) long before its presentation to the University; Hare was ‘a friend and affiliate’ of Caius.

One innovative feature of Caius’ Historia was his inclusion of a dense bibliography, although most of the books he cited existed only as manuscripts at the time. M. R. James traced Caius’ bibliography back to the massive collection of manuscripts collected by Parker at Lambeth Palace in the 1560s, which included not only the core of present Lambeth Palace Library but also the contents of the present Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, the Cottonian Library that is now part of the British Library and manuscripts in Cambridge University Library. John Strype tells us that it was Parker who arranged the printing of Caius’ Historia and that the Archbishop sent out presentation copies of Caius’ work, yet oddly Caius never mentioned Parker in the book. Caius’ preoccupation with philology as a foundation of history (as well as medicine) was shown by his appeal to the use of the word constat (‘it stands as established fact’) in a manuscript owned by Hare (Gonville and Caius MS 717) by ‘an author of uncertain name, but great authority’ in recording that King Arthur issued a charter to the University. It was the fact that the author of the manuscript used the word constat (showing the author’s own certainty) rather than any other considerations of plausibility that demonstrated the authority of the source. Likewise, Caius accepted as authentic and incontestable the claim found in another manuscript that nine doctors of Cambridge were baptised in the year 141 – even though this information was scrawled into the manuscript in a later hand.

The credulity with which Caius composed his Historia contrasts strongly with the care he took in editing Galen, where he adopted the latest in Humanist editorial techniques – citing pages by their signa and even noting the exact date on which he consulted particular manuscripts. Caius may have learnt techniques like these from Angelo Poliziano in Italy, along with learning the latest in bibliographical scholarship from Gessner. He was one of the first Humanists to express the idea that a collection of data could be a thing valuable in itself, and a manuscript given by Caius to Gonville and Caius College library in which he commented on the order of the books of the Hebrew Bible shows that Caius was at the forefront of Hebrew scholarship in England at the time. Caius knew that the location and provenance of manuscripts mattered – he was a ‘library rat’ who enjoyed recounting his experiences of working in different libraries around Europe, and he advocated the establishment of better research libraries in England. To him we owe the earliest printed catalogue of books in Cambridge University Library (in the Historia), and he was an ‘antiquary in a serious way’ with a developed awareness that institutions change over time. He mourned for the austere Cambridge of his youth, and yet in the Historia Caius seemed to lack completely any sense of anachronism.

Caius was an incisive historical critic, but he had a blindspot when it came to the sources most important to him – those that could establish the antiquity of the University of Cambridge. Grafton argued that Caius was not ‘silly or crazy’; rather, he was following established practice in his own time. Notaries had procedures to ensure that copies of documents were accepted as being as authoritative as the original, and such a process had taken place at Great St Mary’s Church in 1419 when the Papal Notary Thomas de Ryhale verified the charters of the University – including those by King Arthur and seventh-century Popes. For Caius, the veracity of documents was ‘less about content than process’. Caius, as an institutional historian and annalist, saw every event in the University’s history without historical breaks, ‘flattened out and continuous’. He believed in reproducing what was in the archive, even if it was wrong, because he was a believer in documents and a believer in institutional continuity. Caius loved tradition, advocating the minute observance of all college and university customs, but his love of tradition also extended into the religious sphere and would get him into trouble, such as when it was reported to the Bishop of London that Caius retained ‘massinge abominations’ in his college under the cover of ‘college treasure’. On 13 December 1572 the vestments and ornaments were burnt in the college court over the course of three hours, and what the University authorities could not burn they smashed with hammers.

Grafton has difficulties accepting the idea that Caius was a crypto-Catholic, on the grounds that he was so friendly with Parker, and his guess concerning Caius’ religious convictions was that Caius was ‘a strange sort of mixture of Erasmian Christian and Protestant antiquary’. This was the one part of Grafton’s analysis with which I cannot agree – after all, one could argue equally that because Caius was close to the recusant antiquary Robert Hare he must have been a Catholic. The evidence of the vestments found in the college in 1572 speaks for itself; Caius founded his college in the heady Catholic Humanist days of Marian Cambridge in 1557, and in my view he was essentially a trans-European Catholic Humanist in the mould of Reginald Pole. Overall, Grafton made a convincing case for Caius the historian as a coherent figure, who showed that ‘institutional annals could turn in Caius’ hands into the strangest and most extravagant of polemics’.


The Gold Angel: legendary coin, enduring amulet

Charles I angel Fitzwilliam
Angel of Charles I, the last minted for circulation © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

For an historian of the English Reformation interested in Catholicism, survivals of Catholic imagery and practice into the post-Reformation period are always especially fascinating. One such survival, which was given the highest royal and official approval, was the image of St Michael the Archangel on gold coins and the beliefs that continued to accompany this legendary coin, known simply as the Angel. The popularity of this coin as a cultural artefact is evidenced by the survival, in many towns and villages throughout England, of inns, pubs and hotels named ‘The Angel’. In most cases, the current owners and patrons of these establishments have forgotten that it was originally named not after the celestial being but after the coin (apart from the Angel Inn, Reigate which has an image of the coin on its pub sign). No other coin attained the popularity of the Angel, which has a strong claim to be the most enduring coin in English history. First struck under Edward IV in 1465, the Angel remained in circulation until 1642 but continued to be minted from 1660 onwards as a ‘touchpiece’ – an amulet to cure the ‘King’s Evil’ – until the early nineteenth century, although by the end Angels were no longer being struck in gold. Other gold coins, such as the Sovereign, had similarly long lives – the Sovereign, first struck in 1489, is still being struck today but went out of circulation between 1604 and 1816. However, the Angel’s existence (apart from the interruption of the Commonwealth) was continuous. What is unusual about the Angel is its transformation from a mere coin to a semi-magical amulet.

The Angel

The Angel first appeared in the reign of Edward IV because a previous gold coin, the Noble (first minted in 1344) had risen in value owing to rising gold prices. The so-called ‘Angel Noble’ was a smaller coin introduced to have the same value as the old Noble (6s 8d, a third of a pound) and was inspired by a French coin, the Ange d’Or or Angelot, which featured an image of an angel holding a sceptre in one hand and the royal arms of France in the other on its obverse. An Ange d’Or had already been issued in France under the authority of the English King Henry VI, who claimed the French throne, and on this issue the angel was holding the arms of England and France together. However, this issue never circulated in England, and the design that appeared on the new English Angel was altogether more dramatic and less stiff than its French counterpart. On the obverse it featured the Archangel Michael, standing, plunging a spear topped with a cross into a dragon representing the devil. The reverse bore a ship superimposed with the royal arms and surmounted by the cross and a letter and emblem representing the monarch.

Henry VII angel
An Angel of Henry VII (1485-1509)

The imagery of the Angel was potent, drawing on a long tradition of St Michael the Archangel’s spiritual protection of the royal person – hence the inscription of the king’s titles accompanied the image of St Michael rather than an image of the king. The ship on the reverse, by contrast, was the ship of state sustained by the holy cross, as the inscription made clear: Per Crucem Tuam Salva Nos Christe Rede[mptor] (‘By thy cross save us, Christ the Redeemer’). Oddly, the Angel escaped any kind of re-design at the time of the Edwardian Reformation (1547-1553) when other emblems of royalty were thrown into question, such as the collar of the Order of the Garter featuring St George. Neither the imagery nor the inscription changed under Edward, when the cult of saints was under sustained attack, perhaps because the Angel was so popular and perhaps because angels were considered less theologically objectionable than other saints – St Michael was, after all, mentioned in the Bible.

One feature of the Angel that made it an especially popular coin was the fact that it was quite small in size and low in value compared with other gold coins. In 1500, the average labourer earnt around 4d a day, so that an Angel (at 6s 8d) represented less than a month’s wages. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that an ordinary English person might have seen an Angel in circulation from time to time. By the reign of Edward VI, however, the rising price of gold led to the Angel’s re-valuation at 10s (half pound), marked by a small Roman numeral X that appears on later Angels.

The Angel as a touchpiece

The Angel’s popularity as a gold coin small enough to circulate (higher value coins functioned as government bullion) has been effaced historically by its use for another purpose entirely: as a touchpiece. Touching for the King’s Evil was an ancient practice of the French kings, and according to legend it was a gift given to the Frankish King Clovis and his descendants. It is likely that the practice was taken over by English monarchs as a consequence of their claim to the throne of France during the course of the Hundred Years War. However, according to one legend the practice arose after Edward I invited the alchemist Ramon Llull to make gold for him in the Tower, and finding the gold to be the purest ever made it was named ‘angel gold’. When the gold was coined it bore the image of an angel, and the alchemical gold was found to have healing powers.

The King’s Evil is usually identified as scrofula, but it was essentially any unpleasant skin disease. Originally, kings physically touched sufferers in the belief that the royal touch had the power to heal the illness, but this was soon replaced by the practice of the monarch handing a gold coin, pierced through to allow it to be worn as an amulet, to the sufferer. As a result of the piercing the coin was void as legal tender because it was ‘cracked beyond the ring’ (i.e. the ring enclosing the inscription). Historians have generally treated the touchpiece as a mere extension of the royal touch, but there are interesting questions that arise from the fact that one coin in particular (the Angel) was chosen as a suitable touchpiece. Why was it thought necessary that the touchpiece should be a gold coin? And why was the Angel chosen rather than some other coin? There is no evidence that any other coin was ever used – not even the ‘ten shilling piece’, which was exactly equivalent in value. The touchpiece was far more than a token of royal favour, still less a souvenir of a personal encounter with the monarch, and contemporary accounts make clear that the virtus of the royal touch was thought to remain in the coin throughout the sufferer’s lifetime. The coin could even be given to another person who had never met the monarch and was considered equally effective, and the coin was applied in a quasi-medical fashion to parts of the body as a cure for skin disease rather than simply being worn as an apotropaic amulet to ward off the recurrence of scrofula.

M. R. Toynbee, in an article on Charles I and the King’s Evil that appeared in Folklore in 1950, showed that coins touched by Charles I were treated with particular reverence after the King’s execution, because he was considered a martyr by Royalists. In 1697, Sir Edmund Warcup described how a gold Angel touched by Charles I had preserved his health as a child and a young man, not just because a king had touched it but because the king who touched it was the martyred Charles:

From my birth to the age of 13 years, I was afflicted with the King’s Evil . . . and so notorious a diseased person I was, that a learned physician of that age requested my father to leave me at his house, to the intent that himself, with other famous physicians might daily consult on my case, there I continued a sad object for years, and so macerated that my life was often despaired of. At length my father got me touched by that holy martyr who put an Angel of gold (coined for that purpose) about my neck, and within six months after from being carried in arms tho’ about 12 years old I got strength, and afterwards by degrees the sores healed, the swellings abated, and a perfect health succeeded: then my father and friends sent me to travel, and my parents either through the pretended sanctity of those times or the fear of losing that piece of gold, sent me into France without it, when I came to Orleans my sores and swellings renewed, upon which I applied to one Dr. Winstone then resident there to avoid the storms in England, who administered proper remedies, but they not answering his expectation, he asked me if I had ben healed by the King, I told him yes; where then is the gold he gave you said the Doctor, I replied in England. He in a fury answered my friends were puritanical, and rebels, and would have no more to do with me, but bid me send for the gold. I did so, and when I had it rubbed the sores and swellings therewith, which perfectly cured me, and the same gold does at times upon several occasions afford me much comfort.

An English Royalist exile in Russia after the Civil War, Mrs Hebden, took with her an Angel touched by King Charles and lent it to an English merchant she met there, who was cured of scrofula, showing that the royal touch worked at second hand and that its virtus was thought to be within the coin itself. According to another story, a father and son who both suffered from scrofula used to pass a gold Angel between them that had been touched by Charles I.

The legend concerning the Angel’s alchemical origin and the way in which Angel touchpieces were used in practice both suggest that it was some quality in the gold itself – or perhaps inherent in the image of St Michael – that mattered to the effectiveness of a touchpiece, as well as the fact that the coin had been touched by the monarch. The idea that gold was a sovereign remedy was a familiar one in iatrochemistry and Paracelsan/astrological medicine, and it is possible that one reason for belief in the effectiveness of touchpieces was the correspondence between gold as the metal of the Sun and royalty, which corresponded astrologically with the Sun. Coins touched by Charles I were doubly effective because they simultaneously served as touchpieces for the King’s Evil and holy relics of the martyred king.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that on his Restoration in 1660 Charles II renewed the practice of touching for the King’s Evil and minted new touchpieces, this time with the ship on the obverse (with the royal titles as an inscription) and the image of the Archangel on the reverse, with the inscription Soli Deo Gloria (‘To God alone the glory’). This remained the standard design for Angel touchpieces thereafter.

Reverse of a gold touchpiece of Queen Anne (1702-1714), the last to be struck in gold

Charles II may well have considered the inscription on Charles I’s touchpieces, Amor Populi Praesidium Regis (‘the love of the people is the protection of the king’) to be bitterly ironic, given the fate of his father, and opted instead for the Protestant-sounding Soli Deo Gloria, which harked back to the inscription on James I’s Angels – A Domino Factum Est Istud (‘this was done by the Lord’). James I’s inscription was a truncation of the inscription on Angels of Mary I and Elizabeth I, A Domino Factum Est Istud Et Est Mirab[ilis]. Even the Catholic James II, although he reintroduced the full Latin liturgy of touching for the King’s Evil from the reign of Henry VII, did not reintroduce the original medieval inscription. There was no royal touching in the reign of William and Mary, but when she came to the throne in 1702, Queen Anne revived the practice as a way of demonstrating her legitimacy as the daughter of James II, at a time when James’s son, James Edward Stuart, was regularly practising the royal touch in exile at St Germain and Rome. The infant Dr Samuel Johnson was famously touched by Queen Anne and wore the touchpiece he received on that occasion for the rest of his life.

Jacobite touchpieces

Although the minting of gold Angels in England ceased on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the Hanoverian monarchs discontinued the practice, the Jacobite pretenders in exile carried on commissioning touchpieces modelled after the originals (although now, reflecting the poverty of the Jacobite court, struck in silver). For Jacobites, the ability of the pretenders to cure the King’s Evil by touching was one of the proofs that they were the true kings of England, and ‘James III’ and ‘Charles III’ continued to mint touchpieces and give them to sufferers. Even the second son of James Edward Stuart, Henry Benedict Stuart, who succeeded as Jacobite pretender in 1788, had the pieces made.

Henry IX touchpiece
Silver touchpiece of Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal of York (‘Henry IX’), 1788-1807 © Solon Numismatics

On the last touchpiece minted for an English king, the abbreviated Latin inscription reads ‘Henry IX by the Grace of God King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Cardinal Bishop of Tusculum [i.e. Frascati’. This indicates that the touchpiece was minted before 1803, when Henry became Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals and therefore Cardinal Bishop of Ostia and Velletri. The existence of touchpieces right down to the early years of the nineteenth century demonstrates that they remained in demand amongst Jacobites, although the Cardinal’s death in 1807 meant that the direct line of the Stuarts died out. This finally brought an end to the legend of the royal touch, although just as Dr Johnson treasured the touchpiece he had received from Queen Anne until his death, it is conceivable that infant recipients of touchpieces from ‘Henry IX’ treasured them into the late nineteenth century. The enduring cultural impact of the Angel has been even more long-lasting – consider the fact that in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, gold coins used by wizards are called ‘galleons’.

The use of the gold Angel as a touchpiece elided natural magic, Christian sanctity and political propaganda in a way that was very probably unique, in a state-sanctioned ceremony and using official currency. The religio-political significance of the royal touch is well known, but by focusing on the rite and practice of touching rather than the touchpieces themselves and the folklore associated with them, it is possible that the strong connotations of natural magic in the tradition of touchpieces has been allowed to fade into the background.


Contract signed for The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery

Remains of the north transept of the Abbey Church, Bury St Edmunds

I have recently signed a contract with the Lasse Press to publish my book The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery in September 2016. This will be the first book to cover the entire history of one of England’s greatest medieval Abbeys from foundation to dissolution, as well as exploring the Abbey’s ongoing local and national legacy and the stories of the men and women who uncovered the Abbey’s history and archaeology in subsequent centuries.

The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was the fifth largest Benedictine Abbey in England and the largest in East Anglia by far. According to tradition, the Abbey was founded in 1020 by King Cnut to replace a college of secular priests at the Church of St Mary in Beodricsworth, who were responsible for caring for the incorrupt body of the martyr king of East Anglia, St Edmund. Beodricsworth soon became known as Bury St Edmunds, and under Abbot Baldwin (ruled 1065-97) the Benedictine Abbey rose to national prominence, rivalled only by Westminster and St Albans. Baldwin’s minster, begun in around 1081 and not completed until the reign of Abbot Samson (1182-1211) was possibly the largest completed church in the world at the time of the Abbey’s dissolution in 1539. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was the site of spectacular royal pilgrimages, parliaments and great historical events, such as the oath sworn by the barons in 1214 to compel King John to maintain liberties granted in Henry I’s coronation charter – the prelude to Magna Carta. The Abbey was ruled by the brilliant physician Baldwin, the devout patron of the arts Anselm of St Saba, and shrewd political operators like Samson of Tottington and Hugh of Northwold – not to mention less successful Abbots like Richard of Draughton, who was shaved by rebels and carried off in a sack to Brabant!

The Abbey’s story is a colourful one of pride, rebellion, intrigue and murder, played out against the backdrop of the most spectacular building of Romanesque Europe. Although the Abbey came to an end when John Reeve, the last Abbot, surrendered it to Henry VIII’s commissioners on 4 November 1539, the Abbey’s influence continued. The Steward of the Liberty of St Edmund continued to control, as he had before the Reformation, the eight-and-half hundreds of West Suffolk granted to the Abbey by Edward the Confessor in 1043, and Bury St Edmunds remained a peculiar judicial and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, separate from the rest of Suffolk, right down to the nineteenth century. It was only in 1934 that the boundary of the town established in a charter of 945 was expanded, and only in 1974 did the County of West Suffolk cease to exist. By then, Bury’s glorious past as Suffolk’s ecclesiastical capital had already ensured, in 1914, that the Cathedral for the new Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich was established in the town. Furthermore, the idea of the Abbey continued to live among English Benedictine monks, and in 1615 a successor monastery, St Edmund’s, was founded in Paris and survives to this day at Woolhampton, near Reading.

The discovery of the Abbey’s history was a slow process, partly because the Abbey buildings were systematically destroyed after the dissolution and are in a poor state in comparison with other monastic ruins. Historical interest really began with the seventeenth-century antiquary John Battely (1647-1708), whose partial history of the Abbey (in Latin) was published in 1745. Chance discoveries in the Abbey ruins in the eighteenth century increased interest, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century the site was well known to antiquaries. However, it was not until the late nineteenth century that the great Bury antiquary M. R. James (better known these days for his ghost stories) discovered new documents that shed light on the interior decoration of the Abbey Church and the composition of the monastic library. James revealed the true magnificence of St Edmund’s Minster and demonstrated that the Abbey had the second best library in late medieval England, exceeded only by that of Oxford University. Since then there has been much historical work on the Abbey, culminating in a two-volume history of the period 1182-1301 by Antonia Gransden, published between 2009 and 2015.

However, in spite of the historical and archaeological interest in the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds over the last three centuries, no-one has hitherto drawn together all of the scholarship into a single account of the entire period 1020-1539. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery aims to do just that, presenting a comprehensive and scholarly account of the Abbey’s history that will be accessible to the non-specialist and will introduce the rich possibilities of research still offered by the Abbey which housed the body of the patron saint of the English people.


Historicising paganism, paganising history

Sami ‘troll drum’, Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

On a recent visit to Stockholm I was intrigued by a collection of Sami religious artefacts in the Nordiska Museet. Apart from the irony that these objects belonging to a non-Nordic people were being displayed in a museum originally dedicated to the Nordic history of Sweden, they stand apart from other ‘pagan’ artefacts we might find in museums because some Sami were still engaged in (or at least remembered) pagan practices at the time they were acquired by the museum. The display label for one artifact quotes a letter written by a local forest officer, Henning Nordlund, to the folklorist Artur Hazelius on 5 May 1891:

Another thing that I did not initially feel I could take was the ‘troll drum’ I am sending down now. When I first arrived, 100 crowns was asked for it in Qvikkjokk. An Englishman offered 50 crowns last summer, but the Lap did not deign to sell. I could not bargain the price down lower than 25 crowns, but felt it was by no means worth that sum … It was made by Anders Pirkit, who is believed to be a ‘seer’ (even by settlers), following an old model known to him, or so he claims.

Nordlund does not make clear in this letter why he did not initially feel he could take the drum, which is of a type used by Sami shamans – was it purely the price that concerned him, or did he have to overcome feelings of anxiety about the drum’s sacred significance? It is telling that Nordlund acknowledged that even ‘settlers’ (that is, Swedes who had moved to Sapmi) acknowledged the drum’s maker as a shaman. I was left wondering whether, in this case, Nordlund’s act of sending the drum to Hazelius in Stockholm was intended deliberately to de-sacralise it, so that a magical object made by a still-living shaman would become a comfortable museum exhibit.

Sami sieidi, Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Another object on display was a sieidi, a wooden Sami idol that was removed from its position at the side of a brook by the local Lutheran minister and later obtained by Axel Calleberg, an inspector of ‘nomadic schools’, in 1944. Calleberg sent the sieidi to the Curator of the Nordiska Museet, noting that ‘The sieidi is genuine, and it was not unusual for people in this remote valley to make sacrifices to the gods until very recently. There is much superstition, and I spoke with ladies at the old people’s home who knew of this god and were absolutely horrified to discover that their vicar had taken the sieidi away from the holy brook’.

The presence of the sieidi in the museum’s collection is now controversial – which the museum readily acknowledges – but such anxieties do not prevent the sieidi from being displayed. The sieidi reminded me of the handful of surviving Bronze Age and Iron Age wooden idols from the British Isles – except that whereas in the latter case we can only imagine the religious beliefs that may have inspired them, in the case of the Sami artefacts in the Nordiska Museet there seems to have been a deliberate effort to deprive the Sami of their beliefs by removing their material culture. In earlier centuries that removal would have taken the form of destructive iconoclasm; when, from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, the folklore movement made iconoclasm unthinkable, the ‘historicisation’ of actively used sacred objects acted almost as a modern version of iconoclasm. Artefacts like the troll drum and the sieidi were safely removed to museums and thereby de-sacralised.

There are parallels to Sweden’s de-sacralisation of Sami artefacts in the behaviour of early modern English antiquaries, who decried the popish superstition that led to the veneration of relics and images in the Middle Ages but were also critical of the iconoclasts as mindless wreckers of culture. Several antiquaries owned items such as reliquaries, but it was imperative that these objects be represented as curiosities retained for their historical interest rather than on account of any sacred value – indeed, the presence of objects such as a reliquary of St Thomas of Canterbury in Horace Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill, alongside a bizarre collection of profane curios, had the effect of de-sacralising it. The accumulation of objects like reliquaries by antiquaries served to make the veneration of relics by Catholics more rather than less superstitious – after all, why would anyone fetishise one particular object from a cabinet of curiosities? Putting something in a museum collection is the civilised version of religious iconoclasm.

Palaipaphos shrine
Ribbons in a sacred tree at the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, Palaipaphos-Kouklia, Cyprus

The flipside of the need felt by antiquaries and museums to historicise a pagan (or Catholic) past that may be very much alive is the urge that many people now feel to ‘re-sacralise’ a pagan past with which we have lost any meaningful connection, except in the imagination. The protest that accompanied the removal of ‘Seahenge’ from the beach of Holme-next-the-Sea in 1999 was one of the most dramatic examples of contemporary pagans defending the sacredness of a site whose original meaning and purpose they had no more chance of understanding than the archaeologists.

This is not to say that all pagan sites where religious activity takes place have lost contact with their original purpose. In April 2015 I visited the Shrine of Aphrodite at Palaipaphos, a Neolithic site that long pre-dates Greek adoption of the Cypriot fertility goddess. In his Guide to Palaipaphos (Kouklia) the archaeologist Franz Georg Maier observed that ‘amongst the inhabitants of Kouklia the memory of the old pagan cult never seems to have been lost completely. Until a few years ago, young mothers offered candles to the Panayia Galaktariotissa (‘the milk-giving Virgin’) at a conspicuous stone in the sanctuary area: a last trace of the age-old fertility cult once celebrated at this site’. The widespread Cypriot practice of decorating trees with ribbons and pieces of cloth (and even plastic) to represent prayers carries on at this site as elsewhere, in spite of the fact that there was never an authorised Christian shrine on the site of the sanctuary itself.

The ongoing veneration of Aphrodite under the guise of the Virgin Mary at Palaipaphos-Kouklia raises interesting questions concerning what should be classified as ‘pagan’ worship in the first place, but it is fair to say that such distinctions are more fluid in Orthodox Cyprus than they are in Protestant Britain, simply because the Reformation was obsessed with seeing traces of pagan idolatry everywhere and anywhere. It is ironic that contemporary paganism originated in Britain, a country where there are perhaps fewer genuine traces of pagan worship than anywhere else in Europe. Yet it seems likely that the idea of paganism has less meaning in cultures where there are real pagan survivals. Such survivals often endure precisely because the original pagan purpose of the practice has been forgotten, or its purpose has been redesignated within a Christian framework. ‘Paganism’ is, at least in part, the self-conscious construct of a culture in which all pagan practices have been extinguished.

It is likewise ironic that British people with an interest in the island’s pagan past are drawn to the most impressive pre-Christian monuments, such as Stonehenge, which are also the most enigmatic and the least comprehensible. When it comes to Viking, Old English or Romano-British paganism we at least know the names of the gods our ancestors worshipped: everything we know of Neolithic and Bronze Age British religion is mere conjecture. This vacuum of knowledge is no doubt part of the attraction of such monuments to people who define themselves as pagans: megalithic monuments are a blank canvas on which to paint one’s own spiritual interpretations.

Gynomorphic menhir in the churchyard of Castel Church, Guernsey

One place in the British Isles where I recently encountered the ‘paganising’ of historic sites was the island of Guernsey, which I visited in August 2014. In the churchyard of Castel Church, in the centre of the island, stands a menhir that seems to be an attempt to render the female form. I was surprised to see, at the foot of the menhir, flowers deliberately placed and held down by a stone, and apparently intended as some sort of offering.

‘Offering’ at the foot of menhir in Castel Churchyard, Guernsey, August 2014


Creux ès Fées passage tomb, Guernsey

This was not a unique discovery; inside a megalithic passage tomb on the west side of the island, Creux ès Fées (Cave of the Fairies) I noticed that someone had placed what appeared to be a small terracotta figurine of Mayan appearance.

Modern terracotta figurine inside Creux ès Fées, Guernsey, August 2014

I can only speculate on what might have motivated someone to leave the figurine, but on one interpretation the ‘offering’ seemed to go beyond the folklore associated with the passage tomb (which portrays it as a home of the fairies and an entrance to their kingdom) and spoke to someone’s need to turn the tomb into a place of worship, focussed on a cult image. I was reminded of the controversial ‘Grimes Graves Goddess‘, the apparent chalk figure of a Neolithic fertility goddess found during excavations of the prehistoric flint mines in Norfolk in the 1930s. Ever since its discovery there has been doubt as to whether the ‘goddess’ was a hoax intended to fool the excavator. The idea that a cult-image should be found at a prehistoric site – even when that site is a mine – certainly seems to reflect twentieth-century perceptions of prehistoric people (not to mention ideas about goddess-worship current in archaeology at the time). Like Grimes Graves, Creux ès Fées is unlikely to have been a place of worship in the sense of the location of a cult image. Contemporary pagans are just as likely as archaeologists to impose on ancient sites their own perceptions of what ‘pagan worship’ should look like, informed by cultural prejudices specific to their own time.

A large part of the ‘paganisation’ of historic sites is the development of a contemporary mythology of church authorities’ hostility to pagan monuments. In Guernsey, tourist literature routinely interprets damage to menhirs or their burial and incorporation into other structures as deliberate desecration by Christians. The deployment of Ockham’s Razor leads me to conclude that Christian hostility is by no means the simplest and most obvious explanation for destruction and removal. The sad historical fact is that sacred sites do lose their significance over time, however much Victorian folklorists were determined to believe in an ineradicable substratum of pagan belief amongst the English (or in this case Norman) peasantry. It is a fact of which scholars of the Reformation are only too aware, and instances of cultic survival (such as the Holy Well of St Winifred at Holywell or the ongoing cult of St Edmund at Hoxne) are remarkable exceptions. Who is to say that the Iron Age inhabitants of Guernsey venerated the Neolithic/Bronze Age menhirs, let alone that the island’s later Gallo-Roman and Norman inhabitants did so? A once venerated megalith, over the passage of centuries, can very easily become no more than an architecturally useful piece of stone. However, the myth of Christian hostility reinforces people’s desire to believe that pagan sites and monuments were places of sacred power in comparatively recent times.

Set alongside the desecration of functioning Sami religious sites and artefacts, which took place within living memory, the attempts of other Europeans to re-invent the ‘pagan’ spiritual significance of ancient sites in their own nations might seem rather absurd. However, such practices have been going on for long enough now to become an interesting cultural phenomenon in their own right. So few real traces of European pagan religion survive – and the real nature of pagan religions are so little understood – that the post facto ‘paganising’ of history is perhaps the best we can expect. This is not to suggest that ‘pagan’ interpretations of ancient sites are inauthentic – they are often no better or worse than any other interpretations – but they can historically mislead when they are accompanied by a modern mythos like the notion of Christian hostility to megalithic monuments.