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Talking saints and celebrities on BBC Radio Suffolk

This morning I was interviewed on BBC Radio Suffolk‘s Lesley Dolphin Show about the similarities and differences between contemporary celebrity culture and the medieval cult of saints. I compared pilgrimages with rock concerts and identified Abbot Baldwin, the promoter of the cult of St Edmund in the eleventh century, as a creative media user; his decision to explain the story of St Edmund to pilgrims using colourful painted boards was arguably the Instagram of its day.

You can listen to my brief interview here from time signature 02:13:44.

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Legends of Peterborough Saints at the John Clare Theatre

St Pega of Peakirk, one of Peterborough’s endemic saints

This afternoon I delivered a lecture on behalf of Peterborough Archives at the John Clare Theatre on the subject of ‘Legends of Peterborough Saints’, based on my book Peterborough Folkore. Beginning with the saints associated with the foundation of Medeshamstede in the seventh century, such as Sts Kyneburgha, Kyneswitha, Tibba, Wulfade and Ruffin. I went on to consider famous Peterborough relics such as the incorrupt arm of St Oswald and Peterborough’s fourteenth-century ‘folk saint’, Laurence of Oxford, before concluding with a discussion of the cult of Katharine of Aragon, who was buried in Peterborough Cathedral in 1536. The talk was followed by an interesting discussion, and I am grateful to the Peterborough Archives Service for inviting me to speak once again in this series.

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Visit to Wisbech Castle

Joseph Medworth’s Regency villa on the site of Wisbech Castle

This afternoon, thanks to Heritage Open Days and Wisbech Town Council, I had the opportunity to pay my first visit to Wisbech Castle, which is arguably the single most important recusant site in England – yet also one of the most overlooked. Today, Wisbech Castle is unrecognisable as a castle from the outside; the building known as the castle is a large Regency villa built by Joseph Medworth in 1816, at the centre of an elegant circle of Georgian houses. However, in the garden of Medworth’s villa are vaults that pre-date the Regency house and survive, at least in part, from the castle that preceded it. The original castle was founded by William the Conqueror and later passed into the possession of the bishops of Ely. Bishop John Morton began rebuilding the castle, which had fallen into disrepair, in 1478, and it was the castle built by Morton and his successor John Alcock which became the Elizabethan and Jacobean government’s principal prison for captured missionary priests from 1581. This was because Wisbech was then an isolated island between the Fens and the Wash, located in a staunchly Protestant area. Back in 2015, in an article for the Wisbech Society, I determined that at least 111 Catholic prisoners were confined at Wisbech, most of them priests. I also wrote about Wisbech Castle in this 2015 article for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society.

Artist’s impression of what Bishop Morton’s castle may have looked like

Wisbech Castle was the prison of Thomas Watson (1515-84), bishop of Lincoln, who was the last bishop in England still in communion with the Apostolic See at the time of his death in captivity. Other famous prisoners included the last abbot of Westminster, John Feckenham (d. 1584), the Jesuit leader William Weston (c. 1550-1615) and his opponent Christopher Bagshawe (1552-c. 1625). The conflict between Weston and Bagshawe and their respective supporters split the Catholic church in England and was known as the ‘Wisbech Stirs’, with Weston’s supporters advocating the Jesuit policy of no compromise with the Protestant regime while Bagshawe’s supporters sought limited toleration for Catholics. The government’s policy of confining priests at Wisbech in order to isolate them backfired, however, since lay people constantly travelled to Wisbech to receive instruction in the Catholic faith from the priests, including young men intent on training for the priesthood themselves. Notoriously, the priests converted some of the local people, and local people conspired to assist the escape of several priests. The prison had become an unofficial seminary.

Entrance to the vaults in the garden of Wisbech Castle
Wisbech Castle: the vaults

Today, unfortunately, the vaults were not open (although I was able to take a photo from the entrance). However, I was able to see one remarkable relic of the medieval castle, a jumble of stained glass fragments set in a modern window of the Regency villa that apparently come from the castle chapel. Most of the fragments are pieces of architectural frames, along with a number of heads of angels. However, one fragment depicts hands holding the crowned head of a king while another (apparently depicting a stained glass window within a window) features the emblem of St Edmund (crossed arrows behind a crown). Yet another fragment appears to show a man in a boat holding an axe. It seems highly probable that these are all part of a window that originally depicted scenes from the life of St Edmund – specifically, the arrival of the Danes and the miraculous rejoining of Edmund’s head and body after the discovery of the martyr’s head. A display at the castle suggests that the chapel may have been dedicated to St Edmund, and while this may be a little too much to claim on the basis of the evidence, there was clearly a cult of St Edmund associated in some way with the castle. It is interesting to speculate on whether this glass was still in situ in a chapel at the time when the priests were imprisoned in the castle, and whether they looked at it and identified their own plight with the sufferings of St Edmund.

Fragments of stained glass at Wisbech Castle, apparently from the 15th-century castle chapel, some depicting scenes from the life of St Edmund
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Publication of Possessione, the Italian translation of A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity

 

Today sees the publication of Possessione: Esorcismo ed esorcisti nella storia della Chiesa cattolica by the Italian publisher Carocci, which is the Italian translation of my 2016 book A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity. I am enormously grateful to Prof. Andrea Nicolotti for bringing this translation about. My book generated some interest in Italy when it was published, even being featured in the newspaper Corriere della Sera (more interest, in fact, than it seems to have so far generated in the English-speaking world). Prof. Nicolotti’s own work on exorcism, which is the definitive study of the subject to the end of the third century, was in fact a major inspiration for my own research, so it is an honour to have him preside over the publication of this translation.

The book is the first history in English (and now in Italian) of the development of the rite of exorcism in the Latin West and the Roman Catholic church, from the fourth century to the present day.

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Review: Contested Reformations in the University of Cambridge, 1535-1584 by Ceri Law

My review of Ceri Law‘s new book Contested Reformations in the University of Cambridge has just been published on the Institute of Historical Research’s Reviews in History website. This is an absolutely superb and much needed study of the Reformation at Cambridge, with a particular focus on conservative responses to the imposition of religious change. Highly recommended!

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Review: This Hollow Land: Aspects of Norfolk Folklore by Peter Tolhurst

Peter Tolhurst, This Hollow Land: Aspects of Norfolk Folklore (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2018), £20. ISBN 978-0-9954792-5-8. 286pp. Illus.

Readers of this blog will know that I faithfully review almost everything published on the subject of East Anglian folklore, and I have very much looked forward to reviewing this book in particular because it is so important. Peter Tolhurst’s This Hollow Land is, without doubt, the most complete survey of Norfolk’s folklore ever attempted. As Tolhurst observes, Norfolk never received the detailed attentions of an Enid Porter or a George Ewart Evans, although much folklore collecting took place in the county in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Much like my 2017 book Peterborough Folklore, therefore, Tolhurst’s completes and brings to light the work of earlier folklorists as well as contributing his own insights. The scale and scope of Tolhurst’s achievement is impressive indeed, and the book covers the folklore of water sources, folklore of erratic stones, folklore of plants and trees, treasure-hunting, folklore of churches, folk heroes, the evil eye, counter-magic, ghosts, rites of passage, calendar customs, traditional song and dance and folk tales. I was especially delighted to see that Tolhurst begins with a comprehensive review (pp. 1-10) of all existing literature on the folklore of Norfolk from the seventeenth century to the present day – an immensely valuable addition, since it makes clear the state of the field and the stature of Tolhurst’s contribution to it.

It is obvious that The Hollow Land was a book many years in the making, and that Tolhurst’s intimate knowledge of Norfolk’s landscape and people have contributed to the quality of the finished work. I especially enjoyed Tolhurst’s accounts of the popular cults of Norfolk’s saints, such as Withburga and Walstan, which evoke a lost world of complex pre-Reformation devotion in an intensely agrarian society. Tolhurst’s book conveys the sheer depth of popular tradition in Norfolk, a vast county that it is easy to get lost in, and where it is hard to shake off the suspicion that forgotten ways (some of them perhaps best forgotten…) still lurk in remote hamlets and isolated cottages. All of the best books about folklore do this, recognising the ultimately unfinished (and unfinishable) task of the folklorist in cataloguing all the lore of a place, and hinting at the unfathomable depths of memory and tradition even within one English locality.

Having said this, however, there are times when Tolhurst strays a little too far into speculation, especially in his account of pre-Christian religion and his attempts to link this with contemporary practices. For example, his suggestion that the cult of St Walstan contains elements of ‘a pagan fertility cult, remnants of which still survived among the rural poor’ (p. 28) evokes the outdated idea that paganism persisted among the lower classes in the Middle Ages. While Tolhurst is admirably circumspect in his discussion of the Green Man (pp. 54-7), recognising him as a confected figure of the twentieth-century imagination, the temptation to speculate about pre-Christian origins is sometimes too much for the author to resist. This is a shame, because the popular Christianity of medieval England is quite fascinating enough in its own right without the need to portray it as a pagan survival. As Ronald Hutton has observed, the similarities between popular medieval Christianity and paganism owe more to the fact that hierarchical, agrarian societies have much the same spiritual needs in any time or place.

Fairies are conspicuous by their almost complete absence from Norfolk folklore, at least in this book, with Tolhurst observing that ‘fairies seldom appear in Norfolk folklore’ (p. 268). Little more than a page is devoted to the hyter sprites, and it is surprising that Ray Loveday’s short book on hyter sprites (which I reviewed here a few weeks ago) is missing from the bibliography. Tolhurst includes an account of the folk tale ‘The Ploughman and the Fairies’, but fairies are missing from the index and Tolhurst makes no attempt to investigate fairy-related place-names or enquire into why fairylore is apparently so sparse in the county, and whether it might still be lurking under barely concealed alternative forms. However, these are observations that arise from my own particular preoccupation with East Anglian fairylore and do not detract in any way from the overall value of the book.

This Hollow Land contains a vast number of black and white illustrations, including many that I have not seen before, and is a handsomely produced tome with a striking black cover. I was delighted to see that the book has a thorough index as well as a bibliography. The book’s major shortcoming from an academic point of view is the scarcity of footnotes; Tolhurst mainly footnotes only direct quotations. This is unfortunate, because more extensive referencing would make it possible for future researchers to see at a glance what sources Tolhurst had explored and how he had used them. Nevertheless, compared to some books on local folklore, the critical apparatus of This Hollow Land is good. As the most complete survey of Norfolk folklore, the volume should find a place in the library of every English folklorist, and Peter Tolhurst should be congratulated on a magnificent achievement.

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Review: Gonville & Caius College: The Statutes of the Founders

My review of Michael Pritchard’s edition of the statutes of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, Gonville & Caius College: The Statutes of the Founders has just appeared in volume 107 of the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. The volume sees the college statutes of Edmund Gonville (d. 1351), William Bateman (c. 1298-1355) and John Caius (1510-73) published in a single edition for the first time, along with translations and a detailed commentary. Gonville and Caius College, which was originally founded by Gonville in 1348 as Gonville Hall, was extensively patronised by William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich and then subsequently re-founded as Gonville and Caius College by Dr John Caius in 1557. Although many Cambridge colleges have interesting histories, the history of Caius College is of particular interest to me because (apart from the fact that I studied there as an undergraduate) the college always had a special connection to East Anglia. Notoriously, Caius stipulated in his statutes (based on similar but less strict provisions in the statutes of Gonville and Bateman) that fellows of the college had to have been born in Norfolk or Suffolk. A significant proportion of students at the college in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came from the grammar school in Bury St Edmunds.

However, even more interesting than the college’s East Anglian predilections is its religious history. The college was unique in being founded in Mary I’s reign, during a period when Cardinal Reginald Pole was presiding over intense efforts to turn the university into a Counter-Reformation seminary. Whereas many Cambridge colleges may be thought of as medieval institutions surviving into the present day, Caius College is a rare relic of that brief period in which England became part of the world of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Even the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 did not put an end to the college’s function as a Counter-Reformation seminary; Caius himself and many of the fellows remained stubbornly Catholic and the college continuously turned out students who later trained for the priesthood abroad, often returning to keep the Catholic faith alive in East Anglia and elsewhere. The college’s religious conservatism lingered even into the 1580s, and eventually merged into the anti-Puritan Arminian strand of Anglican conformism that emerged at the end of the sixteenth century. In the 1630s the college was a stronghold of Laudianism, as the beautiful gilded cherubs on the roof of the college’s chapel still testify. Even when I was a student at Caius, the Dean regularly celebrated Holy Communion using the Latin prayer book of Queen Elizabeth, which was often the refuge of crypto-Catholics in the university who wanted to remain as close as possible to the mass without defying the crown.

Michael Pritchard’s edition is a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in academic history, and essential for anyone with an interest in the history of the University of Cambridge.

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Article in History Today: ‘St Edmund the Viking Saint’

This month’s edition of History Today features my article entitled ‘St Edmund the Viking Saint’, which makes a case that it was the Danes (or ‘Vikings’) who settled in East Anglia in the late ninth century who were responsible for the early development of the cult of St Edmund. This argument runs counter to the traditional view that the cult of St Edmund was developed by Anglo-Saxons under Danish rule as a focus of resistance to Scandinavian invaders. My argument in this article is part of the broader case I make in my book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King that the cult of St Edmund was foundational to the construction of the English nation. The figure of St Edmund became a rallying point for Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans alike, making possible the formation of a composite Anglo-Danish identity for people living in the east of England.