David Scott-McNabb, Chaucer, and the concept of a half-alien culture

This post has been a long time coming – first because I wanted to do some background reading on it, and then because it took quite some time to get the background reading and my notes from Scott-McNabb’s paper in the same place – an oddly difficult task. My modus operandi for the last… while has been to move both notebook and photocopied chapter back and forth between uni and home, neatly making sure that one of them was always on hand whenever I thought of this post, but never both.

HOWEVER. Let that not deter us! On the 25th of August, David Scott-McNabb, of the University of Johannesburg, on the topic of The Jokes of a Half-Alien Culture: The Case of Chaucer’s ‘Tale of Sir Thopas’. This paper delivered two things: an intriguing re-reading of the humour  in Sir Thopas, and many provoking thoughts on the nature of reading at several century’s distance.

First: Sir Thopas

Scott-McNabb gave us a concise introduction to the humour of Sir Thopas: for instance, the combination of dissonant elements in conventional description. The description of Thopas’ physical form, for instance, is structured conventionally, but contains the rather unimpressive comparison of the hero’s complexion to ‘pandemayn’ (white bread).

Monty Python's knights, singingSir Thopas has been assumed to satirise Flemish knighthood (since Thopas hails from Flanders). One set of readings argues that Thopas is inherently ridiculous, and incapable of doing, wearing, saying or appreciating anything which is not ridiculous.

With this in mind, Scott-McNabb turned to the Lancegay which Thopas bears when setting out. He noted the mixture of convention and dissonance: you expect a knight to set out, but you expect him to be fully armed, not carrying a Lancegay. Because Thopas is read as a bit ridiculous, the Lancegay is usually assumed to be an ineffective, perhaps even effete, sort of weapon.

BUT WAIT, says David Scott-McNabb. What is a Lancegay? First he went around asking weapons curators, and no one has a Lancegay or even a picture of a Lancegay. No dice there.  Next he looked in the literary canon: Lancegays appear in one other source, also from the early 1390s, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, where the God of Love carries a fiery lancegay.

So, what sort of weapon is it? Scott-McNabb gave us a French source, Guillame de Saint André, of the 14th century, who credited the Bretons to be skilled with the use of dardes, gavelots, et lancegaies. All of these were thrown down from the ramparts at the attacking French, so evidently, a lancegaie is a missile weapon. A deadly missile weapon at that – an English record from 1450 says that Isobel Thresham’s husband was murdered by being impaled with a lancegay.

Who owned lancegays? David Scott-McNabb found records of lancegays in the inventories of the armouries of Thomas of Woodstock and the Earl of Arundel, when they were inventoried by  Richard II in 1397. He also found – apparently previously uncited – records of  lancegays in Bolingbroke’s wardrobe accounts for the late 1380s.

Who cares about lancegays? Richard II, Henry VI and Edward IV, Scott-McNabb told us, all tried to prohibit the carrying of lancegays specifically as well as making more general prohibitions on armed men wandering about the countryside. In Richard’s case, the clause in question was issued twice – once in 1983 (7 Richard II 1383 cp. 13) and again in 1397.

These records confirm the French evidence that a lancegay is a missile weapon, but it seems more versatile: a light, short spear, which could be carried by a lightly armed warrior in peacetime, be he on horse or afoot. It seems to be useful for stabbing, thrusting, charging, and throwing. And it’s sufficiently menacing that a king feeling a bit wary doesn’t want people wandering about brandishing them all over the countryside.

A chap with a lancegay, David Scott-McNabb concluded, is not ridiculous, or ‘cute’, as some have called Thopas.

But a lancegay is funny, in the hands of Sir Thopas. Why? It’s that bucking-expectations thing: you expect a knight to be fully armed for jousting, if he’s in a romance (illustrations to medieval texts, as well as literary depictions, shape that expectation). Thopas’ lancegay is funny, not because it’s a a wussy weapon, but because it’s too modern and too realisitic. It’s something one might carry in real!England, but inappropriate for romance!land: Thopas has to go home and fetch a lance as soon as he encounters a stranger in the forest who wants to joust against him.

So what?

Medieval: a woman readingI’m going to expand on this in another post, I think. But David Scott-McNabb was using this to demonstrate that, when we go along with what looks funny enough to us, we can easily miss what was intended to be funny about the text.

It was an interesting paper, and the Great Quest To Find Out About Lancegays made for entertaining listening. I also found it a pleasing discrete example of the nifty things you can do with a combination of literary close reading and detailed historical research: I know the student who asks me most often how to do a close reading showed up to hear this paper; I’m hoping it helped them, as well as pleasing me.

Teaching reflections, sem II 2011, or: some battles you can never win

So. I survived a semester without having a single undergraduate cry on me!1 I’m really not sure that that’s cause for celebration, though.

Slightly twitchy star - Ursula VernonWhat I’m telling myself instead is that this semester, I talked one of my friends-and-former-students into applying for an extension when it was needed. I talked one of my current students through Special Consideration applications which she’d started. I’ve had a couple of honest conversations with undergrads about Ye Olde Mental Health Problemes and academia – some in a teachery capacity and some in the context of less formal relationships built up through extra-curricular CMS activities. I’m starting to get a sense of how much I’m happy to say and in what contexts.2

I think can be pretty happy both with the coping skills demonstrated by some of my students, and with my own behaviour/example/wossname. But. But. I’m still not used to the fact that every semester it seems like I have to watch some kids slip through the cracks.

There’s the ones who come to you at the end of semester in despair because of problems that have been going on all semester, maybe longer, and say “what can I do, I can’t afford to fail anymore courses?” There’s some who turn up to most classes and suddenly stop handing in work. There’s some who have every right to special considerations, alternative assessments, whatever, and just… never asked for them.

It breaks my heart, every time. It’s also a good case study of Professional Boundaries and all that: there is help I must give (according to the institution’s rules and my immediate supervisor’s policys); and there is help I can give, mostly advice, because I am basically a nice person, or perhaps I spent too long in the Brownie Guides and ended up with a compulsive urge to ‘lend a hand’. But there’s also a whole range of stuff clearly outside of my power, like the extension system and so on (we have a faculty-wide policy and system here, which is great for uniform practice, but intimidating to use as a student). And regardless of how much concrete help and practical advice I give, first, the student has to ask for it and then the student has to use it.

Reward for information leading to the return of lost marblesI have to get used to the fact that some kids will never ask, and others won’t put into action the advice they get. That might be their own silly fault, or it might be because whatever their problem is, they’re kind of drowning in it and can’t get the logical-thinking thing together to fix it.3 It may not be the student’s fault, and I really wish the university’s support systems were less confusing to find and use, but there’s still nothing I can do about it.

But. When students do talk to me, y’know what I keep seeing? Students with actualfax perfectly legit problems are afraid of talking to their teachers, and of using the support systems available. Because they:
– are ashamed of themselves
– are scared of disappointing their teachers
– think the support systems aren’t for people like them, they’re for people with real problems
– don’t want people to know they have real problems.

I haven’t had any of my students say as much to me, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fear that People In Positions Of Power would dismiss/laugh at/be unwilling to help students, especially those with invisible illnesses of the mental-health type. I like and trust my supervisors, but I’ve also seen other faculty members laugh off, or gripe about, students requesting help for mental health problems.

I can’t fix all the problems in the world, but if I could wave a magic wand and make all my students not afraid to talk to me I would be a very happy person. (My second wish, mind you, would be that this not-afraidness come with a sensible concept of the difference between ‘asking for advice on coping with study and personal crises’ and ‘telling me waaaaay too much about your personal problems on the first day of class’; but if I only get one wish, then I’d rather enforce that boundary myself.)

A rainbow-coloured small fluffy creature thingIn some parts of the world – not here, so far as I know – there are whole programs set up to train staff and faculty in being aware of the particular problems faced by queer students, and how to help them. Such programs, I am given to understand, also have ways of identifying “this staffmember is not an arseface” for students who need to seek advice. Last year (wow, was it only last year?), in the aftermath of a spate of campus suicides, the internet was awash with advice on how to be a visibly-queer friendly academic.4

Have any of you encountered such a program for training academics to deal with students who have legit life and health problems? Is anyone running programs like that? Sometimes I think teachers ought to get basic… pastoral care training, or whatever the term is for the secular equivalent. Or possibly everyone should line up to be administered a dose of the Cluebat, that’d also be nice.

Paranoia/Social Anxiety = OTPWhat does one do to make it as safe as possible for students to talk to you when they need to? I mean, I have my personal toolkit – I have and keep office hours and tell the class that I’ll be horribly bored if no one comes to talk to me during that time. I try to remind them a couple of times per semester about a. where the extension system is and b. that really, I promise, they’re entitled to use it. This semester I also added in some personal comments, letting them know that I don’t see the applications or the reasons, and that the course co-ordinator, who makes the decisions, is an understanding and fair person and I ought to know, she’s my supervisor. I specifically mentioned mental health problems as legit reasons for special considerations.

I know that, no matter what I do, I can’t actually make all my students get their shit together. Perhaps I’ll develop a thicker skin with time, or when I’m no longer teaching in my own undergraduate institution. I don’t think I want to lose this concern entirely, though. Even if there’s a limited amount or nothing at all that I can do, I don’t want to turn into the person who doesn’t care.

Advices, O Internets?


1. I did make a student cry, but she left the room to do so. Pretty sure that wasn’t because of my unusual meanness, just a matter of straw, meet camel’s back, in the form of midsemester results.
2. Case in point, apparently I’m telling the internet that I’m both not-straight and not-entirely-mentally-well. Interesting. For reference, anyone who deals with me IRL, neither of these are secrets, but nor are they things I go around shouting from rooftops in professional contexts. I have no problem with people knowing but I don’t necessarily want to talk about it.
3. I have seen this student, and I have been this student.
4. A lot of this advice actually upset me a lot, and did not make me feel very comfortable. I strongly resist the idea that anyone is obliged to Come Out, even for the sake of the Yoof of Today. What of teachers who are just figuring this out? Who don’t feel safe themselves in their classrooms or workplaces? When it comes down to it, too, if you expect of me certain behaviours or public declarations in a classroom that you wouldn’t expect of my straight best friend (who’s just as down with queer theory and rights and whatnot as I am), then you have a sexuality-based double standard, and I don’t wanna play. I much preferred Lesboprof’s very concrete, curriculum and policy oriented advice.

Straight until proven otherwise, or, a post with too many footnotes

I'm in ur history - emphasizin your queerzY’know, there ought to be nothing I enjoy more than watching some scholar poke holes in John Boswell. It’s just fun, and Boswell’s work is kind of a sitting duck. Rows of sitting ducks.1 I understand the desire to find and defend the people-like-me of the past – note my thing for bossyboots lady characters – but, without even getting into the critical dangers of that approach,2 if we’re going to play identity politics then I feel obnoxiously inclined to jam myself into any given argument about whether or not a historical personage is homosexual, and insist that on their obvious bisexuality.3

M. J. Ailes, in an article entitled ‘The Medieval Male Couple and the Language of Homosociality’, concludes with someone else’s words:

In such matters, we must be careful not to project on to a less erotically preoccupied society the artificially stimulated and commercially exploited eroticism of our own sex-ridden age. (Dom Jean Leclerq, Monks and Love)

I get the concern, although I’m not convinced that the past is any more or less ‘erotically preoccupied’ than the present. Ailes’ article, which I’d been hoping would advance some interesting arguments about the way male friendship was framed, is instead devoted to proving that assorted pairs of men, fictional and otherwise, were ‘just friends’. The article starts with Roland and Charlemagne (employing that oft-seen trick of queer erasure, starting with the far-less-likely-to-be-erotically involved pair and conflating arguments about them with arguments about another possibly-erotic couple) and moves on through various fictional characters to historical, ending up with Ælred of Rievaulx. Some of the arguments I completely support (Richard I/Phillip II, for example), others not so much (Ami et Amile, for instance).

Reality has a homoerotic biasBut. But. Your chances of proving that anyone, real or fictional, engaged in a lot of same-sex sex, are pretty slim. Even if you’ve got sodomy trial records, you could probably put up a good argument for the formulaic use of that charge. Assuming some kind of consistency in attraction,4 you’d expect roughly 10% of the population to be same-sex attracted (but perhaps not all of those to act on it; it’s also possible that some people engaging in same-sex activity might not really be attracted to same-sex partners, I suppose).

Case in point: the entertainingly detailed passages in the Processus Contra Templarios in which assorted Templars confess to committing assorted sexual acts with assorted other Templars do not prove that:

  • The Templars conducted homosexual sex publicly as a form of group bonding, or that
  • The Templars were particularly prone to male/male sex, or that
  • Any of these particular knights ever engaged in male/male sex.

Rather, the passages in question tell us a lot about the sorts of accusations which people put to and would believe of homosocial groups who were held in suspicion. That’s about all. However, you’d have to be barking mad to try and tell me no Templar knight ever banged another Templar knight. I’m gonna assume that Templars banged other Templars at roughly the same rate as soldiers banged other soldiers, whatever that was. We have an absence of (reliable) evidence for homosexual sex among the Templars, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Remember when I spun you a facetious story about lady!Chrétien de Troyes? About how I have this bee in my bonnet, and that bee gets rather upset about the fact that, although it’s improbable that a woman wrote any given text, that instance-by-instance assessment leaves us with the weird notion that Anonymous was never a woman? Yeah. Something like that’s going on here.

Sex in the Middle Ages: Satisfaction Guaranteed!M.J. Ailes tells us that Hilary the Englishman, Baudri of Bourgeuil, Peter Abelard, Richard I, and Aelred of Rievaulx were not having sex mano-a-mano5 nor particularly wanting to. Ailes produces reasonable reasons to assert that the churchmen were all using stock tropes of erotic poetry and ‘passionate friendship’; that Richard I was making a political stance by sharing a bed with Phillip of France; that the sexual sins which Ælred laments could as easily be heterosexual as homosexual sins. The reasons, in my view, hold up better for some of his examples than others.

That’s not what bothers me, so much. It’s that Ailes seems to think by carefully going down the list of “most likely to be queer” historical figures and ticking them all off as “not queer”, one can write the homosexual completely out of the history of homosociality.

You can’t. You just can’t. In order for there to be a trope, there has to be an idea that someone might do it. The category of ‘sodomy’ was certainly, at various times, a broad one which included many kinds of sex acts aside from male/male penetrative sex, but it also included male/male penetrative sex. As one of my college friends used to say, of the laws against goat-fucking in Leviticus, if there’s a law against it, someone must have been doing it. Humans are endlessly inventive: they were probably doing it, and any number of other things, up against the barn wall and out the back of the alehouse and in the landries and… you get the idea.

Arthur (BBC merlin) - Bet you're gayThe same goes for formulaic insults, which Ailes touches on, using the falsity of the accusation (Eneas clearly loved Dido, Lanval has a fairy mistress, etc) as if that were evidence that no heroes of medieval romance are ever engaged in homoerotic wossnames. This is silly. If there’s an insult for it, then there must be an agreed-upon-category of ‘people who prefer to fuck other men’.

But that’s not what Ailes is trying to argue. Ailes is not trying to tell us that there was no male/male sex happening in the middle ages. The article doesn’t go very much into the evidence for ideas about or practice of sodomy. It doesn’t really talk about medieval sexuality.

What Ailes wants to prove is not that homosexuality didn’t happen. It’s that none of these people had homosexual sex. It’s that homoeroticism is separate from the canon of medieval literature. It’s that none of the writers we know and respect possibly wanted to bang other dudes.

Whither all the sodomites, then? Does Ailes think no same-sex attracted monks wrote about it? That if they wrote, such writing would disappear from the historical record? I don’t know, and I suspect Ailes doesn’t much care: this article wants to convince me that there’s nothing to see, and, moreover, no point looking.

Besides, if Ælred of Rievaulx’s sexual sins could have been heterosexual as easily as homosexual, why not both? Let’s not limit the poor dead chap’s options, now.


1. Although I must say, The Marriage of Likeness has been pretty useful to me in unexpected ways! I have rather ill-formed thoughts on his main argument re: liturgical ceremonies of brotherhood, but the background work in that book is very useful to many pet projects of mine, including the ever-popular Why C.S. Lewis Was Wrong.

2. Incidentally, I read James A. Schultz’ ‘Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies’ and some of Karma Lochrie’s Heterosyncracies, and, well, got myself into an existential tangle. From which I think I have extracted myself, now. I found it a bit… annoying, though, that one of them (Schultz, I think) had no trouble criticising ‘queer’ scholars (and it seemed like, if he wasn’t talking about the scholar’s personal sex lives, he certainly saw queer-theorist as an identity category) for ‘needing’ the construct of heterosexuality in order to justify themselves. Which… while I get the point, we all post-date the construct of homo/heterosexuality, it’s not like anyone can come at the idea without a personal bias. Unless certain scholars have transcended notions of sexual identity altogether, personally and professionally, a claim which I haven’t yet seen anyone try to make. I’m not sure – and know nothing of the personal lives of anyone in the field, save Boswell – but it felt in places a bit like “don’t trust the queers, they’re recruiting reading themselves into the past,” a sin of which many heterosexual scholars and scholars of (hetero)sexuality have surely also been guilty.

3. If we’re going to get personal about it, one nice thing about fiction-based queer theory is that because most medieval romances have got a heterosexual plot written pretty clearly into it, you rarely find scholars trying to prove that, say Lancelot and Galehaut are totally doin’ it by proving that Lancelot isn’t into Guinevere. Homo- and hetero-eroticism kind of have to co-exist in most texts, if the former is going to be there at all. Also a nice up-side of the social-constructionist arguments that the homo/heterosexual binary didn’t exist before the 19th century is, or ought to be, that evidence of one doesn’t rule out the other. Ought to be, I tell you.

4. Iffy, I know. It’s not really possible to do multi-century longitudinal studies of attraction patterns in large populations. This is getting well out of my field, too, but my understanding is that research at the moment suggests that sexual identity categories are fairly fluid for individuals over time, but basic attraction patterns are fairly stable (Consider this Utah study, Was It A Phase, a 5-year study of attraction patterns among non-heterosexually-identified women). I’m supposing that the same may apply to humans in general: that ways of conceptualising sexual identity might change a lot, but attraction patterns (homo/hetero/mixed/none) across the population might stay fairly consistent. I’m not sure how anyone could prove it doesn’t, although the reverse is also true.

5. Certainly not together. That would be one interesting party.

Fun with St Ethelreda: some thoughts on the Wilton Life

Toward the end of semester, it was determined that Middle English Reading Group should make forays out of the well-trodden path of romance and into the exciting world of hagiography. Predictably, for any group with me at the head, we began with the Wilton Life of St Ethelreda.

Flagstone in Ely cathedral - here stood the shrine of St Ethelreda

What to say about the Wilton Life? Well, as our most august group member informed us all, it is not a patch on Ælfric’s version, or even Bede’s. It’s also not nearly as much fun as the Anglo-Norman Vie Seinte Audree. But, at least to me, that doesn’t make it entirely unremarkable.

I was immediately enamoured of the composer’s dialect: not terribly difficult to read, but sort of charming. The text is early 15th century, apparently composed at Wilton itself. The scribe and/or author has used he interchangably for ‘he’ and ‘she’ – I assume that’s what happens when you haven’t quite abandoned the Old English heo nor yet caught onto this nifty she term – which made it quite an adventure at times to figure out who was talking about what. I like that the editor, Mary Dockray-Miller, didn’t clean that up, although I take issue with some of her translation choices.*

As an example, consider this description of the fate of King Colwolf (Ceowulf), who by þe Danys was put ouȝt and dedde. (Deposed and killed, according to the translation.) I just like that description. Put out and dead-ed. Straight to the point, and rhyming with redde, two lines above.

Something I like about both this Life and the Anglo-Norman Vie is their interest in recounting Anglo-Saxon history, in making sure we know both from what family Ethelreda is descended, and what the political circumstances were like at the time. I confess I can’t remember if Ælfric’s Life does the same, and obviously Bede’s account is embedded in his Historia Ecclesiastica (and I now have a list of other Lives of Audrey which I have yet to read), but bear with me here.

It seems to be a thing, that lives of Ethelreda have to go with a historical and geographical description of England – and the Wilton author certainly doesn’t have the same source as the Anglo-Norman author.  Dockray-Miller tells us that the Wilton author’s geographical and historical information comes from John Treviea’s English translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, which wasn’t even written at the time that possibly-Marie-de-France composed the Anglo-Norman version; June Hall McCash and Judith Clark Barban tell us that the Anglo-Norman author abbreviated her genealogical information from ‘her source’, which I think but am not quite certain, because their introduction isn’t quite clear, is probably the Liber Eliensis or something like it.

The Anglo-Norman focuses on Audrey’s relatives, with minimal extra political detail, but gives thorough coverage of the religious careers of her female relatives. The Wilton life is fascinated with geography, describing each of the seven kingdom’s of Anglo-Saxon England, where its borders lie, something about its founding, and its political history, before zoning in on East Anglia. Both texts make a link between St Edmund and St Ethelreda, interestingly – the Wilton version privileges him in its overall history of East Anglia before telling us that it was in East Anglia that Ethelreda was born; the Anglo-Norman Vie tells of several co-operative posthumous miracles performed by the two saints.

Medieval - a woman readingBy and large the geographical descriptions in the Wilton life are straightforward, but can anyone clear this one up for me:

Þe kyndam of Northumbrelondys þe sixste kyndam was,

þe which upon þe Est syde and also upon þe west syde had þe sowthe se.

The kingdom of Northumberland was the sixth kingdom, that which had upon the East side and also upon the West side the south sea.

The south sea. On the east and the west of Northumberland. BECAUSE THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE. Anyone happen to be secretly an expert in Middle English geography and want to clear that up for me?


* One, replacing the Middle English names for all the characters with their Anglo-Saxon equivalents; two, being apparently unable to distinguish between thyncan and thencan, and thereby rendering many seeming-processes as thinking-processes. I JUST CARE A LOT ABOUT THOSE TWO VERBS, OK.


Courtesy of Lawrence: medieval timepiece found in central Queensland. Pretty nifty!

In other news, I hate it when you set out to argue one thing and send up arguing the exact opposite. For instance: I have a discrete section of my thesis which clearly states that it was supposed to be arguing that Yvain and Gauvain are not engaged in any subtextual shennanigans and I disagree with the person who says they are… and I still disagree with the person who says they are but now I think I have better reasons than him for thinking so. *facepalms*

Tumblr: full of pretty pictures!

Today, in lieu of content, I shall bring you shocking news. Contrary to popular belief, the social networking site known as Tumblr is not exclusively devoted to nudity and pictures of cats. Here are some medieval and/or otherwise pertinent things you can find on Tumblr:

  • Medieval Love – lovely medieval things.
  • Medieval – much the same, but with a greater propensity to post manuscript images.
  • Old Book Illustrations – mostly 19th/early 20th century engravings, but that category covers matters Arthurian. I dunno about you, but I have a huge soft spot for 19th-century engravings, especially the ones based on pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist art.
  • Better Book Titles – what it says on the tin. (On its own domain, but also a tumblr. How confusing.)
  • Shit my students write – “Publicising to the intertubes” is beyond my personal boundaries of Stuff To Do With Alarming Or Amusing Things In Essays, but sometimes I wonder if I could induce my students to proof-read better by showing them some of these as a warning.
  • Fuck Yeah, History Major Heraldic Beast – there’s an explanation I could give for these memes (an image photoshopped onto a bi-coloured background, meant to typify and mock a particular group of persons), but I shan’t. Point is, this is how (some) history majors vent their frustration and mock themselves. It is amusing, in a repetitive sort of way.
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Ely, mark two, or, In Which We Are Not Gothic

Today I sat a series of complicated French tests, for which I was drastically underprepared but also pretty blasé. For some reason, despite having an Actualfax Anxiety Disorder and everything, exams don’t phase me. Today’s marks are probably not a credit to my language-retention skills, but on the other hand, I think I scared the oral examiner with the force of my enthusiasm. Not my fault they gave me a prompt about the usefulness of student evaluations for assessing university teaching, is it?

After something like four hours of French testing on subjects that I mostly don’t care about, though, I am not succeeding at focusing on work this afternoon. So here, have some more photos from Ely!

View of the nave of Ely Cathedral, looking toward the main entrance/exit

Large nave is large. Not the oldest part of the building – that’s the trancepts – but still, as I understand it, part of the Norman construction project. Look at the lovely lines – tall, yes, but simple and rounded. No fan-vaulting, either. Compare to the – later, showier, French – Gothic finery of St Gatien de Tours. Who’s on Team Norman Architecture? Anyone?

I’m also pretty fond of the colouring on the ceiling – it’s from the 1839 restoration.

Aisle - Ely CathedralThis is, I think, the North aisle – although if it’s actually the South, no matter, they look the same. The roof here intrigues me – it’s like they were thinking of fan-vaulting but couldn’t quite be having with this strange new continental idea. The surfaces of the arches are rough, and aside from along the spines it’s hard to see the individual bricks. I’m not sure what’s going on there – perhaps they were plastered over at one point? Note the continued lack of Gothic fripperies on the columns, too.

Fun fact from Wikipedia: the stone to build Ely Cathedral was bought from Peterborough Abbey (which owned quarries) for a price of 8000 eels a year.  That’s what I call putting your local economy to work.

Long view of the Prior's Door: dense 12th-century scuplture on columns and lintelI love love love this style of carving/decoration. Look at it! It’s so… definitive. This is the Prior’s Door, which dates to the 12th c. Enlarge it and look closely at the columns: I’m finding a lot in those floral shapes, the solid curves, and the knotwork on the capitals, that reminds me of earlier Hiberno-Saxon art styles. On the other hand, look up to the top left of the arch. What’s with the break in the curvy leaf pattern to give us that spiky, line-drawn leaf?

Lintel and arch of Prior's DoorHere’s a close up of the lintel. At least I think it’s the lintel. Is that a lintel, folks? OK.  So. Let’s talk about the human figures here. Humanoid figures, rather. That’s God up there, or possibly Jesus, chillin’ in his oddly vulvar-shaped heaven.* He reminds me of this God here (warning, huge file) in MS Junius 11. Vulvar Oval shaped heaven? CHECK. Special Godly version of the Boy Scout salute? Check. Except our God, or possibly Jesus, is carrying a cross, whereas Junius 11’s has a book: and our chappy fills up his whole border. He’s a little bit better proportioned, but not much.  I’m thinking, and correct me, O Art Historians of the internet, if I am making this up, that some Gothic influence is showing through in the proportions of the Angels; in the sheer detail of the clothes and facial features; and in the fact that God, or possibly Jesus, is looking right out at us instead of down at something else in the picture.

Oddly, he’s breaking the bounds of his border. I’m pretty sure I remember my supervisor saying that border-breaking is one thing you’d use to tell if a picture (French) was late 13th or 14th century – as opposed to the twelfth, where people stay within the borders they’re given. Not sure what’s going on here.

Let’s call that a day! I have more pictures of Ely, though, so expect to hear more on this topic soon. 🙂


* Heaven shaped like a… ok, possibly not so odd then.