Dipping into the Middle Ages

Dipping into the Middle Ages

Hidden Hands : The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers by Mary Wellesley ( RiverRun 2021)

At Sarum College we have offered an MA in Christian Spirituality for many years – it continues to attract a wide variety of people supported as they are by our brilliant teaching team. We have recently appointed Dr Michael Hahn to lead the programme.

Michaels main specialisms are medieval spirituality, the Franciscans, and the development of mystical theology. He is currently working on his forthcoming book, Bonaventure, Angela of Foligno and Late Medieval Mystical Theologies. Picking up this book has, in part, reminded me of why there is a growing interest in the Medieval Period. What Wellesley does with the skill of a scholars pen and careful eye is to open up the world of medieval manuscripts to a general reader without compromising the detail of her learning and scholarship.

Mary Wellesley takes one aspect of life – the passing on of texts and stores through manuscripts and shows her reader how much life we glimpse in the story of making beautiful ( but fragile) objects. They are the substance of our history and the body of knowledge that we pass on. Wellesley shows how culture, story, truth, history, politics and art have been transmitted down the ages.

In the Prologue the reader is taken into the production of parchment from the animal hide – a process she describes alchemy. She describes how the process takes place from a visit to William Cowley – the only remaining parchment maker in the UK. We learn about hidden manuscripts now found and often in unexpected places and priceless labours lost to theft or fire.

Subsequent chapters narrate the stories of the artisans, artists, scribes and readers, patrons and collectors who made and kept the beautiful, fragile objects that have survived the ravages of fire, water and deliberate destruction to form a picture of both English culture and the wider European culture of which it is part.

My favourite story opens up the journey of the Cuthbert Bible (pp30-39)

The Cuthbert Bible John Chapter One

The journey of this oldest surviving and earliest intact book in Europe is fascinating in itself as is it’s the survival into our own day. Marauding wars, the dissolution of the monasteries ,as part of the Protestant Reformation, see the book being passed on and on for interest and possibly safekeeping. Presently it is kept in the British Libraries Treasures gallery and periodically travels to Durham. It is so slight and its binding design so relatively simple that it is hard to believe that this manuscript was made 1300 years ago and yet continues to speak to us across the centuries. It captures a sense of England especially in the early days of Christianity in these Isles.

It reminds us that the gospel was made in a flourishing monastery – a monastery with international connections which was celebrated as a centre of learning with an important library. Here we see a very different society where religion, buildings, politics, learning, devotion are almost inseparably bound up.

One of the oldest surviving intact European Book

From the Cuthbert Bible, to works including those by the Beowulf poet, Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Sir Thomas Malory, Chaucer, the Paston Letters and Shakespeare, Wellesley describes the production and preservation of these priceless objects. She has an important and insistent emphasis on the early role of women as authors and artists. The book has a useful glossary and timeline together with detailed references and helpful indexing.

Perhaps this volume is a timely reminder of the importance of nurturing a historical perspective on our present values and worldview. We need to look at history to learn from it. We need to delve into history in order to understand the endeavours and achievements of previous generations. Perhaps history can also help illuminate our present context and human struggles? In an age of information overload and a certain superficiality of knowledge, learning to dig deep into previous generations and their gift to us might cause us to pause and consider a present in a new light?

All knowledge is partial and subject to bias. We are not made immortal by books and writing – the learning may confer truth that helps us to live well. Compilers, translators and transformers can mutilate the meaning of the author. Writing is subjective. ‘Each new form of an authors work creates a new set of meanings in different ages and cultural contexts’ (p280) writes Wellesley reminding us that the way we understand the past is susceptible to bias. However these manuscripts which are brought alive in this book reveal a range of people who we might not otherwise in counter – these pages of story, reflection, accounts – are important because they help us to access something of the lives of others from which we have much to learn.

One final ‘gift’ from the book. I was enthralled by reading the story of Julian of Norwich( p240-249) within the context of the ‘religious life’ in England and the number of anchorites called to solitary life of prayer at this time. Within this vocational calling there may be much wisdom. How do we live with the conflicted self? What needs to be named about about our human condition today? Has the pandemic taught us anything new about ourselves and how we might want to spend our time? We may be ambivalent about religion but can we feel the spiritual pulse that yearns and longs for something better from a different world and life ? Where might we find rest and hope? Can we listen to our spiritual learning and yearning in this present time? Where is truth to be found about our human condition? Who will give us ‘new shewings’ that reveal what life might be within the context of our own limitations and contradictions?

New Shewings ?

If we were to write a manuscript for our children and their children what story, what revelations might we want to share ? Wellesley opens up the lives of manuscripts and their makers and invites us to consider the possibilities of where we might look for truth.

A great start to holiday reading – so now what next !

Back to Sarum College ( https://www.sarum.ac.uk/learning/postgraduate-study-in-christian-spirituality/ ) – take a look at our learning offer and see where learning and reading might take you this year.

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