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Tor-ism: medievalists in Glastonbury

The last stop on the medievalists’ mini-tour following last year’s Leeds was Glastonbury. It seems weird that I’d never been to Glastonbury before—after all, the Gong Family Unconvention has often been there—and I certainly found a really excellent second-hand record shop amid the shops selling various grades of occult paraphernalia, but given the nature of this blog, I ought to stick to the medieval stuff, and there’s enough of that to cover. Glastonbury was the home of a really very wealthy abbey, which was turned around by St Dunstan after a bad patch but has longer roots, and was one of the last to be shut down in the Dissolution after a lengthy judicial process, and since that went only the slow encroachment of modernity has really made much change to the place, so there is quite a lot of medieval building just, you know, there…1

Abbot's Barn, Glastonbury

Abbot’s Barn

We were staying overnight, in the excellent and hospitable Pippin Bed and Breakfast which we thoroughly recommend, everything the website says about the breakfasts is justifiable. We had a late afternoon and a morning, and the weather didn’t favour us. It being dull as we arrived and likely to get worse, we elected to do the seriously outdoors bit first and visit the Tor in case we couldn’t the next day. This was not something we were initially certain we’d be able to do before dusk…

Route up to Glastonbury Tor viewed from bottom of steps

Still a bit of a climb there

… but before too long the tower of St Michael’s, all that now remains of what must have been quite a compact church even when it was all there, came into fuller view.

St Michael's Tower, Glastonbury, in gathering dusk

St Michael’s Tower in gathering dusk

As you can tell the light was failing even now, but it repays closer study. I was particularly interested by this decoration, largely because it looked as if the character beneath the cow is in a boat, raising questions about levitating cows, but even that more sensible answer, that this is St Brigit milking, raises questions about transmission of saints’ cults I don’t, even now, have the knowledge to answer.

Detail on St Michael's tower, Glastonbury, showing St Brigit milking

Detail on the tower

The view from the Tor is quite good, and I imagine it would be even better in full daylight without seven-plus octas of cloud, but my attempts to line up the horizon with the engraved depictions at the viewing platforms and thus get a photograph of Camelot from Glastonbury Tor were, perhaps thankfully for my limited credibility, too inconclusive to post. Instead we headed back to the town for dinner and that was enough of a problem once the light had really gone…

View of Glastonbury by night from above the town

The town lights do indeed look lovely but this road doesn’t look like leading to them…

We got there in the end, though. The next day, under skies hardly less gloomy, and with rain vaguely joining in the fun every now and then, we explored the ruins of the abbey, which are considerable…

View from south-west corner of ruins of Glastonbury Abbey

View from south-west corner, I think

… but, as you can see, really quite ruinous. One or two bits have stood up pretty well, of which maybe the most clearly once-and-still beautiful is the old Lady Chapel.

North portal of the Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey

North portal of the Lady Chapel

Even that, however, offers limited shelter these days, so we didn’t hang around more than we needed to.

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Interior of Lady Chapel looking eastwards

The part that has survived best, enough to be sensitively reconstructed, is oddly the abbot’s kitchen, which now stands out rather oddly amid all the truncated Gothic stonework.

Abbot's Kitchen, Glastonbry Abbey

Here, with shelter to take advantage of, there is a quite plausible display, along with a sign reading, “This food is as ancient as the Abbey! Please do not eat!”, which can hardly be accurate but I bet it’s effective.

Kitchen table display in Abbot's Kitchen, Glastonbury Abbey

Other parts, however, you just have to imagine…

Ruins of the refectory, Glastonbury Abbey, looking towards the Tor

Ruins of the old refectory; note St Michael’s visible in the far distance above

… and other parts are perhaps more the record of others’ imagination than anything very real, even if that imagination was entirely medieval.

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur

As a result, what this place would once have been like and the kind of colour it might once have had are questions whose answers largely lie in the soil, where in some cases they can still be seen, cleverly…

Medieval floor tiles in partially-weatherproof display housing, Glastonbury Abbey

Medieval floor tiles in partially-weatherproof display housing

… and in others have been retrieved, conserved, and safely housed in the rather good museum to which, as the rain thickened up, we retreated. Here great excitement for me personally, as only quite recently at this point there had been a small clutch of news stories and blog posts about the study and identification of various archæological finds dug up long hence by the late C. A. Ralegh Radford but never properly published, including glass-making of the late seventh century, very unusual, as well as late-running Roman pottery. There’s still something of a gap to cover between the two, but less of one than in many other places, something which will cause all the people who would like to see the ‘Glass Island‘ as a site of very ancient and enduring ‘Celtic’ religious practice very happy of course but also has to interest anyone interested in where power and status managed to hang on in the old Romano-British landscape, especially as far west as this where the issues of control were still being decided in the late sixth century, or so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would have us believe.2 Anyway, those remains, they are in the Museum, so I was very gleeful, at least for the time it took us to get outside and remember the weather.

Late Roman pottery in Glastonbury Abbey museum

Late Roman pottery…

Saxon finds from Glastonbury Abbey in the museum there

… and Saxon finds

One thing, which we saw as we came in but which in some ways wants to be left till last, partly because it is later than some of the site, but also because it raises a question, is the tiny sixteenth-century St Patrick’s Chapel (because where there is Brigit, Patrick will turn up and boss her about, it seems). From outside this is nothing special to look at, except in as much as it’s intact and in good order, but inside it has some quite striking paintings, including a slightly anachronistic depiction of the man himself…

Mural painting of St Patrick by Fleur Kelly in St Patrick's chapel, Glastonbury Abbey

Mural painting of St Patrick by Fleur Kelly in St Patrick’s chapel, Glastonbury Abbey

… but also, on the facing wall, this rather startling lady whom I initially assumed could only be that well-known Whore of the Apocalypse, Jezebel.

Mural painting of Mary Magdalene and seven deadly sins, by Fleur Kelly, in St Patrick's chapel, Glastonbury Abbey

You know? There’s just something about her and her six grotesque dragon heads that says, “I’m visiting from the Book of Revelations via an early design for Doctor Octopus”. But it seems hard to guess why a lady of such reputation would be displayed so prominently in a sixteenth-century almshouse chapel, and it turns out these are contemporary art inspired by the past, rather than historical restorations, being the work of a local artist, Fleur Kelly, and she was here depicting that other Biblical professional lady, Mary Magdalene, complete with demons representing the seven deadly sins (yes, I also only count six, but that’s what the flyer says) of which she had to be exorcised, at least in some stories (like the one that has Joseph of Arimathea bringing her to Britain along with everything else). And since I can’t think of any way to follow that, this, with the exception of one future post of less architectural and photographical import, concludes my reporting of what I did last summer!


1. The only scholarly writing on Glastonbury I know is for the early period, but there there is Lesley Abrams & James Carley (edd.), The Archaeology and history of Glastonbury Abbey: essays in honour of the ninetieth birthday of C. A. Ralegh Radford (Woodbridge 1991), and Abrams, Anglo-Saxon Glastonbury: church and endowment (Woodbridge 1996).

2. Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath only left British hands in 577, says the Chronicle, though one has to remember that that was twenty years before we have any reason to believe anyone in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms would have been recording this sort of information with an arithmetical calendar system.

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7 responses to “Tor-ism: medievalists in Glastonbury

  1. I hope one day to visit Glastonbury.

  2. This is all most interesting – thanks for posting. The particularly keen reader may wish to be advised that Susan Kelly’s edition of the Charters of Glastonbury is now available (albeit for the princely sum of £110), which includes a lengthy introduction to the abbey, its history and its endowment.

  3. Enjoyed this little blog-return to Glastonbury. I have pleasant memories of passing through in ’99 while writing a travel article about Arthurian and pseudo-Arthurian sites. I got the sense it’s a major hub of New Ageyness; Tor-top yoga, lots of talk at the B&B about “ley lines” spanning the countryside, etc.

    • Oh goodness yes, every third shop is selling cultic paraphernalia of some kind and there was a working going on outside St Michael’s when we got up there. But I’m going to be harsh and say that that is not medieval content…

  4. Did someone just say ‘wall paintings’? (*clears throat and puts on smart-ass hat*) I believe that, in order to understand that rather strange depiction of Mary Magdalene, it is important to realise that, apparently, it is based on a wall painting in the church of St. Peter’s in Raunds (Northamptonshire), dating to c. 1420. This 15th century mural has been labelled by art historians as ‘Pride purged by Death’, and in this case, the female figure is herself one of the seven deadly sins (as is also evident from the two little devils/demons standing on her shoulders), namely Pride, the one sin from which all other sins were often thought to originate. In the medieval original it makes perfect sense therefore that only six of the deadly sins emanate from her body.

    The mural at Raunds really is quite striking, and it’s not hard to understand why a contemporary artist would have wanted to use it as her model. But whether it was a good idea to use it as a model for Mary Magdalene seems, to put it nicely, debatable…

  5. Pingback: The English cream tea: a question of preservation | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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