Taking in York Minster

At the very beginning of the period covered by the last post, April 2017, I had a relative visiting and so decided to do one of the obvious bits of Yorkshire touristing I had not yet done, which is to say the city of York itself and more importantly its minster.1 York, of course, has quite a lot more history piled up in it than just the minster…

The Roman Multangular Tower on York's Roman wall

The Roman Multangular Tower on York’s Roman wall, adorned by members of the local youth community. I guess if you grow up here Roman architecture is just normal and dull?

… but for an iconic location for your trip—assuming you are in a version of our world where tourism is again possible—it’s hard to beat.

York Minster, photographed from Marks and Spencers, from Wikimedia Commons

View of York Minster from the 2nd floor of Marks & Spencer building, by MatzeTrierown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Minster is famously fantastic, but also quite difficult to photograph from the ground because of how close other buildings come to it, which is why the above photographer only got it by standing high in a shop, a strategem I didn’t think of. So I have no exterior shots, meaning that things like this just kind of loom out of my photo archive without much context.

Combination of architectures at the east end of the nave of York Minster

Combination of architectures at the east end of the nave

I’m not sure exactly how much context you’d have to have to parse that architecture, really. The thing is, if your memory is UK-based and goes back as far as mine but not much further, I’m betting the first time you heard of York Minster was when it caught fire in what turns out to have been 1984, when I was quite young. I didn’t then learn much about the building or site but I do remember Blue Peter programmes about the restoration of the roof and the famous rose window, in which I learnt what a boss really was. I have to say that restoration was looking good when we went, not least, Wikipedia tells me, because it had only just been renovated again.

Renovated roof vaulting and bosses in the nave of York Minster

Renovated roof vaulting and bosses in the nave

The famous rose window in the east end of York Minster

The famous rose window in the east end

Now, as you know from this series, I like a good Romanesque or even Gothic cathedral as much as anyone, and this one has much to recommend it…

Interior of the choir in York Minster

Interior of the choir

View down the nave roof of York Minster from the central tower

View down the nave roof from the central tower

View down on its westwork from the central tower of York Minster

View down on the westwork from the top of the central tower, a good test of my vertigo control

… but as with many such a site, it is often what is below that really interests me. This is because, as we’ve seen already, York was a Roman city…

View down onto York from the Minster tower, with the restored Roman walls visible across the centre

View down onto York with the restored Roman walls visible across the centre

… which then became home to Anglian and Scandinavian cultures, was then fought over for a century or two by the Scandinavians and the West Saxons, and finally just when the West Saxons had got it safely in hand and sending bishops up north to harange people

The York Gospels, open on Matthew Chapter 9

The York Gospels, open this day on Matthew Chapter 9. This is not a manuscript of the Sermon of the Wolf, as I might have hoped, but it probably is a manuscript from which ‘the Wolf’ preached

… along came the Normans and built this cathedral on top of it all. But from a twenty-first century perspective, what this means is that the range of ‘stuff we dig up while fixing the place’ covers pretty much that whole transition.

Roman Samian Ware in the York Minster Museum

Roman Samian Ware in the Minster Museum

Anglian carved stone in York Minster Museum perhaps showing Weland the Smith

Anglian carved stone in York Minster Museum, perhaps showing Weland the Smith?

Anglian or Viking-era cross slab in York Minster Museum

Anglian or Viking-era cross slab, I think

Ulf's Horn, in York Minster Museum

Ulf’s Horn, an ivory horn carved in Salerno and given to the cathedral by its eponymous donor

This did not stop this early medievalist trying to get as far down in the structure as he could and wishing the Normans hadn’t done quite so thorough a job…

View out from inside the crypt at York Minster

The view afforded to a medievalist skulking in the crypt

… but at least reminders were present that one can go too far down if one is not just thankful for what one has!

Saxon sculpture showing the mouth of Hell

Sculpture showing the mouth of Hell, from what object I sadly didn’t record

1. I had, I should say, often been to York before, but always for academic or social reasons that didn’t leave much room for tourism. Even now I think I’ve only been to three of the city’s museums, and they have quite a lot. Further explorations may some day be possible… In the meantime, this site is quite a good survey of the history of the Minster and how it got the way it is.

7 responses to “Taking in York Minster

  1. You could spend a lifetime living in Britain and visiting fascinating historic and prehistoric sites without ever visiting London. I find that a happy thought.

    Mind you, you could say the same about Italy and Rome.

    • Indeed, up where I am you meet people who have done that, or only been once and not liked it. There are bits of London I do like, even now, but having grown up within easy reach of it, I am closer to being tired of it now than Samuel Pepys would have thought possible when he said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. I like to think posts like these prove him wrong!

  2. Incredibly beautiful architecture. I read that the Cathedral stands on the spot where King Edwin of Northumbria was baptized. Construction began in 1220 and lasted 250 years. The consecration of the temple took place in 1472. The cathedral is famous for the largest stained glass windows of medieval Europe.

  3. Ah, but Andre, it was built by slaves and should therefore be torn down and chucked in the Ouse.

    In cases like this nothing so vulgar as evidence of slave labour is required. In Domesday Book, however, 10% of the population was recorded as slaves so the use of slave labour stands to reason, dunnit?

    • Depends where those slaves were. How many of them were on the Archbishop of York’s lands? But maybe that didn’t matter, if others who did still owed him labour services. ‘Slave’ is only one end of a graded category of persons socially bound to work for their lords…

  4. slave/convict/serf labour, in reality, is no different in practice today than it was then, perhaps better conditions exist and we receive a wage to feed ourselves with rather than bread and board offered then we still have the overlords that require we work until we drop no matter how shiny the manacles.

    • We are not invested in progress narratives here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, and the basic Marxism of your diagnosis appeals to me; indeed, serfdom and wage labour are but two different forms of control of the means of production. On the other hand, I am a medieval historian, so I want to be fair to the Middle Ages, and the fact that by and large, we cannot be beaten arbitrarily without recourse, that we mostly get to choose whom we marry and not to have our children taken away from us by default (and that in either case it’s not our employer who does it if anyone does), that there are laws limiting how much we can work even if they are very weakly enforced and that we can quit our jobs and get different ones all seem like important differences between us and the condition of serfdom. Slavery would be an even harder similarity to draw except that as we are coming to realise it still goes on—but again, there is in theory at least recourse against it…

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