Saturday, 16 November 2013

Lincoln Fundamental

We had a nice couple of days in Lincoln and Boston, Lincolnshire on Thursday and Friday. I'll blog about Boston next but this is about Lincoln, especially Lincoln Cathedral and what we can learn from it.

First a little background:

The See of Lincoln was the seat of one of the most powerful bishops in the Middle Ages and was certainly the largest, stretching at one time from the Thames to the Humber. It was thus immensely rich feeding off the produce of the surrounding agriculture, which included a large share of England's medieval wool wealth as well as the produce of the fertile reclaimed fenlands.

The Cathedral is thus suitably impressive and sits atop a steep climb from the River Watham, which was navigable up to Lincoln. It was important enough to receive a copy of the Magna Carta which is now securely displayed in Lincoln Castle. The then Bishop of Lincoln, Hugh of Wells, was a signatory.

The cathedral was badly damaged by fire in about 1141 and by an earthquake in 1185. It had originally been commissioned by William the Conqueror and was built by one of his closest associated, Bishop Remigius as a demonstration to the Anglo-Saxon peasantry that Norman power was here to stay and the Christian Church supported them.

The Cathedral is a magnificent testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the nameless stonemasons, carpenters and (later) the stained-glass artisans and deserves to be preserved as a memorial to the artistry and skill of the ordinary people who turned the grand designs of the architects into reality. The inside was once richly painted in greens, blues, reds and even gold, as can be seen from the fragments of colour still in corners and crevices where is escaped the attention of the Puritans (i.e. militant Christian fundamentalists) during and after the English Civil War. I'll have more to say about the Puritans in my next blog.

The Cathedral sports a large and rather ugly font which was carved from 'marble' imported at vast expense from Tournai then in France, now in Belgium, and embellished with mythical beasts representing good and evil. It is topped by a heavily padlocked thick wooden lid!

Apparently, thefts of the 'holy water' from the font were so common that it became a nuisance to keep replacing it. Obviously, being a devout Christian is not considered a reason not to steal and it's certainly not considered a reason to trust people not to. It was stolen by the superstitious townsfolk who naturally believed holy water would have some protective powers and beneficial effects such as the ability to cure illness having bought into the notion of a benevolent god controlling the Universe and taking care of their best interests.

The Cathedral authorities were having none of it and padlocked it away, and still do so. One wonders if they are more fearful of people discovering that holy water does nothing at all or of losing their monopoly on protective magic spells and snake-oil cures.

A couple of amusing myths are still promulgated and taught as facts to unsuspecting children and credulous adults.

The Lincoln Imp
This story surrounds a humorous little carving sitting atop a pillar. The lie told to children is that the Dean in a moment of carelessness allowed an imp to enter the cathedral where it caused problems like blowing candles out, knocking the bishop's hat off and muddling up the order of service papers. All attempts to catch the flying imp failed until the carved stone angels in the nearby gallery intervened and turned it into stone, where it sits to this day.

St Hugh With Swan,
Francisco Zurbarán, 1637-39, Museo de Cadiz
St Hugh
Bishop Hugh was bishop of Lincoln between 1186 and 1200. The legend told about him is that when he was away from his mansion a large swan took up residence on his lake and drove all the other birds away. When Bishop Hugh returned home the swan came to meet him. Thereafter, apparently magically, whenever Bishop Hugh was about to leave on another excursion visiting the sick and poor in his see, the swan would come up to the house to bid him farewell. On the day of his return it would come up to the from door and wait patiently for Bishop Hugh to arrive home. When Bishop Hugh eventually died, the swan disappeared, never to be seen again.

Not content with already being one of the richest cathedrals in England, this was apparently sufficient evidence on which to declare Bishop Hugh a saint, whereupon his body was dug up and his head placed inside a stone box, where it remains to this day as the Cathedral's 'authentic' saintly relic and which allegedly continues to work miracles, none of them substantiated of course.

Pilgrimages to this English saint swelled the coffers of Lincoln Cathedral even further.

It's perhaps too obvious to ask why the church needs to rely on these implausible lies to keep the credulous and gullible on side. The answer is probably even more obvious.

Having said that, I happily stumped up a fiver for the restoration fund because these buildings are a lasting memorial to the craftsmen and working people who created them and whom the Christian dignitaries who used them for their own glorification didn't regard as important enough even to commit their names to posterity.

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