Reflections on the Thomas Becket Study Day, 7th June 2017, Canterbury Cathedral
There could scarcely be a more appropriate setting for a study day on the theme of Thomas Becket than Canterbury Cathedral, the location of the archbishop’s martyrdom nearly 850 years ago on the 29th December 1170. In the Cathedral Library and Archives, just metres from the site of Becket’s murder in the North West Transept, experts from universities, museums and Canterbury heritage organisations gathered to discuss the saint’s life and cult.
The day began with a series of ‘quick fire’ presentations, each focusing on one theme or object related to Thomas Becket. The range of material gave an immediate sense of the scale and popularity of Becket’s cult in the Middle Ages and beyond. Some objects discussed have likely existed in the vicinity of Canterbury since they were produced, including a fragmentary sandstone ampulla mould discovered in the garden of 16 Watling Street (Dr Paul Bennett, Canterbury Archaeological Trust), a thirteenth-century cartulary made for Christ Church containing charters for the shrine of Thomas Becket (Professor Louise Wilkinson, Canterbury Christ Church University), the seal of Archbishop Simon Sudbury showing Becket’s martyrdom (Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh, University of Kent), and the spectacular miracle windows in the Trinity Chapel of the Cathedral itself (Professor Michael A. Michael, Christie’s Education).
Thomas Becket ampulla (or vessel), now in the British Museum, similar to the kind that would have been produced by the Watling Street mould discussed by Dr Paul Bennet. See more 3D models of pilgrim souvenirs here
Other delegates discussed geographically dispersed objects which originated or were believed to have originated in Canterbury. For instance, pilgrim souvenirs depicting Becket were bought by visitors to Canterbury and, it would seem, lost on the way home. These badges, with their intricate and compelling imagery, would have been worn on the bags, hats and garments of pilgrims as signs of their visit to Becket’s shrine and are now excavated from sites across Britain and Europe (Amy Jeffs and Dr Gabriel Byng, University of Cambridge and convenors of The Digital Pilgrim Project). Likewise, Dr Emily Guerry (University of Kent) discussed a series of vestments owned by Sens Cathedral that were reputedly worn by Becket and possibly used at Sens as contact relics.
A number of significant objects pertaining to Becket originated from further afield, both geographically and chronologically. Dr Tom Nickson (Courtauld Institute of Art), for example, presented on a c. 1200 altar frontal depicting Becket’s martyrdom found in the church of San Miguel in Almazán, which bears early witness to the popularity of Becket’s cult in Spain.
Becket’s later legacy was then examined. Lloyd De Beer (British Museum) assessed the sixteenth-century political and religious connotations of the saint’s martyrdom through the lens of Alberti’s The Martyr’s Picture (1581), displayed in the Venerable English College in Rome, and Naomi Speakman (British Museum) discussed Becket’s memory in post-Reformation England and his representation as an anti-martyr.
These evocative objects and themes provoked a lively concluding discussion that centred on the international nature of Becket’s cult and the extent to which the art associated with it imitated and/or innovated in order promote the saint and potency of his cult as a political tool.
This discussion was followed by an opportunity to see first-hand some of the extraordinary items associated with Becket. Cressida Williams, head of the Cathedral Archives and Library, had organised for an array of Becket-themed documents and objects from the Cathedral collections and various heritage organisations in Canterbury to be displayed together in the reading room of the Cathedral Archives. Among this impressive collection were two fragments of pink Tournai marble, discovered during excavations in the Cathedral grounds, which are thought to have come from the shrine of St Thomas himself. Also on display were a number of medieval seals from the Cathedral’s collections, including those of Archbishops Hubert Walter and Stephen Langton, which both depict Becket’s martyrdom. Dr Helen Gittos from the University of Kent discussed a particular treasure of the Cathedral Archive, the Professions of Obedience, a series of 170 documents now bound into a single volume that record the vows made by bishops during their consecration. These small vellum statements, which would have originally been sewn together in a continuous roll, contain the dates of bishops’ consecrations, and are thus immensely helpful in dating other contemporary documents based on a comparison of their palaeography. Becket’s entry is especially marked in the Professions by a statement in red noting his archiepiscopal status.
The later half of the afternoon saw the group move to the Cathedral stained glass studio, where Leonie Seliger, Head of the Stained Glass Conservation Department, led us in a discussion of the representation of Becket in the Cathedral glass. Notably, only three original thirteenth-century panels depicting Becket’s head survive, which Leonie encouraged us to find among her printed reproductions – a task that proved surprisingly difficult. We also had the opportunity to see some of medieval stained glass currently under restoration in the studio, and to hear from Leonie about the techniques that would have gone in to making these panels. A particular highlight was seeing how the colour of nine hundred year old stained glass was still bright and vivid when held up to the light.
A subsequent tour of the Cathedral offered a chance to see the miracle windows we had discussed in the glass studio in situ, along with the site of Becket’s shrine and several archiepiscopal and royal tombs. The tombs of Archbishops Sudbury and Mepham in the south aisle of the Choir afforded a particularly interactive experience; kneeling down at one of the vaulted prayer niches carved into the tombs’ exterior, penitents (or indeed academics) can experience an amplification not only of the music performed in the nearby Choir, but also their own whispered prayers and thoughts.
Professor Paul Binski (University of Cambridge) brought the study day to a close with a public lecture entitled ‘Thomas Becket and the Medieval Cult of Personality’. Drawing on many of the objects seen and discussed throughout the day, Professor Binski reflected on the idea of Becket’s ‘persona’ (as opposed to the modern notion of ‘personality’) and its importance in the formation and development of his cult. Much like a mask that can be put on or taken off, the medieval concept of an individual’s persona was related to their outer countenance, and formed by certain archetypal characteristics – both good and bad – often rooted in character types in biblical stories or saint’s lives. Becket’s persona and outer image, Professor Binski argued, was imitated in the art and architecture produced in response to his martyrdom, an aspect that was vital to the rapid dissemination and spread of the cult. Due in part to the accessibility of this image through objects made both for the elite and for the ordinary person, Becket’s persona transcended social as well as geographical boundaries, transforming his cult into a widespread, international phenomenon. Professor Binski’s concluding remarks on the appeal of the Becket’s cult in the Middle Ages had a particular resonance amidst of the full lecture theatre where the lasting legacy of Thomas Becket’s life and death was still very much felt.
PhD Candidate, University of Kent
Call for Papers:
Holy Heroes of Reform : Saints and their Roles in Medieval Reformation Movements, from Late Antiquity to the Protestant Reformation
International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 6-9 July 2015
Deadline: 15 September 2014
Whether involved in local reformations of monastic houses, larger-scale regional reformations such as the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform and the Cistercian movement, or the global Protestant Reformation, throughout the medieval period saints played a variety of roles as monastic and ecclesiastical institutions cleaned house. This session seeks papers that will explore the myriad ways in which saints – including ex- and would-be saints – might be implicated in the many reform movements of the Middle Ages. Papers from a wide array of disciplines, including art history, music history, literary studies, economic history, etc will be considered, and researchers taking an interdisciplinary or cross-cultural approach will be particularly welcome.
Papers should be 20 minutes in length, delivered in English. Proposals including abstracts of about 250 words and a CV should be sent by 15 September to Kathryn Gerry ; email is preferred: email@example.com but hard copy proposals will also be accepted : Kathryn Gerry, Assistant Professor of Art History, Memphis College of Art, Gibson Hall, 1930 Poplar Ave, Memphis TN 38104, USA. Informal enquiries are also welcome.
Call for Papers:
Renewal in the Cults of Saints, 1050-1300
International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 6-9 July 2015
Deadline: 25 August 2014
We are seeking proposals for papers on the topic of renewal, reinvention and reinterpretation in the cults of saints in the period 1050-1300. Possible topics might include, but are not limited to:
- The reinvention of saints across cultural, national, or linguistic borders
- The impact of church reform on the cults of saints
- Reinterpretation of a saint’s cult within cult practice, hagiography, liturgy and art
- How a saint’s cult might be renewed or revitalised for a new audience
Papers dealing with renewal in the cults of Anglo-Saxon or British saints in this period will be particularly welcomed.
Proposals for papers of 15-20 minutes should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com by 25 August.
As the consequence of a large European Research Council grant being awarded to Dr Bryan Ward-Perkins and colleagues for a project entitled ‘The Cult of Saints: a christendom-wide study of its origins, spread and development’, we will be employing six postdoctoral researchers in this field. We are currently advertising for two postdoctoral research associates, one with specialisation in Syriac and one in Greek. I include summary details below of the post in Syriac, which will be for four and a half years.
The deadline for applications is mid-day UK time on Monday 3 March 2014 .
Further information on both posts can be found here: http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/faculty/vacancies.html
Please do forward this to anyone who might be interested.
Research Associate, Cult of Saints project: Syriac
Salary: £29,837 – £31,664 p.a.
Fixed-term for four and a half years
Oxford vacancy reference: 111754
We are seeking to appoint a postdoctoral researcher from 1 April 2014 or as soon as possible thereafter to work on the project ‘The Cult of Saints: a christendom-wide study of its origins, spread and development’, directed by Dr Bryan Ward-Perkins and funded by a €2.3 million ERC Advanced Grant (2014-18). The project will investigate the origins and development of the cult of Christian saints, gathering all the evidence that is available on the cult, from its origins until around AD 700, across all the languages of early Christianity that have left evidence from this period (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Greek and Latin). The project will employ six postdoctoral researchers in producing a series of monographs and a freely-available searchable database of the evidence for the cult of saints, with English translations of texts and full reference to relevant scholarly work. During the project, two workshops will be held with expert scholars from across Europe, in particular to test the effectiveness of the nascent database, and a major international conference will take place.
The appointee will have responsibility for collecting and researching all the material in Syriac, and will also produce a sole-authored monograph on some major aspect of the cult of the saints among the Syriac-using churches. S/he will liaise closely with Dr David Taylor of the Oriental Studies Faculty, Oxford. The appointee will be required to represent the project and deliver papers at team workshops, external workshops, conferences, public events, and other meetings. The successful candidate will hold a doctorate in a relevant field, have excellent knowledge of Syriac and the historical context of late-antique Christianity, and an effective working knowledge of the necessary modern scholarly languages. Knowledge of relevant ancient languages beyond Syriac, experience of working with hagiographical material and experience of working with databases would be desirable.
Only applications received before mid-day UK time on Monday 3 March 2014 can be considered. Interviews are expected to be held during early March. You will be required to upload a CV and supporting statement as part of your application.