Friday, 16 April 2010

Noli hoc praeterire...

Are we not enriched in exultia through the efforts of our fellow antiquarian Curmudgeon? Do we not owe gratitudus infinitesima to this our brother in study? Few can know the diligence, the determination, with which over many years he has sought, located and then selflessly shared the further fragments of that remarkable diarist, Cornelius Hump Esq. (Posting April 9th)

Are we not blessed with these rare, fervent glimpses not just into eighteenth century life, but into the very minds & thoughts of antiquarians past? Gentlemen, don your wigs and stockings! It is as if we walk arm-in-arm with this most genial of hosts, through his affectionate care we see, we hear, we smell, the Norfolk of the Enlightenment, caress the pages of books alas no longer known, sup the "nog" of Norwich ale wives, ruffle the hair of a trusted flunkey.

Far, far be it from me, dear friends, to claim such depth of authority as to make comparisons, but allow me I beg to simply say "Pastons… Pastons," fellow county folk of that good gent, and leave it there.

And oh what books the intrepid Hump brings us near! Perhaps his true value lies, like Kirkpatrick before him, in the glimpses he provides into the lost sources of his more fortunate age, before the town planner and the bourgeoisie did spoil the temple of antiquity.

Foremost, surely, must be the towering figure of that most enigmatic of all Norwich sons, Pariah Greengrass. Do you know, I have often been assured, by many a member, that to sacrifice many a modern source, such as "Geo-physics", would be more than worthy in exchange for just a few moments of his company and conversation? The erudition to be gained forthwith has tempted many an acquaintance, in a passion, to remark they would even proffer up their wives & daughters to an obliging deity!

Greengrass - whose insights & suggestions, often at first glance and to the ill-informed so implausible as to seem derisory, have set many a cat amongst many a flock in this current decade...

Thus, we seize hungrily on this latest morsel: the suggestion regarding the origin of a fine, and particularly large, tower as long predating it's later ecclesiastical function. We shall come to the slightly questionable "Boudica" connection presently, but initially, is the notion not wholly continent with many another example in this country and abroad? That early clerics were consciously attempting to overlay, subsume, ingest, places of long established pagan significance into their own practice and re-structuring of their target societies, is no longer in doubt.

Celebrated examples such as Knowlton in Dorset show a mediaeval church placed squarely within an earth "henge" of Neolithic significance, as deliberately as a new shopkeeper replaces the sign board of his predecessor with his own advertisement of trade. Is not London's venerated St Paul's an acknowledged site of pagan worship, long before even it's earliest incarnation in (undoubtedly) Romanesque stone?

This worthy gent was so often ahead of our and his own time, that it is surely not beyond temptation to ponder, to ruminate thus: what was the extent of Greengrass' knowledge of those examples within his own verdant shire?

Consider the site of Burgh Castle, now clearly identified as a Roman fortress, on the south shore of the Sea of Gariolanus. These days it is now considered in scholarly milieu as the possible location of a very early Christian establishment of Dark Age East Anglia, granted as such to the Irish saint Fursey by King Sigbert in the seventh century. Did Greengrass come hereto before us?

Further west, he was assuredly familiar with the great enclosure known in his time only as Caistor St Edmund, but now firmly revealed as Venta Icenorum, only a few miles south of his native urb.

We can only speculate upon what remains were then still visible to his piercing eye. Yet I have no doubt that as he ambled upon that vast enclosure, perhaps on occasion with the good hearted Cornelius, he knew he trod the very streets and alleys of the Roman heart of Norfolk.

But wait! For this water may be deeper still...

Within the walls of the Fine City itself, of which he knew every cobble, passage & crack, lies an example which has only been recognised in speculatio by recent scholars, but was undoubtedly perceptible to a man of his rare insight.

The pleasant Norwich church of St Michael at Plea was once known as St Michael Motstow. From documents (alas now lost to us), Greengrass would have been fully aware that this is Anglo Saxon in origin: Motstow from "mot" as "moot" and "stow" as "near the market". A Saxon moot, near a market, overlooking an ancient thoroughfare which itself had been of importance since Roman times, then becoming a church?

Consider: if only in the course of that longed for fictional conversation, one could place in his palm the recently uncovered sherds of pagan burial urns from beneath the chancel, what would the great man's reaction be? A murmured nod of unsurprised recognition, I do most humbly speculate. Do we improve upon our predecessors, my friends, or perhaps only follow in their path…

Thus we may entertain with all hospitality the possibility of the ancient tower of East Lexham church being older than it's time, when Mr Hump and his somewhat frivolous companion did view it, as vouchsafed in Greengrass' precious manuscript.

A somewhat more cautious welcome, however, should be offered to the somewhat lurid suggestion then proffered as to it being a place of truly hideous executions - a most unfortunate blemish upon a hitherto fine visage, I regret. Such lurid concoctions of peasant fancy, linking places of antiquity with the most striking local legend to be found, was a constant danger of such times, and it is a sadness to see Greengrass revealed to be on occasion as fallible as his lesser fellows.

But all is not lost, in darkness may gleam a jewel, for it serves to delineate Hump in almost too exquisite pathos, as he reports upon his tenderness towards "…those poor fallen babes."

What matter no such tragic fall took place - for such all embracing humanity, reaching us across the hush of centuries, are not some cold pork & tobacco much deserved?

in tremulous anticipation of further fragments, I crave your indulgence;


[NB: The ancient monument of Knowlton, Dorset is in the care of English Heritage:

To sample the delights of the excellent bookshop & cafe in St Michael At Plea Church, Norwich, search

Contrib. Sec. RSAR]

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