Wednesday, June 23, 2010

This Sun of York

My studies bring me to interesting places from time to time.  For the next four days, I'm in the city of York -- ostensibly to do research, but, upon examination of my enormous bed and beautiful bathtub, perhaps just to get in some proper relaxation.

Research-wise, I'm in York for two primary reasons.  The first is a fourteenth-century hermit by the name of Richard Rolle, who used to wander the countryside around these parts acting as a spiritual guide and adviser for noblewomen and for anchoresses (women who locked themselves in tiny cells to become closer to God).  He had a series of mystical religious experiences, and basically wrote a bunch of self-help books to teach his friends to do the same.  I'm tracking down some of these books to see what they look like, how they circulated, and to get a sense of the way that his texts helped to build certain kinds of religious or literary circles of readers.

The second reason I'm here is for the Pricke of Conscience stained glass windows at All Saints, North Street.  Middle English texts very seldom show up in stained glass, but here we have one about the end of the world.  The Pricke of Conscience is a very fire-and-brimstone poem about sin and damnation, designed in order to prick people's conscience, to remind them of what's really at stake.  The fact that it has been put into stained glass fascinates me because it's so rare.  Who did it? And why?  Where did they get their text from?  So that's what I'm here to figure out.

I went into the church early this morning.  I've seen a lot of churches in my time -- my mom loves English cathedrals and thinks I should visit them all for my own personal edification. This was a quiet one, next to what appeared to be a boxing club. It was out of the way, tucked off the Tanner's Street (which really would have been one of the smelliest streets in the fourteenth century since tanning involves the treatment of animal carcases with a variety of chemicals).  I got inside, though, and it felt very different from the others I've visited.  It was practically deserted.  There was one man sitting in a pew, praying.  As I wandered around, he began to weep, saying how much he missed his wife.  It was such an intensely personal moment that I had no idea how to react.  And then he left.  I was completely alone in the church.  But something about that man had shaken me up a little.  I don't think you're supposed to witness those kinds of prayers.  It gave the place a kind of power that most churches I visit get stripped of due to the influx of tourists.  He wasn't there to snap pictures or to do research.  He was there to pray.  And no matter what I might believe about God, or religion, or faith (which is somewhat nebulously determined), I admit that for those moments it felt like a sacred space and I felt like an intruder.

Sometimes, it's easy to forget that the history I study -- the ideas, the people, the places, the texts -- are still in many ways real.  It's both sobering and refreshing.