Friday, 23 April 2010

The Quest for Corvo

Another of my tasks this Spring Term is to give a presentation lasting twenty minutes or so on a biography-topic. I arrived late for the first group session of the term, by which time the only two topics in the short list of options not already taken were Corvo or Freud and Biography. Unhesitatingly I chose the former, leaving the last latecomer to draw the short straw. She, actually, didn't appear to be too put out: in fact, she seemed to quite relish the prospect, but then she's a talented lady.

The Quest for Corvo is the biography by A.J.A. Symons of the unusual Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo. I read it a very long time ago and remembered only that he was an utter misfit in society, someone who had been dismissed from seminary where he was studying to become a Roman Catholic priest and had then lived a penurious life as an author, picking quarrels with practically everyone with whom he came into contact. I also dimly remembered seeing a dramatised version of it, or rather that part of it which deals with the novel in which an obscure parish priest is unexpectedly elected pope as Hadrian the Seventh.

Years later my memory was jogged when I was reading a splendid science fiction novel, A Case of Conscience, in which a Jesuit biologist working on a planet in another galaxy … I won't reveal any more of the ingenious and riveting plot, suffice to say that he is led by what he finds there to fall into the Manichaean heresy (the belief that Satan, as well as God, can create) and is summoned to Rome to be interviewed and excommunicated by the pope himself, Hadrian the Eighth.

All of this was far from my mind when I went from Gwytherin to Holywell in Flintshire to visit St Winifred's Well, a site of pilgrimage for hundreds of years which boosts itself as The Lourdes of Wales. How the spring which feeds the well came into existence I will not repeat here, for the legend will be related very shortly on my new website,

After looking at the fourteenth century Perpendicular building over the spring itself and watching two pilgrims in the water on a chill spring day circling the pool outside the requisite three times and fully immersing themselves thrice, I went into the small two-roomed museum. There was nothing of significant interest in the outer room but the inner room was riveting. On each of the three walls hung a couple of banners of the kind displayed in religious processions. On the mantelpiece rested a picture frame containing four photos, two of processions in what looked like Victorian times, one of a priest and the last of three laymen in profile.

One of the banners depicted the martyrdom of St Winifred: in none of the books about her that I have inspected had I seen it reproduced. "All these", said the volunteer custodian, "were painted by Corvo, and each contains somewhere within it is the picture of a crow," adding helpfully "because crow is the translation of the Italian corvo." Pointing to the last photo she said "That's him, on the left." I beheld a man in his early middle age, smoking a curved-stem pipe and staring fixedly at something out of sight. And pointing at the priest she said "And that is Father Beauclerk, who befriended him. He arrived here virtually destitute, and the Father took him up, gave him £60 a year to live on, plus £10 for clothing, and gave him £10 for each banner. But Corvo quarrelled with him; demanded more money; wrote to the Bishop; poor Father Beauclerk was removed from the parish and posted abroad."

She read some text in the museum guide. "After he left, Corvo wrote a story about his stay in Santo Pozzo [=holy well] in the province of Selce [=flint] which he describes as 'a squalid enough village in a desolate province. All the men were sots; and all the women, lewd'." My experience of the town – as opposed to the shrine – is based solely upon my visit earlier to the Red Lion in the High Street. This was without doubt the worst pub I have been into in years: three hand pumps at the bar, but with the labels reversed because they no longer stocked real ale; nobody talking at the bar, but men sitting round on hard chairs set against the walls, morosely drinking lager; two peroxided women, displaying more flesh than is seemly for their age; scruffy linoleum, and even (I probably imagined) the long-lingering smell of cheap cigarettes.

All of this provided me with a stimulating background to my Corvo about whom I started to read when I returned to Buckingham.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The first resting place of St Winefride

The cross to the right of PH (the Lion Inn) in Gwytherin is the site of the nineteenth century church originally dedicated to St Winefride but now deconsecrated. Alison, who has recently bought the building and the land, assures me that the saint was buried in the glebe land to the south of the churchyard. She is sending me her evidence for this assertion.

It was to the monastery at Gwytherin that she came in about 640 AD after the events that had taken place at Treffynnon (in English, Holywell), some 25 miles north east and a mile inland from the Dee estuary. Of these events, more later.

Early Welsh monasteries were quite different from the later ones like Tintern or Llanthony. The very word monastery conjures up in one's mind's eye those "bare ruined choirs" of David Knowles' evocative phrase. They were more likely to have been collections of separate dwellings in each of which lived a monk or nun, much like the Desert Fathers had in Egypt and the Sinai. In this form of monasticism, the eremitical form, individuals would live as hermits but would come together on occasion, particularly for common worship.

At least one church has stood on the spot where the present one stands. No trace of an earlier church remains, but as towering evidence of this having long been a holy place three enormous yew trees loom over the existing one. These have apparently been shown to be over two thousand years old. It would seem highly likely that here was the spot to which Gwenffrewi, as she would have been known then, would have come together for worship.

As to where Gwenffrewi actually lived, the tradition in the village is that it was at the back of Brin and Rhiannon Owen's farm at Tai Pella, the spot marked by the arrow on the map, at the quiet and peaceful place where two mountain streams come together. There are no traces of any past habitation. I need to ask my archaeologist god-daughter about what things like post-holes might be looked for underground to give evidence of earlier habitation. I will show photos of it when I have found out how to transfer pictures from my Better Half's camera when she finally manages to get back from South Africa.

There is evidence in place names to support the hypothesis that Gwenffrewi's nunnery, of which she was abbess, was of the eremitical kind rather than the cenobitic, in which monks or nuns live together under some kind of formal Rule. From Peter, who has lived in the village for all his 57 years, I learnt that Tai Pella means Furthest House(s), that Llwyn Saint means Field of the Saints and that Bryn Clochydd means Hill of the Bells.

It is possible to imagine that the Abbess would live in the remotest spot and that her sisters would live in huts mostly between her and the church. When it was time for communal worship, Gwenffrewi would call at each of the nun's huts as she walked the two and a half kilometres to church, then they would all pause at Llwyn Saint before going to Bryn Clochydd to summon anybody not already called upon to come to church.

At this point you will probably look back at the map and ask the question, "But what about the two other houses which are further away than Tai Pella?" At least, that would be your question if you don't speak Welsh, If you do, you wouldn't ask it, because Ty Draw means Further House, indicating it was built later, and Tw Hunt means [hic est magna lacuna: I must contact the amiable landlord of the Lion and ask him to ask Peter what it means].

This knowledge of place names has however raised another question. Gwenffrewi's bones were translated from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury, where she was known as Winefride or Winifred, in 1138. The name of the Benedictine prior of the Abbey of St Peter in that town who organised the translation is normally given as Robert of Shrewsbury or Robertus Salopiensis. In the medieval detective stories by Ellis Peters about the sleuth Brother Cadfael, Robert is named Robert Pennant. This surname combines the two Welsh words for Head and Stream. Is it a coincidence that the area around Tai Pella is named Pennant? Or did Prior Robert get a nickname which celebrated the most significant action of his life and which gradually transmuted into a surname? If he was Welsh or even half Welsh, how did he get such a senior position within an ecclesiastical hierarchy now dominated by Normans? Perhaps my researches for my DNB Project will throw some light upon this fascinating (but not really important) question.

Watch this space!

The Quest for Gwenffrewi

One of my tasks this Spring Term is to write a paper of 6–8,000 words and I have chose to write about the seventh century Welsh saint Gwenffrewi, known in English as Winifred or Winefride. She lived the last fifteen years of her life in a monastic community in a remote part of north Wales near the village of Gwytherin near Holywell, the spot where she had miraculously caused a healing spring to gush forth. So I took the opportunity of my Better Half's absence in South Africa with Number Three daughter and grandchildren visiting Number One daughter to go to the place that she died.

When that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote, …
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

The Lion Inn at Gwytherin is right opposite the entrance to the churchyard of the now deconsecrated church dedicated to Saint Winifred. My stay there started well with looking at the folder of visitors' information in my room I read at the start a piece by the priest and poet R.S. Thomas.


Not conscious // that you have been seeking // suddenly // you come upon it.

The village in the Welsh hills // dust free // with no road out // but the one you came in by.

A bird chimes // from a green tree // the hour that is no hour // you know. The river dawdles // to hold a mirror to you // where you may see yourself // as you are, a traveller // with the moon's halo // above him, who has arrived // after long journeying where he // began, catching this // one truth by surprise // that there is everything to look forward to.

There was indeed everything to look forward to, "Seek", it is said, "and ye shall find." It was easy enough to find the place where she is locally reputed to have lived as a hermit, half a mile up a track into the hills from the farmyard of Tai Pella, at a spot where two streams come together. This is what I had come to see, but I also hoped to stumble upon other nuggets about my saint.

Stumble I did. Chatting with a fellow guest from Cardiff I learnt that a friend of hers from south west Wales had as a child been taken by her mother to the local holy well before going to see the doctor and that this was common practice. Apart from promising to e-mail me something more corroborative about this, Janice also talked to me, from her scientific background, most wisely about writing theses and introduced me to the idea of the Null Hypothesis.

Yet better was to come. I was sitting reading in the evening sunshine on a bench opposite the pub when the landlord came across to say that the new owner of the church building had just come over from Liverpool and led me to introduce me to her. Alison is a multi-faceted woman – artist, photographer, musician, teacher – who has personal reasons for wanting to keep the memory of the saint and her beneficial influence with a place of focus.

She has been studying Winifred's life for years and we had, as might well be imagined, a lively conversation. She can obviously help me with my researches and I can help her get a website about her project off the ground. It promises to be a most productive collaboration.

And so, with the sun just rising above the two-thousand-year-old yew trees in the churchyard, I am just going back to Tai Pella to the place that Rhiannon told me about yesterday evening to photograph it in the morning light and then to the Lion Inn for breakfast and on to the saint's well at Holywell.

Drafted on Sunday 18 April 2010

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

DNB Project

This is a summary of the briefing received on 13 April about the DNB part of the MA in Biography course. I ceased writing about the course at the end of our first term, for reasons I outlined in my posting on 26 February. I am resuming writing about it here because my colleague, the RFCG*, was indisposed and has asked me to record what happened. This I am happy to do, not only because she has been of immense help to me in giving me a flying start in writing about cuneiform and hieroglyphs for my website but also because it will help me in being clear about what I need to do.

In essence, we each need to write 1,000-1,500 words by 4 June related to the ODNB, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Before expanding this, here is what the Guide Michelin would call un peu d'histoire.

The DNB was begun in 1882 by Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolfe, and carried to a successful conclusion 20 years later by his lieutenant and successor, Sidney Lee, and a host of less prolific collaborators. It represented a triumph of the Victorian work ethic, the first volume appearing in January 1885 and a further 62 volumes appearing punctually every quarter until June 1900. It contained concise biographies of notable Britons from the earliest times: I found Queen Boudicca a.k.a. Boadicea (d. 60/61 AD), but couldn't find King Cole, the merry old soul. The subject of each entry had to be dead and the text had to be factual, not written in the eulogistic style of an obituary notice.

The subjects of the first edition were overwhelmingly white, male and upper middle or upper class; they were principally civil servants, politicians, clerics or empire builders. The opening paragraph was, and remains, brief and formulaic: full name, dates, claim to fame, born where and when, and details of parents (with occupation of father) and grandparents. This was followed by details of education, details of (usually successful) career, description of appearance and character and ending with a brief paragraph noting spouse(s) and issue (if any): this was the extent of the personal information.

It was updated every decade until the eighties, with new worthies being added but less worthy old ones remaining unculled. By then many of the older entries had been outdated by new research and the publication of Missing Persons by Christine Nicholls in 1993 made clear how many noteworthy people, particularly women, were not featured.

It was therefore decided to start afresh, with OUP as its publishers and Colin Matthew as its editor, under the title of The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. This was published, after Matthew's's death, in 2003 and was a success from the start, primarily because it was simultaneously published on the Web. It is now widely and freely accessible in England to members of public libraries and university students.

For the Project, we can write on three topics:

  • A person, using the standard format as described in two documents we have each been given, the Sources sheet and the Information sheet: our RFCG will need to get copies of these
  • An essay, similar to those on a list of over 250 groups listed when Themes is selected on the Search page
  • An essay, on some aspect of the history of the DNB

Our tutor admitted that the first possibility is getting increasingly difficult to do because (i) with 57,258 biographies published, it is difficult to find a new subject and (ii) with so many of the entries having recently been competently revised, it is difficult to say anything relevant or new.

The second possibility is interesting, but is made difficult by the fact that the methodology demonstrated to search the list of themes was not clearly explained and was not documented, so that, even though I was told that there was for example a group on Welsh Saints, I have not been able to replicate it to consider an essay on a sub-group of, say, Virgin Saints or Martyred Saints, into each of which group the subject of my term paper, St Gwynefri a.k.a. Winefride, would naturally fit.

I have used Search, and then People Search, to look up two groups of people, Twelfth Century Benedictine Monks and Assyriologists. The former search yielded twelve names and the latter, eleven. I have not yet read any of the 250 essays written on themes, but my provisional thinking is to do an analysis of eleventh and twelfth century Benedictines, looking at the monastic positions they held, their involvement if any with life outside the cloister and their racial origin. I hope it may give some indication of how rapidly the top jobs came to be held by Normans rather than Anglo-Saxons but even if it does not it will at least give me some context for Prior Robert Pennant, the monk responsible for the translation of the bones of St Winefride from Gwytherin in north Wales to the Abbey of St Peter in Shrewsbury.

* Resident Fertile Crescent Guru

Monday, 12 April 2010

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

I first built a website in the last millennium. The World Wide Web was still new and exciting, and I had no difficulty learning HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language) because I had spent most of the previous couple of decades coding text for typesetting financial and other complex text. The browser of choice was Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer had not yet been introduced. Netscape's version 1.3 introduced the capability of using frames, whereby you can but text and pictures from different files in separate parts of the screen. You could thus, for example, put your navigation buttons in a narrow frame on the left of the screen and this would remain visible while you scrolled down a long piece of text on the right-hand side. Within a frame you would position pieces of text with the aid of tables, which could if necessary be nested within each other to produce the desired effect.

If, pace Harold Wilson, a week in politics is a long time, a decade on the Web is an eon. Web page design and its attendant coding has changed significantly. For a start, frames and tables are now deprecated by the WWWC (World Wide Web Consortium), for valid and lengthy reasons: in brief, don't use them any more.

Coding is now returning to its roots in the SGML (Standard Generalised Mark-up Language) protocols around in the Seventies and Eighties, in that a code such as <h1> described what a chunk of text is, such as a first-level heading, rather than what it should look like, such as 24 point Bodoni Bold. These stylistic instructions can now be – and should be – contained in a separate CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) file, which gives the typographical instructions for the entire site.

Up till now I have been building all my dozen or more sites in a way that suite me. For example, I would put the codes in upper case, <H1> rather than the recommended <h1>, because that is what I was used to when coding text for CompuGraphic typesetting terminals when I was running a business. Likewise, I didn't bother with putting the CSS variables in quotes, happily keying font: Bodoni MT; rather than font: "Bodoni MT";

All this must now change, for three reasons. Firstly, I am preparing to hand over the last of the Buckingham websites that I developed after moving here from Richmond to other people, enabling me to focus on my university course. Secondly, I want to build a new site which tells the story of how technology has changed the way biography gets written, as an adjunct to my university course. It therefore seems sensible that I bite the bullet and learn to code the new way with Cascading Style Sheets. Thirdly, I've just put myself forward as a candidate for the webmastership of the National Printing Heritage Trust: I am promoting my candidacy by saying that the revised site will use the latest approved methodology and will be easily maintainable when the time comes for me to pass on the baton to younger hands.

Wish me luck, as I grapple with my O'Reilly manuals!