Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year, New Way

Our 2010 Christmas card had a note about something we had each done during the year. It said

SHE painted the palm in KwaZulu Natal last spring and is now doing portraiture in her studio at home

HE has stopped (temporarily?) his MA course at the University of Buckingham and is currently idle

Possibly the main reason for stopping was that I became disenchanted with the topic of my thesis, writing which constitutes the last stage in the MA course. At the outset I had wanted to write one entitled From Clay Tablet to iTablet: the Impact of Technology on How Biography gets Written and on my website,, I had selected the ten pieces of life writing made over five millennia which would illustrate my thesis.

This topic was ultimately unacceptable to the university and I suggested instead taking one of these pieces of life writing and charting how the subject's influence had waxed and waned over the centuries. The subject was Gwenfrewi, a seventh century Welsh saint known in English as Winifred, who was beheaded by a frustrated suitor, miraculously restored to life by her sainted uncle Beuno and lived again as a chaste abbess in a remote Welsh valley. According to one of her first two biographers – writing five centuries after these dramatic events – miracles took place at Holywell (the place of her first death) and at Shrewsbury (whither her relics had recently been translated and enshrined), both places becoming famous pilgrimage destinations.

This new, and acceptable, topic I entitled The Double Life and Afterlife of a Virgin Martyr. This would have had a number of interesting sections: holy wells; Welsh Christianity and monasticism; saintly relics; hagiography; the medieval cult of virginity; and pre- and post-Reformation pilgrimages. Each of these strands could of course have been illustrated by reference to incidents in Gwenfrewi's life and afterlife, but the trouble I increasingly experienced was that I could find no satisfactory keystone with which to crown and finish my projected arch, without which it would tumble into half-a-dozen only loosely related blocks. The final straw was my finding that Gwenfrewi is not recognised by the Bollandists (Jesuit historians in Belgium who for three centuries have sought to establish the truth about saints' lives) as a Martyr, but only as a Virgin. I felt both unable and unwilling to comment upon such faith-related issues, so I stopped work on this thesis in September.

Instead I went then to a language school in a small Tuscan town where I had intended to spend a month trying to bring my Italian up to another level. Unfortunately I had recently experienced a loss of hearing, so that I had unexpected difficulty in understanding both my teacher and my fellow-students and reluctantly went home after only a fortnight. I then thought about the possibility of our going to Tuscany in the spring, SHE to paint and HE to read and talk, and looked to see what Alternative Travel were offering. At is outlined a wonderful twenty day trek along the Via Francigena (the ancient pilgrim path to Rome), but with an unacceptable price tag.

Two things gradually struck me.

  1. A prosopographical study of some of the people who trod the Via Francigena would make an interesting topic for a new thesis, with the working title of Pre-Conquest travellers from England to Rome
  2. I reckon that we could do half the time (ten days) for a quarter of the price (£1,300), doing the section Pontremoli to Lucca, totalling about 85 miles, and looking for things they might also have seen (and planting a Piltdown-type hoax stone somewhere inscribed HIC ERAT SIGERIC)

1 comment:

  1. You could walk it yourself - no guide and no big price tag? Lots of people of doing it today.

    Best biography I ever read was by the 1996 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Biography, Jack Miles, "God: A Biography".