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Glastonbury abbey

24 November 2015

Well I never. The Glastonbury monks made it up. William Blake got it wrong.

This has been suspected for a long time but archaeologists from Reading University in Berkshire have examined a lot of evidence in a sober manner and come up with the fact there was probably a wooden Saxon church on the site and some very interesting archaeology but nothing to suggest the legends about Joseph of Arimathera have any basis in fact. Those feet probably did not tread on England's green and pleasant land (the Victorian idealistic view of the countryside). What happened, as reported by sceptics in the past, is that the Norman abbey burnt down and the monks and abbot were desperate for cash to rebuild it. Located in an isolated position, on  the wet Somerset Levels, a Saxon bolt hole from the Normans, the latter would hardly have come up with the readies without a good reason. The Normans, however, had a weak spot, and that was Arthurian Romance. The abbot and monks claimed Glastonbury Hill, surrounded by watery chaos during rainy episodes, was the Isle of Avalon (a spot of genius if you like as Avalon was most likely somewhere upstairs). They added a bit more substance to the story by saying they had miraculously found the grave of Arthur (probably a tall monk buried at some point in the past) and pilgrims flocked in, so much so that Glastonbury became a quite rich abbey and its reputation remains to this day, feted by New Age elements rather than the Church. If you want to buy some hippy incense Glastonbury is one of the places to go – but there are others of course, very often with interesting historical stories (such as Totnes in Devon, and the odd village in western Wales). In the process, collectively, they have kept the King Arthur myth ticking over – which always seems to permeate the student world (and probably most young minds at some stage). It's an interesting mythology, the Matter of Britain, and can be interpreted in a quite nice catastrophic manner. It's a wonder nobody has tried. There are two dragons for example, one white and one red – and the analogies with that go all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible.

The monks of course wrote in Latin, the language of the Church. Services were conducted in Latin and the oiks on the pews only had the coloured pictures in the windows and painted on the walls to understand what was going on. The walls were scrubbed or painted over during the Reformation but some are now being uncovered – but it is a long process. On the continent, in places like France and Portugal, painted walls in churches are still common, and provide a completely different dimension to worship. The nobs spoke French and the peasants spoke English – until the plague cut numbers and it was necessary to promote some of the lower orders to the elite. Hence, we can imagine Romance was mostly popular at the time amongst the French speaking aristocracy, which is where Geoffrey of Monmouth comes in.

It is well known that some of these stories surrounding religious institutions such as Glastonbury are fake and were designed to attract pilgrims and their donations, and the same is probably true all over Europe. This was one of the reasons people became disillusioned with the Church, the association with money and wealth whilst ordinary people were living in poverty (preserved for posterity in the Robin Hood tales). Nowadays we have political parties fulfilling the role of the religious institutions, coming out with all kinds of fairy stories in order to garner support. Having said that the monasteries did provide employment – somebody had to look after the huge herds of sheep, cut the wool and process it, and dig ditches to drain fields and dykes to drain wet marshland, or just to plough and furrow the fields and bring in the harvest. A multitude of tasks. The monks might have pottered around in their gardens, a bit like the well to do, but the actual heavy labour would have  provided locals with the ability of earning a shilling or two. Monasteries were responsible for repairing roads and bridges and they even got into building the first canals in the country.

Go to www.theguardian.com/science/2015/nov/23/glastonbury-myths-made-up-by-12t… … which emphasizes the fakery of the Church and avoids the benefits of the Church and it's big land holdings (but that is the Guardian interpretation). One thing they failed to mention is that the aristocracy gave endowments to the Church during the Medieval Period, as a sort of guarantee against going to hell when they died (not necessarily believed but deemed prudent, even by the most obnoxious of the robber barons). Naturally, they would not have handed over their best crop growing fields and tended to give to the Church the less salubrious parts of their estates, often waterlogged and marshy ground. One can see why the Guardian might not like its CAGW reading fraternity to know that the monks found themselves with large tracts of wilderness and swampy ground, flooded during wet weather every year, and were able to transform it (with the aid of local peasants) as the Norman period also coincided with the Medieval Warm Period. Land abandoned during the cool weather of the post-Roman and Saxon periods was brought back into fertiliy not just by hard work (but that was one of the reasons) but the fact the climate warmed at this time was the major number one reason for the development of places like Westminster (on a gravel island in the Thames) and St Albans (just above the flood plain)  and so on. Burnham Abbey for example was built on a flood plain notorious for the Thames running in different channels. They went on to amass land on the higher terraces above the flood plain – but that occurred later. The actual abbey was on low lying ground and when you visit the great abbeys in other parts of the country you can see the same kind of thing. In CAGW myth there was no such thing as the Medieval Warm Period so the Guardian would not have wanted to point out this aspect of the story – and the Somerset Levels were eventually drained and the abbey was divorced from its former island status etc.

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