12.11.13, Monckton, Coventry: Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the City and its Vicinity

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Donald Leech

The Medieval Review 12.11.13

Monckton, Linda and Richard K. Morris. Coventry: Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the City and its Vicinity. British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions. Leeds: Maney Publishing for The British Archaeological Association, 2011. Pp. xx, 362. ISBN: 978-1-906540-62-3.

Reviewed by:
Donald Leech
University of Virginia's College at Wise

This volume is the thirty-third in a long running series on art, architecture, and archeology in various localities around Britain where the British Archeological Association met (though four do concern European locations). Coventry hosted the 2007 BAA conference and this volume represents a collection of many of the conference papers. It is a very useful update on the archeology of the medieval period, which this historian especially appreciates as we tend to find access across disciplines much less frequently than we may wish. Across the volume the one element that most struck this reader was that most of the buildings and artworks under discussion were produced or greatly modified in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The surviving physical evidence serves as a reminder of what must have been impressive architectural, artistic, cultural, and economic vitality in Coventry in the Later Middle Ages. The essays in this book give us updates on recent work on the most significant buildings in this important medieval city.

The first three essays set the archeological background and provide some historical context. A useful introduction by Ian Soden sets the framework of the collection of essays within the context of a medieval timeline, as well as providing some early history of archeology within the city itself. This introduction is smoothly followed by Chris Patrick describing the more recent, and often impressive, archeological projects in the city. Finally, Richard Goddard provides the historical, primarily economic, context. From Goddard we get a sequence of the various periods of economic growth and expansion and their correlation with building and rebuilding programs. It is nice to have the documentary and archeological evidence speak to each other so directly. Goddard postulates a long growth cycle in the thirteenth century, renewal after the Black Death, then a long mid-fifteenth century slump, followed again by recovery. The last conclusion is interesting as in a 2006 publication Goddard had presented a more pessimistic case for fifteenth century decline. Now he has, though I think insufficiently, moderated that dour stance.

I have two quibbles on Goddard's use of data. First, he shows a burst of activity in issuances of certificates of debt from 1350 to 1419 then a massive drop off. What is measured here is not decline in economic activity but survival of sources. The peak in Goddard's graph illustrates the exceptional survival of a complete roll of debt certificates covering 1392 to 1416. After 1416 all that exists are a smattering of survivals in the national archives. So after 1416 there are woefully insufficient numbers of surviving certificates of debt to make any conclusions about the fifteenth-century economy. The second quibble involves the data that reveal the burst of leasing activity in the property market after the Black Death. This as much measures the large scale recycling of property in a period of high mortality as it does an economic peak.

The next group of papers get us up to date on Saint Mary's cathedral after the impressive Phoenix Initiative excavations of 1999-2003. Richard Plant and Richard Morris discuss the various phases of Romanesque and Gothic building. Between them they provide us with an increasingly full picture of the architectural history of this cathedral and its associated priory before its demolition in the 1540s. After which George Demidowicz writes a tour-de-force account of the building history of the cathedral and priory site from the dissolution, through industrialization, and de-industrialization, to the present. His excellent archeologically based micro-survey demands further work of historical context and relationships from document based historians. Such a detailed approach would benefit other defined areas of the city.

Adjacent to the old cathedral stood the great cloth church, and much later cathedral, of Saint Michael's. This great church deservedly receives its own architectural survey. While, unfortunately the third large church in the center of Coventry, Holy Trinity, does not get this treatment. Linda Moncton's survey of Saint Michael's helps bring the now bombed-out shell alive by following the different phases of building and rebuilding over time rather than simply describing the place. She also provides the stylistic relationship of Saint Michael's architecture within the region and country which helps place Coventry in a broader context.

The mercantile and artisanal aspects of the city are covered artistically and architecturally in four essays. George Demidowicz returns with a solid review of the various phases of construction and development of the merchant guildhall of Saint Mary's. John Cherry's discussion on seals and the metal working industry is necessarily brief as there is simply not much to be gleaned besides metal seals mean metal working. Richard Marks' iconoclastic essay on glass painting rejects the existence of regional styles based in places like Coventry, and instead claims regional centers of material production for what was essentially a very mobile and dynamic craft. The essay on the famous Coventry glazier John Thronton by Heather Gilderdale Scott would have been better placed immediately following that of Marks rather than later in the book. She argues convincingly that Thornton was a very mobile businessman. He, and teams of masters working and training under him, worked multiple commissions around the Midlands and North (including the great east window of York Minster). Gilderdale Scott furthers the argument of Richard Marks by moving away from a regional Coventry style and more to a Thornton style of glass work performed by Thornton and his protégées.

Glass-making allows for a transition to art in Coventry, which is covered with an essay on a Revelation mural in Holy Trinity church, and two essays on Saint Anne's Charterhouse. Miriam Gill's analysis of the newly restored fifteenth-century Doom painting in Holy Trinity reminds us of the incredible lost artistic wealth from the medieval period of which fragments like this can only provide tantalizing hints. Of the two essays on the charterhouse, Julian Luxford's sensibly combines the architectural and religious histories of the institution, while Mellie Naydenova-Slade reveals a little known but very high quality mural fragment dated to the fifteenth century.

The book is rounded-out by several other essays on specific sites in the Midlands (Combe abbey outside Coventry, Guy's Cliffe in Warwick, St. Mary Newarke in Leicester, Kenilworth Abbey barn, and Kenilworth castle). Although individually useful and informative, these essays sit uncomfortably with the book's focus on Coventry (despite the insertion of vicinity in the title). This reader would suggest instead, without taking away from the merits of those essays, that the focus remain in Coventry. The book almost entirely neglects work on vernacular architecture and archeology, so there is plenty of scope for essays on ordinary houses and shops. For example, both the excavations in Bayley Lane between 2004 and 2006, and the 2006 excavations in Far Gosford Street received tantalizing summaries by Chris Patrick in his introductory essay. I would like to read much more. Also there has been considerable dendrochronology research performed on surviving medieval houses in Coventry. A summary of that work would be very useful in this context.

In terms of apparatus, the essays are well illustrated with black and white pictures, diagrams, and maps. Twenty-four pages of quality color pictures preface the book, and are referred to repeatedly by many of the essays. Although it takes a little page turning to get back to them, it is an efficient way of using pictures referenced by multiple essays. However, the endnotes should be converted to footnotes. In a book intended for easy reading then endnotes are effective, but in a very technical book like this I really prefer the citations on the page in order to prevent near constant page flipping. Speaking of citations, it appears some mechanism is desperately needed to help archeologists to publish their results so that other scholars could have access to the data. Too many references were of unpublished reports of fellow archeologists.

This reader appreciates the opportunity provided by the book to cross disciplines and get a deeper perspective on this important, wealthy, and vital medieval city, and of its regional and national links. The essays do excellent analysis of Coventry's medieval monumental environment, but there is too little on vernacular architecture or material culture. Finally, frustratingly, maddeningly, I got a strong sense of how much has been lost since the Middle Ages, especially during the twentieth century, and continues to be neglected today.

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Donald Leech

University of Virginia's College at Wise