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13.02.07, Crook, English Medieval Shrines

13.02.07, Crook, English Medieval Shrines

John Crook has gathered his considerable expertise on the topic of medieval shrines to create a thoroughly researched study of English shrines in this well written and engaging book. The shrines themselves are seen as a lens through which to view the cult of saints and how they were perceived and treated throughout medieval England. Crook's study develops from a rich literature on shrines, to which he himself has contributed greatly in the past two decades. His long experience with the topic enables him to tackle the wide range of material available and to provide an overarching view not possible with a more focused work such as the primarily economic approach taken by Ben Nilson in 1998. Crook's present study incorporates archaeology, imagery, liturgy, and archival documentation to trace the development of shrines as a whole as well as giving up to date case studies of numerous shrines, ranging from key shrines like that of Thomas Becket of Canterbury to less known local shrines like that of St. Earconwald at St. Augustine's, London.

Crook's study is chronological, and though it focuses on England, he begins with the Continent, and his remarks throughout often call upon other regions such as Normandy or Wales to demonstrate how English shrines and veneration of saints developed particular characteristics not commonly practiced elsewhere. The end of chapter summaries help reiterate these points, and do much to orient the nonspecialist scholar, though specialists in this topic will also find deft discussions of issues critical to the field. One such notable focus throughout is the focus on Latin documentary terms for shrines, tombs and their related features. Crook's analysis of the differing terms is meticulous, as in his comparison between the terms sepulchrum--an actual grave--and memoria, a monument constructed over the tomb (26). At the end of the book is an excellent glossary that clarifies these sometimes thorny terms.

Chapter one, "Relics, Shrines and Pilgrimage," acts as an introduction to the medieval cult of relics. While the author acknowledges its summary nature, this chapter provides a thoughtful reiteration of the key concepts of saints' presence through relics and the issues of translation and fragmentation. The creation of contact relics helped distribute saintly powers more widely, especially in the case of those who followed the "Roman" practice of keeping the body intact, a custom that prevailed mostly in early Christian times, though it often provided a way for a cult center to retain control over its valuable saintly relics (17).

Chapter two, "Graves, Shrines and Crypts," turns to England proper for the first time with its earliest cult, that of St. Alban. This site was visited in 429 by Bishop Germanus of Auxerre, who placed "limbs of saints" within Alban's memorial (25). From this early example Crook argues for non-Roman, Continental practices shaping England up through the seventh century. He traces these changing practices, including the qualifications for sainthood (no longer martyrs nor confessors but typically bishops with royal or noble connections) as well as the treatment of saintly bodies (the use of larger tombs, often with a superstructure over the actual coffin). The rise of the ring-crypt in Carolingian times (deriving ultimately from Roman models) also had an impact on English designs.

In chapter three, "But Lo! There Breaks a Yet More Glorious Day," the focus turns to the early Anglo-Saxon period. Much of the evidence here is literary, and unfortunately fragmentary. Nevertheless some general patterns are clear, and again Crook argues that English practice was quite different from Roman practice in this period too, for where in Rome churches were built over undisturbed graves, in England the tendency was to move the relics into churches, like Hexham and Ripon, "whose position was presumably arbitrary" (55). This chapter is rich in discussion of hagiographical topoi like the incorruptible body of St. Cuthbert and the fragrant smell of the exhumed St. Eorcengota, both common motifs taken from Continental ideas of sainthood; such literary descriptions are often all the evidence that remains of these early shrines, which were later rebuilt (and ultimately destroyed in the Reformation).

Chapter four, "The Island of the Saints," expands on the Anglo-Saxon period. The early use of ring-crypts (such as at Brixworth, Northamptonshire) is explored, as well as evidence for rich decoration of the shrine-reliquaries themselves, which by this period frequently contained disarticulated bones moved out of a grave proper. Crook draws on written texts such as chronicles to garner evidence from descriptions and anecdotes like the miraculous cure of an artisan who cut himself with a sharp tool when working on sculpting images in metal, thus giving us a glimpse of craft techniques as well as the physical appearance of these reliquary shrines (105), which have been entirely replaced by later constructions.

Chapter five, "English Saints and The 'New Englishmen'," explores the debate about Norman attitudes toward the older English saints: how opposed were the conquerers to the island's established cults? While there was certainly some distrust and even hostility, Norman clerics both promoted and appropriated local saints and their shrines, for example with the translation of St. Dunstan's body at Canterbury soon after 1067. Crook concludes that the post-Conquest era, though it began with a rather rocky period, was ultimately one of consolidation for English saints' cults (132).

Chapter six, "Into the Twelfth Century," demonstrates the new developments under the Normans. The main focus in this period was the development of shrines that were separate from the tomb proper, although tombs continued to be venerated. Indeed, a number of saints were venerated primarily at their burial site, although these were marked by increasingly elaborate superstructures. Such superstructures were usually large and boxlike and rested atop a base with openings, commonly pillars, which allowed pilgrims some physical closeness to the saint's remains. A rare surviving (though restored) example can be seen with the shrine of St. Melangell in Powys, North Wales.

Chapter seven, "Giving Light to the Whole House," follows developments in the later twelfth century. Translations accelerated and the crypt became old-fashioned. Instead, feretrum shrines (chest-like containers) located near an altar became more common. Such shrines, which contained the precious relics, were primarily placed for liturgical focus. The development of the idiosyncratically English foramina tomb superstructure, in which a stone chest was pierced with holes to allow pilgrims to place heads or hands inside to touch the top of the coffin buried beneath, both shows the persistent desire for physical contact with relics as well as increasing physical restriction (for these "port hole" type shrines, unlike the earlier pillared varieties, did not allow the pilgrim's whole body to access the entire burial slab.) Crook analyzes the confusing, sometimes conflicting visual evidence of saints' cults (such as the drawings for the history of Edward the Confessor attributed to Matthew Paris) in which artists sometimes used the port hole type as a familiar short hand depiction for a saint's tomb even when the form was anachronistic or contradicted by other evidence, forming a particularly valuable reminder of the caution with which artistic interpretation must be treated (190-191).

Chapter eight, "The Legacy of Thomas Becket," begins with both an acknowledgement and a caveat: Becket's cult provided fresh impetus for interest in local saints, but once again the surviving evidence for the shrine's initial appearance is problematic, and Crook is very cautious about details of its construction. Nevertheless, drawing on surviving fragments such as the steps and base, he does argue that Becket's shrine prompted the development in England of shrines that were increasingly architecturally prominent as well as more restrictive in the way the faithful could physically interact with them. A double focus of veneration (liturgically oriented shrine, pilgrim oriented tomb) was now common at many English sites, which were developing apart from Continental examples, where the pillared tomb type still remained common.

Chapter nine, "The Final Flowering," comprises an overview of the late thirteenth through early fourteenth centuries, and contains perhaps less depth than some of the chapters. Nevertheless there are some valuable observations of shrine trends as a whole. Most saints had multiple shrine sites: a reliquary site to hold the actual bones, possibly a separate head reliquary, and a tomb site where the body had formerly been buried. The tomb sites fit a basic model (with local variations) of a two-story monument. A solid base came first, with niche-like decorations and actual niches moved up from floor level, so that the faithful could access them while standing rather than kneeling. This was crowned by a superstructure, often arcaded and gabled above a chest-like block. Aside from the niches, such a design was extremely similar to secular tombs of the age. Indeed, the boundaries could be deliberately blurred, as in the "quasi-shrine" sites for the fourteenth-century archbishops of Canterbury (277). Crook's discussion of the fifteenth century is particularly abbreviated in this chapter. This period in shrine studies has been investigated engagingly (if not exhaustively) by Nilson as well as Eamon Duffy in his monumental work The Stripping of the Altars. [1] Crook's remarks focus on topics that expand, as well as critique, these earlier works. He reinterprets Nilson's thesis that shrine worship declined slowly after 1400 based on revenue graphs, by examining evidence beyond shrine offerings. Indeed, based on important patronage, several shrine cults received a boost in rebuilding (279). His detailed analysis of the final shrine of St. Swithun of Winchester, drawing on computer reconstructions by Christian Schalk and Christine Barz, helps provide a picture of a still rich tradition in saints' cults. [2]

Chapter ten, "The Fate of Shrines at the Reformation," reexamines Eamon Duffy's now well-known argument that images were more central than shrines or relics. Crook here argues that "this may well be true of parish churches, but perhaps not of the ancient cult centres that are the subject of this book" (289). Shrine sites were far more fragile than other aspects of late medieval veneration. Unlike images, which could be remade, relics once destroyed were gone forever. Yet some fragments survived, and Crook carefully documents these, from the preserved bodies of Saints Cuthbert and Edward the Confessor to shrines that were set up anew over now-empty reliquaries.

The short epilogue, "English shrines today," brings the topic into the present with the recent revival and reconstruction of several English shrines: beginning with the shrine of St. Alban in 1990-93, followed by St. Frideswide at Oxford, St. Thomas Cantilupe at Hereford, St. Osmund at Salisbury, and yet others planned or hoped for. The revival of English shrines, though on a small scale today, is part of a long and continuing history.

Crook's study, though concise in places and more detailed in others (such as the Anglo-Saxon period), provides a solid overview of the topic. Embedded within the thematic overviews of each chapter are focused discussions of individual saints' cults. The continuing story of St. Alban, for example, begins in chapter two and continues down through the epilogue. But the fragmentation of such narratives is in good cause, for the presentation of Crook's material is in aid of a wider, comparative study that prompts new understanding of the development of English saints and cults through their shrine sites. The clarity of the presentation and the thoroughness of the material will ensure that this book will become a standard reference for the study of saints' shrines.



1. Ben Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1998); Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c.1580, 2nd ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005).

2. Christian Schalk and Christine Barz, "Der Schrein des Hl. Swithun, Winchester Cathedral, England: Aufnahme der Bruchstücke und Rekonstruktion," unpublished thesis, Institute for Archaeology, Otto-Friedrich University, Bamberg, Germany, 2007.