Halls and Hovels

Colin Richmond

  • The Architecture of Medieval Britain by Colin Platt, with photographs by Anthony Kersting
    Yale, 325 pp, £29.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 300 04953 6

This is a big book: 29 x 25 centimetres, 372 photographs (between a third and a half of them coloured, a large number of them full-page), a densely written, authoritative and properly referenced text, close on 1200 informative footnotes. As one has come to expect from Yale, the volume is value for money. Despite the quality of the text, this is first and foremost a picture book. And what pictures those of Mr Kersting are. If one needs to be seduced into visiting Cleeve, or Wells, or Norbury, or St Mawes, or Astbury, or Abbey Dore, or Caerphilly, or Kells, or Caerlaverock, or Threave, these photographs make such places (among numerous others) irresistible. Mr Kersting is superb, and Mr Platt comes close to matching him. My reservations stem principally from the difficulties inherent in a book of this type: not all buildings which were interesting, or remarkable, or intriguing, or marvellous, have survived; not all surviving buildings are interesting or, for that matter, beautiful. Most castles, for instance, are ugly; almost all Norman buildings, especially Norman cathedrals, are large and little else. The aesthetics of Heritage History come into play here. Caernarvon Castle is an imperial monstrosity; the nave of Durham Cathedral is colonial brutalism pure and simple. Yet time, forgetfulness and the demands of tourism, have turned them into Art; and their history has been rendered anodyne. The pictures in books such as this one do no service to that history. Still, if these pictures do seduce, they may also impel the smitten to discover more about the object of desire. For the intellectually curious the footnotes are a more than adequate bibliography.

Mr Platt, I believe, claims far too much. ‘Life-styles,’ he says in his Preface,

are my subject, and buildings are my ‘documents’... Antiquities are the honest face of the past. There has been no deliberate dissembling in chance survivals of this kind; no subsequent ‘weeding’ of the evidence has taken place. Ruins, unlike most archives, are naked truth.

Certainly a great deal is to be learned from an examination of these random leftovers of another culture. Because folk still worship in them, Medieval cathedrals are not like Mayan temples; nor, because folk continue to care lovingly for them, are the parish churches of the Middle Ages like Greek temples; in addition, some of the smaller houses of the 14th and 15th centuries are comfortably inhabited. Nonetheless, these lesser continuities disguise the greater disjunction: Medieval Britain as near as makes no difference was not the United Kingdom. Moreover, heroically as Mr Platt seeks to uncover that other Britain for his readers, those (and they will be numerous) who merely view Mr Kersting’s photographs will come away with other ideas. Can the truth ever be naked? Least of all the ruins of another culture which are firmly embedded in the life, mind and heart of its successor. Ruins are not timeless. The naves of the lofty stone barns at Great Coxwell, Bredon and Bradford-on-Avon, like the mighty stone naves of Canterbury, Salisbury and Exeter cathedrals, have gathered to themselves meanings which are so distant from those of their original context as to make them untrustworthy historical records. A close examination of monastic remains at Fountains or Finchale, at Wilmington or Wymondham, does reveal how monks lived, how monasticism altered, why such a life lost its appeal as it gained in comfort. But can we truly appreciate from visiting Rievaulx or St Dogmael’s today just what it was that drove hermit monks to the margins of society in order to find God? Coming by car, we arrive at a laundered site in an industrialised countryside, and picnic where men strove for experiences utterly alien to those we seek. Of course, at Goodrich, or Orford, or South Wingfield, or Linlithgow, or Brougham, we may discover, guidebook (or this book) in hand, the style and manner in which their owners lived: how ease and privacy – quickly in England and Wales, more slowly in Scotland and Ireland – replaced security and communality as the prime movers in house construction. But, visiting these empty rooms, what chance have we of grasping the hurly-burly existence of the great men and women who once inhabited them? The same goes for those smaller houses where life continues: Lytes Cary, Markenfield, Old Soar Hall. The life lived in them now is nothing like that of their builders.

It may be thought I protest too much. Given the handsomeness of the book and the comprehensiveness of the text, protest may appear churlish if not downright unfair. My quarrel is with the idea of Medieval Britain which the book conveys. Too pretty by half is the idea communicated, for whatever balance the text seeks to redress the visual imagery will inevitably carry the day. Neat lawns, cut hedges, tidy gravel, unpeopled courts and rooms: only beneath the awe-inspiring gateway of Thornton Abbey does a sheepish lady in a red hat smile at the photographer. This landscape is unreal even for today. Where are the motorcars, the lawn-mowers, the ice-cream vans, the Saturday afternoon bikers, the bored children, the ignorant tourists, and our inattentive selves? Urban Britain does not feature, there are no pictures of Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, St Andrews or York. Of London there is a single photograph: the 13th-century tombs in the Temple Church. There is not a glimpse of the town houses of Medieval Britain, Lavenham and the ‘Jews House’ at Lincoln apart (with never a soul in sight); only the imposing inns of Grantham, Norton St Philip and Glastonbury are pictured. It might be argued that the great cities are too drastically altered for photographs of their Medieval fragments to be worthy of inclusion; it could also be that those fragments were not to be captured without messy humanity cluttering up the view. For one reason or another, town life is not sufficiently in evidence here; capital-city life is not in evidence at all. This omission makes Medieval Britain prettier still: a pastoral idyll which never was, a Home Counties fantasy of yesteryear.

Mr Platt’s text, therefore, has much to do if it is to put to rights the impression left on us by Mr Kersting’s images. He is handicapped at the outset by obstacles not of his making. Some, perhaps many, significant buildings no longer exist, not even as attractive ruins – the fortified house at Goltho and the chapel at Raunds-Furnells, for instance. Archaeology has unearthed these; to the earth they have been restored. There are also the handicaps which might have been avoided. An important building is discussed, the reader’s appetite is whetted: where is the picture? Eynsford Castle and Grundisburgh Hall are notable examples of words without pictures. Thus, from time to time, there is a noticeable discordance between text and image. More aggravating is the tendency for the text to become a descriptive list. This occurs most frequently in the later chapters, where there is more to catalogue. Explanation falters at such moments. It never fails to recover – that is Mr Platt’s strength. He keeps to his brief: ‘buildings are my documents. I shall show them to have been among the most sensitive and reliable of social indicators... I write about people, not things.’ And he does throughout: a peopled text accompanies people-less photographs.

He does, however, let his people off too lightly, particularly the ‘successful men’ he admits are his major concern, as it is their monuments to God and to themselves which survive for us to admire. He lets off the uncivilised Normans, with whom the book begins, least lightly. His first paragraph is a model:

No conquest is free of catastrophe. Duke William came and took what he wanted. And of course there were those who got hurt. But obvious though that is, revisionist historians today dwell less on the changes imposed by the Normans than on what they were content to leave alone. That is not the way it looks in the building record.

Those who have eyes to see may then observe for themselves (from Mr Kersting’s pictures) the truth of this statement. ‘Ugly’, though, is not a word Mr Platt employs: ‘imposing’ is the acceptable substitute for the White Tower in London, for Chepstow, Richmond and Arundel castles. As with the cathedral at Winchester, ‘everything was immoderate’ in Norman construction; it cannot do other than remind one of Nazi architecture; nothing but historical ignorance allows one to admire it. He is equally good on how derivative building in Britain is in the Romanesque and Gothic periods; as their names imply, the best of these styles is to be found elsewhere. Where Mr Platt is less than convincing is when he is himself revisionist: on the 13th century, for example, which he terms the ‘Golden Century’. ‘Too much,’ he comments, ‘has been made of peasant squalor.’ Nothing at all is made of it here. I do not believe that in the 13th century the majority of peasants were of rising status, and that consequently most peasant houses were substantial, built of granite, or ‘yard-centred’. Mr Platt does not believe it either: ‘These yard-centred longhouses were single-storeyed still. They were crowded, cheek by jowl, on neighbouring plots. Yet they were as surely on their way to full farmhouse status as their occupants were en route to yeoman farmer.’ He is speaking of Gomeldon in Wiltshire, but evidently wishes us to take Gomeldon for all England. It is ‘surely on their way to’ which gives the game away: Mr Platt is writing to convince himself. Needless to say, there are no pictures of peasant houses (of any kind) in the book.

Still, where he is not revisionist I am not convinced either. The two chapters which follow the one on the ‘Golden Century’ have death in their titles. I do not question the presence of death in post-1300 Britain; nor its more compelling presence than in pre-1300 Britain: it is the discrepancy between word and image which disconcerts. All looks pretty lively in Late Medieval Britain, including most tomb effigies pictured here; even Sir John Golafre’s grisly skeleton in its shroud has lost its power to concentrate our minds on the Great Leveller, if that is what it was intended to do – I have my doubts. I also have them concerning the opposite case. Mr Platt’s admirable discussion of the temporary ‘collapse of public order’ in early 14th-century England is complemented by pictures of fortified houses and gatehouses of that period: case demonstrated if not proven. Yet turning back the pages to view 13th-century castles of the ‘Golden Century’ leaves the impression that their builders had no greater confidence in the rule of law. In other words, buildings are less ‘sensitive and reliable’ social indicators than Mr Platt wishes them to be. They are as ambivalent and ambiguous as the written records with which he contrasts them in his Preface.

There are, nonetheless, more certainties than doubts in my mind. Mr Platt writes with verve and has an especially good ear for the vivid phrase. Here he is on the London salter Thomas Walle’s Grundisburgh Hall: ‘What Walle built himself in rural Suffolk in the 1520s was a house which looks designed for a tiny urban plot: the sort of place in which a townsman could be happy. Jettied on two levels, Walle’s house stands brave and tall in its big surrounding garden, rising naked from the ground like a spear of asparagus or the summer bloom of a single Jersey lily.’ How one longs for a picture of such a place. Mr Platt is enlightening on parish church building and rebuilding in the 15th century: wealth is not enough to explain so widespread an enthusiasm; pride and religiosity are more relevant – witness Boston Stump, ‘one of the prodigy towers of Late Medieval Europe’, he aptly remarks. He is equally good on the high-living monks of that period, their swell and private apartments, their roast-beef kitchens and their holiday homes. We can see here, almost universally, the dead-end of an ideal. The craving for comfort has routed the hunger for heaven, except perhaps at the Carthusian Mount Grace: this deserved a more informative photograph than the atypically bland one of the church which it is awarded. There is much else that Mr platt illumines. His is not a text which has been written to accompany pictures – it could stand without them.

Nevertheless, it is the pictures on which this book will be judged. They are too glamorous for my taste. They may be naturalistic, but they lack realism. Words in the end have to supply that, like those of a monk from Fécamp visiting that monastery’s dependency of Cogges in Oxfordshire in the mid-12th century:

When I arrived at Cogges I found the house empty of goods and full of filth ... I was most dispirited by the devastation of the place, the shame of dishonour, the scarcity of things and the ruin of the house ... This place is subject to as many lords as it has neighbours. For deserts, as though for the best-tilled land, we are forced to render hidage, Danegeld, castle-guard aids of sheriffs and the king’s henchmen, and the other customs of royal revenue. The tyrannies of the archbishop, archdeacons and deans, to which it is insufferable to yield and ruinous not to yield, are the climax of our wrongs.

One is tempted to say: what a picture. There could be none better of the realities of life in Medieval Britain for that multitude of small men who paid (and paid and paid) in order that successful men might build the palaces and temples which adorn the pages of this book.