Originally posted 5th January 2023
The season of Christmastide, running from Christmas to Epiphany, was codified by the Council of Tours in 567. Twelfth night is first recorded in England in the 900s, mentioned in a poetic account of the Christian calendar. There, it was described as the day of Christ’s baptism, coming five days after new year. However, we don’t have many records of how it was celebrated until the 1400s, when it appeared to involve feasting, sports and games, and social role reversal. The latter part of the celebration featured heavily in most medieval festivals, especially around Christmastide, but twelfth night was the culmination of the season.
Today, the term “Twelfth Night” is probably most associated with Shakespeare’s play, which, like the festival, includes cross-dressing, social role reversal, and mockery of the killjoy who wants to stop the party. The play centres on the misadventures of Viola - a young woman disguised as a young man - as she falls in love with her (male) employer and, in turn, the beautiful Countess Olivia falls in love with her. However, a subplot centres on the fun-loving Sir Toby Belch and his friends as they undermine and humiliate Olivia’s steward, Malvolio.
Malvolio enters the play to criticise Sir Toby for drunkenly singing in the middle of the night and is described as a “Puritan”. Puritans were becoming increasingly influential at the time and, like Malvolio, wanted to do away with festivals like twelfth night. Sir Toby and his companions take advantage of the fact that Malvolio wants to marry Olivia: itself a major potential subversion given their different social classes. They trick him into wearing yellow stockings with cross-garters: an inappropriate outfit for a man of his age and station, since such bright colours were usually reserved for young bachelors.
Clothes were a major social issue during the late medieval and Tudor periods; the rise of a wealthy merchant class had made issues of social status more complicated and there were laws in place to regulate the fabrics and colours people of different classes could wear. With this play about people wearing (for the time) inappropriate clothes and falling in love with inappropriate people in the eyes of his audience, Shakespeare was incorporating very real social concerns into a comedic piece of twelfth-night social role-reversal and upheaval, in the best traditions of the season.
Originally posted 12th January 2023
The parish of Doddington was the largest in Cambridgeshire for most of its history and during the middle ages was a major property of the Bishop of Ely. In fact, its size suggests that there may have originally been a Saxon monastery here, but there is no firm evidence of this. It was one of the foundational manors of the abbey of Ely, which later became the cathedral, and came with a weir that in the 900s yielded 1,000 eels per year. By the time of the Domesday Book the abbey’s property in Doddington had grown and the marshes and fisheries now produced 27,150 eels. Eels were not only used as food, but could also be used as currency; rents in Doddington were sometimes calculated in fish.
Doddington was a favourite residence of the Bishops of Ely and even as the profitability of the manor fell after the Black death the Bishop’s Palace remained in good repair and appears to have been an extensive walled complex, including a gatehouse and accommodation for knights and squires. It also had deer parks, rabbit-hunting rights, and profitable farmland. However, its use declined over the 1400s until it was leased out in 1493.
The tenants in Doddington owed various duties relevant to the fact that it was not only one of the bishop’s manors but also one he visited regularly: not only were there the usual tasks of farming the land and rents of money and farm produce but many of them had to pay towards the upkeep of Aldreth Causeway and Aldreth Bridge (now High Bridge, over the River Ouse), which the Bishop used to get from his manor house in Willingham to Haddenham and the road to Ely. Tenants also had to transport the Bishop and his belongings from Doddington to Somersham, Willingham, Ely, or Downham (now Little Downham).
Today, the village of Doddington has very few reminders of the past: the only pieces of medieval architecture that survive are the village cross and the church, both of which date from the medieval glory of the 1300s.
Originally posted 20th January 2023
The original Anglo-Saxon bishopric that included Norfolk was based in North Elmham and the bishop’s seat was still there in 1066. However, Bishop Arfast moved the see to Thetford in 1071 and it was moved again to Norwich in 1094 by Bishop Herbert de Losinga, who had bought the bishopric from King William II in 1091. This was known as simony and was forbidden by the church; legend has it that Herbert was ordered to build the cathedral by the Pope as penance. However, it was also in line with the conclusions of the Council of London in 1075, which said that bishops could not have their sees in small towns.
Unusually, Norwich Cathedral still has its Cathedra - the bishop’s throne that gives the building its name - behind the high altar. This is a custom that comes from ancient Christian basilicas and is only seen in cathedrals north of the Alps. In most modern cathedrals the Cathedra has been moved, but in Norwich it still has its original position. The stone footing of the modern wooden Cathedra is also said to be part of the original Saxon Cathedra, presumably moved from Thetford by Bishop Herbert. That’s not the only unusual surviving feature at Norwich Cathedral; despite multiple fires - some so severe they left pink staining on the stone - the cathedral has pretty much the same footprint as when it was built, including two unusual chapels at the east end which have a footprint based on two intersecting circles. The only other similar example is in Mehun-sur-Yevre in central France, suggesting that the architect either knew of the chapels in Mehun-sur-Yevre or they were both based on a common ancestor that has since been demolished.
Norwich Cathedral also has a spectacular series of roof bosses, especially in the cloisters, which survived the Reformation and Civil War, when a lot of other church sculpture was destroyed. Unusually, there are five series: one of the apocalypse, with images that appear to have been copied from a local manuscript; two that cover events around the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; one of the Coronation of the Virgin; and finally one of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Along with singular scenes and images of foliage, there are nearly 400 roof bosses in the cloisters and they are still as brightly painted today as they would have been when they were carved between the late 1200s and the early 1400s.
Originally posted 26th January 2023
Dragon Hall in Norwich is a medieval trading hall built in the early to mid 1400s by cloth merchant Robert Toppes, who adjusted the footprint of a hall house to produce a commercial complex centred on a huge timbered hall that was probably used as a showroom. Robert Toppes referred to the complex in his will as “Splytts’s” and the modern name comes from the dragon carvings that once decorated the roof space in the hall; only two survive, but it’s likely there were more. They may have been a reference to the powerful Guild of St George, which was popular with merchants in the city; Robert Toppes would go on to become Alderman of the Guild.
Wool was the main source of Norwich’s wealth, which was considerable: the city was only second to London in population and wealth during the Tudor period and was a major driver of clothing fashion in England and Europe; due to its location, the merchants of Norwich could trade directly with Europe. The importance of the wool and cloth trades still have echoes today in an unexpected way: the mascot of Norwich City Football Club is a canary. A male canary in a weaving workshop responds to the sound of the loom by singing and they were popular among Flemish weavers in Norwich; they brought them with them when they moved to England to escape persecution in Europe. The Dragon Hall site in particular appears to have been associated with cloth production for centuries; archeological digs on the site found a glass tool for smoothing linen, dating from the 1100s, and a spindle whorl from the 1300s. Part of it had also spent time as a fish processing centre before the Hall was built, making another use of the proximity of the river.
Most of the large trading complexes in Norwich were owned by groups of merchants; Dragon Hall is believed to be unique in northern Europe as a trading hall owned by a single man. When Robert Toppes died, his will confirmed that he didn’t live at the site and directed that it should be sold. It may have been divided in two before the end of the 1400s and appears to have been owned as a townhouse by other wool and cloth merchants, but it does not appear to have ever reached the same prosperity again.