Saturday 30 May 2020

By and By - A Foundation Myth (after Byland and Jervaulx)

 by Robert Ward

Pepsi Cola

'Bogus architect. Bogus archaeologist. Bogus medium, now, is it? I don't know why in heaven we take notice of him.' The American academic swept the hair back from her face and secured it with a hairband. Yet there he was, in front of the abbey, the wizard of the west and darling of the media, staking out the territory in front of the main west door with pegs and with string, instructing the impressionable youths where to start digging, telling the T.V. crew where to point their cameras. The production team lapped it up and the youngsters set to with gusto.
'The voices are quite specific,' he was telling them. 'There is treasure to be unearthed here... and there....and somewhere over there, under the forecourt in front of the Great West Door. What kind of treasure? Well that depends, of course... we might consider worthless what to the men of the Middle Ages seemed quite beyond price. Tread carefully, they tell me, you know: we may be treading on their dreams.'

Dr. Hubermaier snorted. 'Hardly likely,' she said, out of the corner of her mouth. 'That's a twentieth-century quote, for starters. Just how all-knowing were these monks? Omniscient, like their God?'

'Here... and here,' he'd marked out a dozen paces from the west doorway, and then a dozen further on. 'And there from north to south, and there from north to south, two trenches. You can see them in the aerial photography, and at night, if you look, by the floodlights. Two water courses, this side of the roadway running past the abbey, north to south. Drainage channels saving the church and the lay brothers' quarters from this water underfoot, and more than that, concentric spiritual defences, protecting the holy from the profane, the unclean from the clean: guarding both the Holy of Holies right up there.'  He waved an arm towards the east end of the church. 'From the people down there. ' The other arm flailed to the passing road and beyond.  'And protecting the people out there. ' The flailing arm again - 'Against an over-energetic outburst of the holy from in here.'

'Where does he get it from, all this?' the doctor cried, in exasperation, and a little too loudly, as it happened. 

The Mad Professor clearly overheard, because 'Madam,' he said, drawing himself up to his full height,  'it's all to be found in the scriptures. The Book of Leviticus. The Holiness Code, if you care to look. And in 2 Chronicles, where the servant of David reaches out a hand to steady the Ark and is struck down by the power of the Holy. It's all there.' He looked quite injured, all the more so as the American woman scoffed at him and turned on her heel. 

The trouble was that on the following day, about noon, a student methodically following the lines marked out by the Professor struck metal with a trowel. Metal on metal, unmistakeably. And what they uncovered was lead. Not just a piece of broken pipe, but swathes of soft, dark lead, a few feet below the surface, where it had been stowed away four hundred and fifty, four hundred and seventy years before.

1537. Could it really be?

The noise of demolition, the tumbling rafters: the crackle and spit of the flames in the nave consuming the woodwork, the stalls, the panelling... and the lead from the roofs, reduced to molten metal, laid out, pressed and cooled.

'What's to be done?' asked the foreman of the works of spoliation. 'King's orders is to get all this to London, but the winter's coming on. Ah, I can feel it in the air. There'll be snow by midnight, likely.'

'Bury it!' barked Horner, steward of the abbey lands for twenty years. 'Out there, beyond the Galilee, in the drainage channel. Cover it over. Block the ends with stone...'

Truth was, all was done in haste. Everything had been delayed, set back, by the rising in the summer. The local populace had marched on the abbey, forcing the monks and the abbot to renege on their earlier agreement to surrender the monastery easily to the King. The locals were aggrieved at so craven a deal and insisted that the abbot head their march to the capital and that the community should retrench, dig in and bar the doors to the King's commissioners.

All in vain. All they had won was a staying of the axe, only for it to fall at the last more savagely, the abbot taken to the Tower, the leading monks treated shamefully, the rest of the community dispersed: but by then three months had passed and the time for easy travel on the roads was long gone. Hence the hurry, hence the dishevelment, hence the opportunities for the unscrupulous to seek to profit in the midst of other men's woes. The floods came up: the winter freezes came down. Before the thaws and the spring had come all had changed again. The King's men departed and in the spring they had fallen, too: suspected of profiteering, keeping back some of the proceeds of the sale. Who then was to know what had been secreted where, and by whom? And so the treasures lay, until the coming of quite another community, and the dawning of quite another spring.

After dark and under the floodlights, the site took on a different aspect. The ridges and the trenches, the outlines of the walls, stood out like the bare bones of a skeleton. Behind them the interplay of the flood lights' glare upon the stone and the inky wells of blackness in between, where the windows gaped, deceived the eye, as though lightning quivered behind or a Son et Lumiere played out, somewhere beyond. The Bogus Professor grew excited and gathered such students as would listen in front of the ruins to witness the spectacle- not the northern lights, said he, but the emanations from a far from spent source, a thousand years in the making. And it was true, as they looked up as directed. The quality of the darkness did appear to shift and to switch as they looked from window to window: behind it all, looking to the sanctuary, the sunrise and the east, some illusion of a power source, partially glimpsed, imperfectly realised, elusive, inconclusive, but alluring and compelling nonetheless. A forge; a smithy; such as the monks or their servants kept alight in many a community, and why not this one? Beating out white-hot raw material, just as on the anvils of their altars they hammered out the world that was to come: this, to quote a scholar bishop not of the medieval centuries but of the twentieth, 'the hot-spot of the new creation.'

Bogus architect. Bogus archaeologist. Bogus medium, perhaps. Yet on this perception, this experience, his new community would at length be founded, to re-enchant the world.

About the author

Robert Ward is a new writer, drawn to themes historical, archaeological, mystical and spiritual- often inspired by travels within the UK, in Europe and - occasionally - more widely. Holding a degree in history from Cambridge University and a degree in theology from Southampton, he taught for a short while in state secondary schools and has since been a Church of England minister for more than thirty years. 

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