Chronicles, cranks and the credulous

1935 reconstruction by A E Henderson of Glastonbury Abbey before the Dissolution
A E Henderson’s 1935 reconstruction of Glastonbury Abbey before the Dissolution of the Monasteries

James P Carley
The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey:
An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury’s

Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie

The Boydell Press 1985

Glastonbury has long been a Mecca for seekers after arcane knowledge, and certainly its reputation for being a world centre for occult teachings, legends and geomancy increased immeasurably after the middle of the 20th century with hippies, New Agers, latter-day druids and would-be witches making it not only a port of call but somewhere to settle. But belief in its mystic significance is not a modern phenomenon as this scholarly text — which I first reviewed in 1986 — makes crystal clear.

Professor Carley first edited the text of a 14th-century work, Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie, in 1978 for British Archaeological Reports, and that text reappears here with a very readable translation by David Townsend. Over a third of the book is taken up with introductions, notes, bibliography and index, which are not only valuable for the student but thought-provoking for the interested lay-person. I shall return to these later.

The bulk of the book is composed of the Latin text of the Cronica collated from five different manuscripts, with variant words and phrases noted and a parallel translation. What are the contents of this Cronica (‘Chronicle, or the Antiquities of Glastonbury Abbey’)? Firstly it is a catalogue of what the Abbey found most precious and proud to own — its lands, legacies and alleged antiquity, associated saints and acquired relics, the curriculum vitae of each of its most successful old boys, and its miraculous objects. Secondly, it’s a history of the Abbey from Joseph of Arimathea up to 1342, at which point the Cronica was apparently compiled.

The first part of the contents includes much subject-matter that is familiar to the general Glastonbury student, such as the Old Church (the vetusta ecclesia supposedly founded in the first century AD), the various names given to the Isle of Avalon, the concept of the Twelve Hides (a map is included of these to illustrate the territory claimed by the Abbey as its inalienable property). Of entertainment to the modern reader are the lists of relics. The medievals are much maligned for their gullibility, and one can see why when we encounter part of Moses’ rod, fragments of Jesus’ manger, part of the sponge from which He drank wine mixed with myrrh while on the Cross, part of the hole (yes, you read that correctly) where the Cross was placed, some of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s milk, the arm of St Helen with its flesh and bones… But it is only our sense of historicity which allows us to mock; to a pre-modern the individuals of the Old and New Testaments and their pious successors were as real as those we know only through the record of our media rather than in the flesh; and who is to say who is the more credulous?

The author of the Cronica, known to us as John of Glastonbury, may well have been John Seen, an historian in the Abbey who flourished between about 1290 and the 1370s and who also chronicled the Trojan War (perhaps because Britain’s legendary founder Brutus was a Trojan). If he completed the Cronica about 1342, his account may have been partly responsible for a national renaissance in Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea, for Edward III declared an intention to re-establish the Round Table in 1344, and in 1345 issued a royal writ to allow a search for the body of Joseph at Glastonbury. (Neither enterprise came to much, though a Round Table building was begun but not completed in Windsor Castle.)

But there was much else to interest John: saints Patrick, Gildas and David, grants of land to the Abbey, kings Ine, Alfred and Athelstan, more grants of land, St Dunstan, the disastrous fire of 1184, the enmity of the Bishops of Bath and Wells, yet more grants of land to the Abbey… And there are the many anecdotes: King Edmund’s near-fatal accident, St Dunstan’s encounter with the Devil and the infant Ethelred interrupting his baptism with “a discharge from his belly” (leading Dunstan to remark “By God and his Mother, this one will be a knavish sort”).

Professor Carley’s introduction and notes are essential for an evaluation of John’s achievement. They indicate John’s sources and demonstrate how he skilfully integrated and reconciled the often conflicting accounts of, especially, the Abbey’s early history. The story of Joseph of Arimathea is a case in point: the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, The Voyage of Mary, William of Malmesbury’s History and the Vulgate romance Estoire del Saint Graal were all collated to provide a coherent official narrative of the saint’s connections with Glastonbury, a history which does not appear to have existed before the middle of the 14th century but which now has the status of fact with many modern believers in the legends.

Finally, for researchers into lost knowledge (this review first appeared in a slightly different form in the Newsletter of the Research into Lost Knowledge Organisation), Professor Carley throws up a few speculations which hint at a great mystery preserved at the Abbey. John of Glastonbury mentions a legendary bard called Melkin (perhaps a distorted memory of the historical ruler Maelgwn of Gwynedd) who made an obscure prophecy concerning

the Isle of Avalon … decorated … with the soothsaying spheres of prophecy… The [Old Church’s] wickerwork is constructed … where the aforesaid thirteen spheres rest.

Dee's monas hieroglypha deconstructed
Dee’s monas hieroglypha deconstructed

Professor Carley suggests that there is a connection between parts of Melkin’s prophecy and William of Malmesbury’s description of occult floor patterns in the Old Church, with triangular and squared devices — hinting at astrological geometry — being indicated. Further, Carley quotes the use by the Elizabethan magus John Dee of a symbol, monas hieroglyphica, which is a compound of the signs of Aries, the moon, sun and the cross and capable of manipulation to solve esoteric mysteries. He thinks that Melkin’s prophetic spheres, William’s floor patterns and Dee’s monas symbol share a common occult background.

Whether we enjoy this book for its speculations, historical detective work, erudition or just as a jolly good read, we may remain grateful to the good professor for having made generally available one of the key documents necessary for an informed study of both the Abbey and the continuing fascination with Glastonbury’s legends.

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4 thoughts on “Chronicles, cranks and the credulous

    1. Not sure if you mean the town or the book! (It’d be nice to think the review was jolly good fun too!)

      I admit it’s some time since I visited Glastonbury but it’s certainly a strange place with a weird atmosphere (and I don’t mean the atmosphere that comes from down-at-heel cafes, candle shops or incense-burning occult emporiums). There’s a sense of secrets lurking there, though I’m pretty sure they’re largely generated by the mystics who’ve moved there and the visitors who arrive expecting a spooky experience.

      As for the book, it helps if you know something of the legends and the history, otherwise it could come across as a bit of stodge.

      1. TBM

        Not sure about both. From your comment though, kinda reminds me of Salem, Massachusetts since people expect to see mystical and magical things whilst visiting.

        Is this where they have a big music festival?

        1. Glastonbury music festival actually takes place a few miles from the town, on a farm near Pilton, but it’s been known as Glastonbury ever since it first started as a free festival in the early 70s (I even went to the first one in 1971).

          Your description of modern Salem matches with the Glastonbury experience — many visitors can be classed as cranks or credulous, or both, but I’m not saying which. Or witch.

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