English Cathedrals by Patrick Cormack, Discover England Series, Weidenfield & Nicholson £8.50.
Blue Guide to Cathedrals and Abbeys of England and Wales by K. Spence, Ernest Berm Ltd. £7.95 paperback.
Medieval Monasticism by C. H. Lawrence, Longman £5.95.
THE writing and production of books on English church architecture seems to be unending. What is the cause of this perennial fascination? Even those of little faith or none at all visit our Christian remains if only to admire their artistic workmanship.
The basis of all these splendid buildings is of course Our Christian Heritage, the apt title of the first of this set of recent publications. This is an excellent survey of the growth of Christianity in England. Though many regard St Augustine's mission in 597 as the real arrival of Christianity here, we have archaeological evidence that Christianity was certainly known before this in England. Proof of this can be seen at Silchester, the Hinton St Mary mosaic and more recently the Water Newton silver hoard with its Chi-Ro monograms.
The story of the so-called "Dark Ages" unfolds with its splendid legacy of over two hundred Anglo-Saxon churches. Essential viewing from this period are the crypt at Repton, Earls Barton church. Greenstead log-built nave, and Bede's Jarrow and Monkwearmouth.
Space does not permit mention of the other fine examples of English Romanesque as we move on to Gothic work. This style culminated in the great "Wool Churches" of East Anglia, the Cotswolds, and Yorkshire. Mention will be made below of the splendid heritage of cathedrals.
This book also deals with the furniture of churches in painting, sculpture and woodwork. The final chapter is entitled "A Heritage for the Future?" Judging by the programmes of restoration currently completed or in hand, the reply is definitely in the affirmative.
Victorians were great people for compiling lists of their favourite cathedrals and the vogue appears to be returning. In a recent survey, Durham came top of a world list and this reviewer would certainly agree with that. In the Gothic context Lincoln towers on its hill above most other contenders. That great authority on English architecture, Alec CliftonTaylor claims that "it is, all things considered, the finest English Cathedral".
But what of the others? In Mr Cormack's book we can remind ourselves of the glass at Canterbury and York, the nave of Norwich, the• spire of Salisbury, the Chapter House at Wells, the crypts of Ripon and Worcester, Wykeham's chantry at Winchester and the cloister at Gloucester.
One extraordinary omission is any mention of Roman Catholic cathedrals. What about Liverpool Metropolitan and J. F. Bentley's masterpiece at Westminster? Perhaps another edition of this otherwise admirable book will remedy this.
The Blue Guide is the ideal vade mecum for the traveller to all these glorious buildings. The detailed ground plans and glossary are• particularly useful, as are the descriptions of the individual sites.
In Medieval Monasticism we have the ideal background study to another great series of medieval buildings viz. monasteries. Professor Lawrence in the Preface states that "History is the language of explanation." This book is the fruit of many years teaching students about medieval monasticism.
The strain of monasticism is traced from the earliest days in the desert. It is difficult to realise that the word "monk" is derived from the Greek "monos" meaning "alone", when one considers the teeming Cistercian monasteries of Rievaulx and Fountains.
It is fascinating to compare the relative stability of Benedictine life with the Celtic longing for solitary places — the wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters of the petrel and porpoise — Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast being a prime example of this. Allied to the love of solitude was the longing to journey for Christ: peregrination pro Christo. This, of course, aided the conversion of England from lona and Lindisfarote. "Bare ruined choirs" may kindle romantic notions of cowled figures hurrying down the midnight stairs while the unheeding world sleeps outside the enclosure but the reality was not quite so cosy. We gain an insight into the daily life through the custumals or treatises relating the customs of particular monasteries. These do not make for comfortable reading.
There is an interesting section on the Mendicant Orders of Friars who, of course, presented a radical threat to the monastic order. They had a more apostolic outlook, so it is not surprising that there was conflict and jealousy between the old and the new Orders. There was even friction after St Francis' death within his own Order about the true meaning of his message. The 'Primitive Observance controversy was rearing it head again. Chaucer gave us sharp pen pictures of both sides of the divide between monks and friars.
As early as the beginning of the 14th century there were signs of decay. Communities began to limit their numbers in an effort to keep up a certain standard of living within a falling income. The end was inevitable in many respects and was simply hastened by the depredations of Henry VIII and Cromwell. But the monastic order would rise phoenix — like from the ashes in a more purified form. Professor Lawrence's book will certainly be a standard work for years to come.