Tuesday 28 February 2017

Little Langford, Wiltshire

It's not surprising if some of the carvings we visit come with their own folklore. The iconography is often a bit bemusing to the 21st century eye, and I guess it has been for a long while. A lot of the time the "official" explanations in the church aren't terribly convincing as fact. But if you take it as folklore you don't feel obliged to believe it. I've found some tales connected with the lavish carvings at Little Langford.

"There you are," said Pertwood. "One of the treasures of the Wylye valley! There are different opinions as to what the figure of the bishop represents. One version, based on the presence of his staff with its sprouting branch, is that he is St. Aldhelm, and that it was carved when St. Osmund was Bishop of Sarum. If that is correct, the carving was done some time between the years 1078 and 1099. It was St. Osmund who moved St. Aldhelm's remains to Malmesbury. 

Another theory is that he is St. Nicholas, patron saint of the Church, with the three balls repeated in pattern as his special emblem."

"It sounds more like the House of Lombard to me," chuckled Gullible.
Pertwood ignored the interruption.

"The three birds on the tree are given as representing three boys whom St. Nicholas restored to life," he went on, "or three souls saved from sin, with the tree representing the Tree of Life.

The oddest interpretation of all, however, is reputed to come from the local rustics. There is a local legend of a girl who went nutting in Grovely Woods. Out of one of the nuts came a large maggot, which she kept and fed until it became large indeed. Then, like an ungrateful dog, the maggot turned round and bit the hand that fed it, and the poor girl died. Your three balls of Lombardy are supposed to be the nuts, the birds and the tree are Grovely Woods, and the Bishop is the Maid."

"What a dreadful tale! How is it supposed to end?"

"Why you have the ending in the wild boar hunt. With fertile imagination, the locals turned the Maggot into a Wild Beast that ate up the Maid, then the villagers came out with their dogs and killed it!"

"Let's go in and have a look at the Church," laughed Gullible, "I can't stand any more of this."

 This is from The Warminster and Westbury Journal, 18th January 1952. I had no previous idea, but the House of Lombard is an allusion to pawnbrokers and their symbol of three golden spheres.

My interpretation of the tympanum at Little Langford

In the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette from the 4th August 1864 (on the occasion of the entirely rebuilt church being reopened) I read:
"The old part of the church was built about the year 1130, the remains of that date being the old door-way and the font. Over the door-way would be seen a figure of St. Nicholas, holding a pastoral staff in his hand, and in the act of giving benediction. Beside this was a tree and three birds, representing, it was supposed, the grain of mustard seed, which was to spring up and become a tree, so that the birds would come and lodge in its branches. Underneath these figures was a boar hunt. Now, Grovely wood was once famous for boar hunting, and there was a field about a mile and a half from Langford which still retained the name as being the place where the last boar was killed in England. Behind St. Nicholas would be seen three stones, representing three urns of gold. [...]  Before going further, he might mention that the capitals of the old Norman door-way were pieces of very curious sculpture, which, he expected, referred to the promise of our Lord that the Christian should be able to tread on the adder and the serpent, and which they would find great interest in examining and trying to make out for themselves."

B and I certainly find great interest in examining and trying to make out the carvings for ourselves. But I'd take the rest with a little pinch of salt perhaps. To be honest, I almost don't want to know a definitive truth. Part of the carvings' attraction to me are their unknowableness and Numinosity.

In the name of cultural improvement I looked up this mustard seed business. It's in Matthew 13:31/32: "Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof." Well I don't like to quibble, but Jesus obviously wasn't much of a botanist, or he'd have known that a mustard seed doesn't grow into a tree. It grows into that stuff you put in egg sandwiches.