Monday, December 14, 2009


Today's excerpt comes from Jocelin of Brakelond's Chronicles of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds.
Jocelin was a monk there and wrote a narrative of events there between 1173 and 1202.
On the night of St. Etheldreda - 22nd June 1198, he tells us that a fire broke out in the shrine itself when part of a candle set fire to a wooden dais under which there was a storage space containing wax, linen thread and sundry items - the general impression being that it had become a kind of dump-all for the wardens of the shrine. The fire spread and calamity threatened....

'....the clock struck for Matins and the vestry master, on getting up, saw the fire, and ran as fast as he could, and beat upon the board s if someone were dead, and shouted in a loud voice that the shrine was on fire. We all rushed up, and met the incredibly fierce flames that were engulfing the whole shrine and almost reaching up to the beams of the church. Our young monks ran for water, some to the rain water tank, some to the clock, and some, with great difficulty, when they had snatched up the reliquaries, put out the flames with their hoods. When cold water was thrown on the front of the shrine, the precious stones fell down and were almost pulverised. Moreover, the nails by which the sheets of silver were held to the shrine came loose from the wood underneath, which was burnt to the thickness of my finger, and without the nails the sheets were hanging one from another. Yet the golden Majesty on the front of the shrine, with some of the stones, remained stable and intact, and was more beautiful after the fire than before, because it was solid gold.'

I was very interested the first time I read this because I hadn't realised until then, that clocks were around as early as the end of the 12thC. Somehow I'd thought it was slightly later. I was also fascinated by the detail that the monks were aroused from slumber by someone beating on a board. I'd have expected them to ring a bell, but no. The details concerning the shrine itself were interesting too.
The translation is readily available in the Oxford World Classis series.
The shrine at Bury St. Edmunds was one of the most important places of Pilgrimage in the 12th and 13th century and St.Edmund was the closest thing England had to a patron saint at the time.
My hero in The Time of Singing, Hugh Bigod, carried the banner of St. Edmund into the battle of Fornham St. Genevieve in 1173 when King Henry II's supporters defeated the Young King's rebel army.


Gillian said...

The Bury St Edmunds water clock must've been large, I always think, to have enough water to help put out a fire!

The clocks you're thinking of (that were a bit later) are the ones with clockwork mechanism and kind of familiar faces. We don't actually know when they were invented, though, we only know about the earliest known evidence. That means we're certain they were round at a given date and that there's a half-history before, when we have no evidence and can't argue one way or another. From memory (and never trust my memory) that was the late 13th century, so there is a strong likelihood of them being around (and rare) at least a little before then.

Does this make up for my last comment? Or do I need to try a bit harder?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

You were never under a cloud Gillian, but that doesn't stop you if you want to try harder! :-)
There is a mechanical clock in Salisbury Cathedral that dates to 1386. I kind of knew water clocks were around before this, but I'd forgotten, and I'm not sure what one would have looked like exactly. The imitation one we had in a shopping centre in Nottingham was a huge thing that looked like an ornamental fish pond. It's odd/frustrating that you don't see many references to them though. I guess Bury St. Eds was a fabulously wealthy shrine, and stuff like this made attractive gizmos for the pilgrims.

Miss Moppet said...

What is meant by 'the golden Majesty?' I'm surprised it didn't melt as it was solid gold which is fairly soft.

Jan Jones said...

Fascinating. I think I did know that BStE had a water clock at one time, but I'd forgotten until just now.

Gillian said...

Last time I looked into it (about a decade ago) we had no clear descriptions of a water clock. The importance of the Bury St Edmunds one is that we know that they didn't just use water, but that they culd use a significan amount of water. Apart from that, well, all the reconstructions are working on limited information, unless something new has been dsicovered (which is quite possible).

I'm pretty sure we've got evidence of mechanical clocks as early as the very late 13th century. Again, don't quote me on that! We don't have reasonable numbers of survivals till the 15th century. Does that mean they were rare, earlier, non-existent, or destroyed?

Lady D. said...

What a wonderful amount of detail in that account - almost like a newspaper report!

You know, I hadn't really thought of clocks at all before this post, but my interest has now been piqued so I shall go and do some research of my own. I take it Rolex watches weren't around then though ;-)