17 September 2023

Our Lady of Walsingham

 As we approach the Solemn and majestic Festival of our Lady of Walsingham, which this year happily anf edifyingly falls on a Sunday (September 24), there may be readers who might like to see a brief summary of the historical status quaestionis concerning this superb devotion. Most of what I am about to write comes from Pilgrimage in East Anglia, bt Michael Schmoelz, of the University of East Anglia (2 June 2017). (I am, as so often, grateful to Professor Tighe for helping me on my way). In fact, the historical outlines were established by J C Dickinson, The Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham (Cambridge, 1956).

Of course we can continue to sing the old songs, and hear the old stories, about Richeldis and her vision. Bu, strictly historically, those accounts cannot be made to fit the known prosopography and chronology of the period. The probability is that the foundation of the Holy House is to be sought in the period 1110-1131. A context is provided by the fact that "the twelfth century is characterised by an almost unregulated passion for monasticism ... there was hardly a single lord in the twelfth century who did not have some share in the endowment of a monastery". 

But, interestingly, Walsingham is in fact much older. From the pre-historic period onwards, it was a cultic centre. Roman finds, in their thousands, confirm this ... six thousand Roman coins !!!, presumably retually deposited. There is some evidence that the Roman Temple may have been a shrine of Mercury. "The balance of probabilities ... strongly points towards a continued ritual usage from the Iron Age until the foundation of the Norman Marian Shrine." 

I am reminded here of the excavations just South of Frilford near Oxford a few years ago, where a building with the plan and orientation of a Roman Basilica was found closely associated with a pagan site packed with ritual deposits. Schmoelz mentions the finds at the Roman military complex at Newstead in the Scottish Borders.

Rich Saxon finds have been made; there seems to have been Mint at Walsingham. Perhaps there was a Saxon Minster.

Schmoelz raises an interesting theory, Perhaps the Holy Wells have priority over the Holy House. and inspired it (rather than things being the other way round). He cites an early apocryphal text which describes the Annunciation as occurring while the Mother of God was "taking a pitcher to draw water". One recalls the association of Living Water with Marian shrines; not least at Blachernae in Constantinople ... Lourdes ... and don't forget the Orthodox Chapel of the zoodochos Pege in the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham.

So it's older than you thought!


Banshee said...

A lot of times, people have visions and apparitions that are connected to an existing holy site, which then becomes more prominent. Or some people would think of it as prominent for X reason, while others would connect it with Y.

Or Walsingham could have just been a convenient place to take a break, along older routes, or was a way to approach or avoid something (like an inconvenient patch of ground). And that might lead to people needing to pray.

English geography seems to have changed a lot because of water levels, drainage, vanished forests, newer road routes that replaced old ones, etc. I don't know anything about how this might have affected Walsingham.

Banshee said...

So do you buy "Walsing" as being equivalent to Volsung? There is a water/wealth connection that would go with Mercury and Woden, if so.

Banshee said...

It does seem to be pretty common for monks to get established somewhere, a d then to start looking around at local history and legends. So they might well have heard the whole Richeldis story only after they moved in, possibly when they tried to move or destroy something that Richeldis had set up, which is now lost.

I mean, some of the little chapels set up spontaneously by people will tend to use existing land features, or basically be sheds or walled shelters, without much disturbance of the land. If Richeldis just marked a tree or a corner of a field, it would not leave much trace.

And a lot of pagan holy wells and water features did get exorcised and turned into Christian baptismal sites, and hence holy sites in a small way.

wonastow said...

"Schmoelz raises an interesting theory ........ He cites an early apocryphal text which describes the Annunciation as occurring while the Mother of God was "taking a pitcher to draw water"."

How very interesting!

In reply to your post of 15 December 2022, Father, I commented that "Robert Alter [Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley] points out in his excellent translation of the Old Testament (would that he do likewise with the New), that the village well was also a trysting place and as such a trope (cf. Jacob and Rachel) in Jewish storytelling."