The Medieval West: The Formation and Reception of a Cultural Community

The culture of the West Country in the Middle Ages and its role in shaping the identity of Medieval England is the focus of a new research project at the University of Bristol. The project aims to bring together researchers from across the region to initiate a re-examination of the Medieval West encompassing its legends, literature and learning, architecture, church communities, and role as a frontier between the English polity and Wales, Ireland and the wider world.

The West Country – the region extending westward from Salisbury Plain to the Severn Basin, the Wye Valley and the coastlines of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall – played a critical role in the making of medieval England. Within these landscapes were formed the legends of Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea which became the corner-stones of national identity.

The sacred places of the region – Glastonbury, Hailes, Hereford, St Michael’s Mount – were among the earliest and most enduring in English Christianity and the clerical communities connected with them were a constant source of ecclesiastical leadership and spiritual inspiration. The Benedictine, Cluniac and Cistercian monastic movements in Britain each began in the west.

The region also generated an early and energetic tradition of learning and literature. The scholars and writers of the west made important contributions to classical studies (Aldhelm), historical writing (William of Malmesbury), and pseudo-history (Geoffrey of Monmouth), science (Adelard of Bath) and translation (John Trevisa). At the end of the Middle Ages the region could lay claim to the largest purpose-built library in northern Europe (at Wells Cathedral) and one of the earliest printing presses outside London (in Tavistock).

The west was also a crucible of English material culture, with the late medieval centres of artistic patronage —Berkeley, Bristol, and the abbeys of Glastonbury, Milton and Sherborne, among others — sponsoring some of the finest achievements of this period in architecture, sculpture and painting. Some of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture in England were in the West Country, including the abbey at Keynsham (begun around 1166).

The West Country was also a frontier between the English polity and its expanding dominion in Wales and Ireland and, at least in the later Middle Ages, what might be termed the emerging Atlantic world. As such it served as a point-of-exchange, where a wide variety of cultural commodities – language, textual traditions, doctrines – were traded and transmitted.

Professor Elizabeth Archibald, one of the project leaders said: “The rich, diverse cultural traditions of the Medieval West have attracted much attention from researchers, but for the most part they have been the subject of discrete studies. The aim of this project is to engender an integrated approach, examining its themes from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and within the context of the region as a whole.

“It builds on a number of recent projects completed by members of the Centre for Medieval Studies and also seeks to extend partnerships which have been fostered over a number of years with the Library and Archives of Hereford Cathedral and Wells Cathedral.”

A sequence of research workshops – on Myth, History and Identity , Church and Cult, and Textual Communities – is taking place throughout the spring and summer, and a one-day symposium, informed by the themes and questions arising from the three workshops, will be convened in the autumn.

The project is led by Professor Elizabeth Archibald (Department of English), Dr James Clark and Dr Beth Williamson (Department of Historical Studies). For further information, visit the project website.

The next workshop, on Church and Cult, takes place on Wednesday 27 April at 2pm in the Reception Room, 1st Floor, 43 Woodland Road, University of Bristol.

The project is sponsored by the Bristol Institute for Research in the Humanities and Arts (BIRTHA).

Source: University of Bristol

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