Desecration and Doodles

In my last post I wrote a little about the origin and genius of Caxton’s English translation of the Golden Legend, with its woodcuts by Wynkyn de Worde. The article was illustrated with woodcuts in the copy of this work in the library of the University of Wales Trinity St David in Lampeter. In this brief follow up article I want to look at some of the fascinating particularities of this particular copy of this work.

The Golden Legend is a hagiographical work, a compilation of stories and legends relating to the saints.  Within the book the saint’s biographies are laid out in the order that they occur during the course of the liturgical year.   Generally speaking each saint is given an accompanying woodcut by de Worde, though some of these are generic and are repeated many times within the book. 

As you go through the text, you find that two of the entries for individual saints have been defaced, they have been carefully, but deliberately crossed through with repeated strokes of a quill pen.  The first is the entry for St Thomas of Canterbury (St Thomas Becket), the second that of Winchester’s bishop-saint, St Swithun (above and below). 

The cults of both saints were suppressed and their shrines demolished in early 1538 and this treatment of a text relating to them, particularly to Becket, is not that uncommon.  As an aside the woodcut that Wynkyn de Worde has used to accompany Becket’s entry is not an image of Thomas Becket at all, but is an image of the Mass of St Gregory, with Pope St Gregory kneeling in front of an altar on which is appearing the body of Christ.  You can tell it’s him, because one of the clerics beside him holds a papal tiara.   

As you continue to look through the book, it is evident that only Swithun and Thomas Becket have been singled out for this treatment and that other English saints that were the focus of prominent cults in the Middle Ages have been spared.  St Erkenwald (above), the Bishop of London whose shrine was in St Paul’s Cathedral is left unscathed; as is St Edmund, the king-martyr, whose shrine at St Edmundsbury in Suffolk was a focus of royal patronage.  Even St Alban, the protomartyr of England escape.  All where prominent late medieval cults and each saints had a shrine destroyed in the late 1530s, so its baffling that they escape the stroke of the reforming quill.  Most baffling of all is the treatment of the entry that follows that of St Swithun.  It is the feast of the translation of St Thomas Becket’s bones and it has also been spared, despite Becket’s principal feast being crossed out.  What a half-hearted attempt at iconoclasm this is! 

Turning aside for a minute from this ‘iconoclasm’, as you make your way through this extraordinary book, there are various pieces of graffiti that pop out from the margins, all drawn in ink.  At the bottom of one page are a couple of profile heads both with Tudor bonnets with feathers on top, one clearly wearing a ruff.  

At the bottom of another page is the head of a man similarly dressed and smoking what appears to be a clay pipe and on the top of another page is a profile head of a woman.  They must be late sixteenth century, is it beyond the bounds of possibility that they were doodled by the hand that held the reforming pen?    

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