Working for the Church
Who sweeps a room as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’action fine.
In 1947 I had had my first sight of what Ruskin described as "… out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have." My father drove us up from Hertfordshire past the airy fancifulness of Ely Cathedral’s Octagon and the solid masculinity of Peterborough Cathedral and there on the long straight Roman Road from Sleaford to Lincoln standing out on top of the Castle Hill the triple towers of Lincoln Cathedral rode the horizon like a great stone galleon just out of port. The excitement of that first sighting and the overwhelming sense of wonder at its etherial grace have never diminished, but little did I know then that, some 27 years later, the city of Lincoln would become my home and the cathedral my most loved and exciting place of work.
The Dean and Chapter’s 10,000 printed books and nearly 300 medieval manuscripts were housed largely above the north aisle of the Cloister in a lovely classical gallery designed by Christopher Wren - the young architect’s first library. The new gallery led out of the only remaining bay of the earlier half-timbered medieval library room. Two hundred and thirty years later a pleasant two storey Edwardian library annex was added to the east of the medieval library and it it was here I had my very commodious office and the more modern working books were housed. The manuscripts and printed books kept upstairs in the Wren Library were fascinating, often amazingly beautiful, frighteningly rare, and some of them literally priceless.
My masters, the Dean and Residentiary Canons, all dead now, were good men, hard working and full of fun, albeit in the case of the scholarly Sub-Dean somewhat dry and ecclesiastical. My colleagues were the virgers, Cecil the Chapter Clerk, Albert the gentle carpenter, Roger the Deputy Organist, Tony the raucous electrician, George the aged cadaverous cleaner and clock winder, and Mr Jahn my elderly sub-Librarian, he of the ill fitting false teeth and a kindness of heart above the price of rubies. All of them made me welcome and, all too often, nudged me along the path of hilarious chaos.
Visitors to the Library were made welcome, and over the years their numbers greatly increased. I had been to a conference where one of the principal speakers, the Dean of St Paul’s, had exhorted his audience of Cathedral librarians, archivists and keepers of ecclesiastical treasures to “Make your libraries and your Treasuries a part of your mission.” I never forgot this, and entertaining and educating visitors became a main stay of my work. My clients varied from groups of children often from primary schools to professional librarians, from local clubs and civic organisations, to individual scholars of national and international reputation.
When I had first arrived at the Cathedral I knew very little about old and rare printed books and manuscripts. Well to be absolutely honest, I knew almost nothing at all. But I read widely, assiduously attended courses and conferences, drew extensively on the expertise and advice always so generously offered by a variety of senior persons from the British Museum, the British Library and the other great national libraries, as well as some of the small highly specialist institutions, and eventually went back part time to university to study and formally qualify as a full time librarian and archivist. As time went on I became increasingly competent in my new trade, and my talks and lectures began to sound authoritative, even if their foundations had been laid on the sands of ignorance. I enjoyed working with any group or individual visitor who turned up by appointment at the door to the medieval library, but nothing gave me more pleasure than the visits from teachers and children, some as young as seven years old and from as far away as Oxford or London. These particular visits I felt were a very special part of my mission within the Cathedral.
The young students’ interests ranged from why are books always that shape Miss, to why are so many of them in a funny language, to who were the scribes who wrote and illustrated the wonderful manuscripts and what did they get out of it? Books are that shape, I explained, because if you skin a sheep or other animal whose skin is going to be made into the leaves of a book, once the legs, tail and head are cut away you will invariably have an approximately 3:2 rectangle of vellum which however many times you fold it will remain a rectangle. The only general exception I can think of to this rule of thumb is the quarto - the second folding - which tends to be almost a square, far from the 3:2 proportions. Until late in the seventeenth century Latin was still commonly used as the language both of the Catholic Church and amongst scholars throughout Europe, reflecting a certain universalism both in religion and learning. There were professional secular scribes and printers who worked to earn an honest penny, and monks who devoted the whole of their working lives to the greater glory and understanding of almighty God, whether by tending the sick and the poor, labouring in the fields or turning their monasteries into centres of contemplation and study rooted in their ever expanding libraries.
For me one particularly memorable visit was made by a group of Cambridge librarians who had booked in for the group's annual summer outing. They had planned a quick tour of the Cathedral, a good lunch at The Wig and Mitre, and then a fairly lengthy session with me in the Wren Library. This, their secretary wrote, “will be the High Point of our day.” I was not so sure about this High Point. A coven of Cambridge librarians could include, and usually did include almost anyone from the most humble of issue clerks working in one of the city’s small branch libraries to the Director of the great University Library.
However I laid out a good number of manuscripts and printed books, the centre piece of which was a gigantic volume - one of a series of three volumes of maps published in Amsterdam in 1647. Like most custodians of a small rare books library I had had to learn a little about a great number of things, but I had become especially interested in old maps, particularly the marvellously engraved, exquisitely hand-coloured works of the Dutch cartographers and colourists. Each map lay within a multi coloured decorated frame; small wind cherubs blew into horns made of shells; miniature boats beat across the oceans giving a wide birth to schools of whales and amazingly savage sea monsters; and a caravan of tiny camels marched eternally across North Africa. The colouring of the plates was exquisite almost beyond belief. My lecturette on the techniques of sixteenth and seventeenth century mapmaking and illustration had, I felt, become the best item in my repertoire.
The Cambridge group, well fortified against the rigours of the afternoon by the strong ale of The Wig and Mitre duly arrived and set out to enjoy its collective self. Towards the end of a long and lively session, I ushered the party to the map table where, completely intoxicated by the force and brilliance of my own rhetoric, I delivered what seemed to me a dazzling account of the lives and times of the Amsterdam cartographers, colourists and publishers. I was particularly flattered by the open-mouthed attention and admiration shewn by a very respectable navy suited middle-aged gentleman who from time to time added most helpful comments to my peroration. Eventually the various members of the party took themselves away down the Library stairs and meandered slowly out into the calm of a late summer afternoon. I stopped the only member of the group whom I actually knew, a young whiz kid from the University Library whom I had met the previous Easter at a course in the University of Leeds.
“Who,” I asked “is that nice chap who seemed so interested in the Blaeu maps?”
He smiled, a mixture of patronage and sarcasm spreading across his face.
“That nice chap” he said “is the Director of the University Map Room. You could learn a lot from him.” I certainly had.
Amongst our manuscripts was an anthology compiled in the fifteenth century by Robert Thornton landowner of the manor of East Newton, Stonegrave in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Thornton appears to have made this collection of Middle English literature - various Arthurian romances including the long alliterative poem Morte Arthure, religious and medical works - for the use and pleasure of his family as well as for himself. This manuscript miscellany was very large, came to Lincoln perhaps towards the end of the seventeenth century, was exceptionally rare with some unique items and had been very heavily used. To compound its agony, it had been very tightly rebound in the 1830’s and was in an extremely poor and now almost unusable condition. A work so prized by scholars had I believed to be properly conserved and rebound so that it could safely be used again.
With money eventually in place and the agreement of the Dean and Chapter I began to look for a really top class binder/conservator to whom the work could be entrusted. My search eventually led me to Sandy Cockerell, one of the most skillful and distinguished conservators and binders of the twentieth century who ran his world famous bindery in Grantchester not far away from Lincoln. Sandy did not really like priests, with the exception of one of his sons in law and Victor de Waal the Canon Chancellor of Lincoln, but he did love and respect the stream of extraordinary ecclesiastical manuscripts which continually flowed into his bindery seeking their own particular salvation. Thus began my wonderful friendship with Sandy and his wife Elizabeth and the most fruitful period of my professional career. The volume was to go backwards and forwards between Lincoln and Grantchester and then to travel disbound in an old but reinforced waterproof zip up shopping bag on the train with me from Lincoln to the Scolar Press at Ilkley for specialised photography ready for the publication of a great facsimile edition. I had some excellent days out and some very good lunches in its company.
For me, one of the most satisfying of my projects at Lincoln was the successful setting up of a permanent Library Exhibition in the small medieval library room, open each afternoon throughout the spring and summer months, secure, discretely housed and lit, and staffed by enthusiastic and well trained volunteers. These were local folk usually well able to help visiting rare books librarians and keepers of manuscripts as well as entertaining the casual visitor who had just wondered if it were possible to have a look round and perhaps ask a few questions about the rare and beautiful volumes on display.
The centre piece of this exhibition was to be the show casing of the Cathedral’s exemplar of Magna Carta, one of the only four known extant copies remaining from the many exemplars circulated in 1215 after King John had capitulated in the face of the lords spiritual and temporal of England. The Lincoln exemplar is, in appearance, a rather insignificant document, but it has still an enormous significance in the hearts and minds of English speaking peoples. Since its rediscovery in a chest in the nineteenth century Chapter Clerk’s office it has exercised this emotional power over thousands of visitors to the Cathedral and on the many more thousands who have had the opportunity to gaze at it on temporary display both in Australia and the USA.
Before the Charter could be displayed in the Library there were months of discussion, constant comings and goings by experts in conservation, in the protection of priceless and irreplaceable objects and in the safe transport of such objects. The Charter was to go in a few months time to the USA to tour the West coast. There was a great expenditure of money most of it provided by the Standard Chartered Bank the sponsors of the American expedition, largely at the discretion of a delightful young director, one John Major.
Eventually an absolutely monumental display case was designed, fireproof, waterproof, burglar proof and bomb proof, and with base and lid protected in every way. The resulting edifice besides being to my mind incredibly ugly was also unbelievably heavy. To raise the lid there was a fairly simple counter-weight system which after an initial tug at the handle hauled itself up or let itself down with alarming speed. So that in careless or criminal hands this device should not become some macabre ecclesiastical guillotine, the lid when open was locked in place by an enormous padlock, for which there was only one key which was always in the possession of myself or my Deputy.
The day before the Grand Opening of the Exhibition the Dean, the Canon Chancellor and I did a dry run, opening and shutting the case several times until the bell rang for Evensong and I was left alone with my baby in its wide open case. I had to put the finishing touches to the rest of the exhibition, lock the case, set all the Library alarms and go home. But I did not seem to have about my person the key to the padlock. Although the case was permanently protected by a special wired-direct-to-the-nick alarm, the security experts had decreed that while the lid was open the Library must always be attended by a member of staff who should never be more than a few feet away from the also wired-direct-to-the-nick panic button. I did not relish the prospect of sitting up all night beside the open lid and the panic button.
Having decided to share the problem and perhaps the responsibility as well, I picked up the phone and dialled.
“The Deanery”. The unmistakable dark brown voice of the Dean.
“Oliver,” I said, “some unprintable person has pinched the key to my padlock and I can’t shut the case.”
“I am that unprintable person, and your key is sitting right here on my desk. Would you care to come over and collect it, and take a glass of sherry?”
For several seasons several thousand pairs of feet had trekked up the Library stairs to view the Exhibition and Magna Carta. And had trekked down again. Great quantities of dust had been raised and had become impacted in the cracks of the old treads until the whole area looked very neglected and uninviting. George the Clockwinder who was also the cleaner seemed to be saving all his energies for his daily foray up the South West Tower to tend his beloved clock, and not a lot of cleaning was being done. There was a simple solution to the problem - do it myself. I assembled soap, cloths, brush and bucket, and made a start. It was very hard work, and the staircase was very long. Suddenly a voice boomed behind me: “Good morning ma’am.”
I was so startled that I dropped the brush into the bucket and showered myself with disgusting grimy water. I stood up, turned round and looked up into the face of a tall elegantly dressed American. He wore a pale pink shirt with very fine gold cufflinks, pale grey trousers and pale grey patent shoes.
“Yes?” I said.
“Dr Julius Finkelheim ma’am. I have an appointment with the Librarian. Can you tell me where I might locate him?”
I wiped my filthy hands on the seat of my scruffy jeans and drew myself up to my full height of five foot one.
“Dr Finkelheim” I said, “I am he … I mean she. And in case you are wondering, I am also the Chief Library Scrubber!”
Looking back now on some of these memories I am struck by the abiding underlying importance of the Cathedral and of everything that was provided and undertaken there. It was not a place where saints dwelt in gilded cages, it was a family with all the substrata of bickering and misunderstandings and old grudges experienced by any ordinary family. But the Cathedral community itself was supportive and loving to its members, righteous and rogue alike. It was supportive of individuals, alms and advice were given, confessions were heard and souls were eased of some of their burden of guilt. Strangers were comforted and the hungry fed. It was supportive of the community at large. The building was available for concerts, drama, dance - sacred or profane. Visitors of every nationality and religion and none were made welcome, it was a vital bustling place yet with space enough for quiet contemplation, for meeting with friends, for respite from the darkness and the unhappiness of a cold and uncaring world. And it was so often a place of laughter.
Most of us discovered that any work, however humble, if it were for the good of the religious community, for the building, for the wider community of city, for country and the whole world, is action made fine. This wonderful stunningly beautiful building and its traditions of service was, and is, the most amazing legacy from a far anonymous past which I believe demands that it should be faithfully cherished and maintained. To work in Lincoln Cathedral was a privilege and a joy. I can only pray that I gave some small service back both to the community and to God who had given me so much.
At the end of one of my educational sessions with a party of 11 year olds from a Catford primary school, a quiet little girl came up to me and asked:
“Like what you said about the monks, Miss - do you do all this work to the glory of God, Miss?”
I thought for a moment, and then I said:
“I do try to, but I’m not always very good at it.”
“Don’t worry, miss, God’ll forgive you.”
Amen to that.