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Filey Pattern IX: Week 4 – 18 January

A long time ago—1981—in a galaxy far, far away—Manchester—I was a student at the university. I took my degree in medieval studies, with hilarious consequences for my career prospects: I was unemployed for over a year afterwards. In those days, to qualify for the dole one had to present oneself for a certain number of job interviews every month. I still remember, usually around four in the morning, an excruciating interview with Eagle Star Insurance in Northampton, that began, “So, Mr Reid, perhaps you could begin by explaining how a degree in, what was it, let me see, ah yes, medieval history, qualifies you for a career in the field of modern, ahaha, insurance?”.

But a career isn’t everything, and some experiences are beyond price. One late winter afternoon we medieval studiesists were taken down to the basement of the John Rylands Library, where they housed the rare books collection. It was a horrible, bleak midwinter day, rain and sleet and blustery wind. We entered the reading room—it was closed to readers just then—a cavernous, echoing space in semi-darkness. The overhead lights were turned off, but the curators had lit—I want to say candles, but it must have been spot lights—to shine on the central tables, which gleamed like the treasure in Aladdin’s cave. When we got closer, we saw that arranged on the tables, and weighted to lie open, was a collection of books of medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Sign of Spring: Burgeoning snowdrops

To qualify as “illuminated”, the decoration must be real gold or silver. The lights reflected off the gold leaf, filling the room with a shimmering golden glow. I’d only ever seen reproductions before, I had no idea they were contoured like that (the gold leaf sits on a slightly raised foundation of plaster, called gesso, to better catch the light). I’d never seen anything so beautiful, possibly still haven’t: these were books that existed in four dimensions (length, width and depth, plus time); but for me they also had a fifth dimension, that of wonder. I was utterly captivated, hypnotised. In the end, it took three porters and a policeman to finally drag me away. Back outside, the streets felt a lot darker and colder.

Patterns in Ice

There’s an obvious connection with ganseys here: the rich, fine detail, the sheer three-dimensional tactile texture that pictures can’t ever quite capture. Sooner or later I’m going to get delusions of grandeur and decorate one with gold leaf, as if Goldfinger had swapped international villainy for the quieter life of a herring fisherman. Meanwhile, I’m nearing the end of my current project, and have reached the cuff on the first sleeve. You’ll observe that I’m patterning the sleeve all the way down, not just on the upper arm. I don’t usually do this because (a) traditionally it wasn’t the norm, and (b) typically by this stage I’m all patterned out, and a splash of plain knitting feels like a treat. But this is a much smaller gansey than I usually knit, and I’m not confident about the sleeve measurements: by extending the pattern all the way to the cuff, with the pulling-in effect created by the cables etc., we should have an element of flexibility when we block it, expanding or contracting the sleeve to get a better fit (I hope!).

Interference on the Line

Life’s a funny old game, isn’t it? After a year or so of unemployment, I applied for a cataloguing temp job with the local Record Office. At my job interview the head archivist said, “Were you aware that your degree in medieval studies—all that medieval Latin, palaeography, and land law—gives you half the qualifications you need to be an archivist…?” Reader, I was not. The rest is—literally—history. I’ve not encountered any more medieval illuminations in my work, though there’ve been plenty of other manuscripts, some of them indeed medieval—but it’s not been altogether without illumination, for all that…

9 comments to Filey Pattern IX: Week 4 – 18 January

  • Sharon Gunason Pottinger

    Ooh another thing we have in common–my undergrad degree was in history with a concentration (as we say in American) in medieval history. In some ways I think medieval history is like Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead–you can find all of humanity within it. Sadly, it did not lead to employment opportunities for me.

    • Gordon

      Hi Sharon, all human life is there, absolutely! (And if only modern writers of heroic fantasy would take the trouble to study feudalism before they write epics containing knights with no fiefs…)

      I sometimes wonder what would have become of me if I hadn’t met that archivist…?🤔

  • My undergraduate degree is in English Literature and my Masters is in Medieval Literature, and I am a Washington bureaucrat. Scary, huh?

  • =Tamar

    What were the other qualifications required?

    I would think that medieval studies might help a bureaucrat understand how politicians… I have trouble saying ‘think’… behave, I guess.

    The 16th-17th Century knitted jackets had gold-wrapped and silver-wrapped yarn knitted in as both intarsia and textured designs. I imagine a similar effect.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, the history of local government, and the principles of archival cataloguing (not unlike the techniques of completing a jigsaw puzzle, except there are fewer edge pieces).

      I loved the fact that medieval people saw the material world as a false mirage, not unlike the Buddhist concept of a world as illusion. Alas, our age is all image and superficiality; there is no underlying reality beyond physics, and “reality television…”

  • =Tamar

    This morning I noticed that today is a palindrome.
    one twenty twenty twenty one.
    Or if you prefer,
    twenty-one one twenty

  • I can think of few better things to find on a rainy midwinter afternoon than a table covered with books. Lucky you!

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