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Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 8 – 15 June

As a medievalist, I’ve always been interested in relics—I mean the sacred souvenirs, of course, not the 1971 Pink Floyd compilation album of the same name—things like nails used in the True Cross, or the bones of saints. (Though not bits of a bookcase Jesus made from his time as a carpenter in Galilee, obviously; I mean, how gullible do you think I am? What? No, I didn’t know that if you look up gullible in the dictionary, it’s not there; I’ll check that out as soon as I’m finished here, thanks.) These relics would be placed in shrines in churches or cathedrals, and so became places for pilgrims to visit. Over time they became huge money-spinners for the clergy, and a whole industry of fake relics sprang up. By the time of the Reformation, relics were seen as just another abuse to be swept away.

A foggy day

Take the Holy Blood of Hailes, said to be a portion of the blood shed by Christ on the Cross. It was presented to Hailes Abbey in 1270 and was supposed to have come from the coronation regalia of Charlemagne (a.k.a. Carolus Magnus, or “Big Charles”), the first Holy Roman Emperor. Hailes duly became a place of pilgrimage, and is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales (“By God’s precious heart and his nails/ And by the blood of Christ that’s now at Hailes”). The mystic Margaret Kempe visited the relic, now set in crystal and in its own shrine, at Hailes in 1417, when she also rebuked the monks for swearing, a tantalising detail that raises far more questions than it answers. The relic was said to cure the sick and even raise the dead, and who’s to say that it couldn’t?

Meanwhile, in gansey news, this is the gratifying moment when it all comes together: the front is completed, the shoulders joined, the collar done and the first sleeve is underway. (And no, I didn’t do much else this weekend; how can you tell?) One thing you lose in a photograph is the three-dimensional nature of this sort of pattern—the moss stitch really stands out when you see the physical object before you. Every stitch has a texture, and the overall effect is one rich in detail, even if there are times when it feels like I’m knitting a Dalek cosy. The sleeve pattern will extend for five or six inches, then the rest will be plain down to the cuff.

Puzzling Signs

And as for the age of relics, well, it couldn’t last. Hailes was doomed when Anne Boleyn, a committed Protestant reformer, set her chaplains on the case of the Holy Blood. They denounced it as fake (they said it was duck’s blood; amusing though that is, however, later analysis suggested it was a mix of honey and saffron). It didn’t matter. Henry VIII abolished Hailes Abbey in 1539, and that was that. The Dissolution of the Monasteries marks the real end of the Middle Ages for me, the death of a mindset. And while I wouldn’t trade the modern world, with its transplants and smartphones and contact lenses and Bob Dylan, part of me still has a sliver of regret: for a world in which a crystal of honey mixed with saffron could cure the sick, or even raise the dead…

4 comments to Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 8 – 15 June

  • =Tamar

    So _that’s_ where that vial came from.
    I mean, it appears in _The Grand Tour_ by Wrede and Stevermer, which is the sequel to _Sorcery and Cecelia_.

    Honey has been used to treat infected wounds, and saffron is reported to have medicinal benefits as well. Just keep it away from your gansey unless you have enough to dye the whole thing yellow. Just smelling saffron is supposed to help relieve depression.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, given how expensive saffron used to be, maybe smelling it aids depression because you remember how rich you are to be able to afford saffron, and cheer up at once…

  • Dave

    Relics eh… I always wondered what your interest in me was. I looked up gullible in the Uxbridge English Dictionary and it is definitely there.

    • Gordon

      “We’re just two lost souls/ Swimming in a fish bowl/ Year after year/ What have we found?/ The same old fears/ Wish you were here…”

      (Nobody could start a party like the Floyd…!)

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