The Glass Bead Game

Sliding up the Suffolk coast and across the fenlands to Norwich on a cold and blustery Monday, my friend Angie was sceptical about walking the one-day BPT pilgrimage from Caistor St Edmund church to the cathedral. “Norfolk has been ruined by roads” she said, so, as friends do, we compromised. Our drive (via the ruinous roads) to and from Norwich Cathedral would comprise the ‘journey’ and we would call in on St Edmund on the way home.

The cathedral stands as a monument to the city’s wealthy and prestigious past, the spire visible from afar and pointing heavenwards, acknowledging the blessed bounty that put Norwich on the map. In 1096, thirty years after William’s men had shot Harold through the eye, an event stitched into history in the Bayeux Tapestry, two Anglo-Saxon churches were demolished to make way for this testament to Norman rule. Walls of grey Norfolk flint and mortar were dressed with  Caen limestone, the Normans’ building material of choice, transported up the Wensom River and via a short canal built for the purpose.

The year work began on the cathedral is notable: in 1096 the People’s Crusade set off for Jerusalem. The gross economic and social inequality that marked the lives of ordinary folk in the Middle Ages had been further exacerbated by years of drought and famine and thousands answered the call to make a ‘pilgrimage’ to the Holy Land and liberate Jerusalem from the Turks. The risks and privations of the open road must have paled by comparison to what peasant crusaders were leaving behind; no freedom to leave their parish without permission; detailed scrutiny of their private lives; the inevitable ‘debts’ which bound ‘unfree’ labourers to their masters, even unto the next generation; the prospect of another bad harvest and possible starvation. Crusaders were offered liberation from all of these, plus the prospect of reduced time in purgatory after death. Added to this, there was a popular belief at the time that the end of the world was nigh. In short, like the migrants which today flow in the opposite direction, those who set out must have felt that they had nothing to lose and much to gain and, as gangs of labourers set about laying the foundations of Norwich Cathedral, thousands of others set off for the Holy Land. 

Thankfully, the world did not come to an end in some great cataclysmic event in the 12th century and Norwich Cathedral, dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity, rose up from the ground and still stands today. Like many of our great cathedrals, this stony cavern is considerably more intimate and inspiring within than the cold somewhat grey exterior might suggest. Over the centuries the interior was embellished with stained glass, and exquisite carvings. (The exceptionally fine carved oak choir stalls alone make a visit to Norwich Cathedral worth the journey). 

In his novel, the Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse suggests that “the writing of history – however dryly it is done and however sincere the desire for objectivity – remains literature. History’s third dimension is always fiction.” In this sense, a great monument like Norwich Cathedral offers a very singular account of the story of 1096. But if the limestone walls are the cover of that literary history book, within the reader will find page after page of stories of soldiers and sinners, of priests and townsfolk, and, written into the very fabric of the building; tales of traders bringing materials up the Wensom river; skilled craftsmen arriving by cart and paupers rushing off on foot to Jerusalem in the hope of something better. 

Amongst them all stands the saintly stony figure of Felix, first Bishop of the East Angles who was credited by the Venerable Bede with delivering “all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness”. Thank you Felix, for a happy and righteous day, and to the road builders of Norfolk and Suffolk who brought us safely there and home again. 

Carved oak choir stalls Norwich Cathedral
Stained Glass – John McClean – 2014 – In keeping with tradition, like the many artists craftsmen who help shape our churches his work is unattributed on site

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