jools the solitary

December 31, 2013

gouache painting on paper 10x15 cms

mirror writing

 

this image is one of three small paintings in gouache illustrating the figure of Jools the Solitary, an anchoress born in the same year as Trevisa and the subject of the anchorhold piece produced in a motion capture studio

 

in an age of great uncertainty, of plague and famine, punctuated by random acts of terrorism, Jools was visited by hundreds of people who made the pilgrimage to her anchorhold to seek advice and solace

 

she was walled up in a cell in Norwich but had access to a small library

one of the books in the library was The Dream Vision of Piers Plowman

 

Jools herself had experienced visions while lying sick to the point of death in her thirties. She called these visions her shewings in which she had seen the universe reduced to the size of a hazelnut held in the palm of her hand

 

in her fifties she entered the anchorhold and resolved to record these experiences in writing and so became the first woman we know to have written in English, and the first to write autobiographically

 

In the Trevisa Project the manuscript of  an unrevised version of Piers Plowman, which most scholars attribute to a shadowy figure called William Langland, has to be hidden in the anchorhold. The text had been approriated by rebels who carried sections of it in their pockets like talismans, into civil skirmishes.

 

The rebels had interpreted the call for spiritual self-determination, as expressed in this text, in the context of corrupt  practices in the Catholic Church of the time, as a reason to overthrow the status quo in a wider political sense.  Their activity culminated in the Peasants Revolt and the shocking beheading in 1381 of Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the street. Just ten years before Trevisa had been ordained by Sudbury.

 

Although while at Oxford Trevisa was part of the circle surrounding John Wycliff and may have shared some of his Lollard reformist views, he always believed in upholding the conventional values of largesse, expressed in  a social hierachy dominated by secular lordship. He himself depended upon the patronage of Thomas, Lord Berkeley, for his living. Ultimately, the Plowman needed to be revised to make these values, which were closer to those shared by Trevisa than to the radical views of the rebels,  clearer. So the Trevisa  Project speculates that it was Trevisa who re-wrote it, radically  enlarging the original version, which was secreted in the anchorhold - a dead letter box - until he was able to collect it 

 

I am troubled by this conventional pragmatism. My sympathies are with the rebels. But these were complex, dangerous times

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