And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 29. februar 2012

Flores Historiarum, pt. 2 - The Purpose of History

It is my considered opinion that the sweetest relief from suffering and the best comfort in affliction that this world affords are to be found almost entirely in the study of literature, and so I believe that the splendour of historical writing is to be cherished with the greatest delight and given the pre-eminent and most glorious position. For nothing is more excellent in this life than to investigate and become familiar with the course of worldly events.
- Historia Anglorum, Henry Huntingdon (translated by Diana Greenway)

This blogpost is an adaptation of a draft for one of my thesis chapters, focussing on various sources for the life, times and cult of Edward the Confessor. My emphasis in this essay is the purpose of history, why chroniclers spent time and faculties to record past events. The selection is rather minute, but it does include some of the most important figures in the literary history of the English High Middle Ages.

One of the chief strands of purpose detectable in the tapestry of Medieval histories is the idea of history as a looking-glass in which one can learn of good deeds to emulate and wicked deeds to shun, learning by example and counter-example alike. This approach is widely disseminated in the monastic tradition, as exemplified by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the writings of William of Malmesbury, where scribes and authors were primarily subjects of their superior clerics rather than the milieu of a temporal court and thus less likely to indulge excessively in dithyrambics and eschewed reality in favour of a worldly prince. However, it would be exceedingly naïve to suggest that the monastic historiographers were unscathed by the temporal influences; both the above examples prove cases in point. The C manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for instance, shows a very partisan quill in favour of the Godwin family, while William of Malmesbury, in his own words, was spurred on his historiographical task by Queen Matilda and later sought the patronage of her daughter Empress Matilda. No wonder, then, that the Empress is spoken of with unquestionable, albeit modest, favour in William's last opus, Historia Novella.

Another important strand of purpose is the exaltation of an individual, often with didacticism as an important, but secondary, object. This tradition is closely connected with the temporal world, native to the court and the deeds of princes, nobles, kings and emperors whose names are found in its titles. For instance we have Gesta Fredericii, a chronicle of Frederick Barbarossa's Lombard campaign, or Gesta Stephani, concerning the reign of King Stephen of England. Like the general histories or annals these, too, are written by clerics, but the audience is of the court, not the monastic sphere, and the purpose of such works is first of all to record illustrious deeds and make sure that the fame and glory of the subject-matter is passed on to posterity.

These features are are also found in the lives of saints, only with a more clearly didactic aim. Hagiographers chiefly sought to illustrate how Christian life should be led through accounts of various religious paragons whom Christians could emulate. Naturally there were other considerations at stake as well, such as establishing a cult that could rival that of a neighbouring family, diocese, realm or branch of Christianity, but regardless of such personal incentives saints' lives were didactic texts where, unlike general histories, lessons were taught through the good examples of forebears whom, as guaranteed by the Church, God had included among his sanctorum communionem of the Apostolic Creed.

All in all there are few major differences in how hagiography and historiography, as subgenres, approach the matter of history: both are didactic and both are written with one eye on the author's contemporaneity and the other fixed on posterity. The authors, however, are not always equally conform, especially with regards to their incentives to write history. In this chapter I will consider how the authors of various sources to Edward the Confessor approach history and what they state as their purposes for writing. This exploration of Medieval historical writing will also include various texts written during the 12th and early 13th centuries where Edward the Confessor is of minor or no importance, but whose authors are partakers in the same tradition as the authors who deal with Edward in greater detail. In this way I hope to elucidate why history was written and how this affects the way we consider these texts as sources for Edward the Confessor.

The form of Medieval historical writing was heavily indebted to two traditions: the Jewish as found in the Old Testament and the Roman as found chiefly in the works of Poets as Lucan and Virgilius. Roman historians left relatively few fingerprints in the pages of Medieval historiographies, but were important to the genesis of hagiography due to their emphasis on exhaltation of individuals through rhetoric. The main influence with regards to form, however, must be said to have been Eusebius' church history whereas philosophically Medieval historians were indebted by Augustine's De Civitate Dei, both due to its sharp division between matters temporal and spiritual and its division of history into the six ages corresponding the allegorical days of Creation. In this chapter my emphasis is on the English tradition which, in addition to the antecedents already mentioned, draws on the work of Bede, both when it comes to form and purpose.

Although the following selection belongs to the English tradition it should be noted that the term "English" is used because of its convenience rather than its accuracy since the array of authors - named and anonymous alike - encompasses the Anglo-Norse, the Anglo-Norman and the Plantagenet political landscapes. In addition we must consider the various spheres, both geographic and religious, to which the authors belonged. Accordingly I will below present the various authors chronologically, giving a brief outline of their potential biases and certain characteristics where necessary.

Henry [of Huntingdon] (c. 1088 - c. 1157) was of Anglo-Norman origin and dedicated his book Historia Anglorum to Bishop Alexander of Lincoln, a Norman who during his episcopate was praised as a patron of learning, commissioning for instance Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini. In his prologue to book I of Historia Anglorum Henry expresses his enthusiasm with regards to the study of literature, claiming it to be one of the greatest forms of solace in this world. Further on he praises history, considered a subgenre of literature, to be a better teacher of right and wrong than moral philosophy since it offers example of what to emulate and what not to emulate. History, Henry says, "allows judgement of the future by representing the past" and he goes on to state that history "distinguishes rational creatures from brutes", pointing out that there is something inherently noble in desiring knowledge of one's own origin and history. His main incentive for writing history, it appears, is for the sake of erudition, teaching by example and counterexample in the manner of Bede. Such erudition is inherently moral since it calls for the emulation of good - i.e. moral - values and deeds, but Henry was not content with merely illustrating good and bad examples, he also emphasised divine vengeance, treating the five invasions of Britain as punishments by God. This was a literary tradition with firm roots in Christian literature found in works by Alcuin, Gildas, Nennius and Bede. Henry relied in great part on Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but there are influences by other works as well, for instance Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and he himself became widely read and very influential, leaving his traces in the works of important historians such as William of Newburgh and Matthew Paris. To consider him a reliable source, however, is problematic since he allows himself a certain poetic - or perhaps educational - license, when describing the Battle of Lincoln through invented speeches of leading combatants.

William of Malmesbury (c. 1090 - c. 1042) was a Benedictine monk of Anglo-Norman ancestry (prologue book II) he pursued from early years a love of reading and learning, and in the prologue to book IV of Gesta Regum Anglorum he exudes a particular dedication to historical Truth in a discussion concerning the problems of objectivity inherent in the writing of contemporary history. He also states, in the prologue to book I that he is spurred on in his labours both by love of his country and the encouragement of friends. He is not deterred, it appears, despite love for friends and country, from committing himself to historical truth, and like Horatius he stresses the twofold virtue of history: teaching good deeds by example and counter-example. To exonerate him from bias, however, will not do, and it would be contrary to William's own stated caution to presume that he was not influenced by his ties to the royal family, ties which he asserts in his letter to Empress Matilda and which become quite evident in his Historia Novella, as stated above. Nonetheless, it is important to stress that despite such biases and loves, William writes first and foremost for the sake of learning, with the object of educating his contemporaries and his posterity and to pick up the historiographical tradition from the Venerable Bede.

Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154/55) is included here quite simply because he is a bit odd. He does not shed any light on Edward since his works deal with the history of the Britons up until the death of Cadwallader in 689, but he was a very influential writer of history and he represents a slight anomaly with regards to the historiographical commitment to which some of his contemporaries subscribed. In his prefatory dedication to Robert of Gloucester, Henry I's illegitimate son, Geoffrey states that his work is a translation of a work "in the British language" concerning the forefathers of the Britons and he expresses a deep interest in the oral accounts of his native Britain. Geoffrey himself was most likely a Welshman, at least he had a strong affection for Welsh history and he was bishop of St. Asaph, known as Britain's smallest cathedral. This Welsh bias permeats his History of the Kings of Britain, a book written - or translated if we are to believe him - because the deeds of the ancient kings "deserve to be praised for all time". This is somewhat reminiscent of William of Malmesbury's professed love for literature since Geoffrey's incentive seems to be that the story must be told because it is a good story. There might be a purpose of erudition here as well, but if that is the case it resembles more the tendency of hagiography where example is set first and foremost by men of glorious character. In any case we are not expressly told, as we are with several other historiographers, that Geoffrey seeks to educate his readers in any particular way, nor that the praiseworthy deeds are worthy of emulation as well as praise. This last point may be ascribed to the severe political implications of such emulation, but that cannot be settled here.

Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-67) is undoubtedly Edward the Confessor's most important hagiographer, writing the first saint's life of Edward,
Vita S. Eduardi regis et confessoris in 1162/63, a work commissioned by Lawrence of Westminster and heavily reliant on Osbert of Clare's edition of Vita Ædwardi. Aelred's Vita is an interesting work not only because of its importance to the emerging Angevin cult but also because of the cultural landscape it is situated in. It is a book about an Anglo-Saxon king written by a seneschal at the Scottish court turned Cistercian monk at the behest of the Abbot of Westminster, a Benedictine monastery, and dedicated to the Angevin king, Henry II. However, the most important aspect of Aelred's Vita in this respect is the stated purpose of its composition. From the very start the reader is told that Aelred's purpose is to present examples of virtue from the past to those who live in the present, inspired by "the endeavor of many ancients". It is also very fascinating to note that the book is expressly dedicated to the king for the edification of his own kingship. In his letter to Robert of Gloucester William of Malmesbury flatters Earl Robert by writing that the illustrious deeds of his forebears are already found in him and Robert needs no education on the subject. Aelred, however, states very overtly that Edward the Confessor is a suitable model for kingship and begs Henry II to emulate his predecessor's noble virtues.

Also worth including in this array is William of Newburgh (1135/6 - c. 1198), historian and Augustinian canon at the monastery of Newburgh. His work Historia rerum Anglicarum is concerned with the history of England after the Norman invasion and as such is not a source to the life of Edward the Confessor, nor is there any mentioning of the Angevin cult, an omission quite puzzling since the work was commissioned by Ernald, abbot of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monastery and home to Aelred, Edward's most important hagiographer. Nonetheless William offers a very interesting approach to history because of his fervent commitment to historical truth and a textual scrutiny reminiscent of the much later and more famous Lorenzo Valla. In his prologue to Historia rerum Anglicarum William launches a vitriolic attack against Geoffrey of Monmouth on grounds that he is a story-teller, fabulator, and not a proper historian, treating honourable history and local legends with the same credulity and even adding to them himself. In the same spirit of historiographical commitment, but with a gentler voice, he commends the historian Gildas (fl. 5th and 6th centuries) for the latter's willingness to condemn "many evil traits" of the old Britons. This historical criticism has earned him a high standing in the eyes of subsequent historians, although is reputation has waned somewhat in recent decades. Like William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon before him, William of Newburgh writes history to edify, stating in his prologue that the purpose of his book is to "advance the knowledge and circumspection of posterity".

The last historian to be included is Matthew Paris (c. 1200 - 1259). Little can be ascertained with regard to his personal life or origin aside from his early attachment to the Benedictine monastery of St. Albans. Throughout his works we also find a fervent Anglocentrism and this, along with arguments made by Paul Meyer on grounds of phonology, suggests he was an Englishman. Already in his own time he achieved a certain reputation as a writer, gained in large part by his Chronica Majora, and he had friends and connections reaching far and wide, ranging from native aristocratic women with whom he corresponded to the courts of Håkon IV of Norway and Louis IX of France. Matthew Paris was a many-faceted writer and supervisor of a number of works, including "five chronicles, six hagiographies, two domestic histories, a cartulary, and a collection of fortune-telling tracts. They amount to well over a million words, most of them penned by Paris himself." Although a diligent writer he was less concerned with whether his writings reflected truth and he did not shy away from a little manipulation of history could it serve his needs. In his verse life of Edward the Confessor Matthew Paris turns to the saint, asking him to "have regard" for him as a sinner who has translated his deeds into French that "memory of thee may spread." Although the stated purpose is piously simple and straightforward - and a literary device - it is nonetheless evident that Paris uses this hagiography as a vehicle for his own politics. For instance we find in Matthew's work praise for Edward's eschewing of foreigners, a sentiment echoing his own Anglocentric opinions rather than any attitude of Edward. It is likely that Matthew Paris wrote his life of St. Edward to provide King Henry III with a model for royal behaviour, perhaps inspired by Aelred's dedication to Henry II in his Life of St. Edward, which was Matthew's source, where Aelred begs king Henry II to emulate his virtuous and blessed predecessor.

As we have seen the Medieval historiographers had various reasons for embark on their literary quests, but didacticism and a love of literature remained important incentives throughout the period here covered. When we look at this aspect of historiography we catch small glimpses of the authors themselves, centuries away, and we learn to appreciate what an important part in their lives the history and the recording of history must have been.

mandag 27. februar 2012

Flores Historiarum, pt. 1 - Sowing the Wind

For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind
- Hosea 8:7
In the course of my thesis work I have been dealing quite a bit with English Medieval historians, scouring chronicles for representations of Edward the Confessor and compiling lists of how he is portrayed by the various scribes of the High Middle Ages. I enjoy this work greatly as it allows me to delve into primary sources and catch small glimpses of a past world seen through the eyes of monks, perched on their vantage point often at the very fringe of society. Sadly, however, I am no expert in this field and my scant grasp of Latin, together with an ever-nearer deadline for my dissertation, prohibits any close reading of great length. Nonetheless I have become familiar with a few historians and in a series of blogpost I aim to present selections from their work featuring passages that have caught my interest or amused me. The title of this series - Flores historiarum - is taken from a chronicle begun in the mid-13th century that encompasses the history of the world from Creation and until the accession of Edward II in 1307. This particular chronicle was long attributed to one Matthew of Westminster, but this is a confusion of Matthew Paris - whose Chronica Majora this work draws heavily on - and the chronicle's Westminster provenance. Flores historiarum was written by a number of anonymous hands and Matthew of Westminster never existed.

The aim of this series is partly to introduce my readers to various historical figures and maybe even one or two lesser known facts from Medieval history. I hope to achieve this primarily through presentations of individual writers, but also through discussion on topics related to Medieval historiography. In this first blogpost I want to start gently with a brief illustration of the transmission of knowledge in the literary world of the Middle Ages.

My example is a brief note I came across serendipitiously while skimming through Historia Regum by Symeon of Durham (fl. c.1090-c.1128). In the conclusion of a paragraph chronicling the year 1052 the following passage was included:

Eodem anno in nocte festivitatis sancti Thomæ apostoli tantus tamque vehemens extitit ventus, ut multas ecclesias domusque dirueret, et innumerabiles arbores frangeret vel radlicitus erueret.

Roughly translated the passage recounts a vehement wind that occurred at the night of the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle - December 21 - and which shook many churches and houses and uprooted innumerable trees. I'm not sure why this passage stuck in my mind, but I presume it owes to the hurricane that ravaged Norway December 26 2011.

The above passage is not original to Symeon, but a translation - and an emendation - of the entry for the year 1053 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a work Symeon relied on quite heavily for his own opus although feeling free to add the details about how fierce the wind was. What is even more interesting is that I happened to come across this passage in another Medieval chronicle, namely that attributed to Florence of Worcester (d. 1118).

The authorship of this particular chronicle is a matter of contention and it may well be that the bulk of the labour was performed by John of Worcester (fl. 1095-1140) rather than Florence. In any case, the passage concerning the great wind of 1053 is found also here in a translation almost identical to that of Symeon, the only difference being "domosque" in the Worcester chronicle and of course the wind being ascribed to the year before. Both Florence and Symeon rely on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for their passages.

Later I came across this passage again in the chronicle of Roger Hoveden (d. 1201/02), also here placed in 1052. Roger Hoveden belonged to what William Stubbs has termed the Northumbrian school of historians, a term encompassing historians from the Venerable Bede and onwards. The Northumbrian provenance of Roger may suggest, as Stubbs hints at, that he relied on Symeon of Durham for this passage. What is interesting here, however, is the way it was rendered in Roger's chronicle, which deviates from both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Symeon and Florence of Worcester. In Roger's chronicle it runs accordingly:

Eodem anno, in nocte festivitatis Sancti Thomæ apostoli, tantus tamque vehemens exstitit ventus, ut multas ecclesias domosque diueret, et innumeras arbores frangeret vel radicitus evelleret.

What I find interesting about these repetitions and modifications is the way they illustrate in part the transmission of knowledge and literature in Medieval England, and also how they suggest the importance of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in that literary sphere. Later on, presumably due to the shift from Anglo-Saxon vernacular to Anglo-Norman, the Chronicle waned in importance and left fewer traces throughout the pages of Medieval historians.

onsdag 22. februar 2012

Four Female Poets - an introduction

As followers of this blog will know I am an avid reader of poetry and I have in the past five years accumulated a meager library of verse, chiefly in the English tongue. Quite recently it occurred to me that this library has a preponderance of male poets and I soon realised how very unfortunate this is. I should point out from the very start that when discussing poetry I am in most cases very reluctant to engage with gender issues and especially demarcations drawn along gender lines. When discussing poetry I prefer to use the following categories: poetry that engages me, poetry that fails to engage me, well-wrought poetry and lesser poetry (I very rarely come across bad poetry so that is a spare category). Obviously a poetic work must be placed in two of these categories and this is why "gender" is mainly a non-issue when I talk about poetry: a poem either engages me or fails to, it is either a well-composed opus or the work of a less competent hand. It does not matter to me whether a particular sonnet is composed by a man or a woman as long as it engages me or as long as it is well-wrought.

However, I once attended a lecture on poetry held by a postdoc in classical studies at the university in Trondheim, and she pointed out that due to the underrepresentation of women in world poetry it would sometimes be profitable to group these female poets together and consider them not only as poets but as women. As a history student I do of course agree with this, especially since dealing with Medieval history has made me very alert to the male - and I avoid "masculine" on purpose - dominance in literature throughout history. Women were not absent from poetic discourse, however, and we have a number of well-known, lesser-known and unknown female poets ranging from the near-legendary Enheduanna and well into our own time. Nonetheless female poets have been outnumbered and overshadowed for centuries, and for a historically-minded poetry enthusiast as myself this has resulted in a library underrepresented by women since the periods I take most interest in were times when women rarely were able or allowed to engage in public poetic discourse, or public discourse of any kind for that matter.

In order to rectify this lack of knowledge I have recently started to explore the writings of female poets, and in this blogpost I would like to present four female poets whom poetry enthusiasts should get to know: Mary Wroth, Aphra Behn, Carol Ann Duffy and Vicki Feaver. I have chosen these four poets because I am sufficiently familiar with them to select poems to include in this blogpost. The pictures are all from wikimedia.
Lady Mary Wroth (1587?-1651/53)

Born in an age when women were positioned largely where their male family members or acquaintances put them, Mary Wroth was very well placed for her creative qualities to thrive. She was the daughter of Robert Sidney and the niece of Philip Sidney, both poets and noblemen, and her marriage with Robert Wroth brought her in contact with the court of James I where she later befriended Ben Jonson.

Mary Wroth is of great literary significance. She was the first known Englishwoman to write a romance - the scandalous Urania - and a sonnet sequence. This sequence includes a corona of sonnets called A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love. This is a particularly demanding arrangement where the last line of the first sonnet serves as the first line of the second and so on, and it illustrates Wroth's great versatility as a poet. The first sonnet of the corona is a particular favourite of mine.

In this strange Labyrinth how shall I turne,
Wayes are on all sids while the way I misse:
If to the right hand, there, in love I burne,
Let mee goe forward, therein danger is.
If to the left, suspition hinders blisse;
Let mee turne back, shame cryes I ought returne:
Nor faint, though crosses my fortunes kiss,
Stand still is harder, allthough sure to mourne.
Thus let mee take the right, or left hand way,
Goe forward, or stand still, or back retire:
I must these doubts indure without allay
Or helpe, but trauell finde for my best hire.
Yet that which most my troubled sense doth move,
Is to leave all, and take the threed of Love.

Aphra Behn (1640?-89)

Little is known of Aphra Behn's early years and her adult life is somewhat shrouded in speculations of her possible role in espionage during her 20s. She was an avid writer and began a career as playwright about 1670. Her risquè comedies met with popularity in the Libertine atmosphere of the day, but unsurprisingly this attracted criticism of varying ferocity as well. Aphra Behn was an influential writer and female playwrights of the turn of the century acknowledged their debt to her. She received, however, little praise from the major male literary figures of the 18th century, largely because her plays were considered too little feminine.

My personal favourite of Aphra Behn's poems is The Disappointment, a mock-pastoral translated from the French, akin to John Wilmot's The Imperfect Enjoyment. Since this particular poem is a little too long to be included here, I will instead present Love Armed, a very well-wrought love poem.

Love Armed

Love in fantastic triumph sat,
Whilst bleeding hearts around him flowed,
For whom fresh pains he did create,
And strange tyrannic power he showed,
From thy bright eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sport he hurled;
But 'twas from mine, he took desire,
Enough to undo the amorous world.

From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his pride and cruelty;
From me his languishments and fears,
And every killing dart from thee;
Thus thou and I the god have armed,
And set him up a deity;
But my poor heart alone is harmed,
Whilst thine the victor is, and free.

Vicki Feaver (1943 -)

I became aware of Vicki Feaver thanks to the blog The Cantos of Mvtabilitie, one of the few I follow, and I was immediately struck by the beauty of a strophe from The Gun, a poem printed in her 2006 collection The Book of Blood (Jonathan Cape Publishing). The beauty of the concluding lines were so haunting that I immediately purchased the book and read it.

Since the poem is fairly recently published I am hesitant about quoting it in full, and I will be content with the final strophe, the one which made me eager to explore Feaver's poetry in the first place. The poem in its entirety can be read here.

I join in the cooking: jointing
and slicing, stirring and tasting -
excited as if the King of Death
had arrived to feast, stalking
out of winter woods,
his black mouth
sprouting golden crocuses.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955-)

Carol Ann Duffy is an important figure in the history of British literature for being the first female - and first openly gay - poet laureate, a position she assumed in 2009. Duffy has been noted for her re-establishment of the dramatic monologue as a device of lyric poetry, following the footsteps of Robert Browning. My favourite poem so far is Anne Hathaway, a monologue by Shakespeare's wife based on his will that left her the second best bed. This poem was printed in The World's Wife (Picador) from 2000.

Anne Hathaway

'Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed ...'
(from Shakespeare's will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover's words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he'd written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer's hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love -
I hold him in the casket of my widow's head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

tirsdag 7. februar 2012

God in the details

Though he had wont to search with glazèd eyes,
As though he came to kill a cockatrice
- Elegy IV - The Perfume, John Donne

God is in the details.
- Old saying

The origin of the saying quoted in the epigraph is obscure and throughout the ages it has been reiterated by a number of persons and in a number of varieties, perhaps most notably its mirror image "the devil is in the details". The latter rendition is to me very apt when considering Medieval architecture richly furnished with gaping monsters, personified sins, sufferers and devils punishing them. These figures tend to comprise the most noticeable features of Medieval masonry, but they only show the reverse of the coin. We also find, in great quantity saints, angels and humans worshipping God and His universe and, occasionally, God Himself in one manifestation or the other, carved amid the many details of the didactic unit we know as the Medieval church building.

I for myself like the expression very much, both as a Christian and a lover of poetry. For some reason I have not yet fully grasped, but which is by no means inexplicable or difficult to understand, I came to think of this saying when I learned of a structure in York called St.Lawrence's tower. At the time I became aware of it I was back in Norway but still longing very deeply back to the UK and I recalled, when reading about it, that had myself passed the tower once on my way from the library back into town. As I learned of its carvings I became desirous to return, to see these details for myself, presuming I would find God there one way or the other.

The tower is what remains of a Medieval church from 1316, but certain elements are remnants of the 12th century church once situated here. It is labelled a defunct church, out of use but still maintaining a serene dignity so common to the grey-stoned parish churches of England. The Medieval church was demolished in the late 19th century, because a bigger chuch was needed, and a modern church erected in its place, now looming tall in its Medievalesque Victorian opulence.

The top storey of St. Lawrence's tower was put in place in the 15th century. About two centuries later the church was badly damaged by cannonfire during the Siege of York in 1644, when the Parliament army attempted to open Walmgate Bar, hitting both St. Lawrence's church and adjacent houses in the process. Restoration of the church did not commence until 1669.

The doorway is of Norman origin and once embellished the old Church of St. Lawrence.

Sadly I am not sufficiently well-versed in Medieval art to describe the carvings of the doorway in any great detail, so I shall have to let the pictures speak mainly for themselves.

The above pictures show the two outermost of the doorway's concentric arches, perhaps depicting or alluding to some story we no longer can read or understand due to centuries of wind and rain and cultural evolution.

A cockatrice hast thou hatch'd to the world
Whose unavoided eye is murderous
- The Tragedy of Richard III, William Shakespeare

the basilicok sleeth folk by the venym of his sighte
- Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

The second innermost arch is slightly more comprehensible, if only for the fact that its monster theme can be more clearly detected than the carvings of the outermost arches. Both the columns appear to be decorated with snakes - or wyrms, to use an older and probably more correct term - and the arch begins and ends with a monster I believe to be a basilisk or a cockatrice. These two monsters were originally distinct in their appearances but in the course of time they were increasingly confused with each other and sometimes the terms have been used interchangeably. Geoffrey Chaucer, for instance, merged the two names when he wrote of the venomous basilicok.

Whether the monsters depicted on this doorway are meant to be basilisks, cockatrices or some other creature I do not know, but I take great pleasure in them, being overly fond of Medieval imagery.

And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
- And did those feet, William Blake

There are also some very interesting columns to be found in the doorway, some of which have undergone fairly recent restoration by the look of it. The first depicts of course Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, one of the most iconic representations of Christ in Christian iconography. The second column depicts a saggitarius and some scene I don't recognise.

Although St. Lawrence's tower sadly is closed due to its status as defunct, it is nonetheless an interesting architectural feature and one of York's many hidden gems.

From that moment the serpents were my friends,
Because one of them wound about his neck
As if to say: "I want you to say no more"
- Inferno, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)