Friday, 10 September 2010

Doors of Perception No.1: Westminster Abbey

First in our new, occasional series. Who's at the door today: It's David

Lots of ways to describe history. Distant echo is one.

Like the hammering of nails that's always there in the background when I hear a young mum singing a lullaby to her baby.

A hammering of nails that's taking place in a far off land (Wittenberg, Germany) and a far off time (1517).

Ja, you got it - if you "lullaby-listen" you can hear Martin Luther ushering in the Protestant Reformation by nailing his "95 Theses" to that church door in Wittenberg in 1517.

Far off land and far off time. But listen. Can you hear it? Yes, way in the distance, more "hammering of nails".

Well, certainly distant in time. That "further" "hammering of nails" is taking place in 1395. But not distant in "place". Not in the least. It's this door.

The door of Westminster Abbey. And what's nailed to this door in 1395 is the Lollard's "Twelve Conclusions."

That act, that nailing, that document was the mene mene tekel upharsin (the biblical writing on the wall) moment for the 14th century.

It came out of nowhere - or so it seemed - and it posed the starkest possible challenge to the existing order.

Among them, the Twelve Conclusions posited that:
1) all warfare is an abomination, a befouling of the teaching of the New Testament (imagine how that went down in a society whose ruling elite defined themselves as "those who fight");
2) priestly celibacy led to unnatural levels of lust;
3) their vows of celibacy caused pregnant nuns to kill their children at birth;
4) transubstantiation was a crock;
5) the clergy's possession of worldly wealth drove faith, hope and charity out of the church...


Well, you get the idea. It was sensational stuff for its time. Had they been caught the nailers would have been in for it. "It" being the 14th century's version of what we in our enlightened times have fastidiously termed "extraordinary rendition". In other words, the state's then "best shot" - the one reserved specially for heretics and traitors. Yes, that one - hanging, drawing and quartering.

And "the lullaby connection"?

Well, linguists are pretty sure that the words Lollard and lullaby are cognate. As Wikipedia puts it, the most likely derivation is via "the Dutch word, lollaerd, meaning someone who mutters, a mumbler. This is also related to the Dutch word, lull or lollen, as in 'a mother lulls her child to sleep', or 'to sing or chant'."

But much as I'm word-obsessed, for me the real kicker here is that London "got there" 122 years before Martin Luther! Everybody knows about Luther's 95 Theses but he was a Johnny Come Lately. London had blazed that trail years before. That and just about every other trail.

"Martin Luther nailing his witterings to a church door? That's so last century. So last century and then some."

Is it any wonder that those of us who have got the London bug are obsessed with this place?

And for a "tying up" I'd just say this. 1) As Faulkner put it, "the dead past isn't dead; it isn't even past". 2) All of this is quintessential London Walks because "see the unseen" is our anthem. In short, seeing those doors with a London Walks guide turns a moment into an experience. 3) and that's to say nothing of the "riffing" that a London Walks guide will do there. The "connections". That's also what we're about, making connections. In this case chances are the riff will start with Martin Luther King - because of his statue just over the door. And it'll probably stop by the Jerusalem Chamber, which is also right there. Stop by the Jerusalem Chamber because Henry IV died there and, as Henry Bolingbroke, he was in the thick of the "Curst be these Lollards" action.
But however the guide plays it, the point is never again will you look but not see those doors.

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