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A Day for All Souls? Remembering the Middle Ages Today

In the season of the dead, there are many spectres who have a claim to our attention. In a week’s time Britain will fall briefly silent in memory of the Commonwealth’s fallen soldiers on Remembrance Sunday, to be followed shortly afterwards by the Armistice Day commemorations of World War One.

This year, the war dead may have to compete for space in our thoughts with victims of a more recent tragedy: the Covid-19 pandemic, which in less than a year has killed five times more UK citizens than all the armed conflicts since 1945 combined. Surrounded by the patriotic paraphernalia of wreaths and poppies, the blazing memorials to Guy Fawkes, and even the corporate spook-fest of Halloween, it’s easy to forget an older event that is also dedicated to the deceased. Yet on the 2nd of November every year many Churches still follow a tradition established by medieval monks and offer prayers for everyone who numbers among ‘the faithful departed’. Tomorrow is All Souls’ Day.

Keble College, neo-gothic stronghold of the nineteenth-century 'Oxford Movement', which helped to revive the Church of England’s observance of All Souls' Day, along with other medieval practices.

The name has a particular resonance in Oxford, since it is shared by one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Nestled next to the Radcliffe Camera in the background of a million tourist snaps, All Souls College today has a reputation of being the ultimate ivory tower; known for admitting only two students a year (who are immediately promoted to Fellows), it is seen as an oasis of academic isolationism even by Oxford’s rarefied standards. Nonetheless, its early history reveals origins that were more cutthroat than cerebral. It was founded in 1438 by Archbishop Henry Chichele, veteran heretic-hunter and trusted right hand man to the Lancastrian warrior-kings, with statutes that envisioned it as a place for scholars “to study and pray for the king’s and the archbishop’s well-being while they live, and after their death for their souls and the souls of the most famous king Henry V… and other noblemen and commoners who have ended their lives in the king’s and his father’s reign in the French wars.” Despite its name, the college thus prioritised the welfare of one set of souls in particular: namely, those of the English troops who had perished during the Hundred Years’ War. On account of this association, All Souls Chapel is listed by the Imperial War Museum as one of England’s earliest war memorials.

Reredos of All Souls College chapel

In one sense, this designation is misleading. Chichele did not primarily intend his foundation to be an earthly monument to those who died in France, since – like most of his contemporaries – he believed that their status in the hereafter was of greater importance, and that prayer could serve a practical function by speeding their souls from purgatory to heaven. In another sense, however, his endeavour was indeed quite similar to later commemorations of the war dead, which continue to revolve around the theme of immortality. The centrepiece of modern ‘poppy day’ ceremonies remains the poem For the Fallen (1914) by Trinity graduate Laurence Binyon, and in particular the lines “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.” Binyon’s imagery envisions the Western Front’s victims enduring forever in the secular afterlife we have created for them, ageless and unchanging as the sun itself. Similarly, even once the Reformation had banished purgatory from English imaginations, efforts continued to give Henry V and his comrades a kind of everlasting life. None did more to achieve this than William Shakespeare, who attempted to add another day of remembrance into the autumn calendar: the anniversary of the English victory at Agincourt on the 25th of October 1415, the feast of St Crispin’s Day. “Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,” he had the king proclaim in Henry V’s most famous speech, “From this day to the ending of the world, / But we in it shall be rememberèd / We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

It is sobering to think that even the most celebrated piece of oratory in English literature was not sufficient to accomplish this objective. In Britain today, the Feast of St Crispin is marked by even fewer people than All Souls’ Day, and the Fellows of Chichele’s college have long since discontinued their vigils for the slain. Henry V – or at any rate, the caricature of him created by the Bard – continues to live on in the popular imagination, but those around him have increasingly faded into the background. Tellingly, when Netflix produced a blockbuster adaptation of his story last year, the common soldiers who people Shakespeare’s script and Chichele’s bequest were turned into wordless extras in order to leave more screen time for the aristocratic leads. Agincourt has been reduced to an occasional rhetorical prop for nationalists (such as living fossil Jacob Rees-Mogg, who compared it to Brexit in a 2017 Commons debate), its real significance buried under tub-thumping jingoism. The lesson of All Souls thus seems to be a gloomy one; perhaps it is not even possible to keep the memories of a small subset of the medieval population alive forever, never mind ‘all the faithful departed’ envisioned by the festival that gives the college its name. Presumably, the same trend will eventually put an end to our commemorations of twentieth-century casualties, and even the memorials which are currently being planned for the victims of Covid-19. With so many stories fighting for a place in our limited historical imaginations, is it even worth paying attention to the Middle Ages at all?

Henry V interacts with common soldiers on the eve of Agincourt

Despite everything, at Uncomfortable Oxford we think the answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’. Whether or not modern residents consciously dwell on its memory, the medieval era shaped our city in ways that are still resoundingly topical today; town-gown tensions, university admissions imbalances, campus free speech controversies, and anti-immigrant sentiments are all echoes of forces that are centuries old. Moreover, in the course of researching our new Getting Medieval Tour, we’ve seen over and over again that the distant past was more than just a ‘Dark Age’ whose only value to the present is as a bad example to avoid. Many records also exist which challenge prevailing clichés about the Middle Ages as a time of unrelenting savagery and superstition. Those born poor were thriving at Oxford University long before the aristocracy came to study alongside them. Women fought for (and sometimes won) political power and sexual liberation. Religious minorities found ways to experience prosperity as well as persecution. Of course, we cannot hope to do justice to every soul who lived in this vast and ill-documented era, but that only increases the importance of looking beyond the stereotypes, and choosing carefully the stories we bring to light. Oxford’s early history is not only the preserve of monarchs and military heroes, but also of Jewish merchant women, beggar-students, religious dissidents, doorknob-thieves, mooning maidens, and many more.

With this in mind, I hope that you’ll find time to come along for one of our tours once they launch on 14th November. This season provides many opportunities for acts of solemn remembrance, but contemplating the long-dead shouldn’t only be a mournful experience, but also an informative and even an entertaining one. Indeed, one of the things I find most appealing about medieval culture is the way it refused to treat the Reaper with undue reverence. Thoughts of the deceased could provoke reflection or repentance, but at the same time death’s personified likeness also cropped up in countless artworks as a dancing trickster, whose skeletal grin warns us not to take him – or ourselves – too seriously. Accordingly, medieval people found ways to ensure that life and laughter continued even in times of the greatest adversity. It’s in this spirit that I’d like to wish you the merriest possible All Souls’ Day, and I hope to see you soon.

Written by Louis Morris, tour guide

Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut

The first ‘Getting Medieval’ Tours will be taking place in an online format Saturday 14 and 21 November at 4:00pm.

You can book individual tickets here.

The tour will take place online via Zoom using our specially developed virtual tour platform. Currently at the special launch price of £5 per person for November 2020.



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