Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On York.

I spent last week in York, reputed to be the 'best preserved' medieval town in England (or something along those lines). It's hard for me to know what to say about my experiences thereof. On the one hand, I became fully immersed in my visit to Micklegate Bar, the ancient stone gateway on which the heads of a number of 'my' traitors were displayed to such devastating (though sometimes unintended) political effect in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Mickelgate museum, although tiny,  has a very good exhibition on the battle of Towton, aided in no small degree by a video that explores in detail what has been learned from a recent archeological excavation of a mass grave from the battlefield. (On this, suffice it to say that if 'chivalry' ever lived in the treatment of the vanquished, it seems to have well and truly died at Towton.) At the other end of the historical scale, I also visited a number of wonderful late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century pub survivals. My 'local' was the Mason's Arms, built in the late 1800s and incorporating into its quirky interior a stunningly carved wooden fireplace from the medieval gatehouse of York Castle (long since destroyed). I discovered some of the best architectural and decorative features (art deco tilework, glass etc.) in a couple of 1930s pubs that haven't suffered too much from 1960s and '70s 'improvements'.

But...( and as a great friend of mine always says, 'everything before the "but" is bullshit'), on the other hand, I can't deny that my first impression of the old town centre was an anticlimax. I had heard so much about York's medieval streets and 'walking the walls' that when I first entered the city, I was utterly shocked and disoriented to find that the first buildings I saw inside the walls were those of a 1960s brick housing estate! To be fair, I came in through the somewhat less tourist-friendly Goodramgate, and was primed with expectations that had been set, just two days earlier, by my experience of Saint Malo. Saint Malo was almost entirely reconstructed stone by stone after WWII, so it was able to be kept entirely 'in character'. By contrast, I imagine York is a more organic survival, so it bears many scars of its industrial past. I had high hopes of the Shambles, which is sold as an authentic medieval cobbled street complete with half-timbered buildings hanging over it at wonky angles. But here again, I'm afraid France won out. I saw much more extensive and better-preserved medieval quarters in places like Vannes and Rennes. I'm probably making myself very unpopular with the locals by saying this, but I'm afraid York was simply too over-built and over-touristed to charm me. Not to mention heinously expensive!

On the up side, though, I did have a couple of excellent meetings with professors from the University of York, which has a highly-regarded Centre for Medieval Studies and a very active scholarly press. Both the people I visited are senior scholars with big reputations in my field, so as a lowly PhD student from antipodean  obscurity, I was initially a bit intimidated. However, they both proved to be very positive and encouraging about my research topic and ideas, and they have given me lots of good advice, contacts etc. It is wonderful to have some validation from scholars of this caliber that I even *have* a research topic and questions worth pursuing. Of particular help, I think, is the offer to read and critique my work as I progress. This is an offer I'll definitely be taking up, starting with my attempt to turn my conference paper from IMC Leeds into a publishable article (my first! in academia, anyway). That will be a project for July-August. I already have a pretty rough draft, so I just need to make sure I dive straight back into it when I get home next week.

I'm delivering my paper at Leeds this afternoon. I'm much happier with it now, after some late editing has tightened up the argument and trimmed some loose threads (all those weird/funny little bits that you so want to include for their entertainment value, but which sadly suck up precious presentation minutes). I'll write more on the IMC in a future post. It's my first time here, and I'm a little overwhelmed by the scale of it, but I have met some very cool peeps, including some fellow medievalist bloggers.

1 comment:

Steve Muhlberger said...

I was in York a year ago, revisiting one of the more memorable scenes of my youth. I, too found it less medieval than I expected -- or in my case, remembered: