As always, dear readers, welcome.
If you’re a fan of English Romantic poetry, you’ll recognize our title: it’s from the sixth line of William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850)
sonnet, “Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”, first published in 1807 and long known to have been inspired by an entry in his sister, Dorothy’s, journal. (here’s a LINK to the rest of the poem, if you don’t know it: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45514/composed-upon-westminster-bridge-september-3-1802 )
In this posting, we are not going to talk about Wordsworth or the poem or even about the ships, domes, and theatres, but we will talk about towers and temples—or, really about their absence—in Middle-earth.
Way back in 2016, in a posting (our 100th) called “Stepping Westward” (a title also based upon a Wordsworth poem), we talked a bit about religion in Middle-earth, but we’ve thought more about the subject since then and, in particular, about Middle-earth as based in a great part, on earlier forms of England.
JRRT, in a September, 1954 letter to Peter Hastings, wrote, in a footnote:
“There are thus no temples or ‘churches’ or fanes [an archaic word meaning “shrines”] in this ‘world’ among ‘good’ peoples. They had little or no ‘religion’ in the sense of worship.” (Letters, 193)
For us, who have spent a good deal of time, both in medieval England and in modern-day England, this seems to leave a large gap in the landscape. Just look at this mid-16th-century drawing of Old London Bridge and across London by Anton van der Wyngaerde (1525-1571)—
(And do we imagine that JK Rowling had him somehow in mind with the spell “Wingardium Leviosa”?)
At a rough count, we spot about thirty church towers
within this image, one for each parish within that part of the city visible.
And here’s a map showing London’s parishes before the Great Fire of 1666 to show you just how many existed a century after that drawing—
We’re not experts at Church history, but we know that a parish is the smallest unit of Church of England governance (the Catholic Church uses the same system, from which the C of E system was derived) and it indicates not only the church itself, but a certain quantity of land around it. In the medieval world, as in the Renaissance world depicted in the drawing, parishes could be quite small—just look at this map of parishes in Hastingleigh, in Kent, just south of Canterbury.
In rolling countryside in England, in fact, it’s sometimes possible to stand on a hill and see more than one church at a time, each potentially a parish center. Imagine what Hobbiton might look like
with the addition of an ancient church, like this at Kirk Hammerton.
(Notice the cemetery, too—we know where the important people in places like Edoras
or Minas Tirith
were buried, but what about important hobbits, or even ordinary ones? In the medieval world, the latter would simply have been buried on church ground in normal circumstances, only the very well-to-do would have had markers of any sort and those more likely inside the church.)
There is nothing like a church, then, even though so much of Middle-earth is medieval England, but is there any other possible influence from that far-off ecclesiastical world? Perhaps–and it rather surprised us when we thought of it.
Along with parish churches and catherdrals, the homes of the ruling authorities, bishops, (so called because those larger churches held the bishops’ headquarters, marked by a throne, a cathedra—here’s a very famous one, from Ravenna, in northeastern Italy)
there arose in the West, beginning in the 4th century AD, a series of religious communities, in which men—and then women—lived and worshipped together. For men, these were called monasteries and for women, convents. Such places were intentionally removed from cities and towns (many of the very first were established in the Egyptian desert).
The lives of people who lived in them were intentionally very basic and strictly ruled, but they developed into complex societies, some with very elaborate buildings, like this monastery at Cluny, in eastern central France.
Such a place provided not only living and worship space for its inhabitants, but perhaps the only medical facility for anyone for many miles, an infirmarium.
As well, there might be a school, a library, and a copy center, a scriptorium,
where books would be copied—the only way a book would be multiplied in the West until the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century.
After Frodo is wounded on Weathertop by the morgul knife,
Aragorn and the hobbits flee as best they can to Rivendell,
where Frodo is healed by Elrond, after a tricky operation. As Frodo recovers, he finds Bilbo, who has been working on his book. Rivendell seems to be a repository of knowledge—when Bilbo had visited with the dwarves some eighty years before, it had been Elrond who had discovered and translated the moon runes on Thror’s map,
and, while staying there eighty years later, Bilbo had not only worked on what would become There and Back Again, but also completed “three books of lore that he had made at various times, written in his spidery hand, and labelled on their red backs: Translations from the Elvish, by B.B.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”)
Rivendell might not have been a religious community, but it is removed (and rather tricky to find, at least as far as Gandalf is concerned in chapter 3 of The Hobbit), it acts as an infirmary for Frodo, and it appears to be a place of learning for Bilbo—perhaps, if Middle-earth has no churches, it might have the suggestion of a monastery?
Thanks, as ever, for reading and stay well, with
Based at the remains of the monastery at Cluny is a wonderful musical group, Odo, which takes its name from one of the early abbots (directors) of the community. They mix Western medieval with Middle Eastern music in all sorts of interesting ways. Here they are in this LINK performing an Egyptian lullaby, “Nami, Nami”.
And here’s a second and smokier performance by Azam Ali and her ensemble.
We hope you enjoy both as much as we do!