Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Pershore, Worcestershire


Pershore beasts, Pershore plums

I’ve noticed the former church of St Andrew near the abbey in Pershore several times, and my photograph of the medieval carving on the tower is not actually the first I’d taken of this curiosity, although it’s the first in which strong sunlight picks out the details. Admiring this carving, and wondering exactly what the beast it depicts actually is, made me look closely at its bared teeth, bulging eyes, and bushy tail. Hitherto, peering up at it (it’s quite high up) in poor light, I’d wondered if it was Jesus’ donkey with a palm tree in the background. A better look at the teeth through a zoom lens made me inclined to think it might be a muzzled dog. But in that case, is that really a tree behind it? And is that the faint impression of a face, popping up above the creature’s back?

No reference book I have seems to throw any light on this carving. Pevsner mentions some ‘grotesque carvings’ and moves swiftly on. The listing description says that the grotesques adorn buttresses, which is true, but says no more. Maybe there’s not a definitive solution to this question; many such carvings are the result of artistic whimsy.*

Curiosity did at least make me look up the history of the church. In the 1060s the crown gave much of the land in Pershore to Westminster Abbey. The abbot of Pershore refused tenants of Westminster the right to worship in his abbey, so the church of St Andrew was built to give these people somewhere to worship. After the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, the monks’ church became available to the locals and the two churches continued side by side. Nowadays the parishioners worship in the abbey church and St Andrew’s is used as a parish hall. The abbey rents the land on which St Andrew’s stands for a very small sum, and one that speaks of one of the drivers of the local economy. The annual rent is one pound of Pershore plums. Truly they are plums beyond price.†

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* However, see the update, below. Nevertheless, to make a general point, I was pleased to hear no less an authority than the medievalist Professor Paul Binksi refer to medieval grotesque carvings in this way in a recent Zoom lecture I attended. He sees such church carvings – grotesques, sheela na gigs, and the like – as equivalent to the whimsical marginal illustrations in some medieval manuscripts, in which images, sometimes apparently outrageous or even erotic, appear in the margins of serious, often sacred texts.

† I have only an online source for the ‘pound of plums’ story. I do hope it is both true and still current.

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Update One of my readers suggests that the carving represents a wolf with the head of St Edmund. This is almost certainly correct and I am kicking myself for not having picked up this allusion. St Edmund was killed by Viking raiders, who shot so many arrows at him that he bristled, then cut off his head. The king’s men heard cries, and found the body and head guarded by a wolf. When they put the head back on the body, the parts fused together. Miracles were attributed to the king, and he was made a saint. His tomb is in Westminster Abbey, and the links between Pershore and Westminster make this interpretation of the carving very likely indeed. I am indebted to my reader ‘Per Apse’ for this suggestion. 


per apse said...

With its link to Westminster Abbey where the tomb of St Edmund is, this is surely the wolf with St Edmund's head. Great picture clearly shows wolf (more like a retriever carrying something). Bury St Edmnd's uses this on its heraldic shield, I think. E Anglian saint in deepest west country? Has to be Westminster Abbey link, I think. But, as ever, thanks for making me think! Greetings

Philip Wilkinson said...

Per Apse: You are right, I'm sure. I'd not thought of St Edmund, but the link with Westminster and the iconography fits like a glove. Thank you so much.