On 16th of May 2019 Canterbury Cathedral hosted the 6th session of this year’s Material Witness, the ‘interdisciplinary training programme for the interrogation of physical objects in the digital age’ organised by CHASE, a Consortium of nine universities in the South-East of England that fosters doctoral research in the Arts and Humanities. A group of PhD students undertook a journey in time, looking and interpreting historical relics under the guidance of University of Kent’s Drs Emily Guerry and David Rundle.
The afternoon started in the Cloister, from where Emily enthusiastically led the group to explore the Cathedral’s precincts with the support of a 12th century map from the Eadwine Psalter. This was a useful tool to navigate the Medieval spaces and a source of inspiration not only to rethink the current visible aspect of the buildings, but also to better imagine the Romanesque past of Christ Church, whose few vestiges survive surrounded by later Gothic architecture.
After having followed the steps, stories and works of figures like Prior Wybert, William of Sens and William the Englishman, in an itinerary across the northern area outside the Cathedral, the congregation retired to the dark of the crypts.There they could rediscover the thin scratches, unnoticeable to distracted eyes, of the medieval graffiti, and the wall paintings of Gabriel Chapel, which for centuries had been forgotten and precluded from sight.
At this point it was time to climb the Dean’s steps up to the Howley Library to be warmly welcomed by Ms Fawn Todd, the Cathedral’s librarian, who introduced the collection, its history, and even displayed some of its treasures. Having the group made acquaintance with the library, David took the lead, encouraging observations about the space, its organisation and features. He expanded on those comments, to build more general discourses, that bridged the Cathedral’s library to other notable examples, and gave insights about all aspects of a book’s life: from their production to their conservation and usage.
A brief pause with tea and biscuits stopped the flowing rhythm of the session, in order to provide the energy to enter the last part of the afternoon. In the seminar room of the Archives, David concluded the day, presenting some manuscripts from the Cathedral’s collections, and demonstrating how much these sources can say when interrogated by a skilful researcher.
Thanks to the personnel of Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library, and to Emily’s and David’s energy, this rich and interdisciplinary session was a splendid opportunity to see how historical sources can be read and used to rethink the past, even to try to virtually recreate it. Indeed, material witnesses, be they made of stone or paper, often tell their stories and prove keen to answer our questions.