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The 16th-century prayer roll. (Gail Turner / Journal of the British Archaeological Association)

SCIENCE & TECH: 16th-Century Prayer Roll Exposes Medieval Religious Cult

A first-time study of a privately owned 16th-century prayer roll from England is a valuable addition to knowledge on medieval England’s Christian ‘cult of the Cross’ in which the Holy Cross was venerated and held in the highest esteem. These kinds of prayer rolls don’t usually survive, making it a rare artifact. Fascinatingly, the roll dates to the precise cusp in history when the Church of England, under pressure from Henry VIII, broke away from papal authority and the Roman Catholic church.

The 16th-century prayer roll. ( Gail Turner / Journal of the British Archaeological Association )

The Prayer Roll and its Connection to the Rood of Bromholm

Published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association , the study examines the illustrations and text included in the prayer roll, including votive antiphons—ritual verses–in Latin and English to show how people prayed at the time and how pilgrimages were organized around relics of the Cross. It is authored by art historian Gail Turner, who has held positions at Tate Britain and the Arts Council England, and worked as a consultant for Christie’s auction house and at the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London.

“The study demonstrates Christian devotion in medieval England,” explains Turner in Heritage Daily . “It gives insight into the devotional rituals connected to a large crucifix (‘Rood’) at Bromholm Priory, in Norfolk, and uncovers a direct link between this 16th century artefact and a famous religious relic once associated among Christians with miracles.”

The Bromholm Priory, also known as Broomholm Priory, was founded in 1113 as a Cluniac Priory under Castle Acre. It was freed of control of the castle in 1298 and quickly became a popular pilgrimage center until its dissolution in 1536. So much so, it finds mention in the literature of the time, including by Geoffrey Chaucer .

The significance of Bromholm Priory is primarily due to the large crucifix or rood installed there which was thought to contain a piece of the “true cross” upon which Christ was crucified. Cult of the Cross devotees in the Middle Ages therefore believed that the Rood of Bromholm had miraculous powers.

Detail from the prayer roll showing second illumination. (Gail Turner / Journal of the British Archaeological Association)

Detail from the prayer roll showing second illumination. ( Gail Turner / Journal of the British Archaeological Association )

The Bromholm Manuscript: An Unlikely Survivor

The 16th-century prayer roll, which has been part of a private collection since the 1970s, is 13 centimeters (5 in) wide and 1 meter (3.3 ft) long and is made of two pieces of vellum stitched together. Attaching animal skin pieces together in a continuous strip to make a roll was the customary way of preparing manuscripts at the time. Since they lacked covers and were meant for repeated handling, few have survived.

According to Turner’s study, this particular prayer roll probably belonged to a rich pilgrim. “The roll reflects a time when the laity (non-clergy) had a real belief in both visible and invisible enemies,” stated Turner in ZME Science . “For their owners, prayer rolls… were prized as very personal inspirations to prayer, although during the Reformation and after they were commonly undervalued and dismissed. The survival of such a magnificent roll for over 500 years is therefore remarkable.”

The Bromholm roll has three images of the Bromholm Rood drawn in black and outlined in gold. The topmost cross has a bleeding Christ nailed to it. A fourth illustration is of the nails, the crown of thorns and the five wounds of Christ. The crucifixion nails are apparently drawn to scale. Their tips are red as if stained with blood. The illustrations are interspersed with ancient text written in Latin and English and there is one direct reference to the so-called “crosse of bromholme”.

Detail of prayer roll showing the fourth illumination. (Gail Turner / Journal of the British Archaeological Association)

Detail of prayer roll showing the fourth illumination. ( Gail Turner / Journal of the British Archaeological Association )

Proof of Piety: Analyzing the Prayer Roll

Heritage Daily reports that worshippers repeatedly touched or kissed the relics and the images of Christ on the cross to, in the words of Turner, “experience Christ’s passion more directly and powerfully.” The Bromholm roll shows abrasion marks of such piety by the owner similar to other such rolls.

A reference in the roll to John of Chalcedon or John Underwood, the last but one prior of Bromholm before it was dissolved, has helped Turner to date it. Underwood, who was a diehard adherent of the Roman Catholic church , became auxiliary bishop of Norfolk in 1505 and was made to vacate the position in 1535. So, the roll was probably made somewhere between the two dates.

The depiction of the five wounds of Christ on the roll also helps to connect it to Underwood, whose tomb in Norwich also has the five wounds carved on it. The five wounds are not depicted commonly in Norfolk’s churches, but they were central imagery of Bromholm Priory ’s devotional feasts of the Passion and the Exaltation of the Cross, when pilgrims came to worship the Rood.

According to Turner, the original owner of the roll was someone familiar with Bromholm’s feasts. It could have been a patron of the Priory, a member of the influential Paston family of Norfolk or a friend of Underwood’s.

A ruined structure standing amongst agricultural fields near the village of Bacton is all that remains of the once grand and popular pilgrimage center. As for the Rood, its central attraction, a letter written in 1537 to Thomas Cromwell by Sir Richard Southwell, a courtier from Norfolk, traces it to London. It was probably destroyed there along with many other relics.

Top image: Detail of 16th-century prayer roll under analysis. Source: Gail Turner / Journal of the British Archaeological Association

By Sahir Pandey

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