I had the most vivid and amazing dream last night. Unsurprisingly given my studies in Dr. Bump’s class, I find myself in the quiet (almost too quiet) green fields of England. The skies above are grey contrasting sharply with emerald grass that seems to glow with colour. Thick and pure, it is the most beautiful carpet I have ever known. Ascending a small rise in the landscape, a modest medieval town comes into view, already bursting beyond the limits of its not quite completed stone walls. As I stare down at the countryside, the gentle green hills splotched occasionally by little farming plots and clumps of trees, I am startled by the approach of a strangely robed figure behind me. Further catching me off guard, he commands me to identify myself, shouting a bit as he grows nearer. “Are you scholar or townsman? What is this foreign dress? Who are you?” For some reason I had expected him to know me. After all, this is a dream, isn’t it? The man, clad in black robes and a rather funny looking hat looked to be in his mid to late thirties, though artificially aged by some factor—many hours spent in the sun? Introductions are made, though he is still feeling very threatened. I know him after all; he isn’t some composite my mind had created, but John Wycliffe. I couldn’t remember much about him, but I knew he had been an early reformist of the Catholic Church and a great Oxford theologian tried for heresy (“Wycliffe, John” 1).
“Where are we? When are we?” I ask. He looks at me suspiciously.
“Are you one of the new students at Queen’s College that’s been visiting Swyndlestock tavern and causing mischief? As Head at Balliol I could have you sent up by the Chancellor! We don’t need more of this madness with the townsfolk. Don’t you know about the St. Scholastica’s Day riots (Hobhouse 6)?”
Slowly puzzling together my location in space and time all I can utter is a befuddled, “what?” which is followed by a fit of blinking and dizzily looking around me. This doesn’t seem so much like a dream now, I think to myself, staring down at the town that must be Oxford, though it looks much different here, or rather, now. “I’ve-I’ve come to see Oxford!” I finally stammer, “…from the future!”
“What is this devilry you speak of, you drunken knave? ‘od’s Arms it seems every passing year brings more foolish young students since we’ve finally acquired some benefactors. I-“
“I’m not a student here!” I insist. Thinking quickly, “I’ve come from other lands to learn of the spiritual life here at Oxford. I am a student elsewhere.”
Still wary, he says “Is that so?” Pondering this new claim of identity, he speaks: “I suppose that would explain your very odd dress. I’ve never seen such dreadful things.” Picking up his robes he barks, “Come on then.”
St. Edmund Hall
Following his lead, we descended to the town, passing a slowly deteriorating palace on the way into the hamlet’s heart, its former grandeur giving way to ivy and weed. Despite its obvious importance in times past, it shows none of the intricate attention paid the holy buildings of Oxford. Wycliffe informs me that it is Beaumont Palace, where Richard Coeur de Lion was born some two hundred years ago (“Beaumont Palace, formerly in Oxford” 1). Even here, eight hundred years in the past, Oxford shows its age with many centuries-old structures, though much of what I think will look old is brand new. As we pass rows of slowly rotting thatched roof wooden buildings, some of which probably date back to the turn of the first Christian millennium and the Norman conquest, the newly founded Queen’s College comes into view. Many buildings are still under construction, but even this new college (not New College, that’s not for forty years) holds ancient buildings, some of the first stones laid in Oxford. I recall that in the “present” which I left for this adventure, only one of these buildings survives—St. Edmund Hall, which dates to the twelfth century itself. I stop Wycliffe so I can admire it, though he is annoyed by my desire to dwell on a site unrelated to my supposed religious search, and obviously finds its attached chapel, which would later become a library, unworthy of our attention. St. Edmund Hall stands before me looking nearly the same as it did in the “present,” though the roof is much more archaic looking. The building is made of heavy, tan stone and is decorated with monstrous gargoyle heads, human and inhuman both. It perfectly captures the period in which it was made, bridging the Romanesque and the Gothic. Despite being heavy and dark with tiny windows, it displays the intensity of the Gothic spirit. So even here in the middle of the fourteenth century as the Middle Ages come to a close, Oxford is a town full of history but always expanding.
Soon, I find Wycliffe ushering me up what would in present day be called High Street to the beautiful Gothic church of St. Mary’s. Its excruciatingly carved spire has been completed in the last half century. As we approach, for it is only a short walk, I am awed by the detail of the grotesques and the foliage carvings that Ruskin so admired five hundred years in the future. “Shall we enter?” he asks me in a hushed tone that shows his respect, despite years as a student and teacher in Balliol College. Unlike the darkness often associated with the Gothic, high windows of stained glass color every corner with brilliance from vaulted ceiling to snow-white altar. It is more striking than the lights of Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew.” Feeling this place’s power rather than thinking about it, I understand for the first time in my life how scholars like Wycliffe can devote their lives to comprehension of the miraculous.
Wycliffe genuflects before the altar and kneels in a pew. I follow dumbly. He mutters a prayer in Latin. Perhaps because he can read my amazement, Wycliffe declines to lecture on the glories of St. Mary’s. Instead he asks, “Have you not a chapel of any beauty in your college? Your reactions are as that of someone untravelled, and yet you are here.”
“In my place and time, the Church is without the power to exact tithes and tributes, for there are many churches and none need sanction from spiritual or governmental authority. Thus, though less corrupted by power, churches are without such artistry in places of worship.”
As we leave he comments to himself, “It’s amazing what the faithful can do even with the illegitimate monies of the condemned.” We move on.
Oxford from Christ Church Meadow
Striking South, Wycliffe’s swooshing robes lead me down a relatively new path past the also recently chartered Oriel College, which bustles with scholars and stonemasons, but his attention is set further west at Christchurch Cathedral, as it is today known. Most interesting about the church, which was also a functioning Augustinian priory at the time, was that it didn’t have much around it. Despite being one of the most historic sites in Oxford—St. Frideswide’s original abbey stood on this site and dated from the eighth century—it had beautiful meadow not only stretching to the southeast, but also directly south, and on all the western sides. It was also the lone building of note all the way north back to the High Street. Except to the north and east, the only boundaries one could meet were the rivers Cherwell and Thames. And if ever there was a country made by God, this was it. As I told Wycliffe, “One could live a full life comprised of nothing but bucolic fantasy here.” Being unfamiliar with classical writings of the sort I was referring to, he responded with merely an odd look at me and a grunt. Cattle and sheep grazed in the distance, and one could faintly make out groups of herders and animals both at the water’s edge. Among them were interspersed trees that grew by the banks. I could see also just a few hundred yards to the south a tree-lined footpath probably inhabited by thoughtful herder and scholar alike. For in this medieval time, both live nearer the land and in relative poverty. The two classes of inhabitants are much nearer in this Oxford where the privileges of scholarship are just being established (Morris 11; Hobhouse 5). Much like myself, Wylciffe stands awed by the beauty of the lands surrounding his beloved university. Seeing his inability to take for granted what he has been surrounded by for many years, I begin to understand how writers like Newman could love so passionately their school. In contrast, I could never imagine myself expressing in poetry or prose feelings for my own University of Texas.
Remembering himself, my guide, my Anglicized Virgil, pulls me from my own field of thoughts to our original object. The building is in fact already out of fashion, featuring mainly the Romanesque style of rounded arches and heavy walls. But grotesque Green Men choking on ivy or oak while vines crawl out of noses and ears as well as faintly human gargoyles can be seen as we advance, though they are starting to show wear. The great spire and the famous choir have yet to be built, but it still impresses. It is in fact larger than the incarnation I knew in the modern era, which was truncated by Cardinal Wolsey to make room for the Tom Quad (Hobhouse 10). Entering the nave, many of the monastic inhabitants can be seen at prayer, so we must be quiet. I am amazed at the quality of the stained glass all around me. Soon, I spot the window depicting Thomas Becket’s murder, the only one of these windows that will survive the centuries ( “Christ Church Cathedral-A Brief Tour” 1). I try to stop and interpret the stories suspended in glass, but Wycliffe takes me straight to the shrine of St. Frideswide, built less than a century ago, which holds her relics. Wycliffe, like myself, is reverent but somewhat unimpressed. He whispers, “It is powerful belief in such things which allows corrupt priests to sell chicken bones to already impoverished pilgrims.” I nod my agreement, though we both continue to be moved by the intricately carved pointed arches traced by practically living foliage which seems to almost move. Even more Green Men are present in the church, especially on the tomb, and other grotesques around the sanctuary watch seemingly in pain the holy rituals of mass (Bump 232). The church of this era has more might than magic; its columns and arches are massive, its vaults high but plain. Additionally, it is much lighter in color. Despite its relatively smaller number of windows, the newer stone reflects much more light, giving the church a soft glow in the late afternoon. It always strikes me as funny that, despite Gothic architecture’s immense effort to increase the sunlight allowed to shine into their structures, it is always assumed to be a dark style. In some ways, it reminds me of the state capitol’s dome—high but with ample support. Wycliffe beckons to me that it is time to leave, for the light is failing.
View From Carfax Tower
In the deep afternoon light, my guide takes me west across another green field and north up what is in modern times known as St. Aldate’s street. “I have one more site to show you before the light fails,” he says. Soon, I know just what he is referring to. I immediately recognize the tower at Carfax where four of Oxford’s roads meet. It is at this time attached to a church, St. Martin’s, which the townspeople attend. Entering through a zigzag arch-adorned Norman doorway, we climb seventy-four feet up the new stone tower (Ross 1). Looking east over High Street, I watch the last rays of afternoon sun fall in front of me over the Thames valley and the burgeoning city of spires. Almost straight ahead, I see the smoke of surrounding halls and thatched roof houses start to intertwine with and disperse around the detailed tower of St. Mary’s. I think that perhaps if I could see UT like this, if I were allowed to go up in the tower, I might begin to feel about it like I’ve already begun to feel about this place. I turn to Wycliffe, whispering, “So this is why you’d be willing to be tried for heresy?”
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