At the sign of the Barking lion...

Church Woodwork in the British Isles 1100-1535

an Annotated Bibliography - by Robert A Faleer

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Church Woodwork of the British Isles on Amazon.co.uk   An annotated bibliography is a rich dish. Here, condensed into 450 pages, are the fruits of a lifetime's reading of one passionate and academic historian. Rob Faleer's Church Woodwork in the British Isles 1100-1535: an Annotated Bibliography is a new volume from Scarecrow Press which catalogues and describes almost a thousand books, journals and articles which he has read and found useful, and which shed light on the wooden fixtures, fittings and furnishings of medieval churches from shortly after the Norman conquest up until the English Protestant Reformation. This is an enormous body of work, covering a wide subject area over more than four hundred years of history which, furthermore, form the single greatest extended period in English artistic endeavour.

At the start of this outstanding contribution to English church studies, Rob Faleer, who is reference librarian at Central Michigan University, tells us that his intention is to capture the spirit of each work and at the very least to provide a sense of their author's intent. Of course, he does rather more than that. Faleer's work is a carefully organised selection of hundreds of reviews of books going back over several hundred years. A typical entry is several hundred words in length, and allows us to judge the usefulness of the work in question; but also teaches us something of what we might learn within its pages, and entertains us in doing so. This is not a dry book: Faleer is a confident and interesting writer. Where a reviewed work is a gazeteer or guide, he makes clear the scope and depth of the survey. If the book in question is a piece of historical research, he is able to explain the argument of the work and the evidence used to support it. This makes Church Woodwork an enjoyable book to dip into - I learn from Faleer's review, for example, about the research into and theories about the construction and painting of the famous Thornham retable at Thornham Parva in Suffolk. I now know something of the history of medieval bell frames, and of the research into the origins of the medieval wooden crucifix at Kemeys (Monmouthshire), without having to read the reviewed works. There is even room for anecdotes which might capture the imagination, such as that the panels of the Bunbury (Cheshire) rood screen were discovered being used in a cellar for storing potatoes!

Perhaps most poignant are the reviews of older books and journals about churches and features now lost to us, such as those in Coventry Cathedral and the church of St Nicholas at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, both destroyed in the Blitz in the Second World War.

It would, of course, be possible to publish a mere bibliography without reading many the works concerned to any great depth. Not so an annotated bibliography, and Church Woodwork shows evidence of breathtakingly extensive reading. The text is carefully organised into seven themes: Furnishings of the Choir; Furnishings of the Presbytery; Furnishings of the Nave; Structural Woodwork; Screens, Roods and Rood-Lofts; Tomb Fixtures, Statues and Movable Furnishings, and Transplanted Continetal Church Furnishings and Altarpieces. Each theme is then further sub-divided into sections - for example, the chapter on Structural Woodwork has collections of reviews of books about Roofs and Timber Vaulting, Ceiling and Roof Paintings and Tower and Spire Framing and Fittings. All this would be useful and interesting in itself, but in addition there are three exhaustive indexes, of authors, locales and subjects. I found it very easy indeed to look up churches in which I was specifically interested, types of furnishings that I wanted to know more about, and authors whose work I knew and wanted to discover other books they might have written. I have to say that this book will be of particular interest to people with a love of the churches of East Anglia, which provide a reasonable proportion of the subject matter of the works reviewed, and are obviously a particular love of Rob Faleer.

Feasting on the contents, it occured to me that it might not be too flippant to compare Faleer's book with a collection of hundreds and hundreds of interesting restaurant reviews, with an exhaustive set of indexes of the cooks, recipes and locations. And perhaps the comparison is useful, because just as we know we could never visit all those restaurants, so many of the works here will not be easily accessible to us. Indeed, for the non-academic reader, the pleasures of this book may end at its descriptions of texts, and anyone without access to an academic inter-library-loans system may soon feel a little tantalized, if not frustrated. Conversely, of course, we live in the age of information: some of these texts are freely available to all on the internet, and I have already placed searches for a number of titles which are not easily available, on both ebay and abebooks.

Church Woodwork is a book to dip into, a book to look things up in, a book to be inspired by. As an overall collection, it is a very valuable contribution to the history of the Church in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.


Church Woodwork in the British Isles 1100-1535: an Annotated Bibliography by Robert A Faleer is published by the Scarecrow Press Inc at 59.95 and is available from amazon.co.uk.

   

Simon Knott, August 2010

 

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