The Pilgrimage to Our Lady of White hill: Antiquaries, local historians and the formation of a historical tradition, by Jonathan Spain, RiverRhee Publishing. Price £6.
Extract from introduction:
‘There is little by way of hard historical or archaeological evidence for a medieval pilgrimage to a shrine to ‘Our Lady’ in a chapel on top of the hill which separates the villages of Haslingfield and Barrington, in South Cambs. We can point to a description from oral evidence written down in the mid 17th century, a few 15th century deeds and a Bishop’s Indulgence, some place-name evidence and circumstantial details. Around this a historical narrative has developed over the centuries to the point where the pilgrimage site has become a settled and established fact. There was a medieval shrine. This site was a centre of popular devotion and pilgrimage before the Dissolution of the Monasteries; a site of regional, even national importance (some have argued), which later became the focus of a local Marian revivalist movement in the mid-late 20th century.
What is interesting about this local tradition is not simply the analysis of the evidence and the consideration of its veracity but the way in which that narrative has been preserved and its subsequent development and modification. Or to put it another way, the tradition of a pilgrimage to a site which no longer exists could only be maintained because of the credence which successive generations of local villagers, antiquaries, historians and archaeologists have given it.
To understand this process we must understand who the ‘players’ were and what motivated them. Ultimately this is a narrative about local people preserving, indeed creating their own history. It speaks to the innate ‘antiquarianism’ of the English caste of mind – the love of antiquity and its preservation, be that ancient buildings or institutions, manuscripts or local myths and legends. It also illustrates the universal and enduring (timeless) appeal of the idea of pilgrimage; particularly in this case in association with popular devotion to the religious figure of Mary. The survival of the tradition of this pilgrimage site can be seen as testament to the endurance of pre-Reformation religious customs and practice, lying hidden beneath the reformed Protestant Church.
To add a final layer of meaning and interpretation, the research and writing of this essay has been a pilgrimage for this writer – as one who has a keen interest in the local landscape and its history – into the close inter-connected world of Cambridgeshire’s antiquarians and historians, the guardians of our past.’
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