A rare medieval illuminated English prayer scroll, believed to be among the few dozen that still exist in the world, has been analyzed in a new study to expose Catholic beliefs in England before the Reformation in the 16th century.
Now in private hands and previously unknown to experts, this meter-long scroll offers new insight into Christian pilgrimage and the cult of the Cross before the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.
A review of the illustrations and text of the ancient scroll, including the religious verse in Latin and English, is published in the peer-reviewed journal Journal of the British Archaeological Association.
“In particular,” says Gail Turner, art historian and author of the study, “the study demonstrates Christian devotion in medieval England.
“He gives an overview of the devotional rituals associated with a large crucifix (‘Rood’) at Bromholm Priory, Norfolk, and discovers a direct link between this 16e an artifact of the century and a famous religious relic once associated among Christians with miracles.
The ‘Rood of Bromholm’, as it is known to historians, supposedly contained a fragment of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The relic transformed the priory into a popular place of pilgrimage mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer and in Vision of Pier plowman.
Images of the Rood in black, with golden outlines, appear several times in the Bromholm scroll, and there is a direct reference to “the Bromholme cross”.
Turner’s analysis suggests that a successful pilgrim may have owned the Bromholm prayer scroll – made from two pieces of vellum sewn together and purchased by a private collector in the 1970s.
“The role reflects a time when lay people (non-clergymen) really believed in visible and invisible enemies,” says Turner, who has worked at Tate Britain, the Arts Council and as a consultant for Christie’s and Courtauld. . .
“To their owners, prayer scrolls… were prized as very personal inspirations for prayer, although during and after the Reformation they were generally underestimated and rejected.
“So the survival of such a magnificent scroll for over 500 years is remarkable.”
Tying pieces of animal skin end to end in a continuous strip to make a “roll” was once the standard method of presenting text. Few medieval prayer scrolls survive today because they lacked covers but were made to be handled. This one measures 13 cm wide by one meter long.
The faithful regularly touched or kissed images of Jesus on the cross in an attempt, says Turner, “to experience the Passion of Christ in a more direct and powerful way.” Indeed, the historian reveals that abrasion marks are visible on the Bromholm scroll where the owner engaged in such an “act of devotion identified in other similar scrolls”.
Turner was able to estimate the age of the document by a reference in the scroll to ‘John of Chalcedon’ or John Underwood, the penultimate prior of Bromholm. An avid supporter of the Roman Catholic Church, Underwood became Auxiliary Bishop of Norfolk in 1505 and then lost his post in 1535, so it is likely that the role was made between those dates.
Further connections between the Scroll, the Rood and Underwood can be made through imagery of the five wounds Christ received during his crucifixion, according to the study.
Symbols representing the five wounds are depicted on Underwood’s grave in Norwich, although they are not commonly found in churches in Norfolk. In addition, the five wounds were at the center of the main devotional festivals of the priory of Bromholm – the Passion and Exaltation of the Cross – when pilgrims came to worship the Rood.
The original owner of the scroll was probably a “devout worshiper” familiar with the Bromholm holidays, Turner says. A patron of the priory, a member of the local Paston family, or a friend of John Underwood are among his suggestions.
Today, the priory is in ruins in a field near the village of Bacton. As for the fate of the Rood of Bromholm, the study suggests he was taken to London. This is according to a letter written in 1537 to Thomas Cromwell by Sir Richard Southwell, a courtier from Norfolk.
After that, the trail seems to cool down, according to Turner, who adds that it is “presumed to have been destroyed in London along with many other relics, although its fate remains uncertain.”
Journal of the British Archaeological Association
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An early 16th century prayer scroll and Saint Rood of Bromholm
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