‘The narrative is ambiguous and that location isn’t the right location’: looking for a metanarrative in York Minster
University of Tartu
In the Middle Ages, saints and their relics were the focal points of pilgrimages; during the Reformation shrines were demolished and lots of saints were simply forgotten about. Nowadays, with the revival of interest in pilgrimage and cathedrals, saints have once again started to appear in the foreground. Drawing on fieldwork for the AHRC funded project Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals, Past and Present, this paper explores how the project’s medieval case study cathedrals – Canterbury, Durham and York – present their saints and shrines, and how visitors react to and interpret those. It seems that for several people who need a focus in the rather confused and confusing space of a cathedral, a saint could be that focus. Canterbury Cathedral was home to England’s foremost medieval saint, Thomas Becket. For many people the Cathedral remains centred on the dramatic story of his martyrdom – his story lives on in various legends and rumours, numerous publications and exhibitions. Similar can be said about the two saints of Durham Cathedral – St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede. However, the overwhelming majority of people visiting York Minster have never heard of their ‘resident’ saint – St William of York. By looking at various aspects of vernacular culture and religion that are involved in the renegotiation of saints, this paper will explore the narratives that these three cathedrals attract.