December 8th – The Festival of the Mason’s Story

Hopefully it’s going to be a sunny day, cold but clear; the show, the Mason’s Story, today works better when it’s nice and bright outside. At Saint Devem and Remmand’s Church today, folk will filter in through the big double doors at around ten, for a special service. They finish just in time for the show, which, despite requiring good light conditions, is held inside in the relative gloom. At one time no service was held, and the Story would have been entirely ignored.

At first, this must have been because nobody noticed it, but even after it was clocked by the priest (in 1268 Twilleb Brawn wrote in his book of days, ‘I seye the damnedde bilderre’s tryks agyn, dyd theye notte ekspekt myne notis?’ a passage generally thought to pertain to the Story) it was thought of as a distraction from the official Chastise Church services, a usurpation of the proper order of things that placed a lowly mason above the teachings of the Church. It was only hundreds of years later, in the seventeenth century, that the Church saw how popular it was and decided to take advantage of this, making the festival as we know it today.

Whilst it’s certainly known when the Story was installed; it was probably built in along with the other pillar decorations of the church, most of which were added in 1244, shortly before the opening in 1246; we know less about who created it. The general consensus is that it was one of the masons, who are known for creating similar cheeky details in church roofs and adorning the tops of pillars. Normally these will be puerile additions to the normal imagery of gargoyles, plants and saints, such as figures with bared buttocks playing a trumpet inserted betwixt the cheeks, or telltale male and female feet poking out from hay piles. Whether or not we can get any insight into the Mason from their story is a question that inspires a considerable amount of scholarly debate, and indeed many of the folk visiting today will be students from the City’s universities, there to learn about the Story and this debate that surrounds it.

The story begins at 11:45am, when the light coming through the ‘porthole’, a small clear window in a dark area of the Church that usually creates a neat circle of light on the floor, hits the crystal atop the staff that the statue of Saint Remmand holds. On other days of the year it always misses the staff, or just catches the edge of it. Through some refractive quality of this crystal, the light shoots out and hits a carving of two men on horseback passing a woman on a picnic blanket, arrayed over a nearby archway. It stays there for forty five seconds, and then, as the light from the window slightly changes direction with the passing of the day, the highlight pings across the church to another collection of figures, this time the riders dismounted. This continues for around fifteen minutes, highlighting different carvings, revealing a story in the static images that would not be apparent otherwise.

The tale that plays out is a classic one, which has since made its way into various other media; this is the earliest example of the tale we have recorded, although its quite possible it could have circulated orally before. The two male figures, often brothers in other versions (though this isn’t clear in the carvings), each try to impress the woman, who is very beautiful and they have both fallen hopelessly in love with. They bring her gifts, and perform great athletic and heroic feats, retrieving flowers from mountain tops and wrestling wolves. Eventually they begin to fight each other before her, and just after one of them has been killed, another man, presumably her husband, turns up and sweeps her off her feet. The carvings are considerably darker than their written counterparts in this respect, as often a knife fight, as is depicted here, is substituted for a fistfight, and one only gets knocked out, not killed.

Quite why the Mason chose to depict this darkly comical tale in such a secretive way is the great mystery of the festival today, and what keeps many coming back, year after year. The sermon of the priest claims that it is an example of the Mason’s dedication to the concept of Attunement, where in a flash sudden, religious revelations come upon a person, granting them sudden understanding of the world, just as viewers are today granted sudden understanding of these otherwise seemingly random images arrayed around the Church. Scholars are less convinced, claiming instead that the story is an over-exaggerated real story (why else would the Mason go to such lengths to tell it, so secretively?), or that it is an art installation of some kind. It seems unlikely that there will be a revelatory moment for the viewers today, a flash of light to cast off the shadows that still adorn our knowledge of the person behind the Mason’s Story.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Budding Iconoclasts
  • Drapers Day
  • The Classic and Renowned Festival of the Silver Ladies