The Medieval Ecclesiastical Vice – a Virtue?

ImageAuthor Toby Huitson takes a look back at what inspired him to write his new book, Stairway to Heaven: The Functions of Medieval Upper Spaces.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, if you didn’t get the witty pun – this post isn’t about medieval misdemeanours, but instead all about a hidden aspect of medieval architecture, the spiral stairway or newel stair (also known as vis, or vice). So how did I get the idea? The story starts a while back. I would visit countless English Heritage and National Trust properties on family holidays around the country, often in quite remote locations which were a challenge for us to find (grass growing in the middle of the road was always a sure sign of an approaching adventure for me and my sister). We would find spectacular ruins of amazing abbeys from Rievaulx to remote priories. Many of them had the remains of stairs in the foundations, or even ones we could climb. But what were they for? And what about those curious cat-walk passages high up out of reach near the vaults?

One day, as a 9 or 10-year old, we could only get into one site by taking a guided tour. Now, I was never fond of guided tours – there’s often too little time to really look at things, and I always preferred seeing things that interested me, not the things I was supposed to be interested in. This time, however, the tour was led by a friendly young student in his early twenties. As we were going around, something interesting caught my eye: a length of wall with an upper doorway leading into thin air. When he invited questions, and with a little gentle encouragement from my parents, I put up my hand and asked him (to the surprise of the mostly adult tour group) what the doorway was for. He said it was interesting, but that no-one knew the answer. That’s what I had secretly suspected too, but I wanted to be sure.

Fast forward several years, and I was now the student, doing postgraduate fieldwork (literally, on this occasion, as I dodged the dozy sheep and excitable family dog) at the site of a small monastery near Dover, Kent which had been operating as a farm since the late eighteenth century. I had read all about it in advance, and it sounded promising. According to the eminent Victorian archaeologist, W. H. St John Hope, who excavated the site in the 1880s, there was a very unusual access arrangement for the canons to get into the church at night. The canons, he said, would walk from an upper room, along a gallery and then down a spiral staircase. This sounded fascinating. I had never seen anything quite like this. After the owner had kindly showed me around the surviving fragments to help me get my bearings, I thanked him and then explained that I was very keen to see the gallery which the canons went along and down the stair, and then back up the stair and along the gallery.


It soon became apparent that there wasn’t much to see. In fact, there wasn’t really anything to see. Where the gallery was supposed to be, there were no signs of it in the masonry, and as for the stair, there was only a very slight concave depression, and not even a single step. To say that I was mildly disappointed would be a massive understatement. Despite this, I enjoyed my day on site and the project was a success. But it had got me thinking. I went back to the 1885 article. Surely Hope had said it was there?… but there was no convincing evidence. And how exactly could he be so sure about who used it when there was no documentary evidence? Further research through old postcards and visual sources showed me that this part of the complex was essentially unchanged from Hope’s time. What was going on?

It slowly dawned on me that, although he was a gentleman and a scholar, Hope had been leading his readers up the proverbial garden path. He had done something unthinkable: presenting his own speculative reconstructions as objective, scientifically-verifiable, scholarly fact. Within the context of its time, of course, this may have made perfect sense. People would have looked up to the pronouncements of a highly experienced gentleman-scholar, and Hope himself would probably have been only too happy to soak up the adulation. But I saw things very differently. To me, as a keen twenty-first century historian, it was a clear case of shoddy scholarship. I felt let down. We had all been duped. How much, I wondered, of what we are told by ‘experts’ is worth the paper it is written on? I resolved to make good the damage and find out how much of what scholars say about stairs, galleries and upper spaces was true and what was not. Even if we could only be sure about 1%, I reasoned, and the remaining 99% was conjecture, we could at least draw the line and say ‘This is what we know. This is what we don’t. Here is where the line goes’.

And so began my quest.”

By Toby Huitson.

Stairway to Heaven: The Functions of Medieval Upper Spaces is now available in the UK! Order now to receive a special introductory discount.

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