Bits of a Roman bath in a medieval English church

Sometimes a historical site can be initially very confusing and making sense of it requires a little bit of detective work. I was in Leicester – in central England – last week. It’s a city that was hugely important in the Middle Ages and was a major town when the Romans ruled the province of Britannia.

So – in the pouring rain, I came across a chunky bit of masonry dating back to the Romans. It’s a thick, brick section of wall called the Jewry Wall. However, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Jews and wasn’t a boundary wall. In the eighteenth century, historians thought it was a temple to the god Janus. It wasn’t. In the nineteenth century, the Victorians decided it was a city gate. It wasn’t. Then it was believed to be the city’s Roman forum even when it was becoming increasingly clear that the wall was actually part of a bath complex.

So why was it called the Jewry Wall?  Especially as Leicester’s Jewish population was expelled by Simon de Montfort in 1231, during the Templar era. It’s now thought the term is a corruption of the word ‘jurat’ – these were the senior politicians in the medieval era who held their council meetings near the wall. It is claimed on Wikipedia that buildings of unknown origin were attributed to the Jews in the Middle Ages – I’ve no evidence to support this assertion.

Next to the wall is a church to Saint Nicholas. I walked in and was immediately confronted by two windows in the nave that looked very Roman. In fact, they date to the Saxon period – around 880AD. But the masonry was part of the original Roman bath and was simply transplanted into the church – by the looks of things, mimicking the original positioning.

It’s a strangely laid out church with a Norman tower and some questionable changes made in the early nineteenth century when a wall of the nave was demolished and replaced by a brick arch. The church authorities actually wanted to demolish the entire church but didn’t have the funds.

The Roman "Jewry" wall

The Roman “Jewry” wall

The Roman baths now excavated and the medieval church

The Roman baths now excavated and the medieval church

Nineteenth century arch

Nineteenth century arch

A Saxon window made from Roman bricks

A Saxon window made from Roman bricks

Nineteenth century arch and Saxon window

Nineteenth century arch and Saxon window

Easter – ten things you never knew

English: Icon of the Resurrection

English: Icon of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or maybe you do know some of these things – but just in case:

  1. Easter is a moveable feast that is always on the first Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon.  However, the date of that full moon is determined by lunar dates established by the church in the past as opposed to what the moon is actually doing. Confused? Blame the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 which vexed over whether to use the solar or lunar calendars and came up with a messy compromise.
  2. In the early church, Alexandria was often turned to for advice because its astronomers – in the Greek tradition of learning – were hugely respected. But bust ups over the date of Easter did occur between Rome and Alexandria.
  3. Many early Christians observed Easter on the ‘fourteenth day of the moon’ irrespective of whether this was a Sunday. This practice took centuries of effort by the church to stamp out – continuing in England until the 7th century AD.
  4. In 1583, the Vatican introduced the new Gregorian calendar to correct discrepancies in the older Julian calendar, dating back to the Roman Empire. This changed the date of Easter.  But the Eastern Orthodox church has never accepted the amendments made by the pope to the calendar and stuck with the Julian version. So Easter in the east will be 13 days later this year.
  5. It took until the year 1753 for Britain and its colonies (including America) to adopt the Gregorian calendar and so Easter then fell into line with the rest of western Europe.
  6. Was the Last Supper a traditional Jewish passover meal? Mark, Matthew and Luke seemed to think so but John gave it the thumbs down. The John position is often attributed to Christians seeking to remove the Jewish influence from the story of Jesus. But some Jewish scholars think John may have had a point – Jesus could not have been put on trial and crucified during the Passover – it breaches Jewish religious laws.
  7. There is a rather odd Easter story involving Mary Magdalene – popularly believed in the Eastern Orthodox church. One version has Mary Magdalene having dinner with the Roman emperor Tiberius (details of how such a dinner came to happen are a little scant). The emperor mocked the idea of a resurrection and said there was much chance of that happening as an egg (and he pointed to one conveniently located nearby) turning red. Whereupon said egg turned red! Why red? Because it represents the blood of Christ.
  8. Easter bunnies appear as both hares and rabbits in medieval art – a symbol of fecundity. Hares are prolific breeders and produce litters at this time of year. The medieval mind loved ascribing values and virtues (and vices) to animals. So the Easter bunny was an appropriate symbol of re-birth.
  9. In non-English speaking countries, Easter is known by variants of the word ‘Pasch’ dervied from the Jewish ‘Pesach’ meaning the Passover. The word Easter is often ascribed to an Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre and her feast was held during the month of April – something attested to by the Venerable Bede.
  10. It’s claimed that Eleanor de Montfort provided an astonishing 3,700 eggs for her medieval Easter celebrations in the year 1265.

Christ being crucified – the top movie versions

In the Middle Ages, the crucifixion of Christ would have been portrayed in mystery plays put on in towns and villages but in our modern age, it’s the cinema that has brought us the most enduring images of Christ‘s death. Some immediately spring to my mind.

Mel Gibson‘s Passion of the Christ was possibly one of the most gory films I’ve ever seen on the big screen. I’ve no doubt many in the Middle Ages would have identified with its bloodiness but it wasn’t to my taste.

Equally controversial was Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ that raised some interesting theological points but also angered many Christian traditionalists.

Brilliantly atmospheric is the Cecil B de Mille silent movie The King of Kings – don’t be put off by the absence of people talking.