Doors as Liminal Structures in the Late Anglo-Saxon Period

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Abstract

In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede tells the famous story of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria by the missionary Paulinus. While conversing with his men about the wisdom of this, one of the ‘king’s men’ offered ‘wise words’.¹ He says:

This is how the present life of man on earth, King, appears to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us. You are sitting feasting with your ealdormen and thegns in winter time; the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging; and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall. It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other. For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it
again. So this life of man appears but for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not at all.²

The analogy is striking, not least because of Bede’s use of tangible and recognisable architectural features to convey the transitions between certain spaces; that is, between the material and spiritual realms. By characterising architecture in this way, Bede implicitly assumed two things: that the reader will understand that the openings of the ‘hall’ mean something other than their literal appearance, and that these openings are a comprehensible way of signifying the transitions of birth and death. This article will argue that these
assumptions, and the use of doorways in this way, were not particular to Bede, but a common method of signifying transitions between states or spaces in Anglo-Saxon texts and images.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-55
JournalLeeds Studies in English
Volume48
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Keywords

  • Early Medieval
  • Medieval Manuscripts
  • Architectural History

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