A Personal Note

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Many people, having stumbled across the Internet site I’ve devoted to St. Bartholomew-the-Great, ask why in the world a woman trained as an astrophysicist, usually working as an Internet security architect, would decide to write a book about a medieval church located in one of the parts of London likely to be missed by most tourists.

When I was in graduate school, I noticed that a surprisingly large number of my astrophysical colleagues also shared an interest of history. The civilizations and countries varied, but the interest remained the same. In some ways, astronomers and historians use similar approaches to their topics. They are both generally limited to proof by inference, because experimental methods aren’t available on the scale of galactic or universal distances, or for events that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago. Astronomers and historians also suffered from a scarcity of data. Skillful practitioners in both fields must be able to draw rational conclusions from limited information, about objects or events impossibly distant in either space or time.

My interest in history began with my beloved Grandmother Bird’s suggestion to watch the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton Cleopatra, shortly followed by the mania in the U.S. for the mid-1970s tour of artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun. The combination of 4 hours of Hollywood spectacle with all the glitz and romance of the Boy King left me with a life-long passion for Egypt. The jump from Cleopatra to other strong-willed women wasn’t very far. Before long Eleanor of Aquitaine beguiled me, inspiring an interest in the medieval history of England, the Aquitaine, Normandy, and France.

Through the course of my job as a network security architect, I have been able to travel to London on multiple occasions. My interest in medieval history led me to the relatively small number of medieval buildings remaining in the city. A list in the City of London Museum directed me to St. Bartholomew-the-Great, as one of the few remaining medieval fragments in continual use since the time of its establishment in 1123CE. My first visit lasted about 5 minutes. As I walked toward the church, its medieval bells were ringing for a wedding starting in half an hour. I took advantage of my American accent and convinced the ushers to let me take a quick look while the guests were being seated. I was sufficiently enthralled to make St. Bart’s the focal point of my next visit.

My grandfather, Professor Otto Bird, is a philosopher and medieval historian, one of the only members of my family to share my fascination with church history and medieval England. After my second visit to St. Bartholomew-the-Great, I decided to assemble a photo album with all my best pictures as Granddad’s Christmas gift for that year. Albums without captions annoy me, so I began trying to track down exactly what all the objects, symbols and pictures in the building meant. And thus began the detective story of my lifetime.

Unlike most modern churches, especially in the United States, medieval churches bear many reminders of the people they’ve served over the centuries. I quickly discovered, as I began my research, that almost every single architectural detail – no matter how apparently insignificant – had a meaning. They represented religious beliefs, or revealed where a person whose name I could find had made an addition or alteration to the fabric. Some scars demonstrated secular uses for the building after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Nearly every time I found something that made me ask what or how or why, I could find an answer, although those answers were rarely found in the latest tour guides.

I was hooked. My intellect and my heart were engaged. I’ve fallen in love with a church.

Research methods have changed a lot since I wrote my Ph.D thesis in the 1990s. Thanks to the Internet, I have access to archives of primary data on property ownership in the City of London dating back to the Anglo-Norman period; a worldwide network of booksellers who have enabled my development of what is probably the largest single collection of books, articles, photographs and art work about St. Bartholomew-the-Great; Victorian interviews of the then-rector of the church, Sir Borradaile Savory; and search capabilities that have led me to experts on the history of London, the descendants of Sir Aston Webb (the Victorian architect responsible for the restoration of the church in the 1890s), and church enthusiasts with vital information and photographs not available in “traditional” sources. Thirty years ago, this book would have been impossible without sufficient funding for me to live in London to gain such access. Today, I still take trips to London for photography, and for access to places like the Guildhall Library, but the majority of the work happens wherever my laptop and I happen to be.

Despite the enticement of the detective story, I still might have resisted the passion, but as I discovered more about the founder of St. Bartholomew’s Priory and Hospital – Rahere – I found a man whose personality and vision somehow survived the centuries to the here and now.

At first glance, even relatively recent information about the church has been lost (ie. Whose coats of arms are those on the iron gateway leading into the churchyard?). I hope that by recording what I’ve been able to discover, I’ll make it easier for new visitors to St. Bartholomew-the-Great to recognize the footprints left by the many people whose spirituality and politics have affected this sanctuary.

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St. Bart's coat of arms
Rahere's Garden Home
tbird's home page
Photographs and text copyright Tina Bird, 2003-2019
Last modified 15 February 2019
St. Bart's coat of arms

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