people, having stumbled across the Internet site
I’ve devoted to St. Bartholomew-the-Great, ask why in the
woman trained as an astrophysicist, usually working as an Internet
architect, would decide to write a book about a medieval
church located in one of the parts of London likely to be missed by
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
visitors to St. Bartholomew-the-Great to recognize the footprints left
by the many people whose spirituality and politics have affected this