Q&A with Catherine Clarke on the St. Thomas Way

What is it the St. Thomas Way?

The St. Thomas Way (www.thomasway.ac.uk) is a new heritage route from Swansea to Hereford, inspired by a real medieval pilgrimage. In 1290, a Welsh outlaw, William Cragh, was hanged in Swansea by the Anglo-Norman Marcher Lord of Gower, William de Briouze. But, after his execution, Cragh came back to life, in what was understood as a miracle of Thomas de Cantilupe, the former Bishop of Hereford (died 1282). Many medievalists will know this story from Robert Bartlett’s brilliant book The Hanged Man: A Study of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

After a new research project on medieval Swansea, mapping the story of Cragh and the itineraries and experiences of witnesses within the medieval urban environment (www.medievalswansea.ac.uk), we became interested in the next part of the story – really just a footnote in the medieval documents. Cragh’s journey to Hereford seemed a wonderful opportunity to connect people today with his story, and to offer an imaginative route into the medieval March of Wales.

What is the purpose of the book?

Creating the St. Thomas Way has been a really multi-faceted project, opening up all kinds of connections and reflections – from medieval history and religion to modern tourism and regional capacity-building. We wanted to explore these diverse elements further in the book and share them with readers. We also wanted to bring together a rich and diverse range of perspectives: the contributors include academics, an archivist, a creative artist, a writer, and the Chancellor of Hereford Cathedral.

So, who is the book for?

This was such an inter-disciplinary, multi-layered project, that we hope it will interest a wide range of readers. That includes those interested in the history of the medieval March of Wales, or medieval religion, pilgrimage and devotional practices. But also those interested in pilgrimage and faith tourism today, as well as tourism more widely and its role in regional development. Our project to translate a medieval pilgrimage into an online resource, with interactive and immersive multimedia content, will also be of interest to those working in the Digital Humanities. And we’ve also tried to model and reflect on the process of translating academic research into an applied, public-facing project with real-world benefits – something many of us as scholars are now tasked with achieving.

Why should readers pick up this book right now?

Quite unexpectedly, the St. Thomas Way and this volume gained extra relevance and resonance over the past few months, amid the terrible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the book, we reflect on how the online St. Thomas Way facilitates the practice of ‘virtual’ or remote pilgrimage – participants can explore places, listen to ambient sound, and immerse themselves in medieval soundscapes, without physically travelling. That might sound very modern, but it’s a contemporary, digital response to medieval traditions of virtual or imagined pilgrimage as a devotional practice. During ‘lockdown’ here in the UK, we found people on social media enjoying the virtual journey the Way offers. 2020 also marks 700 years since the canonisation of St. Thomas – so it’s a good year explore traditions and legacies surrounding his cult!

What’s your own chapter about?

I’m really proud of my own chapter: ‘Place, Time, and the St. Thomas Way: An Experiment in Five Itineraries’. There’s been so much great work from medievalists in particular on ideas of time and temporalities, and I was interested to explore what a practice-led, applied project could add to this critical conversation. I examine overlaid itineraries and temporal moments across the route of the Way, from Gerald of Wales to T.S. Eliot and Raymond Williams, and how they intersect with our experiences on the project.

Have you walked any of the Way yourself?

Yes – I did some of the user-testing! My favourite experiences included the tiny, peaceful medieval church at Patrishow – site of the hermitage of St. Issui and, still, a holy well. And the amazing Herefordshire School Romanesque carvings on the church at Kilpeck – though explaining the Sheela Na Gig to my young children was interesting! I was able to stand in green fields, listening to the soundscape of the lost medieval village and its market.

This is the first book in a new Arc Humanities Press series: ‘Places and Spaces, Medieval to Modern’. What can you tell us about it?

I’m actually one of the series editors, so it was great to publish my own edited collection as our inaugural volume. The series does pretty much what it says on the tin: it aims to bring together interdisciplinary academic and practitioner research on places and spaces in the Middle Ages, and also to make connections with medieval sites in the modern world. We have some really exciting books in the pipeline, so watch this space! And please contact us if you are interested in proposing a volume.

by Catherine Clarke

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