By Ian Colson
Whitby Headland is a ‘spiritual place’ proclaimed the interpretive panel. It certainly did not feel like it as I visited the cliff top abbey site with its refurbished English Heritage visitor centre. The wind howled (and I really mean howled) around the headland coming straight in from the North Sea, so much so that the blinds protecting the slick exhibition from the sunlight rattled as a reminder of tempest blowing outside. No sepulchral calm and stillness here! Still, it was warmer inside than out and the exhibition of artefacts recovered from the various excavations on the headland revealed a treasure trove of wonderful things, not least those connected with the seventh century abbey with its enigmatic first abbess, St Hild. The later medieval abbey was engagingly represented as was the post-dissolution development of the site. Perhaps inevitably, Bram Stoker and Dracula made an appearance. Is it, though, a ‘spiritual’ place?
Some years ago I worked as a school chaplain and was very impressed by a paper which showed how, over the years, the OFSTED definition of spirituality had changed. In the eighties when I studied theology it was fundamentally defined by the Christian tradition – spirituality was about the relationship of the individual with the divine. Over time, however, this definition has evolved to something broader, more diffuse and concerned about the wholeness of the individual, reflecting a growing medical discourse connecting health and spirituality. The connections with theistic belief have become considerably more elastic and the mantra ‘I am spiritual but not religious’ has become a common one, even perhaps a form of virtue signalling. There is, however, a growing body of research1 that even this notion of spirituality is losing traction and that a much more indifferent outlook is on the rise.
Would Hild have sought out Whitby headland as a spiritual place? Probably not. Archaeological consensus is that a good part of the reasoning behind the placement of early medieval monasteries was based on lines of communication, especially those by water. Sitting above the sheltered mouth of the River Esk where it flows into the North Sea, the abbey site is ideally placed to have been accessible by boat or ship. Hild may have been drawn to the headland by the Roman remains which likely still existed in her time and, rather than looking for some wild and barren place, modern modelling of the patterns of erosion suggests that her abbey was not on a cliff edge but in a sheltered spot nearly half a kilometre away from the sea.2
I’m growingly aware that I try to overlay my own understandings of spirituality both on times past – that monasteries should be in contemplative lonely and wild places, for instance – and on the here and now. But, can some things and places become more spiritual than others? Is there ontological change in temples and mosques that have been prayed in for millennia? Do icons and chalices become imbued with sanctity through continuous use? Are these even intelligible questions?
I was musing this over with one of our esteemed RCHG co-chairs who pointed to the annual weekend gathering of Goths in Whitby, drawn by its part in the Dracula story, asking whether that is an expression of spirituality? I suppose the emergent question is whether celebrating being a Goth amongst kindred spirits gives meaning, a sense of identity, and contributes to the wholeness of the person? Not being a Goth I don’t know, but I’m inclined to think it probably does.
As I understand it, the limits of constructivist interpretation of the meanings stewarded by our museums and galleries comes about through communities who facilitate the legitimacy of those meanings. It is a consensus that allows for what can agreed and what cannot. Who are those communities, though? Academics? English Heritage members? Goths in Whitby over a summer weekend? Even research students blown in one Friday morning by a gale?
Perhaps Whitby is not a spiritual place at all but rather one where communities as varied as Goths and seventh century nuns come together to create their own spiritualities?
Ian Colson is the secretary of the RCHG and a PhD student at Durham University researching the interpretation of Christianity in early medieval Northumbria.
1. For example: Mason, Michael (2007) The Spirituality of Young Australians’. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality. 12(2), pp. 149-163.
2. For a comprehensive overview of excavations at Whitby see: Wilmott, T. (2017) The Anglian abbey of Streonæshalch-Whitby: new perspectives on topography and layout, In Thomas, G. and Knox, A. (eds.), Early Medieval Monasticism in the North Sea Zone: Proceedings of a conference held to celebrate the conclusion of the Lyminge excavations 2008–15, Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology, pp. 81–94.