Part of the story

It turns out that glass doesn’t hold up very well after seven centuries. All of the fourteenth-century windows in York Minster are now on a twenty-year cycle for inspection, maintenance, and restoration. The York Glaziers Trust painstakingly removes each panel, each tiny pane of colored glass, puts it under a microscope, catalogs it, and tries to put it back in better shape.

One of the panels from the “Cuthbert Window”

One of the primary commitments of the glaziers is to make all of their work reversible. In a hundred years, when another generation of glaziers comes along to see what these technicians have done, it is crucial that they have the ability to undo even such careful, thoughtful work in order to bring a window back to an earlier stage of its history.

This astonishingly humble stance is something the glaziers have learned the hard way by grappling with the restoration efforts of the Victorians, who were quite content to intervene in dramatic, irreversible ways—as were those who removed and replaced the windows for protection from bombing in World War II.

The current project is to restore the Cuthbert panel—a series of windows telling the story of Saint Cuthbert. Previous “restorations” to the windows made some surprising changes. One window, for instance, shows St. Cuthbert talking to a small group of monks:

In researching earlier sketches of the windows, however, the Trust discovered that there had originally been a porpoise at St. Cuthbert’s feet in this image:

That detail is important, because it show which episode from the life of Cuthbert the window was trying to tell: the story of how he prayed for food and God miraculously provided him with a porpoise to eat. (It’s a strange story to us, but porpoises were commonly eaten in the seventh century.) The porpoise is the whole point of the story: without the porpoise, the panel has no purpose.

So where is the porpoise in the picture? It’s actually in a completely different picture, swimming beneath a boat. 

Look beneath the center of the boat.

The Victorians freely repaired windows with pieces of other windows. In another window, they simply replaced Cuthbert’s head with that of a common monk from another window, thus costing him the golden halo that had clearly identified him in the picture. 

From the point of view of narrative studies—fragmentation, bricolage, intertextuality—this is of course fascinating and exciting. To a historian glazier, it must be maddening. “Today,” a plaque says somewhat laconically, “such practices would not be acceptable to curators and conservators.”

But the plaque goes on, however, with two sentences that particularly struck me: 

“Losses and structural changes, over the centuries, to the glass and stonework, mean that it cannot be returned to its exact original state. These alterations, and the reasons for them, are part of the window’s long and fascinating history.”

What a wise and honest attitude not just toward the window but toward life itself, combining genuine lament with acceptance of—and even appreciation for—the losses being lamented.

We have reached the point in the semester when I am able to see my missteps as an administrator and as a teacher: choices I would make much differently the next time around. The coursework, in particular, needs to give students freedom to explore and take risks, but also give them requirements and structure that compel them to do things they simply will not do on their own. I can see in students’ copious writing all of the ways in which I failed to strike that balance. In some respects, I wish I’d rigged this ship with different sail.

But there’s no going back. I’m not going to re-rig the ship at this point. I’m making what adjustments I can along the way, but of course you can’t rebuild a program from scratch when you’re in the middle of it. Perhaps, I thought later in the day, I simply need to say that the mistakes I made, and the reasons for them, are part of the program’s long and fascinating history.

A few weeks ago I met a graduate student at our downtown campus who was about to launch a brand new program to bring children from the neighborhood—a hard-hit working class part of town—into the beautiful campus for free art and drama classes on Saturday mornings. She was terrified about how her first day was going to go. “As long as it’s the first day,” I said, “it can’t really go wrong, can it? There’s no benchmark, no expectation. However it goes is how it was supposed to go.”

I’ve probably needed to take a little of my own advice to heart. There are benchmarks and expectations for this program—some of them set by me when I directed it in 2018—but there comes a point where you have to say: “That happened. It shouldn’t have happened. But it’s part of the story now—and what a great story!”

Published by


Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."