Tag Archives: Glastonbury

Why are there camels carved on this late medieval tomb?

In past posts I’ve written about my fascination with grave markers and the depictions of animals and plants that are sometimes featured, or their dual use as both tombstone and bird bath. It’s part of my broader interest in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, and specifically biodiversity and culture. I’m intrigued by what taxa we choose to use as decoration and symbolism, and conversely those species that are rarely or never a part of the human cultural expression of life on Earth. Graveyards and churches are prime hunting grounds for this sort of enquiry, and I find it difficult to walk past an old cemetery without at least a quick visit.

During our recent Christmas family gathering in Glastonbury Karin and I briefly dropped into St John’s Church and I spotted an intriguing late medieval tomb decorated with what are clearly Bactrian camels.

I have not previously seen camels depicted on a tomb – even the grave of the famed desert explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton can only manage a Bedouin tent. Also, the date of the tomb – 1487 – seemed very early for such an exotic depiction. So I did a little sleuthing on the topic of camels in medieval Britain and came across Dr Caitlin Green’s blog post asking “Were there camels in medieval Britain?“. The answer is yes, and as Dr Green’s research has shown, they were often depicted in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, stained glass and other media, at dates even earlier than the late 15th century.

But why are there camels on this particular tomb? The memorial belongs to John Camel and I suspect that the carvings are simply a play on his name – a sculptural pun. John is described as a lay treasurer for Glastonbury Abbey and may also have been involved in legal work, all of which sounds very dry and prosaic. But if it was John himself who commissioned this tomb, or his family that wanted a memorial which reflected his personality, it suggests to me that he certainly had a sense of humour.

“Camel” is a common place-name element in the south west of England: there’s both a river and a hill with that name, and of course King Arthur’s Camelot is reputed to be located here. The etymology of camel in this geographical sense is varied and sometimes obscure, but one thing is certain: it’s nothing to do with the even-toed ungulate mammals of the genus Camelus.

As I was writing this post it occurred to me that Burton’s Sufi-inspired poem The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî includes some fitting lines on which to end:

“All other Life is living Death, a world where none but Phantoms dwell,
A breath, a wind, a sound, a voice, a tinkling of the camel-bell”

Anchorage: trees rooted in rock

Towards the end of our stay in Glastonbury, Karin and I took an omega-shaped circular walk that looped over the famous Tor, through the town, and back to our cottage. At one point the road we walked passed through a cutting in the Jurassic sandstone called Wick Hollow. Several very large oak and beech trees had anchored themselves into this stone, their roots finding cracks in the rock and no doubt widening them over time as they grew. The trees were spectacular and I took a few shots with my phone, though these really don’t do them justice.

The shade and structure created by the trees allowed a diversity of ferns, mosses, lichens and seed plants to grow. I’m always amazed by the power and adaptability of plants, even large trees, to find a foothold in the unlikeliest of places and by doing so, create microclimates that allow other species to flourish. Life supports life.