Spoilers, Part Three (Or Ten…)
Finally (a bit late…), I want to talk about the importance of art and material culture to the narrative in terms of timewalking. Timewalking does not only give the ability to travel to the past to understand how something worked (oh man do I have research questions that would so benefit from this!), but it requires the material culture of the past to work. As Emily tells Matthew earlier, you need three objects to get to your destination. The show, each time Diana timewalks, includes three things. There are wooden spoons and other instruments from the workroom; there is a book from when she was at Sept Tours. Often times historians (of all types) have to look to objects to answer questions that cannot be answered by text alone. Everyday objects and artworks alike tell about a culture’s priorities, likes/dislikes, and how it interacted with the world. That objects are the literal gateway to the past in the All Souls world is amazing. We are constantly reminded of the materiality of manuscripts through Diana and Ashmole 782, and the importance of objects to timewalking reminds us more broadly of the importance of materiality to the past.
It begs the question if you had to pick three objects to travel to this moment, what would they be? Mine would be tea, my computer, and my phone. Yes, I’m sitting in a café drinking tea and writing this on my computer while I listen to music on my phone & check Facebook/Twitter/texts/emails every so often.
So, the three objects we have here: Ysabeau’s earring, the chess piece, and Doctor Faustus. Let’s break these down.
Ysabeau’s earring first appears in a poppet that the house gives Matthew. The earring might be the most important item here, but it is not the only one that is key to the scene. While Matthew knows that the earring was lost long ago and Diana says it is the oldest poppet she has ever seen (Matthew’s other helpful contribution here is that Diana’s ancestor got into trouble with one), no firm date is given for either.
We also have to pause and talk about the house again as an active agent. It gives the poppet and earring to Matthew (and by extension Diana) at the moment it chooses. There’s not a moment where Matthew or the Bishops say ‘dear house, can we have some help?’ It knows when they need objects, and which objects they need. We see this in the book, too, when it adds rooms for the visitors. It also has the ability to give the objects in different ways. Here, the poppet falls from the chimney, a place where objects were ceremonially deposited in houses to ward off evil spirits (including bad witches). [If you had the joy of seeing Spellbound at the Ashmolean, you’ll have seen a poppet and objects placed as they were found in various chimneys. You can still read a bit about it and see some objects that were featured, including the poppet here.]
Objects/items/things are not just objects/items/things. In this universe, they are endowed with meaning: that meaning is usually grounded in history. And sometimes to get to that history, you literally need an object. It is a cyclical relationship that defines art history, history, and material culture. Through things, we get history; through history, we get things.
It is also worth noting that this is not the only piece of Ysabeau’s jewellery to feature in the timewalking narrative. She also sent Diana a ring that Philippe gave her.
While the importance of the ring is not known to the viewers yet, readers will recognise this as Ysabeau’s message to Philippe that she approves of Diana – sending her blessing back in time with them. The ring does not just carry the message in its inscribed poem; it carries her approval of Diana, and a message of love to Philippe . The poem, as related in the book, is also key here:
A ma vie de coeur entier
(My whole heart for my whole life)
Mon debut et ma fin “with an alpha and omega”
(My beginning and my end)
Se souvenir du passe, et qu’il ya un avenir
(Remember the past, and that there is a future)
The poem very much summarises Matthew and Diana’s relationship: Matthew not only refers to Diana as “ma coeur,” but Matthew marks an end and beginning for Diana in how she approaches her magic and the world around her. The final poesy is a warning to look at the past, but not get lost in it. This is important for their time walking, but it also key for Diana in the ways she embraces her scholarly work. Yes, it can help her navigate her present situation, but it cannot dictate the future that she and Matthew work to build.
In the book, Diana comments: ‘The poesies suit us perfectly’ before her narration comments on how ‘it was eerie that Philippe had selected verses for Ysabeau so long ago that could have meaning for Matthew and me today.’ (A Discovery of Witches, chapter 43) Matthew then explains that vampires are a sort of timewalker before he uses the ring to marry Diana. Ysabeau also sends his pilgrim’s badge and other manuscripts, which they leave behind for the house to watch, again indicating – textually, as the show does visually – its ability to protect and distribute items of importance.
Too often we as scholars have lost original contexts and this is another delightful moment where a fictional setting can hypothesise meanings for objects and conditions in which objects might be passed on. Granted, I don’t think many of us would say ‘oh, this object could have been passed amongst generations for time travel.’ But that gifts were loaded with multiple messages that were activated in different contexts of giving/receiving and use? Definitely! (One of my favourite rings can be interpreted as a betrothal ring that encapsulates the bride’s duties as queen, which include child-bearing, by showing a scene of stylised sex with the king under the sign of the cross, which highlights the sanctity of their marriage and rule. When the queen accepts this, she accepts both king as husband and the duties she will be expected to perform – including childbirth – as queen.)
Ysabeau’s ring is based on a seventeenth-century German ring in the Victoria and Albert, which contains a similar inscription (‘my beginning and my end/what God has joined together should/no man put asunder’). It’s on display, so you can see it in person if you’re ever in London.
The Chess piece
The chess piece has featured throughout the series, and was one of our first visual signifiers of Diana as (instrument of the) goddess and alchemical queen. It is the second clue Matthew receives as to where might be a safe moment for them to travel.
The piece inspires Sophie and Nathaniel’s journey, just as it inspires Matthew and Diana’s. From the start, Sophie has constantly reminded Nathaniel, Agatha, and the viewer that she believes is key to her finding the person who will be instrumental with to the wider world of creatures. As Sophie has to find Diana (represented by the statue), Diana has to find her way into the past (also represented by the statue).
The manuscript is what we and Diana see last, and provides the final clue as to where Matthew thinks Diana should transport them to in order for them to hide from the Congregation while they search for Ashmole 782 and Diana learns the range of and ability to control her power.
It is fitting that we have a manuscript as the third object here: the narrative starts with the discovery of a manuscript and the next chapter in that narrative is dependent on a manuscript. Words and what they are contained in have power in this universe. This also reminds the viewer that books/manuscripts are objects to be used, whether by scholars, witches, or vampires. And use can – and often does – stretch beyond simply reading.
While we do not see the text of the manuscript that Matthew hands Diana, we know from the book that it is in fact a manuscript, in the same hand as the inscription – that of Christopher Marlowe. The ‘B’ text of the printed play has been digitised by the British Library, and includes moments not in the 1604 printed edition, which may closer reflect the text as performed in Marlowe’s lifetime. In the book’s version of events, we learn that Marlowe was in love with Matthew – something Diana picks up by touching his writing. The reader is also given more detailed information about Matthew’s plans – as well as those of Diana in relation to her research and expectations – that are either not directly discussed in the course of the show or are discussed at other moments as they plan their journey.
Once again knowledge is gained by physically touching the manuscript. Unlike Ashmole 782, the Faustus manuscript does not mark Diana physically, but only by giving up knowledge not contained within the text itself. Given that at some point in Diana’s training as manuscript/book scholar, she would have been told touching the text or images in the manuscripts is best avoided, one wonders if her constantly touching these texts in “illicit” (or at least frowned upon) ways is a reflection of marvel at her newfound/newly accepted powers – as well as the connections these powers allow her to forge. (Or allow manuscripts to forge with her.) In later books, we’ll see her struggle with the repercussions of touching and these connections.
Furthermore, we have been conditioned to think of Ashmole 782 as more than a simple book: it is a magical vessel that displays its own agency. While the Faustus copy does not have the same magic to it, it is magical. Manuscripts have a type of power that is inherent in their object-ness: the effort of making, the fact they’ve survived (take, for example, the great Beowulf manuscript at the British Library that survived the fire in Ashburnham House in 1731 that damaged a significant portion of Cotton’s collection), and how they are viewed today, often from a distance that denotes them as special objects to be revered.
And then there is the matter of actually timewalking.
As Matthew and Diana prepare for their journey, Satu, Knox, and Gerbert approach the house. Satu comments that the house is protected, there is some kind of spell on it.
Our final image of the season is Diana turning quickly, as if she is surprised. It is a different room than her room at the Bishop House, which is evident by the decor. They’ve made it somewhere (1590!), and we are told this by that decor – the open flame candles, long table, and chairs.
I can only imagine the material culture that is going to come to life in the next season! I’ll be back with that when it’s on, but, in the meantime, I’ll get back to the art of the books. If there’s something you want to hear about specifically that I haven’t gotten to, or something you want more on, drop me a line!