With Halloween appearing a full month ahead of itself, I’ve been thinking about Margaret of Clitherow’s hand. I saw The Hand when I traveled in England in the year 2005, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that city, my father being a foreigner of Cornwall. That’s for you English majors.
Anyway I was up in York, walking on the walls and luxuriating in the services at York Minster and availing myself of every opportunity to walk through The Shambles, the ancient butcher’s street. In the Shambles I visited the little shrine to Saint Margaret of Clitherow where I learned her hand was at the Bar Convent.
In York, the streets are gates, the gates are bars, and the bars are pubs; they sell a lot of T-shirts that say so. The Bar Convent is a convent outside Micklegate Bar (or the gate at Mickle Street. You get used to the terminology, or after some time in a pub, you don’t have to).
Having a huge capacity for ghoulishness, I couldn’t help wondering what on earth this was all about. Her hand? Even more than the Micklegate Bar where they used to display severed heads did I want to see the hand of St. Margaret of Clitherow. On the Endless Tourist Loop Bus, I asked the driver to let me off at the convent at Micklegate Bar.
“I want to see that hand,” I confided in him.
“Margaret of Clitherow’s hand?” He asked cheerfully.
Like there might be others.
To my great disappointment, the Convent Museum was closed that day but the girl at the desk offered to show me the chapel.
“I really wanted to see The Hand,” I said wistfully.
“Oh, it’s in the chapel,” she reassured me.
I perked up.
The chapel was a bright, sun-lit, Italianate room. Before I got to see The Hand, there was an opening act. In a locked cupboard -a reliquary-were nine tiny items. One was the burnt flesh of a martyr—didn’t catch the name—that looked like a cigarette butt. Another was a stained scrap of fabric that had been wrapped around the severed finger of another martyr. The label noted laconically, “The finger is in Bruges.”
At this I almost laughed hysterically. I was born in the Pacific Northwest, the youngest coast of a young democracy, our native Totem poles notwithstanding. If the U.S is adolescent, the west coast is pre-teen. I did not yell, “Gross!” like some of my students might, but truly, I had never seen anything remotely like this.
Locked in a special cupboard in a reliquary of its own was The Hand. The girl handed me a velvet-covered, glass-domed cake plate festooned with crosses and a little sign saying The Hand isn’t to be handled. She removed the velvet and I had a good long look at a shriveled, but identifiably human hand. It was grotesque, funny, and poignant.
Earlier in the day I had wandered into a church called All Saints Pavement (yes, it is) where the organist let me play the pipe organ. Afterward I sat in a pew and wrote five breathless postcards telling friends in Seattle that I had played the pipe organ in a big English church. At the Bar Convent I sat in the bright Italianate chapel and wished I hadn’t mailed those cards because playing the organ was nothing next to seeing the appendage of St Margaret of Clitherow.