Beyond The Edge of Recollection

The more I study about the art and culture of the Middle Ages, the more I’m convinced that this was a world I knew well.

More specifically, I think any life I might have lived in the Angevin courts was a fluke; my strongest draw, by far, is to the trappings of monastic life.

I see the vaulted ceilings and cloisters of old abbeys and I feel strangely homesick.  I read of monks commenting on the aches in their back and hands, the strain on their eyes, or the poor quality of the parchment (one monk complained that his still had hair on it) and I feel like it’s all familiar to me, things I experienced regularly.

Also, there’s the places I tended to gravitate toward.  Certainly, the ruins of old abbeys held a strange fascination for me when I was in England in 2003-05.  But more than that, there was Mepkin Abbey, an active, thriving Cistercian abbey near Charleston, SC I used to go to as a child and once specifically requested a trip to on my 21st birthday.  I spent a good half hour talking monastic history with one of the brothers at the abbey and felt strangely at home, though I knew in my heart that this time around, monastic life wasn’t for me (most importantly because I’m involved in a very serious relationship).

I’ve written a few medieval monastic characters into my recent works and I have to say, it comes rather naturally.  I think it’s safe to say that this is a topic I will revisit in my work for many years to come.

It’s a shame that oak galls are so hard to come by in Oregon, and parchment is so terribly expensive, or I’d be tempted to try my hand at making my own ink and writing the old-fashioned way, with a candle for light, a quill, a blade, a stylus, and a copy of my work to be transcribed to elegant miniscule letters (or as elegant as my unsteady hands can manage).

Still, any clear recollection of having lived that life eludes me.  It’s only a vague feeling that I had to have lived- perhaps several lifetimes- as a Cistercian monk some time before or after Count William’s life.  Maybe that was the life I defaulted toward during that period, when I wasn’t born into some prior obligation or a life of privilege.  I feel strongly that I had multiple literate lives in an age when this was not common, though, which is odd.

A Visual Reference

To give some idea of the narrow aspect of the columns I recall in that unknown church in the Middle Ages, I found a good reference to columns that look kind of similar:

These are at the Benedictine abbey in Moissac, France.  I do know that these columns are not the ones I saw as these are in the cloister; the columns I remember ran along the aisle next to the Nave, and did not run to the floor but came to a low screen or fence-type divider with a few doorways in between.  Also, they were black; whether this was black stone or stone painted to appear black, I am not sure.

Still, the image should give some idea of the narrow aspect of the columns I remember, and might help jog someone’s memory if the place still exists.  Personally, I’m doubtful that the place was real and if it was, I’m doubtful it still stands in a form I would recognize, but you never know.

Did I Remember a Past Life in 1914?

I’ve had a chance to sort it out and here’s what I’ve got so far.

What I know for sure:

1. My memories of a previous life correspond well to those of one John Harris (1877-1915).

2. John was a private in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, based out of Shrewsbury

3. That in Sept. 1914 (when John is known to have enlisted) there were regiments closer to his home in Hereford, but instead he chose one based more than 50 miles away in a town where I can find no record of direct relatives living at that time.

4. I also have memories of a Romanesque abbey in ruins which I can’t quite place; I had seen similar ruins before but not exactly like this one.

5. There are two abbeys of a Romanesque type near Shrewsbury. 

6. I have had possible memories of a life in the 13th or 14th century.  These memories have not been confirmed or traced to a specific individual yet.

7. One of these memories involves becoming a monk against the wishes of my family, and being from a family of means.   The abbey where I became a monk was also Romanesque.

8. There was a family by the name of Harris in the late Middle Ages in the Shrewsbury area, but I cannot trace them back further than about the 15th century with the records available freely online.

9. “John Harris” was among the names I came across among the Shrewsbury Harrises, so if I did live before in the Middle Ages, it’s possible I had the same name in that life.

What I strongly inferred from intuition but have not confirmed:

1. That I was the third son of a noble house meant by order of birth to be in the military in the Middle Ages, and that I had chosen to be a monk to get out of that obligation.

2. That I was John Harris in my most recent previous life.

3. That I remembered that medieval life in 1914 while visiting an abbey near Shrewsbury and that this influenced my decision not only to enlist, but to join the KSLI in particular rather than enlisting closer to home and family.

4. That I learned Received Pronunciation in Hereford, and that after leaving the farm I took work in a position that required me to look and sound posh, but paid little (e.g. a butler or waiter).

5. That I regretted my decision to not become a soldier in my life as a monk, and that I had ambitions of becoming an officer and held the misguided hope that my age and my efforts to learn received pronunciation would mark me as a candidate for becoming one.

Ideas that I’ve so far disfavored:

1. That I had a mistress in Shrewsbury.  This was based only on intuition and the vague idea that a woman was there with me in the old abbey in 1914.  I have since realized that it could just as easily have been my wife if there was anyone with me at all.

2. That the ruined abbey was somewhere in Herefordshire or Somerset.  A search reveals most of the ruined abbeys in those counties are of a later Gothic style (including the famous Glastonbury and Tintern abbeys).

3. That the ruined abbey was actually a childhood memory from this life of a plantation near Charleston, SC.  None of the plantations (including Mepkin Abbey, which was built on the site of an old plantation) have the sort of architecture I recall seeing, particularly the columns and rounded archways.

I’m not sure what to think, or how to dig up anything more on that medieval life aside from maybe hiring a researcher (which is sadly out of my budget).  I have a feeling the records I need to fill in a lot of these gaps are tucked away in dusty libraries somewhere in England and it’s very discouraging.  If I can confirm the details of two past lives, that alone will be remarkable, but it seems I may have just gotten very lucky with the records on John.

Curioser and Curioser!

It turns out that Shropshire has about four Romanesque abbeys.  In fact it’s got one of the largest concentrations in Western England, it seems.

So far, the sites I’ve reviewed: 

Haughmond Abbey– doesn’t really look much like it.  Not enough of the squat columns.  Owing to the split level, I’ll give it a “maybe” still.

Buildwas Abbey– if this is it, they’ve cleared the site a lot. Topography isn’t as “lumpy”
as I recall but older images suggest perhaps it once was.

Lilleshall Abbey– Not enough columns, and the arches are too ornate.

Wenlock priory– possibly. The grounds are landscaped, though I don’t know if that’s been done recently or not.  It looks a little too Gothic/transitional be the right one though.

So the first two seem the most likely just by the look of them.

From Google Maps, I know that Buildwas abbey is less than 15 miles from Shrewsbury by road.  Haughmond Abbey is less than 5.

Given that my memory is of strolling through the abbey with a woman, and the fact that I joined a regiment based out of Shrewsbury (when I could have just as easily joined closer to home), I come to some uncomfortable possibilities of what happened in 1914.  Imagine this scenario: I’ve been married four years (record suggest I married in 1910) when I happen to meet a woman from Shrewsbury who leaves me reeling.  I go up there to see her, madly in love.  At last I can’t bear it.  The war breaks out, and I seize the opportunity to be near her one last time before going off to the front.  But I’m not thinking about the long term; I’m thinking about her.

So was I just a fool in love back in 1914, then?  It would explain a lot about me, and why I kept trying to date while in the UK in this life.  Maybe I was trying to go back and live the life I left behind and never knew it.

One Possible Site

I found a Romanesque abbey which, although it doesn’t look much like the site I remember, I’m intrigued by its location: it’s in Shropshire!

So supposing this is the place then?  It would really fit things together too neatly.  I walk away from the life of a soldier in the 13th century and retire to an abbey in Shropshire, only to come back to Shropshire in the 20th century and become a soldier.  That’s if this is the place.

I’m asking friends in the UK to start looking for other Romanesque abbeys.  I’m still not sure this one quite meets the look I’m thinking of and until I search thoroughly and find no other match, I’ll assume it’s not.

A better match for my memory will have most or all of the following features:

A partly-intact gardens that still have some of their original contours and ponds; a doorway slightly sunken into the ground and accessible only by going a short but steep slope of 3-5 feet like the side of a ditch; squat, fairly wide Romanesque columns; rounded door arches with very few Gothic additions if any; a history of attracting young lovers.

This is really getting interesting, folks.  I started out looking for a Tommy who never made it home, and now I’m on the trail of a medieval monk.  If I can confirm the details of two past lives, I’ll be very astonished but very fascinated.  It will also affirm what I already know: that I have a deep and very old connection to England.


I think I may have been a monk in the middle ages.

It wasn’t my first choice, believe me, and it wasn’t what my family had intended.  I was the one in the order of sons of a noble house (I can’t remember if it was second or third) who was supposed to become a soldier but I was a bit of a weakling with more interest in books than in swords.  

I went to the local abbey to have a word with the abbot there about joining the order.  I believe it was a Cistercian abbey with Romanesque construction.  We sat in his office, him at a tall writing desk before a window as I came in.  He greeted me warmly, but when I brought up joining the order he resisted; God had meant for me to be a soldier, he told me.  But I persisted.  “So you will deny a man who wants to serve his Lord?” I said, looking him straight in the eye.  He relented.

I went home to my father and told him of my decision to join the order.  He didn’t take it well.  He wanted me to be a man at arms, maybe even earn a position serving the King himself as a foot soldier.  He said he would just as soon not had me as a son, and I replied “I don’t need you or my brothers when I have my father in heaven and my brothers in the abbey.”

It’s not that I was uncommonly pious, but it was quite normal to reference religion like that in conversation.  

I believe my father in this medieval life was the man I saw playing golf in another memory.  By his clothing- a loose tunic, baggy hose, plain shoes and a linen cap, I’d say this was probably around the 13th century, when styles were still a bit on the baggy side (before the advent of tailoring in the 14th century).

Then again, I had another possibly related memory of being married in what seemed to be 14th century clothes in a church with black columns.  If I was married before joining the order, then it is possible I was either a widower at a young age or abandoned my family.  Or maybe I never ended up joining…

I don’t remember anything after telling my father, and not a whole lot before that either… nothing about training to be a soldier from a young age (as I probably did) nor of monastic life, just this snippet of my story.

One interesting thing, though: I have a memory of a Romanesque abbey in ruins from my life as John.  I’m convinced the abbey I saw in this memory from the middle ages is the same one John marveled over centuries later.

I’m really interested in finding that abbey now.  I’ve done a little bit of searching trying to find abbey ruins in Somerset or Herefordshire that match my memory of low corridors with squat doorways and short, Romanesque columns.  For that matter, I’d like to find that cathedral with the tall, skinny, black columns too.