Sunday, 19 August 2012

Across Centuries and Across Continents

Sumo wrestling may not be the most obvious connection with medieval English rural churches but bear with me and I’ll get there in the end….

Nottinghamshire’s Thurgarton Priory Church is, like so many survivals from the pre-Reformation era, not complete.  Once it might have rivalled nearby Southwell Minster in its size and magnificence.  Now it could be described as a sad remnant, a village church fashioned from part of the original nave, a single western tower where once stood two, and a cut down western front which can only be seen from the private estate of the adjacent Thurgarton Priory which like Newstead Abbey, not far away, is a great house built on the site of the original Priory.  The Priory Church though is well worth a visit and this year it was open as part of the Notts Open Churches initiative in July.

Surviving tower and remnant of west front
Victorian chancel added on part of original nave
I was particularly keen to see inside the church because the flyer for the Open Churches featured a photo of a wood carving showing two wrestlers locked in the (Japanese) yotsu position where each wrestler grips the other’s belt as they each try to topple the other.  The carving turned out to be a fragment cut from a misericord and in itself could have been just a depiction of local wrestlers in the English tradition, similar to the Cumberland style of wrestling, or indeed Mongolian wrestling.  However when I looked at the other remnant of the misericord in the church, just three seats, I was rather amazed to find another carving of what looked for all the world like a Japanese sumo Grand Champion (yokozuna) performing the traditional ring entering ceremony (dohyo-iri).  See what you think, coincidence or what?  The picture below shows the current Grand Champion, Hakuho, performing the ring entering ceremony next to the Thurgarton carving.  The other photos show the medieval wrestlers plus a photo of two maegashira ranked wrestlers, Kaisei and Aran, locked in a yotsu position.  Aran (black belt) won this bout, by the way.

Misericord Yokozuna?
Grand Champion Hakuho
Medieval Wrestlers
Wrestlers Kaisei and Aran

 Churches, don’t you just love them?!  They continually throw up fascinating little puzzles and misericord carvings often depict lovely little vignettes from everday medieval life.  But the question raised here is what link there might be between the Thurgarton wrestlers and modern day sumo thousands of miles away in Japan: maybe none, maybe coincidence, or maybe just maybe, a common thread that reaches out across centuries and across continents!

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