Tag Archives: living history

Living with history

What happens to a site when we decide it has to be preserved for posterity? Often, it stops being a living location in actual use, and becomes a museum piece. This has several consequences. One of those is that there will be no future when an archaeologist can get excited about continuity of use beyond a certain point. We do not allow ourselves to participate in sites because to do so would be to damage them. And so there may be no future equivalent of the Viking graffiti on the Hagia Sophia – and we may be the poorer for it.

When a building, or a location can’t be used as was originally intended, it may become a tourist destination. This is not a neutral outcome that guarantees the safety of the site. Sometimes quite the opposite – with issues of erosion, damage, people taking bits of the site home with them, and the kinds of interventions you have to make to enable tourists to visit. The bridge at Tintagel is a case in point here – great that it improves accessibility, but I think it mostly exists because the weight of numbers visiting made the old route unsafe. You can’t wander hordes of tourists over a site every day with no consequences.

Historically, if a site was no longer needed for its original purpose, it would be repurposed. In some cases this has meant the stone being removed for re-use. Somewhere in the vicinity of my home is all the stone from a Roman villa, and the taking of it to build other things is now part of the history of the area. If you did that now, it would seem like vandalism. But, we have no qualms about cutting down ancient woodland to make way for high speed rail – we’re more attached to the built, historic human landscape than we are to the naturally occurring ancient landscape, and that could stand some scrutiny.

I think there’s something wonderful about buildings and locations being able to stay in use, in their original functions, so that they are alive and part of our lived experience, and not separated off as artefacts that we don’t really engage with. In the UK, I think there are two types of building where this tends to be handled well and we get continuity over time: Cathedrals, and pubs. Although tragically at the moment we’re losing pubs to redevelopment because pressures on the industry are closing them down. But, on the whole, these are locations where history is often preserved, but not at the expense of the living users of the site. Toilets can be added without building a visitor’s centre. Accessibility is a thing. Features can be removed. And sometimes by this measure, the Victorian pews from the churches and cathedrals end up in the pubs.

Living with history

We’ve been wandering around in a cathedral today – something I always like doing. Along the way I read up on glass restoration and the issues it raises. Often, to repair a thing is to change it, especially if you add or replace material. A thing that is repaired enough times may cease to be the original. (Something Pratchett frequently plays with in his fiction). So to what extent should we intervene, to preserve, replace, keep viable, to what extent should historical things be left to crumble? It’s an interesting issue for any pagan to consider because of ancient, historical sites. But I’m going to keep talking about glass.

I’ve been looking today at a big stained glass window in which a number of restoration theories have been tried. It’s a window full of figures. Some have lost their faces due to time. On a couple of people, these have been replaced with plain glass, making the missing bit obvious. The effect, from a distance, is weird. ‘Blobby head’ does not begin to do justice. Then we have the sketched-in faces to give an impression – these stand out as being separate from the original and also jar with it. For added comedy value, a restoration old enough that no one wants to mess with it, has put a beardy face over a woman’s body! Finally there’s a new face replacement that looks like a vibrant piece of stained glass, in keeping with the window as a whole. At a glance you wouldn’t spot that it’s a modern addition. However, the woman represented has been given a fringe / bangs and a jaw line, so that anyone looking closely can tell it isn’t part of the original window from the 1300s.

I’m very much in favour of preserving that which is beautiful or meaningful. I think it’s important to consider the sense of the whole though, alongside authenticity. I saw a wooden knight figure which had been damaged and reassembled, there was a bit of wood missing, but the absence didn’t undermine the sense of the whole. Not like the blank glass blobby faces in the window. “Authentic” may be an issue, but so is “usable” and I am entirely opposed to turning things into museum pieces when they could be kept as living, functional spaces, or items. The idea of museums is relatively recent, most of our ancestors either kept using, or discarded. With finite space, time, resources and money I think it’s fair to question why we keep anything. Not to say that we shouldn’t keep history, but that we ought to consider why we want to hold it ‘in tact’ why we are so alarmed by intrusions from our own time, why we want to pickle history and put it behind glass and only look at it.

The Victorians had an enthusiasm for ‘restoring’ that meant something a lot like ‘making over’ fitting the actual past into their ideas about what they wanted the past to have been. That’s always a risk, but now those Victorians are also part of history. What they did to historical things is part of the world we inherit. Is Victorian history less valuable than 1300s history for being that bit closer? Is it only the scarcity of material from a period that makes it valuable? What we value and preserve, and why, is an important question. How many hovels have you seen preserved as national history? Isn’t it odd how historic worth and money tend to go together?

What do we want the past for? Do we need it to be somehow pristine, untouched by intervening years? That’s so unnatural. I’d rather have a breathing, living thing that is part of now, as well as part of the past. I love modern windows in ancient buildings – if you have to replace something, why make a replica when you can make new? And I love the modern, female figure with her jaw and fringe, who fits, but is not pretending to be of the time. Would I want someone to put Stonehenge back to its original form? Absolutely not. It is how it has become, and there’s no certainty we’d get a reconstruction right. I wouldn’t mind if the road could be taken away from it though. It’s funny, we go mad trying to preserve a specific thing, so often forgetting that it belonged to a context, which mattered. We preserve specific ancient sites, but not the landscapes in which they sit. In focusing on one tree, we forget the forest.

History is good, but making a thing work is more important. A stained glass window full of blank panes and blobby heads may avoid introducing modern matter, but it’s not impact free. It changes the context of all the remaining glass. I’d rather a well considered reworking that respects the integrity of the whole, rather than clinging to the past above all else. I’d rather something that works, and can be touched, than a broken relic doomed to remain forever in a display case.

Living History

I’ve just had a weekend full of people dressed in mediaeval gear, doing re-enactment, and living history, cooking the food, brandishing the weapons and otherwise entertaining everyone. Years ago I had a brief stint as a Viking. It’s a lot of fun, casting off your regular life, donning the exotic gear, cooking on an open fire and not washing much. At the end of the weekend you go home, to showers, normal beds, modern medicine and a total absence of rats, amongst other things. Playing at history is fun, but most of us would not choose to live there full time.

We might get closer to our Druid ancestors by dressing like them, sleeping in Celtic roundhouses, eating the same food and exploring their crafts. Anyone doing so would learn something – about themselves at the very least. The practice of Druidry itself can very easily turn into something like a living history exercise – the pageantry and costume, the gear, the heading out into the woods for a break from regular life. We might learn some ancient Celtic words to spice up rituals, we might go deep, deep into what is learnable about ancient practice. And still at the end of it we’d be going home to modern life, and we’d still be playing.

We are not living in the past, no matter how much we might imagine we want to. I have nothing against playing, re-enacting, role play games and any other kind of lighthearted dressup a person might imagine. But if we are pretending to be ancient Celts and Druids, we are not being modern druids. For all that we might learn from history, we are not living in those same social structures, we do not have the same immediacy of relationship with the land – our food comes from all over the world. We are not farming, fishing, hunting, walking and experiencing the land around us in the ways that our ancestors did. There is so much that we can’t replicate, that taking bits of it and imagining they are viable on their own, seems like madness to me. In just the same way that dressing up as Henry the Eighth for a weekend does not mean, come Monday morning, anyone at work will relate to you as a monarch.

The more historically orientated we make Druidry, the more exclusive it becomes. It’s not just about having the time to study, but the means to make or buy, own and transport kit,  the capacity to learn ancient languages, or even modern ‘celtic’ ones… Historical Druudry is impossible druidry. It so often begins by saying that the only real druids lived thousands of years ago and that we cannot use that word, or claim that identity. Proponents then often go on to demand rigorous historical study, language learning, and whatever else seems to them as relevant. I do not think that the only modern Druids should be historians. It reminds me rather of the opening to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, where the only magicians left are theoretical ones, largely because none of them dares even try any real magic.

Even if we could know everything our ancestors did, if we could replicate their lives (at the weekend) how viable, or useful would that be? We would not be them, and we would not be relevant to the world we live in. Just another subset of Celtic re-enactors, available for hire to the tourist industry and film makers. Something to peer at over a hot weekend. That would not make us Druids either.

With all due reference to those most excellent philosophers, Bill and Ted, we are here, and now. The past is not available to us, the future is ours to shape and if we spend too much time looking backwards, we’re going to miss it.