During the course of sorting and optimising hundreds of old photographs in order to be able to use them online, I am beginning to see through some of the filters which we put on our interpretation of the past. This was part of the point of the exercise. The way we see medieval sites today is mediated through hundreds of years of history, and yet what we see in front of our eyes, tidied and explained by the heritage industry, defines our perception of people, societies, communities and events.
The above is an engraving of Rievaulx Abbey in beautiful North Yorkshire, derived from a drawing by Turner. It practically defines our image of a Cistercian abbey, even though it was utterly dead and ruinous at the time of its depiction. We imagine something isolated and silent in a wild landscape of unpopulated hills. We imagine the monks walking solemnly, without chatter, no sound echoing off the hills but the melodic singing of the offices. It's a kind of comforting image in today's frantic world.
The engraving conforms to what we know about the practicalities of Cistercian monasteries. They did build in isolated sites away from towns. The location in the bottom of the valley and the romantic little stone bridge in the foreground indicate their relationship with running water, for sanitation and for rural production.
This romantic imaging was perpetuated by post-medieval owners of the site. From the Rievaulx Terraces, now managed by the National Trust, there were gaps cut through the trees and shrubbery to provide a series of picturesque views of the simple but grand and stately remains. You can imagine the matin bell tolling across the peaceful valley.
In fact, this would have been a busy community. While the monks said their offices, an army of lay brothers carried out the practical duties around the place. There were rural estates providing income and provisions for the community, with the necessary comings and goings. There were important visitors staying in the guest house. There were masons and builders continually adding and renovating. Those massive churches and cloisters were not just deposited there by the angels. There were mills grinding flour and breweries making beer and armies of cooks toiling away in large kitchens. It was probably busier and noisier then than it is now, even on a bank holiday.
Fountains Abbey (above) and Rievaulx Abbey are visited by thousands of people taking in the medieval Cistercian experience. The completeness of their remains and the delightfulness of their surrounds convince us we are immersing ourselves in that world. Other Cistercian remains in Yorkshire like Byland Abbey, Jervaulx Abbey or Roche Abbey are pleasant ruins, but perhaps a bit harder to comprehend in their incompleteness. Then there is Kirkstall Abbey.
Situated in the middle of suburban West Yorkshire sprawl where Leeds and Bradford have kind of oozed together, it lacks the romantic charm of being marooned in a country estate. The walls are blackened with West Yorkshire industrial muck. When the Cistercians built there it was a rural site like the others, sited in a valley bottom by a river in standard form. Even by the late 18th century it appears to have still been farming land. William Bray in his Sketch of a Tour into Derbyshire ... etc etc, of 1783, decries the attitude of the owner of the Kirkstall estate, the Duke of Mountague, for allowing his cattle to wander through the church ruins.
It is, however, as complete a ruin as either Fountains or Rievaulx and conveys the complexity of a Cistercian community just as well, albeit with an added layer of urban grime. Yet somehow, because it is in a place whose fame depends on later industrialisation, we let that override the medieval past. Medieval events and processes did not happen outside areas of industrial revolution growth. These happened over the top of them, but not all traces were obliterated.
I recently undertook, with my good mate Sjoerd Levelt whom I have never met, the task of reading Camden's Britannia in English translation from beginning to end. We egged each other along by tweeting the experience with the hashtag #DoomBritain. It was notable that Camden had as many murderous tales of the medieval aristocracy, dodgy etymologies and mythological historical events for Doncaster and Halifax, Pontefract and Leeds, as he did for the more romantically preserved medieval places.
The family medievalist grew up in the industrial towns of the West Riding and was amazed to discover that there are fine medieval alabaster tombs, albeit a little browned by their environment, in Batley, for example. He lived there at one time and didn't imagine such things were to be found in the townscape of dreary terraces and housing estates which characterise parts of West Yorkshire.
Thornhill, now practically a suburb of Leeds, also has a share of fine medieval tomb monuments, just as elegant as those on the Harewood estate but less romantically situated.
It also has some fine 15th century stained glass, of the York school but showing that you don't have to be surrounded by lovely white wedding cake walls in order to have some treasures.
A similar mindset applies to older remains. Hadrian's Wall is typified in our thoughts as a lonely set of outposts stretching across empty bits of Britain. I took the same photographs as everybody else does. In fact, for the one above there could be a little platform with footmarks in it to show you how to get that same shot.
Things do keep changing though. There have been ongoing excavations at Vindolanda to reveal more about the settlement history. Bits of the wall in other areas have been repaired. But even more interesting, the foundations of the end of the wall at Wallsend have been discovered, not in the remote wastes of Northumberland or Cumbria but under the cleared remains of a now defunct shipyard by the river Tyne. The industrial drama of the 19th and 20th centuries has had its time upon the stage and exited, leaving traces of the earlier history still there. This keeps happening all over Britain. Our perception of medieval and earlier heritage cannot be constrained by post-medieval romanticism. To get a true picture we must look for the traces in our more modern landscapes as well.
I remember once getting slightly lost in the middle of the city of London. I was doing the revolving lighthouse thing trying to get my bearings amid a forest of steel and glass towers with no reference points except the street names like Pudding Lane and Bread Street, harking right back to the Great Fire and beyond. It doesn't go away, it's just hiding.
Hull, washed up old port and fishing town, bombed to bits in the Second World War, is a bit of a daggy elderly place. I don't know where discussions are up to right now but they were contemplating burying a bit of their history, the Beverley gate foundations, to save the bother of looking after it. You can't imagine that happening in York. They would be having a re-enactment every year of the citizens telling the king to "booger off", all wearing funny hats and big 17th century boots.
I'm not sure what the moral of this story is, except that heritage should not just be about romanticism, but about history. Help people to find it in the places where it is not so easily seen.