Saturday, May 21, 2016

Visual History: Magnifying Glass or Fun Fair Mirror?

  Some weeks ago I got into a slightly testy (but polite) Twitter exchange with somebody from the humanities area of academia who was wanting to know whether anybody out there was doing research on the purely visual aspects of humanities subjects. I pointed out that there were whole disciplines in this area, such as archaeology and art history. These, I was informed, didn't count because people just wrote words about them and critiqued each other's words and didn't actually read the visuals. Er, no. Could I provide some references? Well, every excavation report ever written would make a start.
  Perhaps we had just got our wires crossed and were misreading each other's arguments. That can happen when you break up a discussion into 140 character spasms sent asynchronously across different global time zones. We all read the visuals of our subjects and draw conclusions, or at least cement impressions, from the way we process them. We can look at stuff, we can reinterpret through drawing or photography or computer modelling or re-enactment. We incorporate interpretations based on our previous reading of words on a page or try to interpret the visuals based on other experience. Is this hollow bone with holes in it a prehistoric flute or a bone that a carnivore has chewed? All manner of observations and experiences can be drawn in.

    We all know what this scene, here painted on the rood screen of Hexham Abbey, represents: the Annunciation of course. It's a story from a book; a much read, much reproduced, much studied book. It's a book that was systematically translated, corrected and edited so it could be presented in a standardised form. We know what it is because we know the written story. There are also elements of this picture which are not derived from the book, but we recognise as visual conventions of medieval art: the Virgin kneeling at a desk reading a book, turning her head coyly towards the angel behind her; the haloes; the pot of lilies; the bent over respectful posture of the angel. They not only inform what we see, but how we see it.

  On the other hand, this misericord from St Werburgh's Abbey in Chester has no book to tell us exactly what it means. We are left with a jumble of folklore, reassembled and recast over centuries, and similar images from many other places to inform us that it is not unique or even particularly weird for its location, just not what we were expecting. We can speculate about the psychology of the wild places of the mind and invent symbolic meanings, like the priests quashing the forces of evil with their butts, or something like that.
  How things, tiny or enormous, present themselves, or are presented, influence the way we mentally process them. No historical object is in its original position or condition. We have to fill in from our knowledge and imagination, hopefully in an informed way, but with an open mind  to other than the standard possibilities. We also need to fill in the absences. Sometimes an empty space can tell us something.

  Conwy Castle in Wales, with its massive forbidding presence, had such a profound effect on my four year old son at the time that he claimed he wished we had never called him Edward. "Edward I was a big pig!" he pronounced, and has insisted unto this day that he would be called Eddy. The fact that it was bleak and freezing and snowy only added to the atmosphere. It was an entirely different conception of a castle to that perpetuated by the modern craze of bodies like English Heritage dressing small children up as faux Vikings or soldiers or knights and let them pretend to bash the bejiminies out of each other in the name of good clean medieval fun. On the other hand, a raucous re-enactment of a guard chopping off a prisoner's ear in Lincoln Castle some years later sent my small nephew into the abdabs. He took some convincing that it was just pretend. The places can speak for themselves, with a bit of subtle guidance. Let's not hit the public over the head with a brick.

  Looking out from the top of Clifford's Tower in York, it is not so hard to imagine what an imposing and dominant presence the mighty minster would have been. Just mentally erase the multistory buildings, the fire station across the road and assorted other distractions, sketch in a few animals and aromas and you can see this monolithic building as the commanding presence in a small community by today's standards. You can make out two other church towers in this picture (look carefully), but there were other prominent features that you can't see, because they are not there. York had four friaries, a major hospital, several hospitals outside the walls, a number of parish churches now departed and various buildings adjunct to the minster. A network of religious buildings enmeshed the town. This is the concept we have to work a bit to see.

   This gatehouse in York led into a complex known as the Bedern, where the vicars choral of the minster lived when they weren't attending to their choral duties. Two small restored buildings, including the chapel on the left of the picture, are all that survives above ground, but the space still exists, albeit now occupied by modern housing. The past hasn't gone away.

  St Leonard's hospital was a very large institution, but now represented by just a fragment of ruin. The imposing building behind it is the public library, built on part of the site. Some hospital foundations are under a nearby theatre. New urban institutions have replaced the old, but the space is still defined. You are looking at something that isn't there. The medieval town is not defined simply by its standing ruins, but by its spaces and replacements. 
  Maps are one way of refining the seeing of history. Ancient historical maps may not conform to modern cartographical standards, but they are a conception of a place. They define what features and what spaces were seen as important at the time.

  William Stukeley's map of Leicester shows us how an 18th century antiquarian saw the shape and organisation of the town. You would be hard pressed to untangle that plan from a modern map. Nevertheless topographical maps, Ordnance Survey maps and Google satellite images can all combine to help us image the past and fit it into the present. There is even a space archaeologist working with NASA these days.

  Here are the massive ruins of the huge and stately medieval bishop's palace at Wells. You don't need a literal medieval banquet re-enactment to imagine the lavish doings that must have gone on here.

  Here is an empty space, now filled with a modern cemetery at Northallerton in Yorkshire. You are looking at something that isn't there; a palace of the bishop of Durham. The ditch and bank surrounding the site survives, defining a space from which the material content has been removed. You have to imagine the ceremonies, the banquets, the consultations and plottings that might have gone on here. Their shadows are still lurking.

  This is the site of the church of St Paul in the Bail in Lincoln, possibly the oldest Christian church in the north of England. It has been excavated and several subsequent versions of the church have been discovered on the site. You are looking at chronological layers of things that are not there. I was standing here once when a stranger approached and asked me where Roman Lincoln was. I told him we were standing in it. He didn't believe me. Admittedly you have to go down a lane to see a bit of wall, and another lane to see a turret, another to see the main upper gateway and another way to see the foundations of the lower town gates. I gave him directions and he pottered off bemused. Perhaps he was expecting something like the forum in Rome, but Lincoln has seen a lot of life since those days. Would it have helped if there had been explainers wandering around in metal breastplates and sandals? It might please some, but it makes more sense if you train yourself to see. 

  Bolingbroke Castle might not exactly be the best preserved medieval fortress in Britain but it was the birthplace of one Henry, part of the ever ongoing murderous struggles to determine the monarchy of England. It still sits in a landscape. Far better than banquets and jousts is to sit and contemplate how such a peaceful spot played a role in the gore and splatter of competitive English kingship.

  Does anything epitomise the struggles for control of land, people and wealth like the stark and bleak ruins of the fortified houses, or pele towers, dotted across the Scottish borders? Nothing to be seen for miles but hills and sheep but you locked yourself up in a stone tower before you went to bed. The one above is at Bewcastle, but there are many others, visual reminders of troubled times at least as eloquent as the chronicles that described them.

  "Why" said the family medievalist "are we standing in the middle of a field looking at a small pile of rocks stuck together on top of one another?" Well, Leland described it as a large manor house of the Percies. "But it's not here!" Nope. It is not. The manor house of Seamer is not there. But you can still see it if you try.

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