Hello, my name is Elspeth and I’m a history addict.
(pause, wait for response)
I’m the kind of person who reads Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People for fun. This book is from the early eighth century. I’m reading a 1300-year-old text for fun. My classmates are reading novels or YA fantasy. I’m reading Bede.
In my defense, it’s fascinating. I just finished Book One, which concluded with a section in which St. Augustine (missionary to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain) wrote a letter to Pope Gregory, asking all kinds of fabulously specific questions.
Augustine’s ninth question: May a man receive communion after a sexual illusion in a dream; or, if a priest, may he celebrate the holy mysteries?
The answer is extensive and can be boiled down to “it depends.” Gotta love history, no?
Some of the readings for my history MA involved reading penitential guides from the middle ages – sets of questions that the priests are supposed to ask the supplicant. The questions are gross, horrifying, and just plain bizarre by turns, and always, like Augustine’s, very specific. It’s a fascinating look into the minds of the confessors, and it boggles the modern student – they had to ask about THAT?! Who does THAT?! I’m also reminded of a hilarious flowchart my professor handed out to explain when, in the medieval Church’s calendar and rules, sex was allowed.
I remember he said that someone, probably in the process of avoiding writing a term paper, worked out how many days these rules leave for making whoopee without committing a sin. I think it worked out to something like 17 days in the entire year. So either a lot of people were sinning all the time, or it’s just plain amazing that medieval Europeans procreated enough to survive to the current day. My bets are on the former. But I digress.
I’m a history addict. When I travel, especially to Europe, I head straight for the historical tourist sites. A few years back, I participated in an overseas studies program based in Oxford, England. Being obsessed with English history, I embarked on a mission to see as many of the great houses, churches, palaces, and museums as I could.
In the process of this endeavor, I reached two conclusions. First, I need more time in England to see all the places I want to see. Second, there is a fundamental difference between the experience of visiting a restored, well-maintained great house/palace and visiting a ruin.
Restored palaces, like Hampton Court Palace, are wonderful to visit. I absolutely love that place and I’d be happy to visit it every time I go back to London. It’s a jumble. Starting with the Tudor king Henry VIII, who wrested it from the ownership of Cardinal Wolsey, each successive ruling house renovated, added wings, or otherwise left a mark. I’m less interested in the Georgian and Stuart wings – gaudy, over-decorated, coldly echoing chambers that they are. I’m all about what remains of the Tudor palace. The famous wooden Great Hall, lined with massive tapestries, sums up how I feel about the Tudor era. It’s just barely recognizable as the world in which we live today, but it is also intensely foreign in its mix of medieval and modern.
One of the coolest restoration efforts by Historic Royal Palaces, the body that maintains the six major royal palace museums in London, is the work on the Tudor kitchens at Hampton Court. They’re functional. Last time I was there, I was taken aback and a little concerned for my sanity when I started smelling cooking lamb and spices as I toured the kitchen area. I wasn’t surprised to see people in period costume, explaining the capacity, processes, and responsibilities of the kitchen area, but I never expected to find them cooking actual food. Sadly, said food was not for public consumption. Only the HCP staff get to eat it.
Visiting a ruin is very, very different. It is less visually overwhelming – historic palace museums seemingly being given to display as much art, textile work, cleaned-up paintwork, and stained glass as possible – and it involves a different kind of mindset. Hampton Court may claim that the ghost of Katherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, runs screaming through the halls, but the ruined buildings? They’re full of actual ghosts.
I visited the ruins of Kenilworth Castle and Ludlow Castle while I was in the UK, and the experience of both knocked the wind out of me. These silent stone shells, covered in moss and weeds and at the mercy of the elements, are far from empty. At one point I found myself in a stairwell at Kenilworth with my back pressed up against the wall, eyes shut, straining my mind to reach back into the past. Maybe I’m over-imaginative or just a romantic, but I felt like if I could just put a little more effort, I’d break through that barrier and see the ghosts around me. It seemed to me that I could almost hear the echoes of hurrying feet, rustling fabric, chattering voices, and animals making their various sounds. I could almost smell the smoke of fires for warmth or cooking and the scents of unwashed humans and animals living in close proximity.
Ludlow was similarly engrossing, though less sensory. There I spent a good half hour just staring at the now empty tower where the personal chambers of Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon once were, wondering what, if anything, happened there in those few months of teenage marriage. Years later as Henry VIII struggled to break free of his marriage to Katherine, he claimed that she had in fact consummated her marriage to Arthur while she vigorously argued the opposite. Someone had to be lying. Historians have argued over this ever since Arthur died, and we will probably never know for sure. But being in that place – if I could just break through that barrier, maybe I could get some insight.
I’m a history addict, an imaginative romantic, and all that, yes. And I do love visiting the maintained museums of historical tourism like Hampton Court and the Tower of London. There’s just something about these ruins. They never feel empty. Whispers and echoes crowd every open space, every corner and passage, and the silence of a ruin makes it easier to hear them.