I had an interesting discussion with some friends last night about history and all things historical. A discussion of the city of Bristol lead to a discussion of the city Bath, which led to a discussion of the Roman Empire and how boring the ancient Romans were even though they did all this amazing stuff. This in turn led to some musings on visiting historical sites, at which point an English friend of mine said that he had never really thought of Britain as a historical place until he had lived outside of England for a long time and then moved back. That is, he had known that there were cathedrals and castles and all the rest of it, and he visited these places too, but they hadn’t been of great significance to him from a historical point of view.
I thought about this a lot after the conversation ended because it made me realize something about myself that I almost find disturbing, and that is this: while my friend may never have thought of Britain as a historical place, I’ve only ever thought of Britain as a historical place. I thought of it like that before I ever stepped foot in England the first time, and I still think of it that way now that I live here. In fact, I think that way about nearly every place I’ve ever been in.
What I mean by this is, while I am fully aware of the fact that I live in the year 2001, there is some part of me that mentally lays a template of history over every place I go. In Freiburg, every time I went down a narrow, cobbled alleyway or walked around the cathedral or touched the wall of an old building, I was in the Middle Ages; I saw it and felt it all around me. When I walk along the beach here in Brighton and I look at the piers and the magnificent old hotels, I see the entire seafront populated with the Victorians who built those piers and hotels. When I visit cathedrals, I see medieval monks moving silently amongst the stone pillars. When I visit castles, I see knights. Ancient burial mounds are always surrounded by Saxons or Vikings, and Roman roads are always busy with the hustle and bustle of legionaries and merchants. To be honest, there doesn’t even have to be a whole lot to actually see in the here and now for me to go off on a flight of historical fancy. Empty meadows and piles of stones take on tremendous significance as soon as I am told that the meadow was once a battlefield and the stones were once a great castle.
Maybe I should make it clear that I don’t really see medieval knights or Victorian bathers. I’m not overcome by hallucinations every time I leave the house. I don’t “see dead people.” But I do feel the ghosts of the past all around me. I feel like the past is always here in the present , just under the surface of everything that we see around us. It’s as if all the epochs of the world were somehow superimposed on one another. And sometimes, in some places, the borders between the present and the past seem to shift and tremble, weakening just enough to let something of a past world into this one. Maybe for some people this happens only rarely, if ever. But for me it is a part of my everyday life.
In the greater scheme of things, this may not be a particularly revelatory observation. The co-existence of different realities has been proposed many times before, and the idea of parallel or superimposed worlds has been used for everything from explaining ghosts to theorizing about time travel. But it’s revelatory for me personally because it helps me understand people who are not like me - that is, people who don’t like history.
By now, it should go without saying that I am a history buff (particularly when it comes to the Middle Ages; war, pestilence, misery - I just can’t get enough of it). I’ve been a history buff for as long as I can remember, and I have never understood how so many people could find history so boring. I think I understand a bit more now. People who aren’t interested in history seem to think of history as nothing more than a dull succession of unknown places, forgettable dates, and long-dead people with no real relevance to the present day. For them, history is something you have to learn by rote in school. It’s something that happens in books. It’s just words on paper, fading ink, dusty pages. History doesn’t speak to such people. For them, history itself is dead.
But for me, history is alive. The people of the past speak to me all the time, through literature and art and music, through the stones of their houses and the remnants of their lives. They still go about their daily business in world that is just beyond my grasp but that is as real as this world and anything in it. I know I’m putting a ridiculously romantic spin on all this, but I can’t express it any other way. I love history because I live in it. Or maybe it’s the other way around - but I don’t think so.
After thinking extensively about all of this, I do find it a wee bit unsettling. Maybe it’s good to be able to see history everywhere; I do think that it tends to make life more interesting. But then again, maybe it’s just weird. I mean, as enticing as the past may be, I really don’t want to become completely detached from the reality of here and now.
Well, if I start trying to convince people that I’m Mary Queen of Scots in a parallel universe, then I guess I’ll worry.