Wednesday, 31 July 2013


We went camping recently in Dorset in a field beneath the wonderfully romantic ruins of Corfe castle.
Robert Brook on wikicommons

It's a rather magnificent Norman castle which finally fell during the Civil War in the seventeenth century.  But it got me wondering what it is about such a ruin that makes it so beautiful and so romantic - after all, what it represents is a particularly brutal kind of power. And why don't modern ruins evoke the same kinds of feelings?
This is an image of Hashima island, recently written about rather interestingly in the Guardian.  

It would seem that our fascination with medieval ruins dates to the eighteenth century - though I think that this interest in ruins could actually be traced much earlier, witness the fifteenth century fascination with antique ruins.  Rosemary Sweet's book on Antiquaries: the Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain offers some really interesting material on this delight in ruins.

She opens by discussing the ways in which we have tended to mock and denigrate those obsessed with objects from the past as antiquarians and really rather pedantic old fools. Coincidentally, I'm just reading Walter Scott's The Antiquary which takes as its central figure just such a man: he's not depicted unsympathetically, but nevertheless he is a prejudiced, dusty old man, obsessed with remnants of the past, endlessly quoting learned tomes just for the sake of it, and pathetically proud of his collection of relics.

Sweet's book demonstrates though that Walter Scott's portrayal of the eighteenth-century antiquarians is unfair - that these were (usually) men whose interest in the past did not preclude a lively engagement with the present.  She explains that delight in ruins was not just 'nostalgic conservatism', and that 'there was no simple dichotomy between the enlightened world of conjectural history and the tedious pedantry of antiquarianism'. Eighteenth-century study of the past was part of the Enlightenment project - it was a genuine attempt to engage with the present, to throw critical light on current problems and to seek to understand human nature and society.

This is important for two reasons.  First - it reminds us not only that history is important, but that the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of historical research are just as important as the big ideas.  

Second, I think it's an important reflection on the nature of nostalgia, a topic I'm really interested in at the moment.  Nostalgia isn't just longing for the past, as the eighteenth-century antiquarians show - it can be a response to change and a way of addressing the future.  This gives a different spin to our attitude to ruins.  Maybe we love sites like Corfe just because we're ill-informed and overly romantic, but perhaps we can turn that nostalgia into a dialogue between past and present, reflections on the overlaps between beauty and violence, and a critical reflection on our own attachment to symbols of power.

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