The Past in its Place: Histories of Memory in English and Welsh Locales
Where is the past? Can memory be located on a map? Such questions may seem rhetorical – variations on the timeworn theme of ubi sunt – yet for centuries people in England and Wales have both sought and found the past in specific locales. They have touched it in the lady chapel and the nave. They have found it under the turnip field, where the plough turns up silver pennies. They have located it under the old oak, and in ‘the pit where the martyrs died’. In such places, memories lie layer upon layer.
This five-year project will explore the ‘history of memory’ in a range of English and Welsh locales from the early medieval period down to the modern era. Focusing on three types of place – Cathedral Tombs and Memorials, Ancient Habitations, and Local Landscapes – we will investigate change and continuity in the ways individuals and communities have imagined, appropriated, and reinvented the past. Drawing on the disciplinary perspectives of literary studies and archaeology, the project will identify and interpret the manifold ‘technologies of remembrance’ – including texts, oral traditions, material objects and customary practices – whereby individuals and groups have depicted, ratified, or contested relationships between the past and the present. PASTPLACE will transcend the boundaries of periodization and discipline to examine patterns of remembrance, re-imagining and forgetting over the longue durée.
The project’s findings will be disseminated in three co-authored volumes, edited by the PI, under the general title The Past in its Place. Exemplifying a fresh and interdisciplinary approach to the history of memory, these studies will, it is hoped, ignite further research both within Britain and overseas. Aspects identifying this project as frontier research include:
- A cross-period approach, historicizing the model of lieux de mémoire in order to investigate change and continuity in perceptions of the past over the longue duree;
- A combination of literary and archaeological perspectives and methodologies, producing a rich and heterogeneous understanding of historical memory as expressed in both textual and material practice;
- A socially inclusive and multicultural approach, reading local customary practices and oral traditions alongside elite perspectives, and Welsh and Cornish localities and texts alongside English ones.
This research project is a part of the College of Humanities Visual Culture initiative.
Funded by the European Research Council and The Leverhulme Trust.
Research will be organized in three strands, focusing on three types of locale strongly linked to memory and ideas about the past. Research in each strand will centre on six case studies.
- Speaking with the Dead focuses on the history of death, burial and commemoration at a group of English and Welsh cathedrals. Case studies include the Cathedrals of Canterbury, Chester, Durham, Exeter, St Albans, and St Davids.
- Ancient Habitations explores the interaction of medieval, early modern and modern people with sites of ancient habitation. Case studies include Roman settlements (Wroxeter and Caerleon), Iron Age hill forts (Yeavering Bell and Castle an Dinas), and prehistoric tombs (Danes Graves barrow cemetery and Wayland’s Smithy).
- Topographies of Memory explores the organization of natural and historical landscape features in perceptual frameworks signifying particular visions or uses of the past. Provisional case studies include Mousehold Heath, Runnymede, the Dee Valley, the Black Mountains, Dartmoor, and Bodmin Moor.
The selection of case studies balances the virtues of broad geographical distribution and regional focus, being drawn from across England and Wales but with specific clusterings in the southwest and the Welsh border region. The inclusion of a significant proportion of Welsh and Cornish locales ensures a vital element of comparison between societies with different historical attitudes to place, memory, and identity.