Over the past weekend I was lucky enough to go to on a whirlwind tour of some early medieval sites in Germany: chief amongst them being Aachen, Cologne and Essen. Unsurprisingly, I was incredibly excited to get to see some of the places that I’ve been working on. Judging by the swarming crowds at Aachen, however, it was clear that this excitement at being in the city that was the heart of the Carolingian empire isn’t limited to medieval historians.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my trip, I found myself repeatedly coming up against a peculiar and slightly disconcerting feeling. Walking around sites that I’ve been reading about and working on, for which I’ve already formed a mental image firmly set in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was at times strangely jarring to see them in reality. In particular, coming face to face with a prominent historical site like Aachen reminded me that this is a place where over 1000 years of changes and developments have, quite literally, been layered over the top of each other. When you walk inside the Dom, and stand in the Palatine Chapel constructed by Charlemagne in the early 9th century, you realise that almost all of the Carolingian structure is encased in rather blingy 19th century decoration.
I can’t completely see the additions or changes to these historical sites as a bad thing. Given how much has been lost from the early medieval period, even if buildings have been heavily modified at least they have survived in some form. Instead, my experience made me think more about the sense of time shock that I get when visiting historical sites in general. Perhaps it’s amplified through coming from an antipodean country where the oldest surviving building dates from 1822, but I tend to create a mental image of medieval sites remaining in isolation, untouched by the modern world. As a result, stepping out of a 9th century convent like Essen and seeing the 6-storey Primark store directly opposite can give me a bit of a jolt.
But then, what should I expect in going to medieval sites? Is it possible to try to get a sense of the past through visiting places of historical importance? Can seeing the throne of Charlemagne in the Aachen Cathedral really bring me any closer to understanding the emperor than reading the texts that came from his time? Of course, these places and objects are valuable sources for medieval history and it goes without saying that they should be studied in detail, but do more ‘touristic’ visits really pay any dividends?
Speaking from my own experience, I’d say they do. These visits gave me a sense of space, a physical appreciation of the environment in which the people I study were present. Having items like reliquaries and processional crosses directly in front of me, which I’d only seen previously in photos or reproductions, gave me a much better idea of their size, colour, construction and (completely subjectively) some of the awe that they were meant to inspire. Moreover, on a personal and emotional level, I found standing in front of the graves of emperors, bishops and abbesses whose actions and motivations I’m trying to piece together in my research was unexpectedly moving.
In my view, combining historical pragmatism along with a dash of imagination and enthusiasm is a useful attitude for visiting medieval sites. The pragmatism comes from knowing that, to very loosely paraphrase Madonna, we’re 21st-century people living in a 21st-century world. The places we can visit have over a millennium of historical development separating us and the original site. Yet watching a crowd walking down the Via Sacra in Rome in much the same way that people have been doing for well over two millennia, experiencing a mass taking place in a medieval church and visiting sacred sites that others have done pilgrimage to have been valuable experiences for me personally. I wouldn’t say that it makes me a better historian, but that’s not why I do it – I do it because it reminds me of the reality of the people that I study, who I mainly deal with through the texts they left behind. Through visiting the places in which they lived, fought, worshipped and died, I can try to gain a slim insight into how they might have experienced part of their world. Being disconcerted by oversized retail stores and 19th-century decoration is, I think, a small price to pay in return.