Around the age of seven I went on a trip to Hadrian’s Wall. My parents took us to Housesteads, then on a walk along the wall from Steel Rigg. It is a dramatic and evocative setting, with the wall climbing the contours high up onto the Whin Sill. For whatever reason, it started an interest in Roman Britain that lasted well into my teens. The Lancashire town where I lived had Roman heritage, and a military shield boss found locally is in the British Museum. Encouraging my developing interest, my parents then arranged a tour in York – Roman Eboracum – with a local archeologist.
Living in that same city more than forty years later I’m mindful of the history lying just below the pavement. At least one of the sewers built by the Romans survives in excellent condition under Church Street in York. From Romans, to Saxons and Vikings, this patch of earth has been the centre of influence in the north for thousands of years. The Minster’s foundations stand in the remains of the heart of the Roman fortress – an empire of spiritual life supplanting the temporal forces that once ruled the city.
History has been in the news in the UK following the announcement that two modern universities plan to cut courses. There is concern that only elite centres of study will continue to offer history degrees. In a world where science is offering so much in responding to COVID-19, it isn’t difficult to see why some universities may be reviewing what they offer. Yet how short-sighted. Without doubt both humanities and the arts offer a vital dimension to our understanding and outlook. As I commented many blogs ago, when it came to COVID-19, our best academic modellers lacked the insight or imagination to appreciate how care homes interacted with their local communities. Without the disciplines that explore lived human experiences key dimensions of our understanding are absent. That absence can result in a failure to register vital elements of the reality we are addressing.
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.
History offers us perspective. As we study the past we encounter people very confident about how much they knew and how human life should be governed. These understandings have changed over time, and an important lesson for today should be the provisional nature of our knowledge. Science operates on the basis that there is more to know and, consequently, that what we take today to be certain may be questionable tomorrow. Many years ago, when running an elective course for medical students, I asked what proportion of all that could be known about medicine they thought was known today. With commendable candour one student pronounced it was ‘diddly-squat’. Our learning increases all the time and, when we look back at the past, we can experience horror at the medical procedures people once endured. Our great-great grandchildren may feel much the same when they look back at our response to the pandemic.
History has the power to teach us humility. It tells us that people made choices which seemed rational and wise at the time, only to realise that seeds of disaster were being sown. Understanding the past is vital if human beings are going to learn, change and live well in the future. Simply doing what we want in one generation fails to recognise that we are part of the future, and our choices have consequences that endure. This is perhaps one of the most important lessons in the response to climate change.
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
From A Shropshire Lad 31: On Wenlock Edge the Wood’s in Trouble, by A. E. Housman
Housman’s poem reminds us that for all the power and reach of the Roman Empire, today it is a layer of ash under Wroxeter. The Roman remains of York are impressive and have endured a long time, but the people who built them and ruled here are gone. Much of the understanding about how the world works has changed over those centuries and, while some things may remain, human self-perception moves on. It will continue to evolve and change, hopefully with the aid of the arts and humanities bringing their own unique learning to our understanding. To lose that knowledge is too great a risk when we know how quickly human life can change. Living humbly with the limitations of our knowledge might be the most significant contribution history conveys to help us make wise choices today.