I like a ruin. I enjoy piecing together the architectural puzzle in the stones that time has left behind. I get excited by standing alone in an abbey transept or in a castle kitchen and just listening to the past. I can hear the long-gone footsteps on flagstones and the crackle of logs in a fireplace; the shuffling of tired monks from their beds in the middle of the night on their way to prayer and the flurry of bread being kneaded and stew being cooked. The stones, no matter how battered and broken, still carry the fingerprints of those who clutched them and the smells of those who lived and died upon them. There is a sense of place in stone that can never be realised on the pages of any history book.
If you like a ruin too, try Jedburgh Abbey. There is a chain of sandstone edifices in various states of dilapidation across the Scottish Borders, but if you can only visit one, try Jedburgh. I say this not necessarily because it is the best or the most interesting or even in the most picturesque location, but rather because it is the one, for me at least, whose stones have the most to say.
There are of course the soaring walls and window traceries with long-lost stained glass. There are the ornate carvings, many admittedly worn and blunted by the passing years, but still sharp enough to make you sigh at the mediaeval stonemason’s craft. There are the remnants of the cloister, thoughtfully recreated with yew hedges with more than a suggestion of the contemplative sanctuary that it all was. There are all these things and more, but there are also some things you don’t expect to see in a mediaeval church complex, and it’s the unexpected that often catches your breath and makes you think.
There is a small doorway just inside the great west entrance of the abbey leading to a stairway, which is steep and winding, and unfortunately too narrow for my claustrophobic head. I once had a very bad experience climbing the Scott Monument on Edinburgh’s Princes St involving an unfortunately overweight tourist, and spiral stone staircases have largely been out of my bounds since. That, however, is a story for another day — back to Jedburgh.
The abbey stairway has a lintel that, at first sight, seems to have some scratching on it, perhaps even some Victorian graffiti, but which on closer inspection reveals itself to be some Latin. In fact, this is not mediaeval church Latin, but the real deal, for the lintel is a Roman altar stone praising a very different God to the one glorified in the rest of the abbey. ‘To Jupiter, best and greatest,’ the inscription begins and I thought, how interesting. How many monks, I wondered, had walked under that stone while it supported the stairway above since it was placed there in around the year 1200? How many of them had taken the time to look up and, with their facility in Latin, noted the mention of the Roman god? How many of them could see the irony; how many had smiled?
The altar stone had been recycled and repurposed as well as realigned in a religious sense. An object of pagan worship had found its way into the very heart of a Christian community and been used quite literally to keep the place standing. Although we will never know what those monks thought, the one thing it does tell us is that there was tolerance to its pagan provenance. And there’s a lesson to be learnt from that.
As we reuse and reconfigure what is left behind, we need to have some understanding and some tolerance for its original purpose. If we choose to rely on materials that already exist rather than what we can make anew, we need to accept the quirks of their original design and the echoes of their original intent. Thirteenth century monks knew this and had no problem reusing a perfectly serviceable piece of dressed stone, feeling no need to scrape it clean before incorporating it into their church.
And so it is with ideas. As we strive to make sense of our work, we call upon the thoughts of those who went before to help us. We read what they have written and study how they analysed their findings and presented their thoughts. Ideas are recycled and reused just as easily as sandstone. And with time and care we build new edifices on foundations laid by others, both in stone and in thought.
But, while we study the past we have to be forgiving. It is only with tolerance that we can reuse without recourse to destruction. Ideas that were formed and articulated in a different time do have to be understood in their context, and while their value might be immediately obvious, often their true worth may only be apparent after their original purpose is taken into account.
But there has not always been tolerance in Jedburgh. In the 16th century, reformists could not tolerate the very stones I was standing upon, and the resulting ruined, half-abbey I now found myself in was a testament to that. As I strained to read the Latin inscription on that Roman altar stone, which to me epitomised a tolerance to history, I realised I was surrounded by equally stony evidence of intolerance. Like most others, this abbey had been vandalised and brought to ruin, as part of the collateral damage from the Reformation.
Yet, in the midst of such intolerance, the Roman altar stone, which was already a thousand years old when it was installed, still bore the weight of the stairway above and still stood as a testament to the tolerance and the pragmatism of an earlier time.
I smiled as I beheld the irony in the stones, just as I am sure my mediaeval forebears had done before me, when they found Jupiter in their abbey.
© Allan Gaw 2016
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