London · Medieval buildings · Medieval history

Terrain and Topography: The Middle Ages as Home

On Friday I had a meeting on the Strand for The Academic Book of the Future Project. I decided to take the number 15 bus from my native East London, not just for reasons of practicality (it would essentially deliver me door-to-door for a modest sum, plus the weather was good for once, making the Tube even less appealing than usual), but also because I have a sentimental fondness for that bus route. The no.15 is London’s unofficial tour bus, traversing some of the city’s most historic streets and thoroughfares. It runs past Aldgate (Chaucer’s neighbourhood), the Minories, the Tower of London, the square mile of the City, St. Paul’s, Fleet Street, and on to Trafalgar Square and Regent Street. Sit on the top deck of the no.15, and London’s history unfolds before you. It’s pretty special.

Tower of London
The Tower of London, as seen from the top deck of the 15 bus. Credit: Bex Lyons

For as long as I can remember, my mum and I have set out on many happy adventures along this route. The journey and its sights are deeply ingrained in my memory and consciousness, an intrinsic part of who I am. On Friday, as I passed the Tower on the no.15, it suddenly dawned on me all the time I’ve spent at that royal fortress over the years. As a resident of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (literally, the hamlets by the Tower), I have the privilege of being able to enter the Tower and its grounds for the humble sum of £1. That, along with its proximity to my family home (about a 15-minute walk) mean that I have visited at least once a year – if not more frequently – for, honestly, as long as I can remember.

Overflowing with history, mystery, and legend, the Tower of London has always held enormous fascination for me, both as a child and now, as an adult. I was awed and fearful when my mum told me how London would fall if the ravens ever left. Deliciously chilled when my dad told me how, as a boy, he’d snuck down to the Tower one evening. He swears he saw the headless ghost of Anne Boleyn at one of the windows, and ran away home in terror. When a Beefeater – one of the Tower’s historical wardens – regaled me with the tale of the poor princes in the Tower, about my age then, I felt the tragedy and mystery of it all very keenly – and immediately bought a book with my pocket money to try to get to the bottom of it all. As a teenager the gore of the Bloody Tower held cool appeal, and I was morbidly fascinated by the inscriptions of prisoners etched deep into the stone walls. As an adult I appreciate all of this, as well as the architectural and temporal layers of the Tower’s structure; the tragic inevitability of Anne Boleyn’s demise; the many roles the building has played over time – (including royal zoo!), and much more. The wonders of this place are inexhaustible.

As I sat on the bus, these thoughts and memories became interwoven with others around my recent trip to the US for a medieval conference. It had been my first trip to the States, and although I hadn’t consciously thought about medieval monuments and landmarks (or a lack thereof) whilst I’d been over there, looking at the Tower I realised that this was something I had subconsciously noted. Something had been missing. The structures of the Middle Ages had been conspicuously absent from my Stateside travels. Perhaps, I considered – given my upbringing in London, and my close relationship with its medieval places – my path was inevitable. Perhaps I was always going to be interested in the Middle Ages.

Stars and stripes and skyscrapers in Chicago.
Stars and stripes, and skyscrapers in Chicago. Credit: Bex Lyons

In the past when I’ve tried to retrospectively chart the course that led me to study medieval and Arthurian literature, I’ve tended to place the blame squarely at the foot of my mum in my early years (for telling me fairytales, encouraging my reading, buying me books); my secondary school English teacher Ms Waters (for introducing me to Chaucer); and my undergraduate tutors Dr Raluca Radulescu (for Malory), and Dr Sue Niebrzydowski (for enchanting me with Middle English, spoken aloud). But I have never held my gloriously medieval city and its pervasive influence accountable for my life and career choices.

St. Paul's cathedral from the bus
St. Paul’s cathedral from the no.15 bus. Credit: Bex Lyons

As I was thinking through some of these embryonic ideas on the bus, and how environment (at least in my case) has played such a significant part in my interests and passions, I happened to read an article on my phone (Ferris Jabr. ’The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.’ Scientific American. 11 April 2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens). It discussed the different effects that hard-copy and digital texts have on reading and learning. One point that it made was that the brain doesn’t have a special ‘reading’ function concerned with such elevated things as ‘thoughts and ideas, tones and themes, metaphors and motifs.’ Instead, the brain ‘essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them.’ The article went on to discuss the physicality of the real, tangible, paper book – how physically moving through one as a reader, turning the pages, using the corners as aids to navigate through the text, give a sense of terrain and topography – of a real, complex object – that ebooks have not yet been able to replicate or reproduce. This in turn has a powerful effect on learning and memory. For the brain, objects are how we interpret what it around us, how we learn.

In one of those wonderful moments when many disparate thoughts and strands come together to merge and synthesise, it occurred to me that I have been embedded in the physical objects of the Middle Ages  – have been reading them – my entire life. Immersed in the terrain and topography of the medieval, my formative years were a lesson in object-oriented medievalism, in learning by objects. I visited medieval places (the Tower, for instance); travelled self-consciously through medieval spaces which have retained much of their names and shapes (Aldgate, Cheapside, Newgate); heard medieval tales being told; touched medieval objects (such as the Roman wall at Tower Hill), and so on. This sensory immersion in, and interaction with medieval spaces and places has, I think, seeped into the way I think about the world, how I apply meaning. It’s not all – but certainly a large part – of what makes me tick. The Middle Ages are home.

Temple Church, Fleet Street
The no.15 bus also passes Temple Church, hidden just behind Fleet Street. Credit: Bex Lyons
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4 thoughts on “Terrain and Topography: The Middle Ages as Home

  1. Thanks Jan! These photos were taken on my iPhone 5c and then edited using Instagram’s filters – nothing fancier than that, I’m afraid! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post – you know me, I’m a Londoner through-and-through! x

  2. I love the idea of seeing the medieval in your familiar, everyday world. And vice versa, imagining living in these same places when the buildings were first built hundreds of years ago. It’s something I often do in Cambridge too 🙂

    1. Ah, well as we’ve spent many a happy afternoon wandering around Cambridge’s medieval colleges together, I know that you understand and share my perspective. How often have we wondered what it would be like to go back, just for a day? This reminds me, I have a special guest blog post from a certain someone that needs uploading… 😀

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