The Past is Not Dead: There is Only Continuity

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume of the history of England:

Other forms of continuity are also evident. Modern roads follow the line of old paths and trackways. The boundaries of many contemporary parishes follow previous patterns of settlement, along which ancient burials are still to be found. Our distant ancestors are still around us. There is a history of sacred space almost as old as the history of the country itself. Churches and monastic communities were placed close beside the sites of megalithic monuments, as well as sacred springs and early Bronze Age ritual spaces. I have already noticed that the churchyard of the parish church of Rudston, in East Yorkshire, harbours the tallest Neolithic standing stone in England. The pilgrim routes of medieval Kent trace the same pattern as the prehistoric tracks to holy wells and shrines. We still live deep in the past….

In the countryside, there is even greater evidence for continuity. The Ango-Saxon “invasion,” for example, was once deemed to mark a decisive break with the past. Yet in fact there is no discernible change in agricultural practice. In historical terms there are no “breaks.” We have seen that the same field systems were laid out by the Germanic settlers; the new arrivals preserved the old boundaries and in Durham, for example, Germanic structures were set within a pattern of small fields and drystone walls created in the prehistoric past. More surprisingly, perhaps, the Germanic settlers formed groups which honored the boundaries of the old tribal kingdom. They respected the lie of the land. The Jutes of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight took over the prehistoric lands of the Belgae; the East Saxons held the ancient territory of the Trinovantes, and the South Saxons established themselves within the prehistoric borders of the Regnenses. They even retained the same capitals. The sacred sites of the Saxons, at a slightly later date, follow the alignment of Neolithic monuments. All fell into the embrace of the past. The evidence suggests, therefore, that the roots of the country go very deep. Even now they have not been severed….

History is about longing and belonging. It is about the need for permanence and the perception of continuity. It concerns the atavistic desire to find deep sources of identity. We live again in the twelfth or in the fifteenth century, finding echoes and resonances of our own time; we may recognize that some things, such as piety and passion, are never lost; we may also conclude that the great general drama of the human spirit is ever fresh and ever renewed.

– Peter Ackroyd, The History of England, Volume 1: Foundation, 444-446

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