Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Supper with a friend

Last Friday evening a friend and fellow Orielensis and I had supper together. He is also an historian, although working on nineteenth century politics, and just completing his D.Phil. thesis. Over a series of gin and tonics, a bottle of wine and some good Italian food we moved from discussing the Election, over which we had very similar views - including the crucial matter no-one is talking about here in England, which is, of course, the Scottish question and what might happen there - and on to the past. We ranged over the relentless rise in the position and population of seventeenth and eighteenth century London, seeing that as rooted in much earlier events, and thus to the James Campbell thesis, which we both admire, that the formation of England lies earlier, and is far more sophisticated than many people have though and indeed do think. So we took in the recent discovery of a treasure hoard from the seventh century in Staffordshire,

Group shot of plate gold and other artefacts
Part of the Staffordshire hoard

the Sutton Hoo find, the whole problems of the loss of evidence of material culture, and of what was not recorded because it was seen as a given of life. We concurred that the absence of evidence is dangerous to proper interpretation, and spent a while reflecting that Sutton Hoo and the recent finds argue for a more sophisticated 'court culture' than people imagine to have been possible - less barbaric, more nuanced, conscious of the Roman past. He cited the parade armour appearance of the Sutton Hoo helmet, I the recycling of Roman brick form Leicester to create the awesome church at Brixworth in the eighth century.

View Image
Brixworth Church

The governmental system that could commission and create Offa's Dyke - longer than Hadrian's Wall, and as a single project perhaps not rivalled until Edward I built his Welsh Castles in the 1280s - was remarkable and one of the great achievements of the age and of the English as a national community.
So why am I telling you this? Because the collective failure to appreciate the past is one of the reasons we are in the mess we are in as a society, because we need to understand the historic nature of government ans its sophistication at an early date, because the 'Dark Ages' are not nearly so dark or miserable as a lot of people think, or want to think, because it's what Oxford historians should be talking about, thinking across periods and topics to try to understand the factors which made us who and what we are, and because it was jolly good fun.

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