Historical Lectures and Addresses/The Study of a Country

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The Study of a Country  (1897) 
by Mandell Creighton

An address given at the Annual Meeting of the London University Extension Students at the Mansion House, 3rd April, 1897, and printed from the reporter's notes.

The subject upon which I have undertaken to speak to you may seem at first rather inconclusive, and I do not know that the title of my address exactly expresses my meaning. Let me try to explain what it is. The whole process of education is full of fallacies. We can only learn by abstracting ourselves from the actual world; from the world which is complicated, whilst the subjects which we are taught are simple. Every subject, whatever it may be, is only made into a subject which can be taught by taking it forcibly out of its context. We learn more or less about a certain science, and we think that that science has an existence of its own. But as a matter of fact this is not the case. The world goes on as one great whole, and the abstractions that we make for the purposes of our own convenience, the particular branches into which we divide knowledge, are, in so far as they are abstractions, really deceptive.

This is a truth which any one who has been subjected to the discipline of a university training will readily allow. It is generally said of young men when they leave the university that they are consummate prigs. But this is only a popular way of expressing the fact that they have developed their abstract ideas to a degree which is not at once intelligible to the ordinary person. I suppose we call a man a prig when he is fond of speaking about things in the abstract, and the exact application of his wise words is not at once apparent. This shows us that education always complicates, and that after we have received if it be only some rudiments of it, we must go back to life, to actual life, to be simplified. The moment that we plunge into conclusions peculiar to the subject which we are studying, we make that subject dead rather than living, and if we deceive ourselves into thinking that it is living, we arrive at conclusions which are not in themselves true.

Now it seems to me that it is desirable that we should keep before ourselves the fact that there are some subjects which may not seem to us of great intellectual importance, but which can be used to simplify what we know, to vivify it, to give it force and power, by showing how it can be applied and by helping us to discover what are its limitations. This is what I wish to bring before you under the vague title of "The study of a country".

This is a study in which, if we would lend ourselves to it, we shall be forced to exhibit mental alertness. Mental alertness is a quality which may almost be said to be abhorrent to the purely scientific mind. What the scientific man wants is to get at positive conclusions according to a proper method. This in itself by no means encourages mental alertness. It does not necessarily call out the man who has the best brain or the greatest amount of knowledge, but rather the man who has his knowledge in the most exact form, and who knows how to use it in the pursuit of a particular science. But it is well to seek for some central point around which any knowledge which we have acquired from time to time may be condensed, some subject which will always excite our curiosity and call forth our interest. For, after all, education consists simply in developing a perpetual curiosity, and education has been a failure when it has led a man to think that he really knows anything at all. Only when we are perpetually asking ourselves questions, only when we are struggling to get further and further on, are we really beginning to learn. From nothing can we learn so much as from the environment or surroundings of our life. There we find a subject round which our interest can readily gather, a subject, too, that cannot be artificially simplified. We cannot say, we should not be justified in saying, "I live in a particular place, and I have made up my mind which are the things that are going to interest and amuse me". If our minds are really always alert, wherever we are, new ideas must constantly be suggested to us, new points of view will be put before us, we shall find ourselves compelled to ask new questions; we shall be always considering how far the knowledge we already have will supply us with answers to these multitudinous questions. It is the attempt to answer these questions which I mean by "the study of a country". We may choose either a large or a small country, for the purpose of our study. No doubt it is to many at first difficult to study the thing which is near. We are not readily susceptible to the impressions of the particular place in which we live, because habit has so accustomed us to the sights that surround us that we have ceased to ask ourselves any questions about their meaning. I remember hearing Mr. Ruskin say that he supposed that there was not one in every thousand of those who passed by the banqueting hall of Whitehall, who saw that its style of architecture was different from that of the buildings which surrounded it. I presume that this is absolutely true, that of the masses of people who pass along the streets very few notice what is about them, unless it be the falling of a cab-horse or some other similar incident; they feel little curiosity with regard to the buildings they pass.

People are constantly declaring that they are worn out and in need of a holiday; they speak in rhapsodical language of the delights of going abroad, because they feel that, when they travel, one of the conditions under which they have taken their tourist tickets is that they should begin to open their eyes. But the question I would ask them is: "Why do you not begin to open your eyes at home?" There is far more to be seen in London than in Paris, and yet how many Londoners there are who could not pass an examination on London, but who would succeed if Paris were the subject. How many people will rave about Swiss scenery or Italian scenery, because it is the right thing to do; and how very few are aware of the beauties of English scenery. And so in every other way. It seems as if our minds somehow or other became stupefied by our immediate surroundings. We cease to exercise our minds on them, we cease to ask ourselves questions; and in order to attain a condition of mental activity again, we have positively to withdraw from our ordinary surroundings, and to put ourselves where the freshness and novelty of our surroundings may excite us to think and use our intelligence in a natural, spontaneous way.

I wish to make a few remarks to you about the questions which may naturally be suggested by a country. I do not mean England in particular, but any country in which we may happen to find ourselves. I will make my fragmentary remarks under a few general headings.

First of all each country has general natural features of its own. These differ very markedly; I do not think anybody understands how much they differ till he has been to some other country than his own. The country which most opened my eyes to the beauty of England and to the causes which have created English life was Russia. In Russia I first understood what it must be to live in one vast unending plain, with no features, no natural break whatever in the scenery, nothing to cut the outline of the horizon. The feeling that it would be possible to go on for hundreds of miles, with no change in the surrounding features, nothing which could suggest a new idea to the mind, produced a sense of monotony which we in England can never understand. I merely give you this as an instance of the way in which inevitably the great features of a country do form and affect the minds of the people who live in it.

Let me apply these considerations for a moment to those countries which have been the great ruling countries of the world, both intellectually and in the path of industrial civilisation. These have always been small countries. They have been small countries which had their natural features greatly diversified and were capable of being broken up into small portions, each of which was self-contained. Such are the features of Palestine, of Greece, of Italy, and such are the features of England. It seems to me rather remarkable to consider that the great nations which have influenced the thought and the civilisation of the world should have all been formed under the same conditions—conditions in which the mind was undoubtedly stimulated to activity by the fact that it could so rapidly pass from one set of suggestions to another. In England we are particularly favoured. Think of the variety of scenes and the diversity of features which we find in this island. Anybody who takes a walk finds that on his walk, say of ten miles, he passes through at least two or three quite different regions, which suggest to his mind quite different thoughts, which often show differences in the flora and the geology. These differences cannot fail to impress themselves upon the mind of anybody who is really receptive of impressions at all.

Let us take the best-known regions of England—for instance, the Lake District. I suppose the geologist—I am not a geologist—could teach you there all the laws which regulate mountain formations; he would be able to point out to you all that was necessary for your instruction from a geological point of view. There are certainly places in England where, by crossing a valley, you can pass to absolutely different geological formations. You can have the opportunity of observing the great laws and the great forces which have made the surface of the globe. And as it is in this particular way, so it is in almost any other. Every part of England has its own natural suggestiveness, and we move almost imperceptibly from a place which suggests one set of ideas to a place which suggests another. If you will lend yourself to the suggestions of your own country, you will be driven to think in spite of yourself, and you must be a very indolent person indeed, if you do not receive a great many impressions when you take your summer holiday in a place which is at all interesting.

I have been speaking to you with a view to your holidays—speaking of the possible effect of different places upon the minds of those who have grown complicated through living in towns, and who are also perhaps complicated by being over-educated. That complication, it seems to me, sometimes leads people to apply the same tests to their holidays as they would to a commercial undertaking. Commercial operations we know are successful in proportion to their largeness; and commercial considerations teach us that everything has to be measured by its pecuniary value. I do not wish to criticise these two maxims from a commercial point of view, but they are exceedingly unintelligent in the intellectual sphere. I need not tell you that things are not important in proportion to their greatness. I speak of this because I so often find that people when they go away for their holidays, instead of going to places where they can be quiet, deliberately go to a place which they think will excite them. They want to see the biggest mountains they can, therefore they go to Switzerland; they want to see huge waterfalls, yet the beauty of a waterfall may be ruined by its size. I want you to lay these ideas aside and believe that every country and every district has its own beauty and its own charm, and that beauty and charm are not a matter of size, but that their discovery depends upon the power of perception which we bring to it.

Again, people often seem to think that things are valuable in proportion to their cost, and for that reason they take their holidays as far away from home as possible. I would like to plead with you to take your holidays as near home as possible. If in the ordinary course of your life you are not able to make a sufficient study of your surroundings, then give a week's holiday sometimes to trying to learn what your own surroundings can teach you. Believe me that it is possible to take a most delightful holiday at a very small cost by simply going out a short distance by train, making a circuit of some sixteen miles on your legs to another station, looking at all the things which you see on your way, and coming back contentedly to your supper in the evening. You will have had opportunity to appreciate the features of a district in your own neighbourhood and to gather the ideas which it suggested to you.

These ideas are not only concerned with the life of the people who dwell among them. Each country has its own æsthetic suggestiveness, its own æsthetic charm. Mountains can be studied in England as well as in Switzerland; it is not their size but very often their fine lines and forms which give the greatest delight. And so with other things. The more we can see at one glance, the more we can take in at one moment, the more we shall gain. The æsthetic suggestiveness of different countries of course varies greatly, but each has its special charm. People rave about the colouring of Italy or the colouring of Egypt. Have they observed the colouring of London? From Westminster Bridge very often sunsets can be seen which may be classed with the finest effects of light in other countries.

Again, probably the most subtle thing to notice in the study of nature is the gradation by which one kind of scenery merges into another. In this respect England is absolutely unrivalled. Nowhere else are hill and plain so intermixed, and nowhere so well as along the little rivers of England can we see those beautiful gradations by which one kind of scenery passes to another. I venture to think that from the æsthetic point of view no country gives you more ideas, or gives you a greater power of drawing on those ideas than does England.

We pass from the consideration of nature by herself to the consideration of the traces of man's habitation, and these are to be seen in their permanent form in architecture. There is no art which is so illustrative of the past as is architecture, no art which should be so significant to us in these days. There is no art which is so splendid as architecture, no art which is so democratic. It expresses the great permanent ideas which have actuated men at various periods of the sojourn upon this earth. The earth bears the token of man's presence continually expressed in the form of architecture.

Architecture divides itself naturally into three classes: ecclesiastical, civil, and domestic. These three classes may be studied in their different styles in different countries. Foremost amongst them stands ecclesiastical architecture, for it is quite natural that men in expressing their ideas should give the most prominent and the most important expression to the dominant idea in their minds, and that dominant idea is the sense of their relationship to an unseen power and of the meaning of their life during their sojourn here. These are the ideas which are expressed always in ecclesiastical architecture, the aspirations of men at various ages of the world's history, all that they wished to say, the account they had to give of themselves: nothing tells us so much of this as the study of ecclesiastical architecture. That architecture is to be found everywhere. It is an endless object of study—of interest which never ceases, never fails. I speak as one who has lived at various periods of his life under the shadow of great buildings. There are people who praise their houses because they have such beautiful country views; but great as may be the charms of a magnificent country view, I do not think they are comparable to the real interest of a great building, with all its effects of light and shade, with all its suggestiveness of man's activity, of man's life. Great is nature, but remember greater still is man. And this is a truth which we can never afford to forget. It is the greatest sign of defeat to submit ourselves to the dictation of nature, and not to assert ourselves to be nature's superior. The presence, therefore, of a great building is an unending source of study and of suggestiveness. There is no possibility—as any one who has attempted to study and become intimate with a great building knows—of ever getting to the end of the problems which it raises. Every time you go into it, it suggests a new question; your eye falls upon something which shows traces of man's activity, which suggests the working of another mind, and leads on to a variety of interesting problems. A great building is full of the traces of the activity of man's intelligence in the past; and to find out what were the primary ideas at the bottom of it, and see how men applied them and worked them out and extended them, and with what freedom their minds played round that particular structure, is one of the most stimulating studies which I could commend to anybody.

Begin with the church nearest to you and find out its history, who built it, why he built it, why it was changed. Almost all our old parish churches show signs, if we look closely enough, that they were originally built in Norman times. They underwent many changes; they received additions very often in the time when the decorative style prevailed, and subsequently they were remodelled during the prevalence of the perpendicular style. You can follow the record of the church itself. Ask yourself the question, "Who could have built this church? Some great lord I suppose in Norman times. Why were all these additions made?" There must have been a reason. Very often by following back these reasons, you can obtain for yourself a complete record of the past history of the place in which the church stands. There is nothing that suggests more subjects for study than does the history of ecclesiastical architecture.

It is the same also with civil architecture. It is exceedingly interesting to consider what were the countries that first of all built magnificent town halls and what were the characteristics of the common life which led to the building of these town halls. Some of you may perhaps have visited what I think is the most impressive building ever built by any municipality—the Cloth Hall at Ypres. It is to me quite the most splendid and the most magnificent of all civil buildings. Ypres remains a little town, with the mighty building crowning it, the most noble testimony to the activity of a mercantile centre that Europe to my knowledge contains.

Domestic architecture also is full of interest. Their are of course the magnificent palaces which adorn Italy, but they are not comparable to the domestic architecture of England. We do not know, I am sure we do not sufficiently know, the beauty of our English houses. Even the books which are written about these do not rate them one-tenth as highly as they deserve to be rated. The story of English civilisation could be perfectly read simply in English domestic architecture. We have the ruins of our old castles telling us how in olden times the great castle of a great lord was built so as to be strong and permanent; how around it clustered for protection the little wooden huts in which the people lived; how the castle consisted of its various parts. It would take me too long to tell you the story of the development of English fortifications, but the castles tell the story of the beginning of civilised life in England. Then the next stage is the manor house, which in many cases grew out of the castle. The castle had a residential part attached to it; one half was given to the soldiers, and one half was given to the family. Later we get the manor house standing by itself, sometimes appended to the old feudal ruins. Then comes the development of the manor house in the sixteenth century, and its complete evolution up to the time of Queen Anne; all tell the story of the increase of comfort in England. And after all people cannot leave a more instructive record of themselves than to tell us what were their ideas of comfort, and how they liked to spend their lives. Materials for this study are ample round London. Any one living in London, by a little walking, can bring before his mind's eye almost every stage in the development of English architecture, and consequently of English life. Who can have visited the old ruins of Eltham, and then proceeded to investigate Knowle, without gaining some conception of the standard of comfort which had been reached in English life by the end of the sixteenth century? It is possible for us, while taking our walks, to bring before ourselves a sympathetic picture of the life and efforts of our ancestors, who worked at the problems which we ourselves have to try and carry on a little further.

There are many subsidiary questions also which architecture brings before us. First of all there is the relation of the architecture of any locality to the building materials of that locality. This is a very interesting question to study. We begin by noticing that houses in a particular district are built in a particular way. We cannot answer the question as to why they were built in that way, till we have found out what is the stone of which they are built. Next we must inquire where that stone came from. We shall find perhaps that it came from a quarry which is now closed, and that the particular form which the architecture took was suggested by the nature of the stone. One of the most striking instances of this that I know is the Cathedral of Tournai, which is a most remarkable building. It contains a central tower, and at the corner of each transept is another tower, so that it really has five central towers. Inside you will find that it is built of basaltic stone, which is excessively hard, and quite incapable of taking carvings of any sort. Therefore, as the architect could not put any ornamentation inside, he put as much as he could outside, and built those five towers.

There are many other points that I could put before you as regards the power of architecture in its suggestiveness; but I pass on from that to consider the historical suggestiveness of a locality. Great as architecture is, and far back as it can carry us, it is perishable indeed as compared with earthworks. Simple mounds of earth have lasted when architecture has disappeared. The simplest and the most primitive forms of buildings have remained the longest, and now tell their story most clearly. Almost every neighbourhood has within its reach some prehistoric remains. There is nothing more interesting than simply to study them for yourselves; do not listen first to what wise folk tell you and go with your mind made up about all questions, but go to look at them, sit down and consider what manner of men they were that made them, and what they made them for. Ask yourselves those questions, and you will find that they suggest to you a great many answers which, whether true or not, will set your mind working for itself. The number of prehistoric remains in any locality can, by a little trouble, be woven into something like a connected scheme. Camps, for instance, established on the tops of hills were connected with one another. You can easily verify this for yourselves. I have done it on the Malvern Hills. Each hill with a camp is visible from the next hill with a camp. I walked round them all, wondering why each camp was built where it was, and I found each was within call or signal of the next, and so a complete system of communication must have been possible between them. I need not speak about the interest of battlefields; everybody is attracted by them. If Englishmen care about nothing else, they care about fights either in their own days or in the past But to me battlefields seem vulgar, and not deserving of the interest that is taken in them. Still, in their neighbourhood great historic sites are to be found, sites sometimes connected with persons and places that have literary associations. Again, what could be better in the neighbourhood of London than to stroll out some day, following in the footsteps of Milton, and seeking out the places where he composed his poems, many of them accessible from London, trying to find out on the spot why particular ideas suggested themselves to Milton's mind. Everything becomes so much clearer when looked at on the spot, when we consider the ideas of men in reference to the place where those ideas suggested themselves. The whole country of England is rich in historical suggestions. Everywhere we can see suggestions of the way in which luminous ideas came into the minds of those who have been before us. Their ideas become more luminous to us as we see how they were acquired, for ideas are valuable, not so much when we consider them as due to the spontaneous action of any individual, but when we see how they were borne in on him by the accumulated wealth of resources which his country contains.

There is still another aspect in which a country may be studied, and that is in relation to its social conditions both in the past and in the present day. Get, for instance, a large ordnance map and consider the boundaries of the parishes; draw them in and study social life from that basis. A friend of mine set himself to draw, for his own purposes, a rough parish map of the Weald of Kent. He took nothing but the divisions of the parishes, and he was suddenly struck by the fact that the parishes came in their present form from the most primitive times. He saw at a glance from the top of the Weald, looking down on both sides, the arrangement made by the original settlers. All the parishes are long narrow strips, the boundaries of which run down from the top of the Weald in long parallel lines into the valley. The original settlers found a fertile country, settled down and divided their settlements nearly equally, because the country offered very little choice in early times. It is most helpful to make a special map to illustrate any particular subject into which you may be inquiring, isolating everything except the particular thing before your mind. The direction in which roads run, for instance, is a most interesting subject, and at once suggests a number of questions. Why do roads take their peculiar turnings? It may be that they denote the boundaries of old land holdings. But if so, the question arises why the land was divided in such an arbitrary way. We may well ask of many a country lane, why was it not made straight? To pursue the question may lead to interesting conclusions. Again, when you take a country walk, ask the name of every hill, of every field, of everything you see, because an enormous amount of past history which is rapidly being forgotten is contained in place names. It is very interesting to me, in going about this vast metropolis, to notice where in the suburbs there are traces of any old houses which show what has been the nucleus of an old village. To my eyes it is charming to see the old-fashioned shop fronts still to be found sometimes in the suburbs, amidst the appalling vulgarity of the new shop windows—the old shop fronts with bow windows and another bow window over the top of the doorway, the whole three fitted together in one design. These, which were built in the last century, and have now for the most part been abolished, have a real beauty and charm. Again, in the eighteenth century, people did know something about the nature of the decoration suitable for our climate. They knew how to build small houses which produced a proper effect, and in our climate any effect produced must be very strong, because we cannot depend upon light and shade. Even amid the dulness of the suburbs of modern London, old houses of the eighteenth century may sometimes be seen, which have a heavy projection over the doorway. Take the trouble to look at these, and you will see that the design and ornamentation are admirably adapted to our country, and to the conditions under which as a matter of fact they are to be observed. Even in London you may find traces of a desire for beautiful effects, even here you may rejoice your eyes.

But one more observation; wherever you go you may become a social observer. With a little care it is always possible in any country to gain an approximate idea of its social conditions. Let me call attention to two things which you can easily observe. Look at the children on the roads and see if rickets are prevalent; look at the girls as they walk about and see if they have traces of anaemia. And if you have a scientific or sanitary mind, you can follow back the causes which created these conditions, and you will perhaps think that you could give the local board some valuable advice as to how they might be remedied. Naturally our ideas run in professional grooves, and when I take country walks, and prowl from one village to another, I ask myself questions as to how things are getting on in that neighbourhood. I walk through a village, and from the indications of its general character, and the signs of its progress, I try to form inferences as to the character and activity and zeal of the clergyman. When I get to the church I try to get into conversation with the sexton. I lead him on by a series of questions, and generally discover at all events what his opinion of his clergyman is. Now it is quite extraordinary how often I find that the conclusion I myself had drawn in walking through the village coincides with what I draw from him. I only give you this as an instance of the way, of course it is not infallible, in which you may form and verify conclusions about any point that interests you. I venture to think that it is possible for you all, besides gratifying your general interests, also to strengthen your professional interests, and to learn a great deal which will be useful to you in the line of life which you are pursuing, if you keep your eyes open and ask yourselves proper questions. For that purpose I would recommend you to take these expeditions and interrogate your country, not so much from the point of view of the previous knowledge you have gained about it, as in the hope of gaining more. Do not take a guide-book and "verify" it. That is the way in which so many people travel abroad and learn nothing. Do not rush from one thing to another. The number of things you can see in a limited period of time is small. It is better to get one or two strong impressions than many transient ones. Do not try to see things for the sake of telling people you have seen them when you get back; and do not look at things unless you are interested in them. If sunsets are not in your line, pull your hat over your eyes and say they are not. There is no use in attempting to utter right expressions about sunsets if you do not really delight in them. Go about with your mind in a receptive state and ask yourself the meaning of things, and then go back and consult your guide-books, and find out what they say about them. Then your pleasure will really be increased. If you have a question to ask, and you go to a library to find the answer, it is astonishing how many books that you have never dreamt of turning over before become fair of interest, and how much literature you are introduced to if you have a burning curiosity at the bottom of your mind.

I have been attempting very imperfectly to show you the truth of the old adage that we were all taught as boys in a passage in which Cicero praises books: "Pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur," which may be translated as follows: "Books speak the night with us, they accompany us on our foreign travels, and go with us into the country". I want to show you that the country can go with you even in your books, and that is, on the whole, a more valuable way of looking at the matter.