Cathedral under the Floor

March 26, 1993

Just when you think the past is known, fully understood, engraved in stone, something is discovered that changes everything. History, far from being fixed, can change shape before our eyes.

These thoughts are prompted by the discovery, under Canterbury Cathedral, the nine-century-old sanctuary of the Church of England and Anglican Communion, of the ruins of an Anglo-Saxon church. Archaeologists digging to redo a two-century-old floor (of obviously little antique value) discovered the ruin. More, they measured it, and worse, they are interpreting its significance.

That the ruin of an older church rests under a newer one is not news. Nor is the fact of a Saxon edifice beneath Norman. It is well known that the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 brought higher architectural concepts (the Romanesque, which the English call Norman) and skills, and greater social organization to the backwater of Britain. The Anglo-Saxon cathedral burned down in 1067 and the Norman cathedral was begun on the site, to be finished four centuries later as the grand edifice known today.

But there's the catch. The Saxon nave foundation the archeologists found was as big as Canterbury Cathedral's. It was Canterbury Cathedral in its day. That revises everything.

The Saxons must have had nobler architectural vision, greater construction skills and more complex social organization than we have credited them for in the past. They must have participated in the European developments of the day. What we thought we had known these nine centuries appears, as the mist clears, mere Norman propaganda to justify the conquest as good for the conquered.

So let's have a little tolerance for historical revisionists. Most may be misguided, over-enthusiastic or crackpot. But every so often, one is right. Make them prove their case, but name-calling neither proves nor disproves. You never know when a Saxon cathedral will be discovered under the floor.

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