As important as history is to understanding the present as well as the past, it can be boring. History books can be dry and difficult to read through with understanding. That’s why trips like this to the historical places are so wonderful. History comes alive in a way that is impossible to replicate without the artifact right in front of you. It’s one thing to give a student the dimensions of a cathedral and tell them it is huge. It’s quite another to take the student to the cathedral and have them see the dimensions for themselves. The numbers and figures become irrelevant at that point; the size and grandeur is portrayed by the cathedral, not the professor, and the experience is much more meaningful.
I had this feeling at York Minster. Everyone kept telling me that it was a large cathedral, but that doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t until I stepped into the place that I was able to fully grasp the enormity of the minster and the awesome decorations that adorn the inside. Beauty means something different to everyone, so I had always been slightly skeptical of accepting other people’s descriptions. This was a case of the place confirming the rumors and solidifying what I had learned in class as well as surpassing my expectations. I could never have imagined the intricacies of the carvings without having been there myself.
The same thing happened in Salisbury Cathedral with the Magna Carta. I’d learned about the Magna Carta before and what it meant, but it was just a piece of parchment in my mind. Seeing the actual document and reading the translation brought the history to life. In the end, it really was just a piece of parchment, but it was a piece of parchment that had changed the world. It was a piece of parchment that had been signed by important people in history and has been used since its signing as a symbol of liberty. Honestly, I’m not sure why seeing the document was awe-inspiring. It is the words and ideas written down on the parchment that are important, not the ink itself.
I will point out that sometimes seeing the history in person does not help you gain a better appreciation for it. Sometimes, it is an anti-climactic experience. Stonehenge was not as impressive as I thought it was going to be. It has been built up with rumors, theories, and conspiracies to the point that I was expecting the larger than life monument with special powers or something. It’s just some rocks, really. The actual monument is not as large as I was expecting, in terms of the height of the stones and the size of the stone circle. I was more impressed with the landscape that Stonehenge has inspired and the culture surrounding the use of the monument than the actual stone circle itself. In this case, my mental image of Stonehenge had been grander than reality. I think this is rather unusual, especially in the digital age when we have so many pictures of historical places online and at our fingertips. I should, theoretically, be able to get an accurate sense of what things look like from the wealth of information online. Yet, I have been continuously awed by what we are seeing on this trip. I guess the internet is no substitute for experiencing history for yourself.