Shedding Light on Dark History

Shedding Light on Dark History

Suzannah’s History Today column, from April 2015: the increasing commercialisation of sites known for their gruesome and violent history raises troubling questions. But to ignore such events would be worse… 

I have spent the week on the trail of witches in Scotland and Lancashire. In Edinburgh, I stood on Castle Hill, where on 28 January 1591, a midwife called Agnes Sampson and a number of other witches accused in the North Berwick trials – with which King James VI was directly involved – were garrotted and burnt for witchcraft. There is the tiny, easily missable memorial, and I found the oblivious hordes of tourists (with their selfie-sticks) or the bizarre jocularity of some tour guides deeply disturbing on the site of so much horror.

By contrast, Lancashire commemorates its gruesome history. The Council offers driving and walking witch-routes through Pendle and the surrounding countryside, following in the footsteps of those accused of witchcraft. There is even a rather nice poem by Carol Ann Duffy about the victims, which is engraved on a stone on Gallows Hill in Lancaster, where ten convicted witches were hanged in August 1612, and a rather eerie metal sculpture of one of them, Alice Nutter, in the village of Roughlee.

In both, of course, commercialism reigns: from an up-market restaurant in Edinburgh called The Witchery to Pendle Witches’ Brew ale – everyone is getting in on the act.

As a phenomenon, it is nothing new: from the remains of Pompeii and Madame Tussaud’s post-French Revolution Chamber of Horrors, to the battlefields of the Somme and tours of concentration camps, people have been drawn to the sites and scenes of disaster, murder, execution and war for many years. And the question of how we respectfully and appropriately mark and remember the darker episodes of our history has, in the last decades, become the subject of scholarly study. Perhaps not coincidentally, there is an Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire, and the commodification of atrocity for the public even has its own academic term: thanatourism (from the Greek for ‘death’, thanatos).

Visiting these kinds of macabre heritage sites is an important way in which the public consumes history, and therefore for the historian, just as for the heritage industry, there are ethical questions to consider.

On the one hand, these places do a crucial job of memorializing the past, of healing wounds and of allowing for empathy. They remember the suffering of others, and help alert us to the complex tangle of historical circumstances that created such barbarity, and could again. They remind us that far too often ‘homo homini lupus est’ – man is a wolf to man.

On the other hand, though, such places are open to moralistic charges of capitalizing on the unpleasant human impulse to voyeurism and prurience, a titillated fascination with horror and the frisson of fear it provokes, or entertainment at the pain of others.

But what is worse? Not remembering or remembering in a way that seems distasteful?

One of the most moving places I’ve ever been was to a charnel house in the vaults of a church in the City of London. It was filled with the skeletons of those who had died from the plague. The sight of the bones carefully laid out filled me with awe at the reality of lives lived, the hideousness of their deaths and the transience of mortality. But, recent building works meant that many other bones had been packed into cardboard boxes, which were piled up in a corridor that also served as the general storage space and dumping ground. Perhaps these bones were carefully preserved and it was only the debris that gave the impression of neglect, but I found this latter disregard very troubling. I felt dimly aware that all sorts of best practice policies for the treatment of human remains may have been contravened, but it was the sense of forgetfulness that most perturbed me.

This week, I’ve realized, therefore, with some discomfort that grim as it may be to see human suffering exploited by the market (and another example of our tendency to wolfishness), I think that it is, on balance, far worse for people not to remember the past than for them to remember in a way that I find unappealing. It isn’t good enough – the reason forgetfulness is so terrible is because it betrays a lack of empathy, just as jaunty tour guides or tasteless paraphernalia do; our duty towards past horror is a sombre honouring, and anything else falls short. But better to remember than forget.