Different cultures seem to have wildly varying attitudes about the proper way to treat historical ruins. In Germany the government is busily rebuilding old buildings to their original glory. Not really surprising, considering how much of that nation’s historical architecture was reduced to rubble during a certain large war.

In marked contrast, I have learned that the English have an abhorrence for putting back up anything that has fallen down. They consider such acts to be a kind of sacrilege, a violation against history. If you ever find yourself in York, you can walk through the ruins of was once the extensive castle, built in 1069, by William the Conqueror, where today nothing remains but vague outlines of what were once magnificent buildings, and the occasional crumbling stone wall.

As far as the English are concerned, this state of affairs is just fine. To bring such buildings back would not occur to them. They would think such a project to be not so much architectural restoration as a kind of gross indecency, a displacement of the true historical reality by a sort of Disney-esque ersatz fantasy.

There is a seeming contradiction in this, for in England it has long been a favorite pasttime of the wealthy to erect “follies” – elaborate ruins consisting of crumbling old walls, pillars of ancient greek temples, the remains of an ancient Egyptian pyramid or obelisk – all completely and utterly fake.

Painting of a typical English “folly”


But after a little thought this makes perfect sense. To the English, the resurrection of a long-gone past falls firmly into the category of amusing fantasy. Indeed, there is a good reason these constructions are called “follies”. In a sense, the very artificiality of such projects, their deliberate absurdity, serves as a reminder that the past can never be recaptured.

Seen in this context, the refusal of the British to rebuild the walls of William the Conqueror’s castle, or any other artifacts of history, is a gesture of true respect.

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