Jarrow and Bede
Bid for World Heritage Status for Wearmouth-Jarrow founders on review from ICOMOS
Wearmouth-Jarrow encompasses two very important monasteries in Northumberland. They were founded by Biscop Baducing aka Benedict Biscop, an Anglo-Saxon thegn, who in his youth travelled extensively to Gallia and Rome. In 674 – 682 on grants from the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith, he founded, what were later to become these twinned monasteries. In their days, they were no doubt impressive. Roman in outlook, built of stone and embellished with coloured glass-windows and carved sculptures, the monastic compounds must have looked quite different from vernacular architecture at that time. Further they were the repositories of not only foreign artworks and a new form of music; they were also places for literacy, learning and not least science. Today we know them best, because these institutions fostered the venerable Bede in their midst. And indeed, it is an evocative experience to walk around the sites and enter (the remains) of the churches, which were once part of this magnificent ecclesiastical institution. Nevertheless, the places are in their own right significant in so far as they are representatives of some of the very early bridgeheads of Christendom in an otherwise pagan setting.
Some years ago a group of people got together in order to work to have the twinned monastery declared World Heritage. One reason was obviously their great love of the place and a recognition of its historical and intellectual ramifications. Another reason was the genuine wish to create a reason for tourists to visit the local community and create some jobs. What followed was a huge collaborative effort, countless meetings and much reflection. Last year this resulted in nearly 750 pages of well-written texts and photos arguing for World Heritage Status for the twinned monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumberland. In 2011 these reports were officially handed over to UNESCO, which then decided to submit the matter to a more detailed review in order to reach a formal decision this summer. In October 2011 Archaeologists visited the site and went through it with something, which must have been akin to a early medieval comb made out of antlerbone.
However, recently this report was placed on the internet with a very damning conclusion: “ICOMOS recommends that the Twin Monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, United Kingdom, should not be inscribed on the World Heritage List.”
Apparently this came to the notice of the committee working for the inscription a few days ago. As of today this has resulted in a formal withdrawal of the application for this year, though carefully worded phrasing seems to indicate that the committee wishes to either lodge a complaint or alternatively work to amend the application.
To get an inscription on the World Heritage List is indeed no easy matter. Any site aspiring to the status has to exhibit an Outstanding Universal Value compared to other sites of the same character; and it must be able to demonstrate integrity and authenticity. Further it must be able to demonstrate the ability to be managed properly and finally there must be guarantees in place that a buffer zone is protected properly. First of all, though, it has to be a “site” or “property” – in short a piece of architecture or nature of outstanding value, which signifies a specific part of our common heritage, but in a unique way; that is: cannot be found elsewhere and in a better condition.
However, the ICOMOS review of the Wearmouth-Jarrow bid reveals exactly how complicated it is to persuasively present such a case.
On one hand there is no doubt that the site is important in so far as it is the place where the venerable Bede lived and died, while writing his huge output of theological, historical and scientific treatises. To visit his grave in the Cathedral in Durham must for any seasoned medieval tourist be accompanied by a trip to the two churches lying at the mouth of two busy rivers, the Tyne and the Wear. No doubt about that. And yes, people do go there to try and experience what it must have been like to live the life of a Benedictine monk in this very recently converted landscape, probably still full of pagan people and places.
On the other hand: in themselves the archaeological remains are not unique. In that sense the ICOMOS review is correct. To get a feeling for early Anglo-Saxon church-buildings, one has to sample a number of other places like Hexham, Ripon, Brixworth etc.; and some of them might even – as the ICOMOS review claims – be better situated, when better excavated, to tell the story in a better way.
Nevertheless, no place is quite as well illustrated, thanks to the illuminative historical writing of the old sage.
This is exactly the hum of the matter. It says in the conclusion of the review from ICOMOS, that the
“proposed Outstanding Universal Value as a tangible manifestation of an exceptional centre of intellectual endeavour in the early Middle Ages, uniquely documented in the writing of the Venerable Bede, could not be justified in the context of the World heritage Convention. ICOMOS considers that it has not been demonstrated how the intellectual legacy of the Venerable Bede is related to the physical remains of the property and that the justification provided centred exclusively on the historic importance of the Venerable Bede and the association between the person and the location. ICOMOS in this context would like to recall that the World Heritage Convention is a property or side-based convention without a mandate for the commemoration of the world’s most outstanding persons.”
In short, and rather less convoluted, the convention (or its caretakers: the archaeologists) does not give room for celebrating a place, because it is uniquely associated with a person of world renown. The site has foremost to be incomparably a unique architectural or archaeological edifice.
That may be! But is this right? Should we really allow for this very limited and sterile understanding of what heritage is? Or should we begin to acknowledge that people do not primarily visit historical places in order to inspect the architecture, the building materials or the exquisite art inherent in a place. Do people for instance go to Hampton Court to look at the architecture? Or do they go there to meet the ghosts of Henry the VIII, Anne Boleyn and Cromwell?
What we know for a fact is, that the great majority of people visit these places in order to crawl under the skin of persons long gone by. In order to do that, they need to get something to work with in order to be able to sense them. Places may help in this way; and are therefore of importance. Places may be especially helpful, when they are illuminated by great stories. As is exactly the case at Jarrow!
ICOMOS, try and get it right next time…
Wearmouth and Jarrow
2012 Evaluations of Nominations of Cultural and Mixed Properties to the World Heritage List. Icomos report for the World Heritage Committee, 36th ordinary session, Saint Petersburg, June-July 2012: The Twin Monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow (United Kingdom No 1391) p. 311 – 325
Update for Wearmouth-Jarrow Nomination
Articles in Shields Gazette by journalist Terry Kelly about the local uproar. A special thanks to Terry Kelly who uncovered the ICOMOS file