London betrayed a similar organization. To the north of a river then without name, the first peoples had laid a pattern over the land’s hills, woods and banks. The forebears’ original design, as the extant Roman delineations in the City suggested, still exercised considerable sway over the descendants’ imagination and constrained the alterations they might make to it. Later changes to the cityscape found themselves not far from the bounds set out by those first strokes.
In the implementation of the parish system, centuries-long and unsystematic in its principle, I thought to see precisely just such an overlay of Londinium. The Angles and Saxons had perhaps not much altered the grounds of what the Romans had left behind, but the arrival of Christianity on those shores and mass conversions paved the way for the cityspace’s own reorganization. In scattered corners of old Londinium rose new houses of worship which, in keeping with the believer’s presumed commitment to the whole of Christian living, stood as the center of gravity in the person’s life.
Birth might be dated from the child’s baptism in the nearest church; marriage before God united two individuals at life’s transition from given to giver; death brought the corpse back to the house’s folds for funerary rites and then into its churchyard. If life so began and ended therein and the church gathered worshippers every seventh day, then it would seem a foregone conclusion to those in power to re-lay city lines on the basis of the churches. Naturally, each of the latter went on to become the center of a district unto itself: the locus of civil administration. So did the overlay renew in the individual parishes.
Yet it would prove misleading to see in the new city lines a new order sprung from nothing. For founders erected churches in places already possessed of a history. City gates provided a natural point of orientation, and the neighborhoods surrounding a community with an identity already established to a greater or lesser extent. If these points and surfaces influenced the founders’ decisions to build here or there, the churches’ names, and, by extension, the parishes’, flowed from designations likewise not of the founders’ making. Christian buildings received the designation -within or -without in reference to the pagan walls, as well as suffixes owing to a number of sources, be they street names, extant buildings, popular communities, vernaculars or geographical entities.
Accordingly, extant structures of both language and history channeled new forces within the city along the lines of a mold, always already there. In places, the depth of such forces may have overrun the mold and spilled over the bounds established thereby. This fails to diminish the role which the underlying mold played in the city’s reorganization. Much the same could be said of the minor, local transformations following thereafter.
More calamitous times wiped the slate, or, to keep with my metaphor, the mold, clean in a way which peacetime could not envision. If the latter could allow for the creation of new churches due to growth in the different parishes, it could not countenance the more thoroughgoing alterations which the former prepared the way for. With the destruction of the Great Fire and the Blitz came opportunities for rebuilding and recasting the lines of the city’s parishes. From the medieval streets naves and belfries disappeared or sometimes churches altogether. Smaller, dying parishes pooled while life remained them while the larger, more fertile cast their seed about.
Behind such transformations lurked a mind or a collection of minds free to rework, if not the mold entirely, at least those lines which they found displeasing. Certainly, they could not do away with all lines; to do away with all lines was to do away with the mold as a concentration of arbitrary power and, hence, that material on which they would work. So, they found themselves always needful of the mold, always careful to build in some continuity with extant materials and structures. Into the void left by calamity stepped an opportunistic but constrained cabal.
Before London’s history, I asked of myself, if no one else, whether the whole necessarily altered in times of crisis alone, whether there not be a way of provoking transformation without recourse to crisis, violence and ruin.
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