Editing Before Our Eyes


The Monument to the Great Fire


We tend to think of editing, when we think of it at all, as the silent, invisible work that tweaks drafty language and turns it into something ready for prime time. There are other forms of editing, however, and some of them are extraordinarily public.

We tend to think of monuments, when we think of them at all, as, well, monumental–always there, always commemorating in some usually ignorable way. The best of them become the subject of art history, the rest of them are good for holding up pigeons.

But monuments are almost always accompanied by texts, and that’s where editing becomes a public event. The ancients knew how to edit someone out of history: destroy the monuments. Pulling down heroic figures of potentates would erase not only a visual representation but whatever inscriptions had given the monument a voice. Damnatio memoriae, the condemnation of memory, was the effort to edit someone out of memory, and so out of history.

There are lots of inscriptions on monuments. Few of us do, or can, read them. The stone is worn, you have to bend down or crane your neck, they’re in Latin (if you’re lucky) or cuneiform (if you’re not).

One of my favorites has been standing in the City of London since the 17th century. It’s the column commemorating the Great Fire, known simply as “the Monument.” Designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, the column is famously as tall as the distance from its site to the origin of the Great Fire in Pudding Lane, where it all began on September 2, 1666.

You can climb to the top if you don’t mind lots of tiny steps, and at the summit you can admire the dazzling gilt flame that tops it, even if now the whole structure, completed in 1677, is dwarfed by London’s 21st-century City.

The less glamorous but textually more interesting view, however, is from ground level. At the base of the column is a grand inscription in Latin providing historical details of the fire. Then in 1681, a few short years after the Monument was completed,  the text of the inscription  was considered incomplete. A line was added. In English the emendation reads: “but Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.”

The editorializing addition pointed suspicious fingers at Catholics. In reality, the frenzy of which the Monument now spoke was not the frenzy of seditious non-Anglicans but the frenzy of political paranoia.

More than a century would pass before cooler heads prevailed. In 1830,  the reference to Popish frenzy was edited out. Craftsmen would have been summoned, chisels at the ready, and the offending line made to disappear. The space they occupied, however, remains, at least in cultural memory.

The gap on the Great Fire’s Monument is one of my secret touristy things in London.  Of all the lines put up on the Monument, this now erased one may speak most loudly to our own moment, our frenzies real and imagined, and what we say in public.

The Monument, a short walk from St Paul’s Cathedral, is an object lesson in public textuality. Should the Regency worthies have left the inscribed words as  evidence of anti-Catholic prejudice? Or were they right to leave an erasure?

When we “edit in public,” as the Londoners did in 1830, do we want to correct our mistakes by rewriting them and move on? Or do we want to historicize and preserve the errors of fact and feeling as they have appeared on our monuments and in our museums? If so, how best to do that?

The question of what we’re doing when we edit ourselves in public remains, like an inscription’s gap on a 17th-century column, an object to contemplate.


You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano



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