An old find of coins highlights the importance of history

This week, an article by Tom Holland’s from January 3, 2015 proves to be as philosophical as I expected from the title: “Why Buried Treasure Never Loses its Lustre.” The nice thing about this piece is that despite its timing and mention of Christmas, it isn’t overbearing or syrupy in any way.

In the article, Holland uses the then recent discovery of a hoard of coins in a Buckinghamshire field to illustrate that the English (and humanity as a whole, really) have gone through tough times before and pulled through. In particular, since the coins date back to the early 11th century, Holland focuses on the transition from the reign of Aethelred II (famously “The Unready”), and Cnut, the Viking turned Christian king.

By Holland’s brief account this period was a terrible transition, as Aethelred II’s death brought a crumby reign to an end only to see a greedy despot take his place: in the first year of his reign, Cnut basically demanded a 100% tax. Holland doesn’t go into the details, but at some point Cnut had a change of heart and took up the idea that the greater and more powerful the person, the more penitent they must be.

What ties this story so neatly to the time when it was written though, is that the metal detectorist who found the hoard of coins (valued at a cool £1 million) was unemployed and nearly broke at the time. A strange confluence of circumstances that reinforces the lesson that Holland takes from the history contained in the coins that come from a transitional period in English history.

Like these coins and the lesson of perseverance they teach, I think that the same can be said of Beowulf.

Though, just as if you found coins with an unfamiliar face or language on them, they’d be meaningless to you (except maybe for the money they could sell for). After all, as is the case with those coins, so much of what makes Beowulf relevant to modern times is hidden behind historical and cultural differences.

Which raises the question of “why bother?”

After all, we live in a time when several answers to just about any one question are always at our finger tips. So why bother learning about the history lived or literature written and read by people who are now long dead?

Which is a valid question.

At least until you realize that because the culture and the history from which Beowulf (or those coins) came no longer exists, we can find an alternate perspective on modern issues (PTSD, distribution of wealth, heroism). These alternatives might not always be the quick solution that we’re looking for (letting all wealth flow to one person who is then trusted to redistribute it evenly would definitely not work today), but they can offer insight into how another person from another time would deal with a similar problem.

Which makes things like those coins or Beowulf into a kind of mirror in which we can see ourselves and our problems. Looking into such a mirror we stand a better chance of finding something even more meaningful or helpful, since the mind doesn’t always work in a straight, logical line. Instead, it sometimes needs the shock of an idea that is utterly radical or strange to come to reach the desired conclusion.

How do you think that Beowulf is useful to modern people? Do you think it’s still useful beyond just being a really cool story?

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