If you get a chance, visit the town of Bungay in Suffolk (UK). A black dog is everywhere. It’s on the town’s badge and is its brand image.
The origins of the ‘Black Dog of Bungay’ lie in a thunderstorm that overwhelmed Suffolk on Sunday, August 4th 1577. Lightning struck the church of St. Mary’s; two of the townsfolk gathered there were killed. An account published within a month described how a black dog “or the divel in such a likenesse” rushed through the church “in midst of fire... passing onwards to the quire (choir) he many people slew”. Bungay has been associated with the Black Dog ever since.
So far, so historical: a strange but apparently coherent set of events, with an unbroken tradition. In fact, very ‘historical’. For its coherence and tradition is made up of gaps and leaps of invention: the parish records of 1577 say that the two fatalities took place in the bell tower and not in the “quire”, and mention no dog. The author of the canine-enhanced account, a Calvinist propagandist and translator of ‘Of English Dogges’, appears not to have visited the town.
And as for the “associated with... ever since” – well, the Black Dog story was excavated from obscurity by a Town Reeve, Dr Crane, as part of his mid-1930s campaign to revive the town. He combined housing and welfare projects with a selective resurrection of town traditions; in the face of industrial collapse (Bungay’s river had silted up and was formally closed to trade in 1933) he transformed the town’s image from one of post-industrial decline to that of a modern visitor destination.
In order to overcome local opposition to the erection of the town’s first electric lamp post, Crane seized on the Black Dog as the perfect ornament. Lightning = electricity. The local paper devoted a two page spread to his antiquarian research and a design competition among the town’s children democratised the sleight of hand, turning a modern appliance into a pseudo-antique curio, an ambiguous ‘heritage’ everyone could own. By the mid-1940s the local football team coach had adopted the name ‘Black Dog’ and the pattern was set. Today, almost every local sports, arts or social organisation in Bungay has the black dog in its name or on its badge.
So, there was a past. Things happened. But history wasn’t made then, it was made back to front from the way we are told it is. While the past itself, as ever, moves away from us, like stars or phantom islands.
Heritage alchemists like the Dr Cranes of this world make history for our pleasure. He conjured the Black Dog with economics and electricity from a free-floating fragment of theological propaganda in order to entertain and distract.
Counter-tourism, on the other hand, makes history from our pleasure.
But we still like Crane’s ‘Black Dog’! Not because it reaches back to a deep pre-modern ‘English’ folk past (it doesn’t), but because we love its shape-shifting, its modernity, its electricity, its duplicity, its popularity - its all round doggy-dodgyness! It’s both a fragment of the past and a leap of invention.
Such ecstatic heritage is not an anchor in what came before, but, like a devilish dog of fire racing through a sacred chancel, a quest for what might come.
image credit: www.bungay-suffolk.co.uk