Monthly Archives: February 2011

Agincourt and After

With each course I teach, I introduce students to my conceptualizations of “boys’ history” and “girls’ history”; the former referring to battles and anything you might find on the History Channel, the latter to everything else that happened.  Of course these are flippant and ridiculous characterizations, but at least it gets them thinking about interpretive issues as apposed to just the facts.  While working on my Renaissance course this past weekend, I encountered a scenario which can represent history for both boys and girls, one with a big battle, a prisoner in the Tower, and an earlyValentine’s Day poem.

The big battle is Agincourt in 1415, which resumed the long series of battles which later became known as the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.  This battle, like all those before it in the War, was a momentous victory for England against overwhelming odds, inspiring Shakespeare’s St Crispin’s Day/”band of brothers” speech in Henry V almost two centuries later.

One reason that English had been so dominant throughout the war was their creative way of financing it:  ransom.  Noble French prisoners would be taken prisoner on the field and given amnesties to collect large ransom demands to ensure their ultimate release.  After Agincourt, however, one notable prisoner of war was not given amnesty or release:  Charles d’Orléans.  The Duke of Orleans, as he is known in the English sources and in Shakespeare’s play, was simply too high up in the French line of royal succession and too connected (by blood and marriage) to be released.  And so he remained an English captive for 25 years, several of them in the Tower of London.

The Duke in Wallingford Castle, National Library of the Netherlands

To relieve the boredom of his long imprisonment (which as you see from the images above, was quite a splendid captivity), the Duke started writing poetry in the romantic style of his near-contemporaries Chaucer and Petrarch.  The ballads addressed to his wife back in France reference Cupid, Courts and Castles of Love (illustrated below in miniatures from a late fifteenth-century Flemish manuscript in the British Library) and St. Valentine’s Day. 

The Duke had very little time with his Duchess, Bonne d’Armagnac, before his capture and imprisonment.  Their betrothal is illustrated in one of the most magnificent illuminated manuscripts of the late Middle Ages:  Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry as that Duke was Bonne’s grandfather.  This was in 1410; in 1415 he was captured at Agincourt, and when he returned in 1440 the Duchess was dead (but he quickly found another).

Given the circumstances and the fashion of the times, the Duke’s”valentines” are a bit plaintive:  I am already sick of love/my very gentle Valentine; Strengthen, my love, this castle of my heart.  More cheerful examples—the products of printing, liberation, and an ever-expanding market, are displayed in the windows of Roost on Front Street in Salem.

Images of Ice

It’s all about ice this weekend. Menacing icicles are hanging off our roof and those of other building around town, but friendlier cold creations are at street level, as 21 ice sculptures line the downtown as part of  the annual “Salem’s So Sweet” festival sponsored by Salem Main Streets.  I’m impressed with the effort; I walked around to take the photographs below and saw a lot of people on the streets and in the shops.  It wasn’t quite Halloween, but it was an impressive turnout in the doldrums of dreary February.

And now for a more threatening image of ice:  tentacles on the side of City Hall, provoking the closure of the alley below.

Finally, some really scary images of ice.  While searching through the National Weather Service Historic Photographs Archive for pictures of the great Blizzard of 1978  (which happened this weekend), I came across these views of ice storms in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1886 and outside Providence, Rhode Island in 1921.  My trees have really taken a hit this year, but these pictures put it all in perspective, as history often does.

A White Robe of Roofs

Every time I was in range of a radio yesterday there was a story about collapsing roofs.  Of course, most were flat roofs (I keep wanting to write rooves, but apparently that is not done anymore), covering modern commercial structures.  Our colonial predecessors had other ideas, and their steep, sloping roofs seem to be bearing up pretty well under all the snow—now and for the past 350 years or so.  Here are some pictures I took over the past few snowy days of some of Salem’s first period houses:  the Narbonne House, the so-called “Witch House” (more accurately designated the Jonathan Corwin House), the Peabody Essex Museum’s John Ward House, and the House of the Seven Gables (also known as the Turner-Ingersoll House).

For the sake of comparison (of both season and era), the same houses are featured below in a series of photographs from the Historic American Building Survey, a New Deal project in which photographers, architects, and draftsmen were put  to work documenting historic structures  for the National Park Service.  While the Narbonne house and the Gables look quite similar, the Jonathan Corwin house would be unrecognizable without its Old Witch house sign, as this was more than a decade before Historic Salem, Inc. removed the attached storefront in the process of a comprehensive restoration. In a turn-of-the-century photography by the Detroit Publishing Company, the John Ward house is pictured in its original location (St. Peter’s Street) just before its move to its present site.

The Six-Hundred-Thousand-Dollar Chair

Actually, the Samuel McIntire chair below is worth $662,500, its realized price (against an estimate of $30,000-$50,000) at a January 21 auction at Christie’s in New York.  As reported in yesterday’s Salem News by staff reporter Matthew Roy, the chair, or its buyer, set a world record.

When you compare the winning bid on this chair to that of other McIntire pieces in completed auctions on the Christies’ website, you see a  divergence.  Its comparatively greater value is apparently due to its “possibly original” finish and its commission by Elias Hasket Derby (whom Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to as “”King Derby” in the Scarlet Letter) for the grand mansion that he erected between 1795-99 in the midst of an elevated and landscaped prospect from which he could survey his wharves, ships, and goods-in-transit.  This legendary, short-lived house is referred to as the Derby Mansion to distinguish it from the Georgian brick Derby House which is presently part of the Salem Maritime Historic site on Derby Street.

Robert Gilmor, Derby Mansion (1797), Boston Public Library


Derby House, Historic American Buildings Survey (1933), Library of Congress

Elias and Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby lived in their new mansion only a few months after its completion in 1799; they both died before the new century turned, and the house and its specially-commissioned contents were disbursed to their seven children.  Given the mansion’s central location and the fact that there were many Derby houses on the North Shore, the mansion was not long for this world; it was demolished in 1815 and the new (now “old”) Town Hall was erected in its place.  The $662,500 chair was part of a set of eight, and companion pieces are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Winterthur Museum.  For some semblance of how the chairs might have looked in the Derby mansion, the newly-reinstalled Oak Hill parlor period room in the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing should suffice, after all it was also the creation of  McIntire and a member of the Derby family, in this case Elias and Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth Derby West.

Walker Evans in Salem

Browsing around the “past exhibitions” section of the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for no particular reason, I encountered some stunning photographs of Salem buildings by Walker Evans (1903-75), the great American photographer.  I had only a vague knowledge of Evans, primarily identifying him as a photographer of people rather than places, particularly people like the woman below, an Alabama tenant farmer’s wife at the height of the Great Depression.  This photograph is from the vast collection of images Evans produced for the Farm Security Administration, with the specific aim of documenting the economic devastation in rural America in the 1930s.

According to his biography (there are several:  I consulted Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans:  a Biography), Evans and a companion took a road trip through New England in the spring of 1931, before he began his work for the government. They were looking for buildings from America’s prosperous past, both still gleaming and slightly weathered.  Salem had much to offer Evans in both regards, but the photographs that survive from his time here do not include any federal buildings, so closely associated with the city’s golden age.  Instead, Evans seemed to have been drawn to Greek and Gothic Revival structures, including City Hall, two Broad Street houses, and what must be the old Peabody Estate at Kernwood, later pulled down by the Kernwood Country Club.  He also made prints of the Assembly House on Federal Street, an eighteenth-century building which he identified as Greek Revival, and the ultimate Gothic (or Norman) Revival structure, the Boston and Maine Railroad Depot, demolished in 1954 (virtually overnight, according to local lore and legend).  The final image is a portrait of the photographer himself as a young man.

Addendum:   A next-day correction to my assertion above that the Kernwood Country Club took down the old Peabody residence.  I have been in their present clubhouse several times and could not imagine that it was the same building, but I have a nice note from the general manager of the club informing that indeed it is.  Apparently there was a fire in the 1950s which destroyed the gabled roof and upper stories, and so a flat roof was put on and later additions and reconfigurations were made, but the core of the clubhouse is in fact the building you see above.

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