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Villages out of Time and Place

So this is going to be one of those posts in which I ask a lot of questions and have no answers (I think; maybe I will get to some). I’m trying to work out my own thoughts about a particular place and what it means: writing is one way to do that, as is solicitating the views of others, so blogging is a means to get to meaning. The place in question is Pioneer Village: Salem in 1630, a cluster of structures situated in Forest River Park which was built under the auspices of “architect-antiquarian” George Francis Dow as a representation of first-settlement Salem for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1630. The very engaged agricultural entrepreneur, Harlan P. Kelsey, a strong advocate for more energetic urban planning in Salem, undertook the landscape design. There was a grand historical pageant performed at the village, and then another recreation, of the ship Arbella of the Winthrop fleet, set sail for Boston. Pioneer Village was supposed to be a temporary installation, but it was such a popular regional attraction that it became a more permanent one, at the vanguard of outdoor “living history” museums in the United States: its claim to be the first of such museums is based more on interpretive practice than date, as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village opened up in 1929 and the Storrowtown Village Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts also dates to 1930. Over the next few decades, a succession of outdoor history museums opened up across the country, including Colonial Williamsburg and Old Salem in North Carolina (1932 & 1950, respectively) and three additional institutions in Massachusetts alone:  Old Sturbridge Village (1947), Historic Deerfield (1952) and Plimoth Plantation (1957; now Plimoth Patuxet Museums).

Pioneer Village today and in its heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, Historic New England and Digital Commonwealth photographs.

So if you have visited any of these museums as well as Pioneer Village you will immediately notice a dramatic difference in terms of size, scale, and apparent resources and mission. The former are all administered as foundations or corporations with large staffs and budgets; Pioneer Village has for the most part been a municipal initiative run by the City of Salem’s Park and Recreation Commission with the exception of recent brief periods when it was administered by several collaborations of local history and preservation professionals, the House of the Seven Gables, and a local college (not Salem State University, which is located nearby, but rather Gordon College in Wenham). Judging from the succession of newspaper stories dating from the 1930s into the 1960s, Pioneer Village might have been able to sustain itself on proceeds from the gate: it was quite a busy place. But as the popularity and practice of “living history” interpretation began to decline in the later 1970s, it lost its base, perhaps even its rationale. As it has always been a seasonal attraction, the Village has been vulnerable to deterioration and destruction by neglect, weather, fire and vandalism: I believe only about half of the original structures are still standing. The Arbella (which returned to its home “port” after the Boston celebrations) was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1954 and the only period structure, the Ruck House, was destroyed by fire in the 1960s. In 1985, the Park and Recreation Commission voted to dismantle the Village, but the first of a series of restoration and reactivation efforts reopened the site in 1988. From that point on, it has been a case of good intentions but insufficient resources, and now the City has proposed a rather radical plan to “save” Pioneer Village by exchanging its site with that of the turn-of-the-century tuberculosis Camp Naumkeag at Salem Willows. The rationale behind this proposed move is sound on paper—the Salem Willows is on the trolley route and the ballpark and other recreational spaces at Forest River are definitely expansive—but I am wondering if a Salem Willows Pioneer Village will still be Pioneer Village. And I am also wondering what Pioneer Village is. As I said at the outset, I’ve got a lot of questions, but these are the big three:

  1. What is the historical and cultural significance of Pioneer Village?
  2. Is Pioneer Village worth “saving”?
  3. If Pioneer Village, such as it is, is moved to another site, will it still be Pioneer Village, whatever that is?

Significance: To tell you the truth, I’ve never given Pioneer Village much thought. I teach seventeenth-century history, and this site has been in walking distance from my classrooms over my entire career: have or would I ever use it as a teaching resource? No. It was seldom consistently accessible and never in very good shape, and now I have all of the digital teaching tools that I need. I always thought that the Village represented a moment in place and time, and that moment was Salem 1930 rather than Salem 1630. As someone who has dabbled in Salem history here over that last decade or so, Pioneer Village looks to me like the culmination of a long period of overtly sentimental celebration of Salem, commencing with the Centennial of 1876. Generally it is seen as an expression of Colonial Revival culture, and I agree with that, but I also see it as an example of civic pride. Before Salem became Witch City, its leadership and residents were much more focused on productivity than infamy, and I think the Village still represents the former for those who wish the “Salem story” was a bit less focused on the Witch Trials. I like the terms “architectural museum” and “restoration village” used by the architectural historian Edward N. Kaufman, who traces the origins and inspiration for Pioneer Village and its successors to the big nationalist expositions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, commencing with the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris International Exposition of 1867: the latter had several recreated villages, like the “Austrian” and “Russian Peasant”  Villages  below. Like Pioneer Village, these were exhibits built for a specific event. Unlike Pioneer Village, they were dismantled after that event. Americans, including residents of Salem and its region, wanted their “history” stay around for longer.

Austrian and Russian Villages, International Exposition of 1867, Paris.

When you look at Pioneer Village as something that was built (and rebuilt) as an expression of civic pride it takes on the cast of a monument rather than a historical resource, at least for me. Another perspective relates to the history of preservation (or preservation technology in particular), one in which I had never explored before in relation to Pioneer Village. Apparently it was very consequential in demolishing the “Log Cabin Myth” which held that every seventeenth-century European arrival lived in a log cabin à la Lincoln. In his classic book of the same name, Howard Shurtleff observed that the myth was “an American belief that is both deep-seated and tenacious” and credited Dow for refuting it: Mr. Dow included in his reconstructed Salem a number of small framed cottages, each provided with a brick or “catted” chimney, and roofed with thatch. Some were walled with weatherboarding, sheathed with material boards, and the intervening space filled with “nogging”—clay, chopped straw and refuse bricks; others were walled with wattle and daub. This “Salem Pioneer Village” still stands (in 1939, when Shurtleff was writing and 20 years later, when his landmark book was reissued) and has proved far more effective than books in refuting the Log Cabin Myth. All of the contemporary commenters on Pioneer Village really emphasized its traditional, “authentic” construction, and this became another point of civic pride as Salem businesses made comparisons between their own productivity and that of their colonial predecessors in annual programs such as “Early American industries portrayed at the Pioneer’s Village, Salem, Mass.” In 1936, the Hygrade-Sylvania company presented an exhibit on early illumination, while the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company sponsored a demonstration of flax weaving and culture and local druggist John E. Heffernan highlighted seventeenth-century herbal medicines. The theme was very much see how far we have come in the midst of the Depression. The national Chronicle of Early American Industries, founded in 1933 and still in print, referenced Pioneer Village in nearly every issue.

Ok, now I’ve hit academic cruise control and could go on for quite some time: but this isn’t a journal article, it’s a blog post. So I’m going to start wrapping up in relation to my questions.

Significance conclusions: clearly Pioneer Village was significant in its time (1930) and for at least two decades thereafter. I think it’s still significant as an example of how a city uses its history, but I do not think it is an educational resource (bear in mind, I teach college students; early childhood educators might have a different opinion). I really think it’s a monument, like the Bewitched statue downtown, but much, much better in the sense that it seeks to highlight achievement and industry rather than exploit tragedy. I don’t have enough information to comment on its current state of repair and whether the original 1930 buildings could even make the move: because the City of Salem has “preserved” the Village it is now an historic artifact and will be subject to review by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. If the move is undertaken, I hope an expert in preservation technology and/or an architectural historian is consulted.

Should it be saved: yes, but with a clear understanding of what it is and what is it supposed to do. I only see logistical rationales for the move in the public discourse.

Will it still be Pioneer Village in Salem Willows? No. It will be something else entirely: a new Pioneer Village. It could be a hybrid Salem: 1630 and Salem: 2026 if the construction integrity of the original structures is preserved through the move, and new structures built utilizing the evidence and knowledge we have gained over the intervening century. The new Village could be a testament to both the Tercentenary spirit of 1930 and the Salem Quadricentenary spirit of 2026. If that was the aim, it would be nice to have Salem craftsmen, architects, and landscape architects involved in creating (rather than recreating) the new Pioneer Village: successors to George Francis Dow and Harlan Kelsey.

What Salem really needs: not a new Pioneer Village, but a new Salem Museum, which would integrate, interpret, and document ALL of Salem’s history: first settlement, Witch Trials, American and Industrial Revolutions, the experience of the Civil and World Wars,  native American, African-American, Irish American, Polish American, French Canadian and American, and everything and everyone between. Enough of this “siloed history!” This of course would be the ultimate Quadricentennial achievement and expression.


Windows into the Past

With warmer weather and the completion of my manuscript, I’ve been out on the Salem streets more, but every time I’m on a lovely walk I see some horrible structure that makes me run home: it’s not just the new big buildings but also the small old ones, purchased by developers so they can “save” them from rot and decay by gutting their interiors and blowing them out in every possible direction so they can shove five or six or more units into their then-unrecognizable structures, thus solving our housing crisis at the same time! Maybe we might be left with some semblance of a “historical” facade but that’s about it. I’m sure you can tell I’m not happy, but it’s a lovely spring Saturday and I’d like to focus on more pleasant and interesting things, like a really cool preservation/education project at an 18th century plantation ruin in Virginia. But beware: monster preservation (or lack thereof) post coming up: I’m gathering steam and data!

But for today: Menokin, the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful ruin in the Northern Neck of Virginia, once the center of prosperous Tidewater plantation. Despite its ruined status, Menokin is one of the best documented Georgian houses in America: the original plans exist, and a comprehensive inventory was created by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1940. It was left to decay for most of the twentieth century, and then a tree fell on it in the 1960s, nearly reducing it to rubble. Now it is under cover, and its owners, the Menokin Foundation, are in the process of “restoring” it in an innovative and transparent way—literally. Those portions of the house which are intact will be preserved and stabilized, while missing walls, floors, and sections will be replaced with glass, thus revealing its fabric and construction over time. The phrase dynamic preservation is used by those who envisioned the project: their goal is tell the story of Menokin through the process of reconstruction, “not as a snapshot in time but as a continuing narrative.” The “Glass House Project,” designed by architect Machado Silvetti in collaboration with glass engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan and landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, began last summer and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Neither Ruin nor Relic,” Michael J. Lewis called the Menokin Glass House Project “the first postmodern restoration” and a “cannonball flung between the feet of the historic preservation community.”

Menokin in 1940 (HABS, Library of Congress), after the destructive tree fall, at present and envisioned.

A cannonball indeed! It will be interesting to see what the professional historic preservation community thinks of this project. I’m no professional, and I’m torn, but the educator in me is impressed by the Menokin Foundation’s obvious commitment to transforming the house and its surrounding 500 acres into a teaching tool. The Foundation’s interpretive arm, Menokin: Reimagining a Ruin, is very active, with a series of presentations on both material and human history. The complex topic of slavery is the focus of ongoing initiatives and discussions centered on its Remembrance Structure, built with historical techniques above the archaeological remains of one of the dwellings where the plantation’s enslaved laborers lived. The Foundation clearly has no interest in reconstructing the house according to the constraints of one moment in its history, and dressing up guides in pre-revolutionary or antebellum costumes to give tours to visitors about what once was. Its focus on evolving construction will facilitate more substantive discussions about how and why rather than just when.

Remembrance Structure at night; interior rendering.


Petit Treason

I have fewer courses this semester as I took some of my archived overload so I could finish my book, but this release has been somewhat overset by the fact that I’m teaching a brand new course for the first time in quite some time. I always update my courses with new content and readings, but a new prep is much more time-consuming, especially when it’s not quite your expertise, which is the case with this course: English Constitutional History. We have a pre-law concentration in our major and this course is one of its electives and I can’t remember the last time it was taught. I’m teaching it like a social history of the Common Law, and I’ve learned a lot so far. This past week, I’ve been reading about treason, of which there were two kinds: High Treason and Petit (Petty) Treason. Both were capital offenses: High Treason was an offense against the King or the State, and Petit Treason was a crime committed against your master. As the law was codified in the fourteenth century the latter generally referred to wives killing their husbands, servants (and later slaves) killing their masters. Under this statute, which was in effect from 1351 to 1828, a woman who murdered her husband was not indicted for homicide, but petit treason, and until 1790, if found guilty, she faced public execution by burning at the stake. A succession of English women faced this prospect in the early modern era, or I should say, a succession of wives.

Anne Wallens Lamentation, 1616: EBBA

The punishment for treason, both kinds, had to be terrible: men who were found guilty were hanged, drawn and quartered, and women burned, as their public nudity was apparently an equally horrific offense against God and society. Most accounts indicate that women were hanged and then burned, and of course their clothing was burned off. The English colonies in North America were subject to the Treason Law of 1351 as well, and consequently two women, both enslaved, were burned at the stake in Massachusetts: one Maria, a “servant” to Joshua Lambe of Roxbury, who was found guilty of burning both his and an adjoining house down in 1681 (it’s not clear to me whether she was found guilty of petit treason or arson, which was also a capital offense), and Phillis, who conspired with her fellow enslaved “servants” Mark and Phebe to kill their master John Codman of Charlestown by arsenic (and “black lead” or “potters lead”) in 1755. There are many sources for this sad tale, including a Massachusetts Historical Society pamphlet from 1883 which provides testimony from the trials of the accused. According to its narrative: Mark, Phillis, and Phebe,—particularly Mark,—found the rigid discipline of their master unendurable, and, after setting fire to his workshop some six years before, hoping by the destruction of this building to so embarrass him that he would be obliged to sell them, they, in the year 1755, conspired to gain their end by poisoning him to death. I’ll let newspaper articles take it from there.

Both Mark and Phillis confessed and received their horrible sentences; Phebe was judged a less-guilty conspirator and transported to the West Indies. Mark offered up an explanation that you often hear in European cases of poisoning: that if one does not spill blood in murdering it is somehow a lesser offense before God. His body was indeed “gibbeted,” for quite some time: in his account of his “midnight ride,” Paul Revere actually wayfinds with reference to where “Mark was hung in chains” twenty years later. The rookie mistake that everyone always makes in regard to the Salem Witch Trials is that the “witches” were burned, but witchcraft was not a crime punishable by burning under the Common Law by contrast with the Continent, where the “crime” was judged manifest heresy. In England, and New England, only wives, servants and slaves were burned at the stake, and also counterfeiters. The last woman executed by burning in England was Catherine Murphy, who along with her husband Hugh, was found guilty of counterfeiting, a crime against the Crown and thus High Treason, in 1788. Her sentence was carried out in March of 1789, provoking the abolition of death by burning in the Treason Act of 1790.

The 1883 MHS pamphlet at the Library of Congress.

 

 


Trial by Combat

Like most Americans, I am outraged by the pillaging of the Capitol on Wednesday by a mob incited by the President of the United States and his personal lawyer, once a serious figure, now a joke, who called for “Trial by Combat”. Tears and despair reigned on Wednesday and Thursday, but yesterday I was just mad: mad at so many things, but I think principally upset about the misuse of history by everyone on the wrong side of it. It’s really clear that there is massive ignorance of history in our country, enabling its constant exploitation. When you look at the scenes of the Capitol riots what do you see? Flags, so many flags: the Confederate flag was the most conspicuous, of course: we had never seen it in that building before. But there were several Revolutionary War flags as well, outrageously displayed in an ignorant attempt to establish some sort of equivalency or legitimacy. I’m used to the quasi-“medieval” emblems used by white supremacists, and I saw them on display as well: of course the Vikings never wore horned helmets—they are a Victorian creation—but these people don’t read so they don’t know. Anything medieval is just Game of Thrones fantasy to them, but how dare they use the “Appeal to Heaven” flag of the nascent U.S. Navy or the Gadsen “Don’t Treat on Me” flag.

A flag hangs between broken windows after President Donald Trump supporters tried to brake through police barriers outside the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

That casual reference to trial by combat, which was archaic in the sixteenth century at the very least! As it evolved into the duel, monarchs wanted a monopoly on warfare, and so it was disdained, not celebrated, as it was on Wednesday (by the cowardly “generals” who of course did not accompany their “army” to the Capitol). And we’re supposed to be more civilized? I hardly think so. Trial by combat is already depicted as “orderly” and idealized in the fifteenth century: it’s on its way out then, only to be resurrected in the twenty-first.

Trial by combat as depicted in two late medieval manuscripts (British Library MS Royal 15 E VI and Royal 14 D I) and a Victorian reimagining.

Maybe it’s because I’m writing about the Renaissance now and completely focused on its messaging, but I feel like we can only move forward by looking back. We’ve got to learn our history, our real history. I think I’m also a bit concerned about this now because the Liberal Arts are being challenged across our nation at institutions of higher education, particularly public ones like the one at which I teach. I’m worried we are going to be transformed into a vocational school by our administration with its “bold” plan: offering instruction primarily in social service rather than social science. We excel at teacher education in several fields (including history, of course) because that is our history, and nothing is more important than that now. How can we move forward if we don’t know where we’ve been?

Oh, and those “backward” medievals always distinguished between trial by combat and pillage: that’s what happened on Wednesday.

Pillaging, BL MS Royal 14 D I


Home is Where Everything Is

I can’t get through the 2020 Year of Blogging on #SalemSuffrageSaturdays, historic houses, and the occasional book-inspired post alone: the most important place for everyone this year was the home, and so I need to show you more of mine to be true to its spirit. There were also some big changes to my home this year: for better, for worse, and just change. Now that we’re in the final months of this challenging year, my overwhelming sentiment is one of gratitude: I feel fortunate to have a safe and secure home, full of lovely things, and more than sufficient space for work, sleep, play, and procrastinating. So here are my three domestic themes:

The year of three cats:

About a month ago, I lost my cat Darcy, who was nearly 20 years old. He had been sick with kidney disease for quite a while—so I knew this was coming, but I was quite determined that he should die at home. He lived his whole life in our house, and he was not a social cat: he really only tolerated me. Actually I think he liked me, as every time I walked into a room he was in he would turn up his nose and give me a little trill (the only word I can come up with to describe that sound—it wasn’t quite a meow). Because of the pandemic, and then my book contract, I had a lot of time with Darcy over these past seven months: we would sit together and I would work and he would sleep or stare at me. Despite eating and wanting to eat constantly, he grew thinner and thinner, but he seemed very comfortable and I just hoped he would drift off, at home. I had experienced the deaths of two previous cats—Flannery and Moneypenny—through disruptive seizures and I craved a peaceful death for Darcy, but my vet convinced me that a crisis was imminent, so we had to put him down. Our other cat Trinity came to us shortly after she had given birth to her litter outside, been rescued, and fixed–while all of her kittens were put up for adoption. She has been making “nests” and crying for them for five years, so I always thought after Darcy was gone we would adopt a kitten: I knew she would not recognize the kitten as her kitten, but I though it would be at least a better age match—so I moved pretty quickly to adopt and now we have Tuck! Trinity is not pleased with this addition: for a while she seemed to have lost her own personality and become stand-offish Darcy incarnate but she seems to be reverting to form now: hopefully she just had to establish her “ranking” status. We have a bit more to work out, here at home.

One of Darcy’s last photographs, Trinity, Tuck.

The new kitchen!

We’ve needed a kitchen remodel forever; I don’t know why we moved forward in this particular year but apparently renovations are a big trend in this home-focused year. Kitchens in older houses are generally just boxes added onto the back; our house’s original kitchen is in the basement, and it looks pretty original. Our “modern” kitchen looked like it was put in in the 1950s or 1960s, but we found the bones of a much older kitchen when we ripped everything out; the new kitchen is completely new, except for the floorboards, which we found under three layers of vinyl. Thank goodness for them, because my pet peeve is new kitchens that don’t have anything to do with the rest of the house. We put a lot of thought—and spent quite a lot of money—connecting the kitchen to the rest of the house through materials and details, because it really wasn’t before. We commissioned a big slab of mahogany for our island because we wanted to balance the mahogany staircase in the front, and more practical quartz for the other counters. I think we succeeded in making the “box out back” more connected to the main house, but it took all summer: another reason why Darcy and I got to spend so much time together up on the third floor away from the dust and the noise! Here’s the whole process: before, during, after:

Stripping down and building back layers: that wattle & daub look is called “backplastering” and look at the floor “before”! Cabinets everywhere on the first floor for six weeks or so. The general contractor was our neighbor across the street, Leon Kraunelis, of Redwine Development, floors by Dan Labrecque , and mahogany table top by Alpine Woodworks right here in Salem. I changed up my jadeite for ironstone from my friend Betsy at Windy Hill Antiques

Living and working all over the house:

So I received my book contract in early July and went right to work: primarily in my third-floor study, a third-floor bedroom (because it had a bed for Darcy) and a second floor bay-window room that we call the “Nosy Room” because the previous owners did and it looks out over all of Chestnut Street. I taught a summer class, and now I’m teaching four classes in addition to writing. I find that I need to change my surroundings to be productive—and I can’t really go anywhere: not to my office, not to the library. So I’m basically working all over the house. I’ve been zooming everywhere, just to change it up for my students:  I decorated the double parlors this past weekend with the rationale that it was for them but it was really because I bought so much John Derian Halloween stuff at Target!  The only room I haven’t taught in yet is the kitchen: moving into there this week.

Various “studies”, and one of my big scores of the summer: a Salem Marine Society certificate! I have never been able to resist John Derian, so off to Target I went as soon as his stuff hit the stores. I bought three of those black cats.


We Girls and One Boy

I have forgotten what I was searching for on the Internet Archive last week, but somehow I ended up looking at yearbooks of the turn-of-the-century graduating classes of the Salem Normal School, the founding institution of the university where I now teach, Salem State University.  The cover of the 1904 yearbook, entitled The New Mosaic, first caught my attention, then the fanciful illustrations inside, and lastly, the writing. I moved on to the 1905 and 1906 yearbooks, titled The New Mosaic and The Mosaic respectively, which were equally charming, and all the way up to 1914, when the yearbook was published with the rather odd title of Normalities (I get it–Normal School/Normalities, but still). It seems that for a brief time, generally the first decade of the twentieth century, the Salem Normal School seniors published really interesting accounts of their educational experiences—focused on what they learned and what was going on in their world rather than simply who they were. After 1915 or so, the yearbooks became Year Books, with the standard “facebook” format still used today: registries of students rather than their own reflections.

Mosaic 1904 Final Collage

Mosaic 1905

Mosaic 1906 collage

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These yearbooks are fascinating and rather poignant—they made me miss my own students! The seniors pay tribute to their teachers, to each other, and to the class behind them. We read all about their activities and clubs and how long it took them to walk down Lafayette Street from the train station. There are lots of whimsical drawings—which will be replaced by more straightforward photographs later. I’m including this post under my #salemsuffragesaturday banner as nearly all the students at the Salem Normal School were women in these days, and the editorial staff of these successive yearbooks were exclusively women. Men were admitted to the school from 1898, but their numbers were extremely low during this first decade of the twentieth century: this makes for some rather amusing class pictures, as we can see from the photograph of the 1906 graduating class below. The same ratio for the 1904 class, as the New Mosaic of that year registers excitement for the upcoming graduation of “We girls and one boy”.

Mosaic 1906 one boy (3)The 1906 graduating class of the Salem Normal School

I kept reading because I wanted to see what the students were saying about all the events of the later teens: war, pandemic, suffrage. The yearbooks became less creative, but they started to include editorials: a popular Geography professor who served in World War I died of pneumonia (brought on by influenza?) right after the Armistice and now there were more male students, so the war was very much on the minds of successive editors. Nothing is said about suffrage, which really surprised me: instead there is an overwhelming focus on reforms, developments, and opportunities in the teaching profession. But everything is much more serious than a decade or more before: when the girls, and one or two boys, lived and learned in a much smaller, less-threatening Salem world.

Mosaic 1904 Collage 2

mosaic1906sale_0019 (3)

Mosaid-1918-editorial

Mosaic-Liberty-Club-1919-2

Salem Normal School yearbooks before and after World War I: so many Salem witches in the yearbooks from 1904-8; things get much more serious a decade later: the Liberty Club was dedicated to selling liberty bonds in 1918. The Boston Public Library has a vast collection of yearbooks from nearly every Massachusetts town, most of which have been digitized.


Eat, Drink & Be Merry

For the most part, I’ve managed to avoid dwelling on the pandemic and I must admit that I haven’t been that affected by it either, apart from the radical reconfiguration of my work environment! My struggle is to improve my online communication skills so that I can convey my passion for history through the screen—and that really isn’t much of a struggle, relatively speaking. I feel grateful as I’ve been fortunate: fortunate in my profession, which enables me to work in isolation reading and writing about a distant time and place, and fortunate in my residence—Massachusetts was hard hit in March and April but the steady leadership of our Governor and the responsible compliance of (most of) our citizens has enabled us to contain the spread of the Covid. Most days I am in a sixteenth-century fog writing my book, but headlines from the radio and the television intrude, and of course, the numbers of the infected and the dead keep climbing. I can’t believe that the President would hold rallies in this environment, and I am fearful of the maskless merrymakers I see whenever I do get outside and happen to find myself near a body of water, which is often, because I live on the coast. These “mask slackers” (a great term that comes from the last epic pandemic, when an Anti-Mask League formed in San Francisco) do not in any way remind me of a proverbial and patriotic “live free or die” movement but rather another, older, proverbial expression of selfishness: “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall die”. This is a biblical reference, of course, and as such it does not imply selfishness on the part of those partaking in the joys of daily life; rather it began to acquire its modern meaning at the time of the Black Death, or shortly thereafter. One of our best sources for the plague’s impact is the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, who set the scene for his tales of the Decameron by giving us a first-hand account of plague-time Florence, where

Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures. Others thought just the opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened. They put their words into practice, spent day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into other people’s houses, doing only those things which pleased them. 

Boccaccio’s description echoed the late medieval Danse Macabre (“Dance of Death”) allegory, an expression of the egalitarian and universal nature of all-conquering Death found in poetry, music, and images both before, and especially after, the Black Death. Late medieval people heard (or saw) the message as a reminder to be ready for Death, which could strike at any time, in a spiritual sense, not just as a call to indulge. Over the next centuries the hoarding isolationists and the dancing fools converged and the focus on sinfulness and salvation was diminished and forgotten, leaving us only with self-centered indulgence in the face of things we can’t, or won’t control: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).

Screenshot_20200720-123018_Arts-Culture

Screenshot_20200401-081302_TwitterAre we in a crisis? Death is just outside the door in The Feast of Dives, Master of James IV of Scotland, c. 1510-20, from the Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum; I took this screenshot of Governor Kevin Stitt’s tweet back in March because I could not quite believe it: it was later taken down. I’m sad to say that Governor Stitt has recently announced that he is the first Governor to test positive for Covid and I hope he makes a speedy recovery. He attended the President’s rally in Tulsa on June 20 (without wearing a mask) but does not believe that it was where he was infected.

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Screenshot_20200720-123154_Chrome

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Detail of a photograph of  the Danse Macabre frieze at St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck painted by Bernt Notke in 1463; it was destroyed during World War II.  Ink & watercolor Dance of Death by anonymous German artist, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; inset of 17th century oil painting of the Dance of Death, Wellcome Library.


Salem in the Time of Corona

I imagine Salem must be like your town or city at this time: quiet and closed. As it is a compact and walkable city full of architectural treasures (still), the quiet more than compensates for the closure, but you are all too aware of the hardship that both are causing. It’s not a singular holiday that is allowing you to walk or bike freely with few cars in your path but rather a prolonged period of anxiety through stoppage for the freelancers and entrepreneurs among us, many in a city like Salem. I’m grateful for my security: there’s no stoppage for me, either of work or of income. I find that remote teaching takes more time than classes which actually meet in person: and while the latter invigorates you (or me) the former drains, so out in the streets of Salem I go to try to get some energy back. But again, I’m grateful for my security and have no complaints.

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This week’s weather is so much better than that of last week, when the sun failed to appear for days. I am determined to: 1) put on real pants, with zippers; 2) observe proper meal times; 3) drink more tea; 4) turn off the computer for one full day; 5) avoid the daily presidential briefings; and 6) try to play board games with my husband (I am a terrible game-player but he loves them). This is not a very challenging list, obviously. In addition to all these tasks and working, I take my daily walks, noting new architectural details but also new orders of business around town: restaurants which are still open for take-out, or have transformed themselves into makeshift grocery stores which deliver, shops whose owners will meet you at the curb with your online purchases. The signs for canceled events are the other conspicuous markers of Corona time, like those for Salem Restaurant Weeks (March 15-26) and the annual Salem Film Fest (March 20-29) in the reflective windows of the Chamber of Commerce.

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But there are other signs too: of support for health-care workers and grocery clerks, teddy bears and other animals for children’s scavenger hunts. And signs of Spring, of course.

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Corona Courses: My Top Ten Sources of Digital Content

So I have just finished converting my lecture courses into online formats: difficult to do midstream. A well-designed online course is a beautiful thing, but if a course is based on a more personal form of delivery and has to become virtual overnight there are going to be challenges. Fortunately, I teach history, and not a discipline that requires a lab or a studio: I can’t imagine what those professors are going through! And I also feel very fortunate to be able to depend on a variety of institutions—libraries and museums—which have made so much of their collections accessible AND provided road maps and guides to these same texts and images in the form of interpretive essays, questions for consideration, and extra-special digital features. I’ve had digital content in my courses for the last decade or so, but again, a course based on all-digital content is another thing entirely. I could not have accomplished such a thing—in such a short time— a decade or so ago; I can now, thanks to the diligent and creative efforts of these institutions, which take the “education” and “engagement” directives in their missions seriously. So here’s my top 10 list, with one qualifier and one comment: 1) I teach medieval and early modern European history and world history, so this is not going to be a US-centric list; and; 2) these institutions are focused on general education, not just formal education: they have made their collections accessible to those who have more casual or independent interests as well as those working within a curricular framework. (oh, and this list is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive).

1. The Newberry Library, Chicago: For an American library, the Newberry has very rich European collections and it has created online exhibitions and curated primary source sets that I find invaluable for my courses: its librarians and fellows are very attuned to key curricular and historiographical trends. The Newberry is also a leader in American history and culture in general and local history in particular: it just won the top prize for “Oustanding Public History Project” at the National Council on Public History’s virtual conference for  “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots”. Digital Newberry offers about a million high-resolution texts and images: this is a small fraction of the library’s collection but still quite a lot to see.

De_Bry_Indi_Hispanis_plt_20 Theodor de Bry’s famous 1594 engraving showing Amerindians pouring molten gold into the mouths of Spaniards driven by insatiable lust for the stuff.

2. The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: is a timeline which pairs works of art from all eras and regions of the world with curatorial essays. You can search by region, by period, or by theme, and there are many thematic essays to explore: one leads to another and before you know it, hours have gone by. I teach with images, so this is the first place to I go to find perfect visuals for my presentations, but I also encourage my students to explore this resource themselves. And they do.

Dissolute HouseholdJan Steen, The Dissolute Household, 1663-64.

3. Speaking of timelines, check out the British Museum’s History Connected: A Museum of the World, in which objects can be explored across time and place while visualizing connections, the essential links of world history, and listening to curators share their expertise and perspectives. This is the result of a partnership between the Museum and Google: Google Arts and Culture can provide a engaging platform for a cultural institution to broaden their reach in more ways than one, but there needs to be some intent in terms of design and curation. Some institutions just share images of their objects and leave it at that (I’m looking at you, Peabody Essex Museum: 323 objects; 2 stories, but what BIG story is being told? And could we possibly have some more Salem objects?): this is parking, not driving engagement.

BM HST (2)It’s all about connections at the British Museum (above) and the Rijksmuseum (below).

4. Another exemplary Google partner is the Rijksmuseum: which offers up 164,511 objects, 11 stories, and 8 museum views, taking us right into the building. We can “walk” around the galleries, focus on particular paintings, examine them in “street” or catalog views, organize them in chronological order, discover connections to other works. The collection is so comprehensive (though again, only a fraction of the museum’s 8 million objects), and the connections go on and on, in all sorts of directions.

5. This semester I really need to get my students into the Vatican, as I’m teaching the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that particular place is a powerful connecting link between the two eras and movements: while a succession of Renaissance popes reveled in its creation and majesty, Martin Luther was repulsed by it. The Vatican Museums‘ website features 360-degree tours of many rooms and a more virtual experience with headsets, but just getting us into those spaces will be fine.

Virtual Vatican (3)

6. Anniversary Digital Exhibitions: Both private and university research libraries characteristically observe historical anniversaries by putting together digital exhibitions of images and texts. 2017 was the anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation, so there were many such exhibitions which are now archived: two of my favorites are Cambridge University Library’s Remembering the Reformation and the University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s After 500 Years: the Protestant Reformation. This year, digital exhibitions on the anniversary of Woman suffrage abound: see my previous round-up here.

7. Digital Bodleian: 914,832 images and counting at the digital portal of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, through which you can do your own curation and share “collections” with students (or friends!). A very diverse and visual database, including some great ephemera, which I also love to teach with: I’ve got to cover both the “old imperialism” and the New in my European and World History courses, and I think some educational ephemera will illustrate the transition.

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8. The British Library, of course, because it has everything. I like the smaller, more curated collections, the “Turning the Pages” feature for complete texts, and when I am teaching medieval history (not this semester), the digitized illuminated manuscripts collection is indispensable. This is my favorite image of Henry VIII: from another anniversary exhibition and his own personal psalter: in the bedroom!

Henry BL

9. Harvard Digital Collections, of course, because they have everything: 6 million objects assembled from all of Harvard’s libraries, which you can search through with purpose or browse through an array of diverse topic collections. Because Salem is so source-challenged, I’ve come to rely on the Colonial North America collection quite a bit for this blog, but I use several of the other collections regularly for teaching. Then I just jump in from time to time: another rabbit hole: tread with caution!

10. IDEA: Isabella D’Este Archive at the University of North Carolina: I wanted to include one specialized site which demonstrates the full potential of what digital learning can encompass, and this is it. IDEA is an open-access digital “environment” dedicated to the life and letters of Isabella D’Este, the marchesa of Mantua (1490-1539). Isabella was by no means a “representative” Renaissance woman, but she left a blazing multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary trail, which is explored here in creative ways, including a wonderful, truly virtual, replication of her personal studioloI love to go here/there, and I bet you will too.

Цифровая репродукция находится в иThe incomparable Isabella D’Este and a site worthy of her.


New Salem

So now I am on my “spring break” with the reality of no return to my classrooms: everything is converted to digital/remote in this new corona community. This is ominous for me; I prefer to teach in person. I can rise to the occasion—I know how to access all the digital tools and resources—but I see them as appendices rather than the story. Nevertheless I will rise to the occasion. With no prospects of long-distance travel or local entertainment and the task before me, my spring break will therefore have to consist of a few road trips, and on Sunday I drove west for a couple of hours into north central Massachusetts in search of a a real destination and a few ghost towns. New Salem was founded in the mid-18th century by investors from Salem, who enticed farmers from “old” Salem to settle in the Swift River Valley. With settlement and incorporation the town was well-established as the most northern of a chain of towns in the valley, and the sole survivor after adjoining Dana, Prescott, Greenwich, and Enfield were all flooded to form the Quabbin Resevoir, the water source for Metropolitan Boston, from 1936-40. New Salem is the touchstone for all of these lost towns, and for old Salem as well: as I wandered through its oldest cemetery, I saw so many familiar names on the old stones: Southwick, Putnam, Pierce, Cook.

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As you can see from the photographs, it was a beautiful day, which made my visit all the more poignant, as no one was about. New Salem seemed like a beautiful ghost town—the perfect place for social distancing! It was almost eerie, but of course I was distracted by the architecture—and there were cars in the driveways.

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In North New Salem is the Swift River Valley Historical Society, a regional historical society devoted to preserving the memory of both the living and lost towns. It was closed, of course, but just outside was this amazing sign post (I don’t think that’s the right word???) with all the historical place names intact. I love this more than I can say. I love that it is preserved. I love the manicules. I love that the names of its maker and restorers are preserved. I have no idea why “Indianapolis” is on the sign!

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This sign made me want to search for more signs, as ways and links to the past, so I drove down every single road with any of the above place names—those with the “lost” place names led to water, and that was that: the point was driven home.

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20200315_151926An abandoned farmhouse on Old Dana Road, and the Quabbin Reservoir.


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