Next week is Spring Break and I haven’t decided if I’m going to get away or get reading a large stack of bedside books. A lot of said books are about later medieval/early modern trade and agriculture in preparation for my new project on saffron, but many are about women’s history over a succession of periods so I thought I’d share some titles for this Women’s History Month. As you will see, there is no rhyme or reason or unifying theme around these titles other than women: all sorts of women in a succession of chronological contexts. I’m always interested in English women of the medieval and early modern eras, lately I’ve become quite interested in the entrepreneurial Salem women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I find rich and/or powerful women of all eras endlessly fascinating. It was not always this way: I almost didn’t get the position I currently hold now because I protested the name of a course which my interviewers wanted me to take on: “Herstory in History.” I proclaimed, with all the confidence of a twenty-something, that that was a ridiculous title for a course as women were PEOPLE and all history is about PEOPLE. But the past decades have taught me that a feminine focus in enlightening: it’s another gaze, another perspective, another open window on the past. I still don’t teach a course exclusively on women’s history but I certainly have incorporated a lot of women’s stories into my courses, because of books like these.
So I’ve read all of the books above and am recommending them to you for the following reasons. Judith Herrin is a wonderful historian whose Formation of Christendom got me through the first few years of teaching medieval history. While I teach mostly western medieval history, knowledge of the Byzantine Empire is pretty essential to understanding everything in this era, and Herrin’s book is really substantive and ambitious (and also very academic). Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: the Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth is a more accessible book which presents contextual biographies of four powerful medieval queens: I’m showcasing the Folio edition published in 2017 but there are more affordable options. Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer and Brewsters is a classic examination of women’s work in late medieval England which I consult regularly, and Monuments and Maidens and The Pocket. A Hidden History of Women’s Lives are two very creative books which examine longer eras from cultural and economic perspectives.
Vast uncharted territory above, but all these books have been recommended to me by colleagues and friends, beginning with Malcolm Gaskill’s The Ruin of Witches, a very welcome microhistory of a non-Salem American witch trial. Salem has become so boring: let’s look west to Springfield, Massachusetts! While not strictly women’s history, I don’t really think any history is strictly women’s history. I’m interested in Material Lives, To Her Credit, The Ties that Buy because I keep encountering entrepreneurial Salem women in that later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for whom I want to create more context and They Were Her Property appears to be an absolutely groundbreaking work. Jumping up about a century to the late nineteenth century and beyond, The Man Who Hated Women examines anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock’s campaigns against pretty much every everything and The Season and Double Lives looks at a broad spectrum of British women’s experiences in the twentieth century. And so we have progressed (chronologically) from empresses to socialites and “superwomen”!
For some reason, I’ve been going through the archives of Life magazine over the last month or so: it started with the photographs, and then I had to read the stories too. Life seems like it was a perfect mix of news and popular culture: we don’t have the like now, do we? And I doubt we ever will again with our very diffused and digital media. I’m no twentieth-century historian, but it also seems to represent the collective mindsets of its changing times: it really excels at representing wartime America, of course, but the later decades too. So far my favorite issue bears a beautiful Elizabeth Taylor on the cover on the occasion of her fortieth birthday: but inside the focus is on President Nixon’s imminent trip to China. It was fifty years ago this very month, and a very big deal. For some historical context, Life went to Salem, which emerges as kind of cultural intermediary between the United States and China, as it was the first American city to become thoroughly acquainted with the East. And so we get to read about Elias Hasket Derby and his ships, and see Derby Wharf, and all sorts of “exotic souvenirs” brought back from China by Salem’s daring merchants and later installed in the old Peabody Museum of Salem. It’s all great, but the best photograph is an aerial view of Chestnut Street where nothing much has changed in fifty years.
“When the US Sailed to China,” Life magazine, 25 February 1972. Photographs by Henry Groskinsky.
I think that the Peabody Essex Museum is still playing that intermediary “West meets East” role, although now the perspective is far more global than western. I know that I fault the PEM often for its displaced library and limited local offerings, but their East Asian and China Trade galleries are beyond impressive. I find myself teaching the first half of World History this semester for the first time in a decade, and I really had to do a lot of preparation before I stepped into the classroom (well, first it was on the screen as we had a “staggered” opening). China is the star of pre-1500 world history, and all my “color” comes from the PEM! Its collections are much stronger in later-dynasty objects, but there’s still some wonderful things on display from earlier eras. Much has happened in the past half-century: the Cold War is over, and Life magazine has also concluded its run, but Salem’s “China Cabinet” not only endures, but has been expanded considerably (and we no longer refer to its contents as souvenirs). In fact, aside from Salem’s built landscape, PEM’s East Asian collections constitute one of the largest and most lasting material legacies of “its” history insitu: this seems like an odd statement, but I think it is true.
Yichengyong Picture Workshop, Tianjin. Family celebrating the New Year and welcoming wealth from all directions, 1908-11, reproduction of detail from a woodblock print; Standing official with tablet, Jin dynasty, early 13th century; Guangzhou artists, Tea packer and porter, about 1803; Guangzhou artists, Wu Bingjian, Known as Houqua, about 1835; George Chinnery, detail from Dr. Thomas Richardson Colledge and His Assistant Afun in Their Opthalmic Hospital, Macau, 1833. There’s an emphasis on people and their relationships in PEM’s present galleries, but there’s also the “Great Wall of China” and a transplanted 18th-century Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang, to see.
A new exhibition featuring the works of Hans Holbein the Younger opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum this week, and it will be traveling to the Morgan Library and Museum after the new year. It happens that this very week Holbein was very much on my mind: various of his works had popped up, as they always do, in several of my classes, and he appears in reference and image in the proofs for my forthcoming book as well. I have always depended on Holbein: his images have enabled me to illustrate so many aspects and avenues of my teaching fields, from the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Scientific Revolution and everything in between. His 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors is a visual key to all three topics, and I generally devote an entire class to it.
National Gallery, London.
I’m not that special: anyone armed with the essential knowledge of the era’s cultural history could turn The Ambassadors into a class: there’s just so much in it and to it! This particular painting is not included in the Getty exhibition, but each and every Holbein painting has a tale to tell, even if it’s just a singular portrait with (deceptively) little embellishment. I suppose Holbein is best known for his paintings of the Tudor Court, and the exhibition includes the portraits of Thomas Cromwell and Richard Southwell as well as one of my favorites, that of Mary, Lady Guildford, the wife of Henry VIII’s comptroller, Sir Henry Guildford. Holbein was a great painter of women in general, and “capturing their character” (the subtitle of the exhibition) in particular, but I do wonder why he chose the stern Lady Guildford rather than the more amused one captured in one of the studies for the portrait. In either case, you can easily see that both Lady Guildfords are far from the serene Renaissance ladies we generally see: they are feisty and fun.
Frick Collection, St. Louis Art Museum and Kunstmuseum Basel; The Getty Exhibition.
Of course, students love the gossipy history of Henry VIII and his six wives, of which at least two were painted by Holbein. Students love anecdotes, and Holbein allows you to illustrate them. But you’ve got to be careful: an anecdote can be a dangerous thing, remembered better than the larger issue/trend/event it is designed to illustrate. A case in point is the “story” behind Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves, painted when he was dispatched to Germany to render a likeness as Henry was considering the Protestant princess for his fourth bride in 1539. The story goes that Holbein was so charmed by Anne that he made her more attractive than she really was, thereby convincing Henry to go along with the marriage by proxy only to declare “I like her not!” and seek an annulment the moment he laid eyes on her in England. I don’t think Holbein had time to be charmed by Anne, and we can see that he lavished more attention on her dress than her face in the portrait. In any case, Thomas Cromwell the courtier, diplomat, and by now manifest Protestant had far more influence over the German marriage, and he lost his head over it in the next year.
Jane Seymour (KunsthistorischesMuseumWien), Anne of Cleves (The Louvre), and (perhaps) Katherine Howard (Royal Collection Trust).
The royal portraits are not included in the Getty exhibition, but there are several striking portraits of Tudor courtiers that I’m looking forward to seeing in person, including that of Southwell and an anonymous falconer or Portrait of a Gentleman with a Hawk. I also love Holbein’s portraits of merchants, who characterize his era in so many ways, and there are several in the exhibition though not my favorite, the Portrait of Georg Giese. It’s all in the details: Holbein enables us to grasp the practice of various endeavors with his little slips of papers, instruments and objects. He amplified the importance of literacy in his age as well as the ars nova of printing by including so many words in his paintings (so perfectly rendered: see Bonifacius Amerbach in the exhibition), engaging in printmaking himself, and designing printers’ devices and ornamental title pages. With Holbein we can also explore the roles of the Renaissance public intellectuals like Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam, the latter represented in the exhibition by both Holbein’s portrait and the title page engraving by Albrecht Dürer based on it. All of this is fairly straightforward stuff: I haven’t even delved into the next layer of Renaissance symbolism, in lavish display in many of Holbein’s works. Layers and layers of images, words, and meanings.
Portrait of a Gentleman with a Hawk, Mauritshuis; Portrait of Georg Giese, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Bonifacius Amerbach and device of printer Johannes Froben, Kunstmuseum Basel; the exhibition catalog, Holbein: Capturing Character, edited by Anne T. Woollett.
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 PioneerVillage: 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 thefirst 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:
What is the historical and cultural significance of Pioneer Village?
Is Pioneer Village worth “saving”?
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.
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 MachadoSilvetti 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: ReimaginingaRuin, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 RedwineDevelopment, floors by DanLabrecque , and mahogany table top by AlpineWoodworks right here in Salem. I changed up my jadeite for ironstone from my friend Betsy at WindyHillAntiques.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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).
Are 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.
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.