Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Day 7: Traveling with the Plague

Over the past week, our travels have taken us across England and into Whales. We barreled down tube stations, flew down the interstate, darted down curvy, country roads, walked across bridges, and climbed up crumbling castle staircases. We started in London, traveled west across the country to Cosmeston, headed north to Stratford-upon Avon and Warwick, and then east to our final research site in the United Kingdom, Ashwell. As we traveled, people would ask us where we were going and why. Sometimes they had suggestions; for example, one lady suggested plays that we could have our students perform or read. Another gentleman shared information with us about plague sites he remembered visiting. People were always interested and helpful. Our last destination was no different. Initially, we came to Ashwell to see the medieval graffiti at St. Mary's church where someone had carved notice of the great pestilence; however, as we started preparing for our journey, Coach Williams contacted David Short.

This is route we took.

Short is Ashwell's local historian, and he agreed to meet with us on a rainy Sunday afternoon to share his knowledge. He has taught school groups about the plague and even has written booklets about it. He was kind enough to invite us into his 500 year old townhome, offer us a cup of tea, and share with us his research. He pulled up information on his computer that he had spent hours collecting. For his studies on the plague, he poured through parish records from the period, documenting the names of people who had died and making note of the date of death, the cause of death, and the occupation and gender of each person. What was the point? Trends. By plugging his research into a spreadsheet, he was able to show us how the disease progressed north from London up the Old North Road. We could see how quickly the disease progressed, wiping out whole families in a matter of days. We could see the ages of the victims and get insight as to how they might have come in contact with the disease. He also explained the challenges of reading primary documents. His research came from parish records, often written in medieval Latin and requiring him to search out translations. He shared lesson ideas with us, explaining how he often led students through role playing activities to better understand how the disease was transmitted. He let us view graphic organizers he had made and maps he had collected. He answered our questions, and more importantly, he asked questions of his own. As an educator, he knew how to engage students. As an expert in the field, he could fill in the missing gaps in our own research. He told us stories about the lessons he had taught and warned us about the questions the students usually asked.

Short then walked us over to the church. Tradition holds that outside of the church is a plague pit, and the evidence in Ashwell points that way. According to Short, churches in the UK were originally built on one of the highest points of land (a hill). As graves were added around the churches over time, the grave areas mounded up beside the churches, causing a moat like area around the churches.  This area is evidenced in Ashwell. A mound of land can be seen just to right of the church; however there are no grave markers and the townspeople will not use this area for graves, since they believe it to be a plague pit.

Notice how this area of land is above the foundation of the church. This indicates that it is the site of the town's plague pit.

When we walked into the church, Short showed us the graffiti. It was hard for me to imagine the idea of graffiti inside a church. Sure, students carve on desks and write messages in bathroom stalls, but to carve on the walls of a church? The inside of St. Mary's in Ashwell is covered in graffiti. From the plague's death count to a rather intricate sketch of a drag racer, the populace of the town has made its mark on the walls and columns of the church for hundreds of year. What makes the graffiti even more surprising to me is having the chance to meet the English. They are very proper and polite. Never once did we eat from a paper plate, even in fast food type restaurants. There were no discarded soda bottles along the roadside or wads of gum on the sidewalk, but these people carve up the inside of a church. Crazy. Well, maybe not. Short challenged us to think how a person would react during a plague outbreak. The disease killed quickly, and they did not have a clue as to how it was spread or why so many were dying. They were afraid. Of course, they would seek solace in the walls of St. Mary's. Of course, they would need to express their frustration and fear. Of course, they, after seeing the "great miasma" wipe out whole towns, would make an effort to record what had happened, just in case no one in the community lived to tell the tale.
Short shows us the older graffiti inside the church.

Where does this lead us? It leads us to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Our job is to make sure that our students can face disasters like this in an educated manner. They need to understand the importance of clean water and good health practices. They need to know that diseases shape our government and our literature. This research isn't really about the black death; it's about helping our students have a healthy life.

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