Sunday, June 12, 2016

Upstairs and Downstairs: Days 5 and 6

Day 5
On day five, we learned how the black death impacted the common man. While London provided an abundance of evidence about the plague, it also taught us that we had much more to learn. The next stop on our journey was Cosmeston Medieval Village. To get there, we drove for hours, crossing from England into Wales. We made the trip because Cosmeston Medieval Village is a living history location where life in the year 1350 is depicted by a collection of actors. The reenactments take place on the reconstructed ruins of an actual medieval village. Archeologist and scholars have spent years examining the location to better understand life during that period. Due to the historic accuracy of the site, the village has been used as a filming location for various television shows, include Dr. Who episodes.

Mark Beckwith, otherwise known as Henry Hogg the Swineherd, met us to lead us on a guided tour. Beckwith helped us understand the economic impact of diseases on a civilization. He guided us through the village, explaining how everyday life existed before the 1348 outbreak. He walked us through the village's herb garden and explained how the villagers would have tried to use plants to treat the disease. He even gave us a medieval math lesson, showing us how the villagers, who typically could only read a few words and could not count past twelve, were able to use a rope to do advanced calculations and measurements. He also explained the plague's impact on the judicial system. However, perhaps the most important aspect of his tour was learning how the plague led to the end of Cosmeston. The village was abandoned, not because all of the populace died, but because the citizens could make more money by moving into an area that had more fatalities. The deaths of others in the area meant that the people's skills were in greater demand and that they could earn higher wages elsewhere.
Day 6
On day six, we continued to research the effects of diseases on the social structure of a society, this time focusing on the rich. At breakfast that morning, we conversed with a former teacher from the UK who told us about Pope Clement VI, who chose to hide from the disease instead of ministering to those under his care. Sadly, this practice was common.

The attitude of hiding from the plague was mirrored by the wealthy at Windsor Castle and at one of our locations for the day, Warwick Castle. Also at Warwick we learned the difference between the past and history. History is documented, while the past may not be. History demands evidence, while the past does not. At Warwick, one of the experts stressed how that the Victorians purported a lot of misinformation about the medieval time period.

In addition to visiting Warwick Castle, we also visited neighboring Stratford-Upon-Avon. We were fortunate enough to get a see a play performed that was written during a plague period, Cymbeline. The play reinforces the social order of the day, underscoring the concept of the divine right of kings. Written during a period when the lower classes were demanding more rights; the play by Shakespeare, who was working for the monarchy, reminded the general populace that a prince's bravery and sense of station is instinctual. One of the experts pointed out that Shakespeare was a brilliant poet but a horrible historian. He was an entertainer, not a scholar. Since he was being supported by monarchy, his plays were written to please the people supporting his work. He had a social agenda, just as some movies and television shows today try to influence what we see as socially acceptable. Another thing that was fascinating about this performance was that it was a modern adaptation of the play, so the leading female was wearing tennis shoes. However, Shakespeare's language remained the same. This not only shows the timelessness of Shakespeare, it also demonstrates how humans still experience love, jealousy, fear, and betrayal today.

At the end of day six, we visited Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. We spoke to one of the priests on site who directed us to the probable location of the area's plague pits. After viewing Shakespeare's grave, we drove past the believed location of the Stratford-Upon-Avon plague pits near Welcombe Hills. The contrast between the beauty of the graveyard and the unmarked location of pits show how the plague impacted the population's views of death.
Holy Trinity Church
The monument to Shakespeare above his grave

These days focused more on the social implications of diseases -- the opportunities for social and economic reform that are present in the midst of tragedy. We also saw how government sponsored entertainment tried to reinforce certain ideas.

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