Last Impressions (Official Post #4)

This month has been wonderful. I have learned so much about the history of the world, and it has challenged me to think about my own culture and the history of my country. Everything in America is very new compared to the history we encountered in Britain this month. We think of American history as starting with colonization and going forwards until today. Civilizations in Britain have been leaving traces of their cultures since the BC era. I found it so cool to see the things that shaped human history. On my free day in London, I went to the Natural History museum where they had an exhibit on the evolution of human beings, all the way from prehistory until the modern humans we are today. The British Museum was another good example of this. I had only heard of the Rosetta Stone before going there, and then I got to see the real thing. So much history has happened in this part of the world that has influenced not only the United States but the rest of the world as well. It was almost surreal to be in the places where history I had only heard about was being made.

I am going to miss having something to look forward to next year. I have been waiting for this trip to happen for three years now, and it is coming to an end. My last year at college will be a little lackluster, I think. This trip has definitely been one of the highlights of my college experience, and I doubt any of my remaining accounting classes will be this much fun. I love castles, and I love cathedrals. To be able to see them in such great detail has been a truly wonderful thing. I’ve seen enough cathedrals to be able to compare one to another and finally tell the different styles of architecture apart (mostly).

I’ve learned more about myself on this trip as well. I dislike cities quite a bit, and they always make me uncomfortable. Over the course of this trip, I have had to navigate my way through strange cities-sometimes on my own. Every time, I have been able to find my way to where I was going without any trouble. I am still apprehensive in cities, but my fear of them has decreased after a month of being in large cities. I’ve learned that I have more resources at my disposal than I use on a daily basis, like common sense and the ability to keep mostly calm in stressful situations. I’d like to think this trip made me a better person as well as educate me about castles and cathedrals.



First Impressions (Official Post #1)

As important as history is to understanding the present as well as the past, it can be boring. History books can be dry and difficult to read through with understanding. That’s why trips like this to the historical places are so wonderful. History comes alive in a way that is impossible to replicate without the artifact right in front of you. It’s one thing to give a student the dimensions of a cathedral and tell them it is huge. It’s quite another to take the student to the cathedral and have them see the dimensions for themselves. The numbers and figures become irrelevant at that point; the size and grandeur is portrayed by the cathedral, not the professor, and the experience is much more meaningful.

I had this feeling at York Minster. Everyone kept telling me that it was a large cathedral, but that doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t until I stepped into the place that I was able to fully grasp the enormity of the minster and the awesome decorations that adorn the inside. Beauty means something different to everyone, so I had always been slightly skeptical of accepting other people’s descriptions. This was a case of the place confirming the rumors and solidifying what I had learned in class as well as surpassing my expectations. I could never have imagined the intricacies of the carvings without having been there myself.

The same thing happened in Salisbury Cathedral with the Magna Carta. I’d learned about the Magna Carta before and what it meant, but it was just a piece of parchment in my mind. Seeing the actual document and reading the translation brought the history to life. In the end, it really was just a piece of parchment, but it was a piece of parchment that had changed the world. It was a piece of parchment that had been signed by important people in history and has been used since its signing as a symbol of liberty. Honestly, I’m not sure why seeing the document was awe-inspiring. It is the words and ideas written down on the parchment that are important, not the ink itself.

I will point out that sometimes seeing the history in person does not help you gain a better appreciation for it. Sometimes, it is an anti-climactic experience. Stonehenge was not as impressive as I thought it was going to be. It has been built up with rumors, theories, and conspiracies to the point that I was expecting the larger than life monument with special powers or something. It’s just some rocks, really. The actual monument is not as large as I was expecting, in terms of the height of the stones and the size of the stone circle. I was more impressed with the landscape that Stonehenge has inspired and the culture surrounding the use of the monument than the actual stone circle itself. In this case, my mental image of Stonehenge had been grander than reality. I think this is rather unusual, especially in the digital age when we have so many pictures of historical places online and at our fingertips. I should, theoretically, be able to get an accurate sense of what things look like from the wealth of information online. Yet, I have been continuously awed by what we are seeing on this trip. I guess the internet is no substitute for experiencing history for yourself.


History Comes Alive (Official Post #3)

On May 18th, we went to the town of Salisbury to explore Salisbury Cathedral. Since I am sharing this blog day with another classmate, I will only be blogging about some of the things we did. So, look for Carter’s blog to explain the rest!

Salisbury Cathedral has a medieval library, complete with 8,000 volumes dating back to the 9th century. Our class was lucky enough to see some of these volumes. We got a tour of the library from the cathedral archivist, who explained the history of the library and the books as well as showing us some of the medieval volumes. The library was built in 1445 specifically to house the growing collection of hand-written volumes in the cathedral’s possession, but the origins of the library go back to the former cathedral site in Old Sarum. The library still has about 60 books from the scribes at Old Sarum, and this constitutes the largest collection of books from the Norman era still with the original owner. The archivist showed us psalters from the 10th century, early mathematics texts, and an early translation of Galileo’s controversial book, The System of the World in Four Dialogues, among other things. It’s amazing that so many of these volumes survived to today. The archivist explained that there was a point in the library’s history, about 130 years after it was founded, when the building fell into disrepair. There is one contemporary account that describes the library as having broken windows, through which the writer could see birds nesting on a Norman work.

My favorite part of the cathedral was the chapter house, where the monks used to meet and discuss monastery business. The architecture and decoration here was amazing. The carvings around the room depict different scenes from the Bible in painstaking detail. The roof is supported by one large column in the center of the room, which rises to the ceiling to branch off into the far corners of the room. This is all well and good, but the main attraction in the chapter house these days is the Magna Carta exhibit. The exhibit features one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta, signed in 1215. Surrounding the document are displays explaining the Magna Carta, its impact when it was signed, and the impact it has had in history moving forward.

The name Magna Carta means “The Great Charter,” and it was a document written by the barons of King John. King John had imposed heavy taxes on his barons and refused to obey the law, so his barons forced him to negotiate. The most famous clause gave free men the right to justice and a fair trial for the first time, and the first clause guarantees the freedom of the English church from the King’s intervention. Magna Carta had a rough start because King John had no intention of keeping the promises he made, throwing England into a civil war that continued after his death. Magna Carta eventually became law, and it has since had a global impact; it has shown up alongside other symbols of liberty in political imagery. Magna Carta even shaped America. The appeal of the document crossed the Atlantic and helped shape arguments such as “no taxation without representation” and the Fifth Amendment, which states that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”



A Pleasant Day for a Drive (Official Post #2)

Since I am the only blogger for the day, I have the distinct honor of explaining everything that happened today! I am actually glad of this fact because we did a lot of amazing things, and I would hate to have picked just one to tell you all. By the way – by today, I mean May 9, 2017 – just so we are all clear. We are still staying in York, but today was a day trip out to some sites that are not exactly in the town of York. We explored Ripon Cathedral, Fountains Abbey, and Skipton Castle today, and I will explain what we did there in the remaining part of my post.

We got to all these places with the assistance of a small tour bus. Our driver, Dave, was quite knowledgeable and took the time to point out monuments and other things in the landscape that we had no idea were there. I was very glad Dave was our driver, and I purposely sat at the front of the bus to hear what he might have to say. Not only did we get to and from the hostel safely, we learned a few new things along the way. The most interesting bus fact I learned today was that the Tour de France came to Yorkshire this year, and the people of Yorkshire just hosted their own bike race for the local people. I wonder of this local bike race will become an annual thing here in Yorkshire.

The first place we explored was Ripon Cathedral, and the first thing we registered was confusion. This course has been teaching us to recognize different styles of medieval architecture, and we are challenged to apply this knowledge to the sites we visit. I was not alone in being unable to classify Ripon Cathedral’s architecture, but I will admit to being rather bad at recognizing styles of architecture. I always get them mixed up, no matter how many times I study the differences. Anyway, Ripon Cathedral has many different styles of architecture due to the different stages of building. It was originally the site of a Saxon church in the 7th century, and there is a Saxon crypt under the cathedral that survives today. The crypt is empty today and is supposed to represent the tomb of Jesus. I found it interesting that the roofs are made of wood. The library had some interesting models of the site through the ages, showing the different styles and sizes that have been present since the Saxons moving forwards.

Fountains Abbey was my favorite thing today. Our student tour guide, Kourtney, did a really nice job presenting the abbey to the class. I especially appreciated how she talked about the architecture of the surviving ruins as well as giving us the historical facts of the abbey and its monastic order. Fountains Abbey is huge! The size is comparable to that of St. Andrews and Rievalux Abbey, although there is more opulence and carving in Fountains than there is in Rievaulx. I could really get a sense of what the original abbey would have looked like from the ruins that survived the dissolution under Henry VIII. There was even an upper room with some original tiles. I could still see some of the decorations and carvings in the floor.  Fountains Abbey has extensive gardens surrounding the ruins, leaving the entire valley area a picturesque scene of purity and peace.

The last place we went today was Skipton Castle, which claims to be the most intact medieval castle in all of England. From what I saw, this could very well be true. The castle was slighted and rebuilt. To slight a castle means to deconstruct the defenses and make sure it cannot withstand an attack. The inhabitants were given permission to rebuild the walls by Cromwell because the lady of the house was well-connected in the government. She argued that this was her home, and she needed to feel safe in her own home – which needed completed walls. I found Skipton Castle interesting because it had been remodeled through the ages. The kitchen was moved at one point and more modern preparation stations were added as the inhabitants saw fit. A new manor house was built adjacent to the castle in which the family still lives, meaning they can see that the castle is maintained for future generations of tourists.

It’s Time!

Well, the final post of the semester has come. It’s exciting! It means that this trip is finally coming. It’s no longer a dream that will happen sometime in a future that will never get here. I’m supposed to write about what I am most excited for, but I honestly can’t decide. I’ve been so excited about this trip for so long that it is difficult to pick one specific thing. Generally, I am excited to be going to Scotland because I have always wanted to go there. I am excited to see castles for real. I have seen cathedrals in other countries, but never real castles. It will be interesting to see the places I have only seen on television. Will they live up to the expectations I have about their size and grandeur?

As for preparations, I have everything I need for this trip already. I asked for hiking pants for Christmas so I could have appropriate gear for the weather. Sure, I spent some extra money on actual weather-proof clothing, but I figured that the extra cost up front would be worth it if I wasn’t miserable in the rain the entire time. My preparations have now turned to mental instead of physical. I want to make sure I’m in the right frame of mind for this trip: willing to try new foods, talk to different types of people, and learn about a new culture.

I guess I am excited about everything. I’m excited to spend more time with my classmates and get to know them better on this trip, as well as learn about the actual historical sites we will be visiting.


Rievaulx Abbey

As part of our curriculum, each student has the opportunity to be the tour guide for one of the sites we are visiting on our trip. This is a lot of pressure. Their experience at this location is based on my preparation. I’d better make sure I don’t nerd out and bore them all with my enthusiasm. To get us introduced to the places we chose, we are using this blog post to introduce our places to our readers, getting us researching the subject ourselves before the trip.

I have chosen to explore and present on Rievaulx Abbey. Choosing this location was easy; I didn’t want a castle or cathedral, so a monastery or abbey was the only other option. I knew nothing about Rievaulx going into this blog post, but the name sounds French, so I was instantly intrigued to see if this was a French Abbey or a British imitation of a French Abbey. Dr. L has accumulated quite a few guidebooks for the places we will be visiting, so I am lucky enough to have use of her book on Rievaulx for a while. I hope you are as excited as I am!


The above image is an artist’s representation of what the abbey would have looked like when it was operational.

The Abbey was founded in 1132, and it was the first Cistercian abbey in the north of England (it is located in Yorkshire). Rievaulx was the most important Cistercian abbey in Britain and served as the center for the monastic colonization of north England and Scotland. It became most important under the rule of its third abbot, St. Aelred (1147-1167). Many of its surviving buildings were begun under Aelred, and the community grew to 140 choir monks and 500 lay-brothers and servants. The Abbey is in ruins today, but enough of it is left to tell the story of the location. Monastic life changed drastically during the 400-year history of the place, which can be read in the buildings themselves.

Since Rievaulx is a Cistercian abbey, I’m going to explain a little bit about the Cistercian order because it will help with historical context. In 1098, a group of monks left the abbey of Molesme and built their own monastery. It’s reputation for discipline and simple living attracted recruits. Soon, a number of other monasteries were founded, and the new order was officially named the Cistercian Order by 1119. Their monastic philosophy included an insistence on poverty, simplicity of life, and the need to separate the communities physically from the outside world. As a result, the monasteries became self-sufficient, using lay-brothers to do the farming so they could avoid the feudal system.

No chronicle survives after Aelred’s death, so little is known about Rievaulx after 1167. By the end of the 13th century, the abbey was deeply in debt due to borrowing funds based on future income. The end of the abbey didn’t come through debt but through Henry VIII and his 1532 takeover of the church in England. The abbot of Rievaulx questioned Henry’s authority to interfere with church matters; the King retaliated by electing a new abbot that would serve his needs. In 1538, the remaining monks surrendered the monastery after a lengthy process of decline. The site of the abbey was granted to Thomas Manners, Earl of Rutland, who began the systematic destruction of the abbey buildings.

The buildings in the care of English Heritage today represent only the nucleus of the abbey. Fewer than half of the 72 buildings listed in 1538 can be traced, and only 15 acres remain of the original 92. None of the abbey’s courts, meadows, orchards, gardens, fishponds, mills, or service and industrial buildings survives above ground, though it is important to add them to the imagination to get a true sense of the extent of the original abbey.

Abbey Today.jpg

This is a picture of what Rievaulx looks like today. There is still a lot there, so we can get a good sense of what the main structure of the abbey looked like.


Traveling Back in Time

As part of our curriculum, we have been reading a book called The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. The purpose of this book is to transport the modern reader into the 14th century as if they were actually living and traveling in that century. I like this book, so I have decided to share what I have been reading for this blog post. The author, Ian Mortimer, has drawn me into the reading, and I am always eager to read more of it. One interesting thing to note is that the author writes in the present tense. The best way to think about history is to think of yourself living it as if it was the present. This way, people’s emotions come to light, and we can piece together why they did what they did. In the introduction, he asserts that history is more than knowledge; it is an experience, and what we have in common with the past is just as important as what makes us different.

I appreciate that Mortimer didn’t write this as another history book. The chronicles left behind from the medieval era are informative in telling us what happened, but they are impersonal. You only got recorded if you were royal or important in some way. Mortimer gives peasants a chance to come to life more than their royal superiors to give the reader an actual sense of what life was like for the majority of people, not just the select few. For the rest of the post, I will be giving a brief synopsis of some of the chapters we have read so far, highlighting the interesting things I found. Hopefully, this entices you to read this book as well!


Chapter 1: The Landscape

As the title of the chapter suggests, Mortimer discusses what you will find in the landscape as you travel across the country. He focuses on the different atmospheres of cities and towns versus villages and the countryside. The chapter makes a point to debunk the myth that the English landscape remained unchanging through the century when in fact the landscape changed through human intervention and natural factors. The same can be said for medieval villages. The usual perception is that they are picturesque, but the practicalities of daily life took precedence over beauty. The typical medieval village found beauty in having the daily necessities close at hand.


Chapter 2: The People

Society is split into three “estates”: those who fight, those who pray, and those who work the land. Each group contributes to the welfare of society as a whole, and this system was used to justify inequalities in society. As you might imagine, these three estates left quite a few people out, so it was an increasingly outdated idea starting around the 12th century.


Chapter 3: The Medieval Character

Chivalry did not really exist in the way we think. The 14th century was a violent time, and loyalty was valued above all else. People were exceedingly cruel as a rule, and a streak of violence runs through the whole society. This surprised me the most. I had always expected there to be a minority of people with cruel natures who attacked others, with the majority just being people of their time. Violence was a part of life, but I had not expected so many people in the population to enjoy bloodshed as a sport, but maybe just accept it as part of life. It certainly made me rethink my ideas of knights in shining armor rescuing the damsels in distress. A surprising thing to note is that many more people than expected were literate: 5% in rural areas and 20% in urban areas.


Chapter 5: What to Wear

I won’t go into terrible detail on the exact fashion trends through the century, but there are some interesting things that happened that are worth noting. The 14th century sees greater changes in clothing styles than any previous period of 100 years, and men’s fashion changes more than in any century since. The end of the century even sees the pinnacle in the sexualization of men’s clothing. I found this interesting because, in today’s society, we see the sexualization of women’s clothing, not men’s. What you wear still denoted what you were, just like today, and people were restricted from dressing above their station. It was important to look the part of your station in medieval society.

Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. New York, NY: Touchstone, 2008.

Henry II

I am so excited to be opening my Kings and Queens of England book for something other than my own enjoyment! Each of us is charged with writing a mini biography on an English monarch, and I have been assigned Henry II. Henry II was the first king of the Angevin kingdom, and he was a Plantagenet king. He ruled from 1154-1189. He took the throne from the last Norman king, Stephen, in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Wallingford and spent the first few years of his reign restoring law and order to the country after Stephen’s lax rule. He was driven by a desire to restore the lands of his grandfather, Henry I.

Henry II was assisted by his Chancellor, Thomas a Becket, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry appointed Becket as Archbishop because he thought Becket would be an amenable Archbishop through whom he could gain control of the church’s legal system. Unfortunately, Henry II and Becket had a falling out over the question of whether clergy who committed crimes should be tried in civil or Church courts. Becket refused to comply with the king’s wishes and was exiled to France in 1164. A reconciliation was forced by the Pope, but Henry II’s exasperation with Becket led the king to order Becket to be murdered in his own cathedral on December 29, 1170. Henry II had such remorse for his actions that he did public penance at Becket’s tomb, which became a shrine and a place of pilgrimage.

The final years of Henry II’s reign were taken up by quarrels with his sons, who were incited to rebel by their mother, Queen Eleanor. Henry had separated from his wife because their marriage was not an easy one. Eleanor had gained a reputation for frivolity and looseness of conduct in her first marriage. While meeting with the King Philip II of France to stop a rebellion by Henry’s youngest son, a thunder-clap caused his horse to throw him. He died on July 6, 1189, calling for heaven’s vengeance on his rebellious family.

Henry II

Above is an image of Henry II’s restored effigy. Although stylized, it gives a good impression of his general appearance. His queen, Eleanor, lived for many years after his death. She is buried beside Henry in Fontrevault.

Most of this information was contained in my book, which is presented by the National Portrait Gallery. I appreciated having this resource because the kings and queens are accompanied by their official portraits. When I was looking online for a picture to accompany this post, the portraits that come up are of Henry I and not Henry II, which I might not have known if I didn’t have a visual reference right in front of me. I would like to point out that the details of Henry II’s death are not always consistent. I read a couple mini biographies to get the information I needed. One says that he died after falling off his horse, as I have written above, but the other accounts say that he died of ulcers or some other disease. All the reports say that he died calling for vengeance on his family, though. I am not sure which account of Henry II’s death is accurate; it could be all of them, or it could be none of them. Given the highly embellished nature of medieval records, I don’t think we will ever know the true answer.

Castle Life

This second blog post is centered around educating you, the public, on something we have been learning in class. Since I really like castles, this post will be a bit of background on what life was actually like in these centers of power and luxury as well as some information about the structure and defenses of castles in general.

The popular perception of life in a medieval castle was one of luxury and riches. While this is true, we must remember that life in castles was luxurious compared to the majority of people at that time. So, by modern standards, medieval life in a castle was harsh, which makes me wonder just how bad life was for the rest of the population.

In the medieval era, the civilization of the ancient pagan world disappeared. Not only did libraries and schools go away, but “luxuries such as running water, central heating, public baths, public lavatories, and sophisticated lighting” (Castle Life) went away as well. Christians claimed they did not need baths and that God had intended for them to use dark corners as lavatories. If you ask me, I’m not sure this is much of an improvement. It seems like the Christian domination brought their religion on the people while setting them back in terms of health and hygiene.

Castles were centers of administration for the area, so they were consequently centers of activity within as well. The lord was in charge of the administrative functions of the feudal economy while his lady was in charge of household affairs. The castle would also employ many officers and servants to run the place. The “focus of domestic life…would have been the Great Hall” (Exploring Castles), the central room of the castle where the main fire was kept and where everyone gathered to eat and be entertained.

Even through all this administrative and household activity, the castle always had to be ready for an attack. Standard defenses included thick stone walls as a starting point with many additional fortifications, such as towers, gates, and a moat to make a siege more challenging. Archers fired arrows down at the invaders from tiny windows called arrow slits, which allowed them room to shoot but did not allow many enemy arrows to come back through the windows at the defenders. The moat often had sharpened spikes at the bottom, as well as being the place where the latrines let out, making for a hostile and deadly crossing. If enemies made it across the moat and through the gate, secondary gates closed, trapping the intruders in the entryway. The ceilings of these entryways had holes through which defenders could pour boiling oil or other things.

Castles are amazing. They have stood the test of time (mostly) and mark the landscape with their authority and majesty. Unfortunately, they were still functional during a time of disease and horrible ideas about hygiene and no concept of privacy. Even through their luxury, inhabited castles were crowded, cold, dark, and smelly. Though the standards of the time held them up as aristocratic and the height of luxury, I still prefer to see them hundreds of years after occupation when the sights and smells of medieval life have dissipated into history.