Monthly Archives: May 2012

A Medieval Castle in the Making

A castle is slowly taking in shape in France.  It has taken 15 years to get this point, but then, you don’t raise a medieval castle in a couple of months outside of Hollywood, Disney World or Vegas–especially if you are building it the medieval way!  In fact, in this construction project, the lengthy duration of the project is a point of pride.  The results are also pretty impressive for those of us used to seeing those various Vegas/Hollywood/Disney models.

Guédelon, a castle growing out of the French countryside is the operation created by architect Michel Guyot who came across the original foundations of a 13th century castle, while rehabilitating its 17th century predecessor, the Chateau de St.-Fargeau.  He pulled together medieval experts and set about making his own 13th century castle 100 miles southeast of Paris.

This should give some comfort to the project-organizers at Campus Galli, building a medieval monastery in Meßkirch, Germany (see Building a Monastery the Medieval Way).  Both Guédelon and Campus Galli are open to the public and volunteers–the expectation is that these are learning opportunities both for scholars and lay people.

Guédelon, unlike most other building sites, is open to the public. One of the project’s principal raisons d’être is to demonstrate and explain to as many people as possible, the craftsmanship of our forebears.

For more information, visit the castle’s website: Guédelon, A Castle in the Making.

Guédelon in the news:

Smithsonian Magazine’s “Constant Traveler Blog” —

BBC News —


Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

Colonial Foodways, A delicious learning experience

The Lord Mayor’s Tenement–our schoolhouse for the hearth cooking class.

In our area, we are fortunate to have Historic London Town and Garden in Edgewater, MD.  This site is a county-run facility built on top of colonial Londontown, a city built to be the tobacco weigh-station for the colony of Maryland.  Its existence was of short duration as the weigh-station would be moved to Annapolis, MD.  Thanks to the construction of a single brick edifice in a town built of wood, the site became an orphanage until the 1960s preserving it for archaeologists from the Lost Towns division of the county’s preservation board.

Our classroom for the program.

The educational arm at London Town has worked with historians who have compiled a strong package of historical sources that have been used to teach homeschoolers and school groups on field trips.  These programs introduce students to colonial living, practices, clothing and architecture, plus allowing them to literally get their hands dirty in the actual archaeology dig of the town’s tavern.  Pretty cool stuff, really.

Class supplies!

One of the programs offered is called “Colonial Pathways.”  While they have a streamlined version of this for schools on field trips and for families in the summer, we attended the homeschooling program.  The program is designed to complement the curriculum in the Early Maryland Program and it also supports Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum for grades 4, 5, 8, and 10.  The program teaches students about colonially life and trade through food.  The longer homeschooling program begins in the morning and extends well into the afternoon, culminating with a feast of the prepared foods.

More class supplies!

There is also an accompanying packet that challenges students to think about food in their own families and culture to make connections with the past.  This is includes a section about why we should study foodways.  It defines “foodways” (quoting folklorist Jay Anderson) as “the whole interrelated system of food conceptualization, procurement, distribution, preservation, and consumption share by all members of a particular group.”  The packet continues, saying:

Food is used to reinforce ties to ancestral homelands, ancestors and places of comfort ad stability.  Moreover, foodways can communicate many things–belonging to a group (expressing cultural and regional identity), self-identity, emotions, behaviors, and memories.  In addition, food preparation was often a communal affair, and cooking frequently involved many members of a family and community, because of the labor-intensive nature of technologies available to them.  Thus, a study of the attitudes, practices, and rituals surrounding food can provide windows into an early society’s most basic beliefs about its members and the world as a whole.

~ “Colonial Foodways Teaching Packet,” Historic London Town and Gardens

Colonial staples included pork, beef, lamb, fish, shellfish, chichen, corn, beans and other vegetables, fruits, and numerous baked goods.  Added to these foods were African crops that came over on slave ships, including black-eyed peas, peanuts, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, kidney and lima beans, watermelon (thank you!), rice, okra, sorghum, millet, pineapples, chile peppers, and sesame seeds.  These eventually became part of larger culinary experiences in the North America.

Harvesting beets from the garden.

The packet includes information on food preparation, food preservation (drying, salting, smoking, pickling, and jellying), and colonial receipts.  In the activities section, it challenged students to categorize foods with the social classes that would have eaten them and then comparing them with 21st century foods.  It also tasked them with identifying family and community interviews for a sampling of food preferences.  Next, it challenged them to consider food taboos and, finally, it asked about the holiday meals and the “grammar” of ingredients and sequences to “deciphering a meal” (borrowing form anthropologist Mary Douglas).  In the back of the packet are footnotes and a bibliography.

Chopping wood for the fire colonial style.

Using the Lord Mayor’s Tenement, a reconstructed building constructed in its original post holes, as our classroom, the students set to work making a feast:

Chicken on a string (seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, and cooked hung over the hearth–by a string

Kickshaw (a quiche or frittata) — students made two, one with asparagus and one with kale, cooked in a ceramic pie dish, rubbed with lard or butter, placed inside a dutch oven over the coals (the lid was built like a dish so that coals could be placed on top)

Roasted beets — harvested by the students from the colonial garden

Ginger rice (a Ghanan dish) — Ghanans and Senagalese were brought into Maryland because of their experience in tobacco or related agriculture — rice boiled with oil, salt, pepper and ginger

Apple fritters — fried on a cast iron pan

It was quite a lot of food and all of it was devoured by the students and parents present.  The students were actively involved in the preparation though, for safety reasons, they were not allowed to work directly with the fire.  Throughout the process the educators from London Town continually referenced sources from the colony, hopefully giving the students a direct insight into how this recreation was designed–using historical processes.

The posts for the reconstructed building are built into the original post-holes thanks to archaeological work at the site.

Food is one of those things we share with humans of the past, so employing it in history lessons makes a lot of sense.  Plus, students get to eat their studies!  Hard to turn that down, really.  This is a great afterschool program, too, for schools in disadvantaged areas through collaborations with charitable organizations and historic organizations–learning and eating, how do you beat that?  Food is a really good teacher about historical communities tying into social classes and trade connections.

A brief recreational interlude: the colonial game of quoits (think horseshoes).

The London Town experience is a good one, both for learning history through food and for learning about culture in general.  It is not flawless, however.  Their homeschooling programs are marketed for students ages 8 and up, but they have not done a fabulous job about enforcing those ages.  We made a point of inviting another family to join us to guarantee some student participation in my daughter’s age range.  One other family showed up with a boy who was a very young 8 and his little sister–the parents would not clear out of the students’ space directly impeding the participation of other students, and none of the staff asked them to step back or move away from the table.  That’s very frustrating when you pay for your children and an adult to take a course that places requirements on attending.  Aside from this issue, the concept and program are well-designed for learning history.

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Food, Historian's Journal, Reviews

Unhelpful High School Teacher – “It’s funny because it’s true…”

Teenagers are simply quite astute, though they rarely get credit for it.  In fact, because they are also often snarky–sometimes in a playful way, sometimes in a nasty way–they often get in trouble for it.  If we, as adults and educators, can think back to our own days as students, we can read the following memes with knowing mirth, even though it frustrates us that teachers still do this.  What’s worse, teachers do this and frequently do not have it addressed in their reviews, despite the ridiculous number of man-hours that go into teacher reviews and portfolio construction.

Many of us know we did things like this when we first started out, but the better teachers evolve and grow beyond certain stereotypical teacher-student relationships that have encapsulated so many of our own experiences and sometimes seem exist in the very walls of our teaching institutions.  Breaking free from the world of double-standards (no drinks in my classroom, but I have a Starbucks every day), superiority complexes (you came to the right conclusion, but by the wrong means), and illogical twists (tardiness will not be tolerated, but I may keep you 5 minutes late) that seem to be inherent in the us vs. them world of standard education is probably more difficult than most people realize because of convenience and ease in a difficult field.  But, it does not make it just and it does not make it easier for the students, nor can it be argued away by, “I survived it, so can they,” because education is not a hazing for initiates to adulthood–at least, it shouldn’t be.

Honest reflection on some these is probably a healthful dose of reality for many of us educators.  We may never be perfect, but we can always be better!  Enjoy!

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Well, points for honesty…

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Respect–that one-way street.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

As opposed to school work… that we do in school (for 8 hours a day).

Unhelpful High School Teacher

My expectations are my own, but I’ll grade you by them.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

When is it too late to save face?

Unhelpful High School Teacher

“There are rules, people!”

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Time is a’waste’n!

Unhelpful High School Teacher


Unhelpful High School Teacher

standards for you, but not for me

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Teaching through public humiliation, since…

Unhelpful High School Teacher

time continuum quandaries

Unhelpful High School Teacher

passing the “good” kids, the ones that don’t give you any trouble, the “easy” kids

Unhelpful High School Teacher

added motivation…

Unhelpful High School Teacher


Unhelpful High School Teacher

Be creative… but stay in the box.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

PowerPoint FAIL!

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Keep it clear as mud!

Unhelpful High School Teacher


Unhelpful High School Teacher

Adult logic.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

So, only one way to skin a cat?

Unhelpful High School Teacher

It’s like amber and fossils.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Is this a trick?

Keep it real, Teach, keep it real.

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Building a Monastery the Medieval Way

Plan of St. Gall

Talk about experiencing history!  In Germany, a project is underway to build a monastery in the medieval way.  This means no coffee, no engines, no modern cranes, etc.  It means wearing medieval clothing, working with medieval tools and staying in medieval-style housing.  The work will be done by laborers and volunteers and will take many decades, just as medieval monasteries took many decades to build.

To read more about the project, follow this link, Ox Carts and No Coffee: Building a Monastery the Medieval Way – SPIEGEL ONLINE, to the English article by the German magazine, Der Spiegel.  Visitors can see the progress in the south German city of Meßkirch, where Campus Galli is the site of the future monastery.  It is called “Galli” because of the “plan of St. Gall,” a monastic plan (seen in the photo, above) that was discovered in the library of the Swiss monastery of St. Gall.  Today, St. Gall’s library and church are decorated in Baroque splendor and the library is a UNESCO heritage site.  The monastery, however, was founded in the 8th century and influenced by Carolingian monastic reforms, though the monastery is not built according to the plan that bears its name.

Visitors can visit the project’s website, by clicking on this link:  (Note, it is in German.)

Despite the fact that the plan does not match the actual layout of St. Gall, it is believed that it was intended, nonetheless, as a general idealized design for contemporary monasteries following the great monastic reforms of Charlemagne and his successor, Louis the Pious (not to be confused with the other successors in the East and South), the first concerted effort towards uniformity and central control.  So, a legitimate question might be asked in how “medieval” the plan of St. Gall is given that it does not appear to have been replicated anywhere, precisely according to plan!  It is the brain-child of medieval authors who are grappling with the contemporary monastic reform movements, but this does not mean that the plan itself represents an authentic medieval design as far as monasteries were designed and constructed.  Still, the Campus Galli’s plan to do the construction and have the workers live and work according to contemporary medieval standards and technological advances is a valuable learning experience for both the public and scholars.

Carolingian monasteries during the era of reform.

Tension had developed between the Carolingian monasteries and secular influence on the monks.  This tension played a major role in the reform movements begun under Charlemagne and continued in the years immediately after his reign.  While Charlemagne’s motives were more on the order of uniformity and his unceasing need for control, the church officials involved in the reform were more directly concerned with their interpretations of the Rule of Benedict (RB), balanced by their responsibilities to the state.

The secondary literature has shown that Carolinigian monasticism had plenty of secular infusion.  If the monastery had once been envisioned as place of retreat—a desert[i] without distractions to focus on one’s contemplation of God—by the Carolingian period it was already highly communal with the world outside.  Various Rules were in use, with each monastery tending towards its own traditions, many abbots served political, even military, roles, and no uniform expectations existed regarding this level of interaction.

The early missionary excursions of St. Boniface on the European continent revealed that the monastic foundations he laid were intended to interact with the pagans who lived there for the purposes of conversion and parochial support.  Later, as administrators of large estates, abbots served in a military capacity for the Carolingian kings.  The issue of hunting and bearing arms among clergymen, particularly abbots and bishops, is consistently raised in Councils (three alone between 506-585).[ii]  At the Synod of Soissons in 744, the decree comes down that abbati legitimi, specifically, were forbidden to go to war.  Lay abbots are conspicuously omitted from the decision.[iii]  Under Charlemagne, in the Captiulare missorum speciale, October 802, bearing arms in war was expressly forbidden “only [to] priests in general, deacons, and the other [lower] clergy.”  Their trust should be placed more in God than weapons.  The higher clergy—episcopi and abbati—were  left out of the prohibition deliberately.[iv]

On the flip side of the coin, Mayke De Jong has proffered a convincing case for the use of monasteries as lay elite sanctuaries.  Rather than exile or other physical punishments, Louis the Pious twice utilizes the monasteries for relocation of certain rebels in his realm—an evolved practice dating back to the Merovingians.  De Jong suggests that those placed in monastic confinement were more likely complicit in their captivity.  Monastic confinement was an honorable alternative for the powerful, but more importantly it was a safe place of refuge to escape to an internal exile.[v]

Thus the monastery was important not just for its lands in an economic sense but was necessary for its royally protected space:

Royal immunity and/or episcopal exemptions helped to reinforce this sense of integrity, but before monastic communities could become the beneficiaries of such privileges guaranteeing the inviolability of monastic space, they first had to become identified with well-defined places that enjoyed a measure of stability through time.  A monastic community moving elsewhere to retain its ascetic standards, leaving its unsatisfactory abbot behind, was of no use to the Rulers and bishops granting such privileges.  They had sacred places in mind, not saintly people.[vi]

For political exiles, it was understood that this was only becoming like a monk.  Monastic exile was linked among contemporaries with public penance.[vii]

Through a growing convergence of two separate traditions, reliquaries and monastic retreat, the Carolingian monastery was a place to which entry was sought after by the pious laity.  It became a particular challenge for monasteries to deal with female pilgrims who were expressly forbidden from entering male monasteries in the traditions of the monastic Rules.  Julia Smith cites sources describing the accommodation of women by means of separate external funerary chapels as part of the monastic complex as early as the seventh century.[viii]  A practice which Charlemagne maintains in his reform legislation of 789.  Later in 794, it is further specified that the monks’ chapel should be intra claustra.[ix]

Benedict of Aniane (Carolingian monastic abbot and reformer) was probably not motivated by a concern for lay access to relics as his two famous monasteries had none, his work suggested a strong influence from the Late Antique writer Caesarius who called for a strict ban and his legislation, built so firmly on the RB, and who would not have encountered an obvious opportunity to consider such problems.  Neither Benedict of Nursia (the author of the RB) nor Caesarius could have foreseen the transfer of the cult of relics to the monastic setting.  Evidence collected by Smith suggests that the ban of women in monasteries was ultimately based on the disposition of the abbots.[x]

Aniane’s sentiments, however, were perhaps bolstered by new directions in monastic design.  Carolingian monasteries excluded women from relics because of their particular location in monastery churches—near the altars—a  challenge further compounded by a greater interest in maintaining separation from lay people and the suggested development of ideas like the Plan of St. Gall with central cloisters.[xi]  These changes may have affected not only women but all of the laity.

There was also the challenge of novices and child oblates in monasteries.  These individuals represented an odd group of “tweeners,” being part of the monastic complex, but segregated away from the monastic community until the time of full membership.  It is the express intent to bring in an outsider, for the purpose of growing in the community, and converting him to the life of a monk and insider.

The challenge of maintaining enclosure in the monastery was one of the pressing issues of the reforms.  Many of the problems arise from the looseness of the RB itself.  While not all of the concerns above are directly acknowledged by the reform, they do demonstrate the extent of the challenge posed.  Just as Benedict of Nursia could not have foreseen reliquaries in monasteries, neither is it likely that he foresaw the vast wealth that would become attached, nor the importance of the abbot in matters of both church and state.  When Benedict explained the procedure for monks who were going outside of the monastery and missing regular prayers he did not deign to give examples for why they may be leaving.  Such open-endedness became the source of debate and disagreement during the reform era as the push for a standard understanding of monastic behavior and life was sought.

Walter  Horn, the great scholar of the Plan of St. Gall, makes a compelling case for an economic need to redesign the monasteries.  He hypothesizes that the Carolingian cloister grew out of the monastery’s greater economic value, revealed in the amassed land-holdings of the royal monasteries, and was thereby needed to protect the monks from the secular influence surrounding them in order to maintain the estates.[xii]  Space and its designation (such as “sacred” versus “profane”) was ever important and relevant.  Whether or not more evidence emerges from the archaeological record to support the hypotheses of Horn and Born remains to be seen.

Regardless, it is not hard to understand the conflict of relics and cloistered space mentioned above.  The designation of the space within the cloister is dominated by silence and oration, per the RB and reform movements.  The Carolingian monks needed to balance this with the cacophony of pilgrims.

[i] While the desert provides an evocative image of isolation, the amount of contact from various authors during the late antique suggests that even inEgypt there was less withdrawal than is normally assumed.

[ii] 303, Prinz, “King, Clergy and War.”

[iii] 305, ibid.

[iv] 316-7, ibid.

[v] 298, ibid.

[vi] 299, ibid.

[vii] 322, ibid.

[viii] 174, Smith, “Women.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] 177, ibid.

[xi] 175, ibid.

[xii] Horn, “Origins.”

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

Happy Teacher Appreciation Day, America

Today is the teacher’s day, the hard-working educator’s day.  Moreover, it is a day of appreciation.  This differentiates it from many other “Days” that are labeled on our calendar with something other than their Gregorian-designated number. 

It is a good thing for society to remember a group of people often–though not always–under-paid, typically–with some exceptions–underfunded, and generally–if not in every case–hard-working individuals.  I have been the direct beneficiary of some truly fantastic teachers and come into contact with some brilliant minds in the classroom and alternative learning venues.  They really do deserve recognition.

On the other hand, there are some truly horrendous teachers out there.  It does the cause of educators no good to pretend otherwise.  These are those who lack more than just funding, they lack imagination, empathy or education–in some cases, they lack all of the above.  When parents complain, they are told we cannot fire Mr./Ms. So-and-so for x reason (he/she will sue is a common explanation given).  Inevitably, these teachers, too, will be appreciated, today, and get a raise for another year served in the school system–assuming the system has the funds for raises, of course.

Much still needs to happen in the school system–even calling it a system makes some part of me cringe–but there are earnest, intelligent, hard-working educators and youth leaders working towards precisely that.  Organizations that “get it” are developing aids and rewarding those teachers who also “get it.”

What are the characteristics of those who “get it?”  Well, some of the most importart are the recognition that the students–capable, competent, knowledgable citizens–are the end, not test scores; that the content is as important as the skills; that the school “system” is not intended to be a manufacturing plant rolling out copies on a conveyor belt; and, that real learning is not accomplished through an artificial segregation of subjects, but through a multi-disciplined platform that involves doing and reflection of successes and failures.  These are some of the characteristics.

So, remember to appreciate those teachers who “get it,” those who see school as a dynamic learning environment, not just part of a system–often they are fighting the system and your support is essential.  These people will cultivate students who are leaders, innovators, and contributing citizens–many of whom will not wait until the designated period when most adults decide they are allowed to be leaders.  At a time when we agree that America needs a few tweaks (or more than a few), we need the teachers who not confined to the box to help our students grow outside of their comforts zones.  Thank them and support them, often.

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