Even then, if you had the money, life was not bad! A medieval village!
Writing about Easter in the Middle Ages has got me thinking about village life back then. It’s harder to pin down the lives of ordinary medieval people because they left little of themselves behind. I’ve walked over a fair few settlement earthworks in my time, those spectral lumps and bumps in the land, but the other day I got to wander around a very special place: a living medieval village. So come with me on a wander around the enchanting homes and buildings of a real community from the Middle Ages.
Cosmeston Medieval Village
Welcome to Cosmeston Medieval Village in South Wales, the remains of which were discovered in the late 1970s during the construction of the country park in which it now stands. Named after the Costentin family from northern France, this was part of the Anglo-Welsh border lands partitioned out after the Norman Conquest to keep the unruly…
I live in a small town. Just under 13,000 people call Uxbridge home. The village, or as we say around here, “downtown,” has a classic brick town hall, circa 1879, an elegant old library, and several other historic buildings.
Our neighboring town, Millville, makes Uxbridge look like Metropolis.
Their town hall is a unit in an old condo building. The center of town is a sub shop. There’s no sign to indicate you are in Millville, so it’s easy to miss. When you get there, it will be closed anyway. The following notice is posted on Millville’s website:
Due to budget constraints, effective immediately the Town Clerk’s office will only be open on Mondays from 9am-1pm and Wednesday evenings from 6pm-8pm for public assistance. If you cannot be at the Municipal Center during these scheduled hours, please call the Town Clerk’s Office to schedule an appointment.m
There are approximately 3100 people living in Millville.
Perhaps 9 or 10 years ago, the town of Millville decided they needed a Deputy Animal Control Officer. I don’t remember how I heard about the job. It may have been a tip from our local animal control officer who knew I liked animals and needed part-time work.
This was about as part-time as a job could be. The pay was $1200 per year, payable semi-annually. Before taxes.
Millville already had a Senior Animal Control Officer who was theoretically in charge, but passionately fond of golf. I suspect he also had a full-time job elsewhere. So, in exchange for $600 every 6 months, I would have the official title of Deputy Animal Control Officer. I would be on call 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
I’m basically an optimist. I figured Millville is tiny. How many calls could there be? I took the job. I was sworn in, just like in the movies, hand on the Bible. I promised to protect and serve.
A mere couple of hours later, I got my first call. A homeowner had found an almost dead skunk by their trash bin and wanted it taken away. It was my first call — a Sunday morning — so my “senior officer” thought he should come along, show me the ropes as it were.
Luckily, the skunk did the right thing and went from nearly dead to absolutely dead while I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I was informed by my erstwhile boss that the skunk had probably been rabid and I should not touch it. If the skunk had not died on his own, I would have been obliged to shoot it.
Me: “Shoot it?”
Boss: “Yes, shoot it. With the rifle.”
Me: “Rifle? What rifle?”
Boss: “Oh, didn’t I mention that? We have a couple of rifles in the office. When an animal is behaving suspiciously, you have to shoot it.”
Me: “Behaving suspiciously?”
Boss: “You know, approaching people rather than running away. Acting weird. Most of the animals you’ll get calls about are rabid. There’s a lot of rabies around here so you don’t want to get close. Just shoot’em.”
Rabies. Shoot the animals. $100 a month. I was getting that creepy feeling I get when I think maybe I’ve signed up for something, the implications of which I had failed to fully grasp.
After we bagged the skunk to send to the county animal medical examiner, I promised to go to city hall as soon as they reopened to discuss guns and the other equipment I would need. Like shovels, leather gloves, heavy-duty plastic trash bags (the non-human version of body bags), tags for the medical examiner. Forms to fill out. Oh, and where to put the corpses. Turns out, you can’t just stack them up in city hall.
My boss was not upset that I’d never handled a real weapon. I’d never shot anything currently or previously alive. I was puzzled about what I was supposed to do if I got a call, actually needed a rifle, but it was locked up at city hall which was pretty much always closed.
Would the offending animal make an appointment for a more convenient time? Or wait for me to call someone, get them to unlock the gun cabinet, then hang around while I drove over to get it, then drove back to shoot him? Are the rabid animals of Millville that cooperative? Was I supposed to keep the big hunting rifle in my house in case I needed it? The rabies thing had me spooked, too.
When I was finally able to get to city hall, I demanded a rabies vaccination. No way was I going to handle rabid animals without a vaccination. They pointed out rabies vaccinations are expensive and I was only the deputy. They suggested I pay for it myself.
Me: “How much will it cost?”
Clerk: “Around $450.”
Me: “That’s four and a half months pay.”
Clerk: “Well, we don’t normally pay for it.”
Me: “I’m not doing this unless I’m vaccinated.”
It turned out that the animal medical examiner could provide me with the appropriate vaccination, so Garry — who had begun to look alarmed — drove me to the doctor. While the doctor prepared the inoculation, we got a rundown of exactly how common rabies is in our neck of the woods.
“Why,” he said, “Just last week they found a deer with rabies. Chipmunks, skunk, fox, coyotes, squirrels, deer … even possums get rabies.” The only exceptions are rabbits who are naturally immune. Go figure.
The following day, I got another call. A really big snapping turtle had wandered into the road and was blocking traffic. It didn’t sound too threatening, so armed with my shoulder-high heavy leather gauntlets (no rifle), I drove to the site and met the snapping turtle from Hell.
Keep in mind that there is water everywhere in the valley. Not only the Blackstone, but all its tributaries, feeder creeks, lakes, brooks, ponds, pools, and swamps. Snapping turtles are called common for good reason. They live just about everywhere you find water. Undoubtedly, the big snapper had wandered into the road, lost his bearings. Someone needed to grab the turtle and carry him back on the river side of the road.
The someone was me.
This turtle was not in the water, not docile. His beak was sharp. His neck was extremely flexible. Not my kind of nature pal.
So there I was, by the side of the road, trying to figure out how I could grab him. He was approximately 30 pounds of pissed-off turtle. He seemed pretty agile to me. He could move. Okay, maybe he’d lose a footrace to a rabbit, but he could trundle along at a nice pace. And he had that snaky neck and was determined to bite me.
Meanwhile, an entire construction crew — big brawny guys who were supposed to be repairing the bridge — were watching. They didn’t seem eager to help. In fact, they were the ones who called in the first place.
I eventually herded him across the road. I looked at those jaws, looked at my leather gloves, did a quick mental calculation about the strength of the gloves versus the power of the turtle’s jaws. I decided the gloves weren’t nearly strong enough.
Have you ever tried herding a turtle? Of course not. You can’t herd a turtle, but I did. I don’t know exactly how I got him across the road. I know there was a big shovel involved, but otherwise, it’s a blur. The next thing I remember doing after getting the turtle over to the river side of the road was calling the clerk and resigning.
The turtle was enough for me. I figured if I didn’t get out quick, they’d have me hunting rabid coyotes with a large gun and I’d shoot my foot off.
They tried to bill me for the rabies shot. We settled for not paying me. I think I got the better part of the deal.
If you could interview anyone from your life living or dead, but not a celebrity, who would it be and why?
My Aunt Kate. She was the one who had lived in the old country and had memories of the trip from Poland to New York. By the time I realized I needed to ask her questions, she was in her 80s and had forgotten a lot of the things I wanted to know. I’m so sorry I waited so long.
As a child, did you have a nickname? Did you carry that with you throughout life or was it only in childhood that you used it?
I’ve never had a nickname. I always wanted one, but it never happened.
Give us three words that describe you:
Aging, a bit broken but alive, and still engaged with life.
Sneaking into a second movie at the theater (if you go to a movie house)? Is that wrong or just harmless ‘fun’?
When I was a kid, if the movie wasn’t crowded, you could stay for as many showings as you could sit for. Most of the movies in those golden olden days were two movies and one or two cartoons. That was usually more than enough for me, but there were others who could spend a whole day and just watch over and over.
I got tired of sitting for that long. Back then, you got a lot of “freebies.” If you rode the Cyclone and wanted to ride again as long as there was no line you could keep riding. It wasn’t theft. There was a generosity of spirit that we seem to have lost over the years.
If you had a time machine would you go back to the past or forward into the future? Why?
I’d like to take a quick look at medieval Europe, but I don’t think I’d want to stay very long. I like hot showers and flush toilets … and not getting the plague.
What were you thankful for during April?
Birds and squirrels. It has been such a gray and wet month, the bright birds and crazy squirrels kept me interested and alive.
This is our squirrel. He shows up in the middle of the day and hangs around, in the most literal sense, for hours. He wraps himself around the feeder like a fur coat, hanging by one paw or two, upside down, or completely twisted into a configuration that’s hard to figure out.
He definitely does not have back problems and I’m pretty sure he thinks he lives on our deck.
I was just glancing through another post on The New Yorker asking whether Joe Biden is electable.
I have read similar stories in the Washington Post and other newspaper, online and offline about every potential candidate. It’s almost as if we don’t want to find a viable candidate because there’s something wrong with everyone.
I have a hot flash for you:
NO ONE IS PERFECT.
There is no perfect candidate waiting to run for office. There may be perfect people — somewhere (though I’ve never met one) — but none of them are interested in politics. Personally, I doubt there is a perfect person anywhere and if there is, I’m sure he or she would run screaming in terror should someone suggest they run for office.
We have turned running for office into the worst job interview on Earth. We are dredging up everything and anything that anyone ever did, no matter how many years ago it happened. We are dredging this stuff up without any context, either. Without any attempt to understand what else was going on.
Let’s take Joe Biden. He was not perfect. He has been in office for 50 years and has done stuff about which I’m sure he is ashamed and embarrassed. On top of everything else, he is being picked on for being “too huggy.”
We have a racist pig as president — and you want to disqualify a man who is too friendly in a non-sexual way?
Do you want to re-elect Trump?
Everyone has stuff in their past they would just as soon not make public. Me too. You too. My husband, my friends, my son. I’m sure even my dogs have something about which they would be embarrassed if they could remember that far back, but being dogs, they are more interested in right now and when is dinner?
At a time when we should be looking for reasons why a person might BE electable, we are doing that classic Democratic “let’s pick apart every possible candidate, disqualify all of them, then pick someone who offends nobody and also has nothing of value to offer anyone. Let’s run him or her for office and be shocked … SHOCKED! … that he or she is not elected.
We’ve done it before and we seem to be ready to do it again.
Banning Kate Smith for a recording she made decades ago, probably because her record company told her to do it and in those days if your bosses said “Cut this record,” you cut that record.
Actors made movies they hated and about which they still can’t bear to speak. People said things they didn’t mean, or intended as jokes. Are bad jokes enough to keep you out of office? Meanwhile, no attempt is made to figure out what the context was that created what was done or said. We ask for perfection from candidates we never require of ourselves.
Are we going to hold every single thing that anyone has ever done or said against them?
I know if someone asked me to run for office, I would say “Not on your life.” Garry was actually asked to run — locally — and said “No way.”
No one wants to do it because they know they are going to be shredded. Torn to bits by their own party, the press, bloggers and for all I know, their own family. If we are going to turn all potential candidate into bad people for something that happened a long time ago, we aren’t going to have anyone worth electing. There needs to be a limit to anyone’s liability for things that weren’t even crimes.
Okay, if he turns out to have been a murderer or bank robber or treasonous … but that’s not what’s happening. We not looking to see if someone actually did something felonious. We’re just looking for anything, everything, even nothing.
Indiscretion is not a crime. Even bad jokes — 30-year-old bad jokes — are not a crime. If you look at some of our great presidents, they were far from perfect men. Both Roosevelts had plenty of lumps and bumps and a few shameful incidents to boot. It didn’t mean they weren’t great presidents.
Maybe some personal indiscretions should be left in the dusty closets where they have been lying all these years. Some of these folks have good ideas. Vision. They might be great if you give them half a chance.
If we are going to demand perfection, we will get the kids no one liked in school. Our candidates will all be losers. Not Trump’s version. I mean real losers.
If we cannot tolerate anything living people do in the course of life before we allow them to be a candidate for office, the only people who will run for office will be people no one wants.
The priggish. The voiceless. Those who have no opinions, no vision. The intellectual who doesn’t know how to talk to “real” people. The stupid and the unthinking.
We are approaching that stage now.
How else do you think we got Trump? And the rest of his party of bottom-feeders?
I recently had a unique, rich and rewarding experience. I wrote and helped put together a multimedia theatrical production about a horrific pogrom in 1919 that wiped out over half of the 1200 inhabitants of a Ukrainian town called Felshtin. We performed it on April 14, 2019, in New York City to a very appreciative audience. Let me describe the long road that led to that wonderful afternoon.
I’ve been working for over a year on this project for my audio theater group, Voicescapes Audio Theater. Usually, Tom and I write a short script, either comedy or drama, and then we edit it, cast it and rehearse it. Recorded sound effects and music are added and in a few months, we have a new piece in our repertoire.
This time we were commissioned to write an hour-long dramatic presentation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1919 pogrom. A pogrom is an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, usually Jews in eastern Europe and Russia. However, the word massacre is too polite and sanitary to convey the havoc, destruction, brutality, and butchery visited on the towns subjected to pogroms.
The group that hired us, The Felshtin Society, is an American organization made up of descendants of people who lived in Felshtin throughout its history (it disappeared after World War II). Many of these descendants are related to survivors of the 1919 pogrom so this piece would have personal meaning for them.
In 1937, the society got many of the survivors to write personal accounts of their and their family’s experiences in the pogrom. These stories were turned into a book in Yiddish, Russian and other local dialects. This was translated into English painstakingly, over nineteen years.
My script was based on the survivor’s words in this book.
There were the stories of people who hid in attics and basements, pigsties. and haystacks to avoid the clutches of the Russian marauders. Many Felshtiners escaped into the neighboring fields where they huddled together for days, freezing and starving, without shoes or coats. Many were lucky and could bribe the Russian soldiers to let them live. But many more witnessed family members and friends being tortured and sadistically butchered.
Even the survivors were shells of their former selves when this nightmare was over.
In the book, the survivors wrote about the thriving town that existed before 1919, including a synagogue with a treasury of rare books and a rabbi who attracted scholars from all over the region. The survivors then talked about the husk of a town that limped back into a meager existence after the pogrom.
There were organized efforts, locally and in the United States, to raise money, food. and clothing for the bereft, impoverished and frequently homeless inhabitants. Money also went to establishing an orphanage for the more than 50 orphans in the town.
The Felshtin Relief Committee was the American organization founded to help the town recover. It was a subcommittee of the Felshtin Society. This committee managed to help numerous survivors emigrate to other countries, especially to America, where relatives welcomed them. This was fortunate because the people left in Felshtin in 1941 were wiped out by the Nazis.
I spent several months reading through these searing and heart-rending accounts. This was difficult and depressing for me. I had to then turn these random stories into a short, theatrical script.
I picked out the most well-written and poignant accounts. I put these segments into an order which would make them roughly chronological.
I divided the script into sections like “Before the Pogrom,” “Accounts of the Pogrom,” and “Aftermath of the Pogrom.” This last section included burying hundreds of bodies, treatment of the wounded, feeding the starving population. and rehabilitating the town and people.
The Pogrom section was further divided into the different types of experiences people had. One group was about those who hid in the fields or town, those who went to local gentiles for help, those who successfully bribed their tormentors, and those who lived through grenades or fires set throughout the town.
To tie everything together, I added narration to the words of the survivors.
My original script was two hours long, but we were limited to one hour. I had to cut the script in half. This was painful. I had grown attached to the people and the stories I’d chosen.
It was heartbreaking to edit them down and in some cases, to cut them entirely. I went through seven edits to finally get a tight, dramatic script. It was important to do these stories justice, to give them the emotional gravitas they deserved.
Tom said when he first read it that it took him days to shake the sense of horror and tragedy.
Once we had a script, we hired a musician to compose music to accompany parts of the script, a Jewish man who was well versed in the Klezmer music of Ukraine. We hired a young, local violinist to play the music live on stage.
We usually record music for our pieces, but we felt a living musician would add a level of intimacy and intensity to the piece. We also recorded sound effects to use when needed.
We collected photos from before and after the Felshtin pogrom. We found photos of memorials to the pogrom and created a power point presentation to be projected on a large screen behind the actors on stage.
The melding of actors, sound effects, violinist and photos created a powerful piece of theater.
It took a lot of time and effort to coördinate these elements into a cohesive whole. We rehearsed each element separately, then together. I was worried that with so many moving parts, we wouldn’t have enough time to seamlessly pull everything together.
I was wrong.
Rehearsal at the venue
Violinist rehearsing at the venue
working to pull things together at the venue
I was onstage for the performance, turning the pages of the script for the violinist so he could see when to play and pause. I’m usually in the audience for our performances so this was a new experience for me.
On the other hand, Tom is usually onstage acting for an ordinary Voicescapes show, but this time he was in the audience with the director. He ran the power point presentation as well as being in charge of the many technical aspects of the show. Tom and I switched places and it worked.
It was amazing to feel the positive energy on stage from the actors and the audience. You can actually feel the rapt attention and involvement of the audience.
From the audience perspective, Tom said this was a fantastic experience.
When we took our bows, I saw people getting up from their seats and assumed they were getting ready to leave. But, no!
They were giving us a standing ovation!
A hundred people were standing up and applauding for our show! It was exhilarating. Tom says the smile that spread across my face was priceless.
After the show, there was a wine and cheese reception which gave us the chance to mingle with the members of the audience. People came up to us and raved about our beautiful production and complimented us on how magnificently it was all put together.
We were told we had to perform this piece in other venues and that it should be seen by a wider audience.
Most moving, descendants of people we quoted told us how meaningful and emotional it was for them to hear their ancestor’s words in this context. This added another level to our experience of the afternoon.
The next day, we got an email from one of the pogrom descendants who was in the audience. What she wrote made us all so proud and happy. She said that in the pogrom, her family had to watch as her great-grandfather was slaughtered. She thanked us for the care, kindness, and talent with which we distilled and recreated what her ancestors had suffered. She said that we captured the hearts of the audience and that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. She went on to say that bringing the victims’ voices to life was a priceless gift and she thanked us for this gift.
The 25-year-old violinist said that he was honored to be part of our production. This job was special to him because it hit him in a really deep place. The technician from the Center for Jewish History, where we performed, said he was deeply moved by our show and was thrilled to be even a small part of our production.
All heady stuff! I went home floating on a cloud of praise and gratification. But mixed in with this elation was a sense of sadness and loss.
Felshtin had been part of my life for over a year and I would miss it. The last few months were filled with feverish work, including rehearsals, meetings, and endless phone calls. The camaraderie was invaluable and I will miss being part of such a significant enterprise. Everyday life will seem a bit more ordinary.
It will be a long time before I have something like this in my life again. But for now, thanks for the memories!
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