Please enjoy this video class summarizing the written content below.
RESEARCHING AND RECREATING A SPOKEN WORD MOMENT
IN AN EXTANT SETTING WITH EXTANT WORDS
"In the Chapter House"
About two years ago I was trying to think of a way to have my storytelling merge with my love of research. Of course, I could always study the history of a piece and its author but I wanted to add another level of work. It occurred to me while going on yet another “Virtual Trip” that it would be amazing to be able to know what my storytelling would have sounded and looked like in the time it was written or after.
Imagine hearing a Venetian read Machievelli aloud. What does the room look like? What would they be wearing? Where in a building are you and what do you feel, smell and notice?
There are living historians, performers and others who specialize in these recreated moments and pondered how I could create “enchanted ground”, “time travel”, “living history” of a sort. For me, I decided I would try to capture an everyday spoken word moment. I would study not only the text I would read, but the location, season, clothing worn and other details relating to one moment. In this way I could blend two aspects of my hobby together.
This seemed like a multipart project but I had no idea that each aspect of this short moment in time would be a project in of itself. What I discovered was that this project would be more like finding a set of nesting dolls. Every time I opened one level, a new one was presented. Finally, after much work, I reached the point where I could film my final product. Hours and hours and hours of research, blogging, proof of concept work and more to produce a few short minutes of video.
Initially,I wanted to read a poem by Queen Marguerite of Navarre written in the year 1500 entitled , “Recipe for a Happy Life”. I pictured myself in a medieval gown standing by a stone wall or building. This was in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and so finding a location to do this was my first hurdle.
Luckily, I live in an area that has many medieval style monuments, buildings, churches and miles and miles of stone walls. Some locations that readily came to mind were Poet’s Seat Tower in Greenfield, Massachusetts, Bancroft Tower in Worcester, Massachusetts and The Chapter House, in the Worcester Art Museum, also in Worcester. While the first two locations looked medieval and had copied elements of European medieval architecture they were built in the beginning of the twentieth century. The Chapter House is actually a room moved from a French Benedictine monastery in the 1920’s and reassembled as an amazing art exhibit within the museum. I had visited that room for over twenty years, first as a child, then a teen with free access to the museum one day a month, later as a college student, then mother, teacher and now researcher. It had always been a favorite exhibit. Sadly, it was hard to access due to the pandemic at the start of my work. So another location would be chosen for the 2021 proof of concept version of the project.
Proof of Concept (The first recorded work)
Before I started working I reexamined what it was I was doing. It became apparent to me that wearing a 16th century Venetian gown, while at a 20th century American creation of something “English medieval like” and reading a 14th French poem made no sense. At first glance it all “looks old” and could be read well. It would make a charming piece to view. However, despite the research used it would not be an accurate moment.
Creating a gown to match the poem was not an interest or option and the locations I had found were too modern or not available. What to do? How would I find a moment and piece to read? The answer was actually given to me by one of my sons.
Because schools were closed due to COVID my four boys had a lot of time at home. On one very long afternoon my son who was thirteen at the time came across a cookbook I owned that had actual medieval recipes written in middle and old english. He asked to make one of them. As we puzzled through the language together it hit me. This was a common and very real moment that would and could have occurred in England long ago.
I would read an extant recipe aloud. My kitchen was certainly not appropriate but I had recalled reading that in summer cooking had been done outdoors in many times and places. I looked at my backyard and wondered if it could be my spot?
One of the key elements was making sure that the plants in the background could be found in medieval England. After some botanical research I discovered the juniper was. So now I had my extant words and my plausible location with flora that existed at the same time as the recipe. To find my final and third piece, what to wear, I turned to looking at various Books of Hours to find images of daily life. It was from there I discovered I already had a linen gown and cap that would work.
The clip was filmed in my backyard using a wooden table as the foreground. My props included a hand carved wooden bowl and spoon I had purchased, ingredients for the recipe and a book with the recipe itself. I read and spoke about the recipe as though I were a woman about her daily tasks. It was shared online at a virtual arts challenge and I received positive feedback as well as some suggestions regarding body posture and other small details.
A Return to the Chapter House
As vaccines were discovered and the world moved through COVID, museums and other locations opened again with safety plans in place. One of my first places to go was the Worcester Art Museum. It was spacious and I felt if I timed it well I would see few other people. Masked, we went as a family to see a familiar place.
While in the Chapter House I recalled my project. I wondered aloud if I could recite something in such a beautiful, historical place. I realized that if I wanted to feel comfortable speaking louder than in a whisper, I would need to talk to the museum first.
I am not and have never been affiliated or representative of any museum or museum-like setting. I have been a patron my whole life of various museums. It seems to me that you should NEVER just show up at a museum and assume you can film, take pictures, sing or read out loud. Museums are amazing places where anyone is able to marvel at what humanity can and has created. They are a place to learn, ponder and preserve. They have the burden of preserving that which time naturally seeks to break down while still making it accessible when possible. In short, you are a guest and as such should ask permission to do even what seems like not much. Museums have guest services specifically for this and so I did the only logical next thing; I emailed them.
I explained in detail what I wanted to do, my project and what I wanted to wear. With specific conditions I was granted approval. This was an amazing moment. However, once permission was granted a bigger question loomed…what did I really know about this room?
For my next step in the journey, I contacted the library at the Worcester Art Museum and inquired if the curatorial file for the Chapter House had any more information about it than was posted in the exhibit. I was delighted to hear back and find that they did.
I read that the Chapter House was actually part of a larger Benedictine priory in La Bas-Nueil that was established in the 11th century. It was well known for its wine which for centuries was shipped to nobles all over Europe. It was desecrated during the French Revolution and the ruins still stand to this day. That is, they stand without the Chapter House. It was taken to Worcester in 1927 despite the pleas of the local people.
While this was fascinating I wanted to know more about the ruins now. Where exactly were they? What was a Chapter House and how had it fit in as part of a larger piece of history?
Using the information provided by WAM, I was able to locate La Bas Nueil in the province of Berrie, France. Via Google Earth I could take a 360 degree tour and walk the streets bordering the ruins. I found a house built into them and a Bed and Breakfast in what was the stable. I reached out to the B&B owners to see if they knew more about the property and they have since put me in touch with the caretaker of the ruins.
In the process of virtually exploring the rest of the Priory, I was also able to see a small sign and confirm where the Chapter House had once stood. This combined with other research told me that it had opened to a garden and the priory had bordered large fields and vineyards.
It was at this point I returned to the Chapter House, stood inside and thought about looking out at the landscape I was now familiar with. I had a better sense of place. Now, I wanted to understand what could have been said in this room.
What to say
Initially, when I stood in the Chapter House I was overcome with ideas for spoken bardic pieces. The acoustics were amazing and it was an extant location. Chaucer had seemed a good fit but then I quickly felt it wrong once I began to understand what the Chapter House was.
Should I use a Psalm or other such piece? No, that was not the right choice either. I did not wish to offend others or be religious.
Wait! The Chapter House was a room for business! Perhaps the business done here had been recorded and could be read. With that thought I was off in search of the words that had once been spoken in the Chapter House.
My first inclination was to look for records and I reached out to a friend who is French and has worked as a librarian both there and in the United States. She was able to help me find new resources and that some of the records are still in existence from 1518 to the 1700’s. However, they are in France and can be seen but not scanned.
Knowing that the records were kept I searched for other records of surrounding priories. I was able to find a record of one 150 miles to the south. It had been translated in the late 1800’s and a reprint was available in French and Latin. Up until this point I had been using my own knowledge of French, the translations of my friend, and google translate but this was going to require Latin. Which, while translatable for me, takes more time than French.
Even though I had the records of another nearby Abbey, they were not the words of the Chapter house and so I searched more. I started with learning about the Benedictine Order. It was then I realized that sections of the Rule of Saint Benedict dealt with such things as kitchen duty, dormitories and daily life.
Reading a passage describing how one should dress or eat or work was both absolutely accurate and not expressly religious. An even more exciting realization was that each day of the year had a specific reading. It was possible for me to in fact read the passage that had been spoken on a specific day in that room. Having the words to say and knowing more about the location I again had one final project within a project to complete and that was figuring out what to wear while not dressing in any way like a monk!
The venerable tee tunic
What should I wear to record the words? The robes of a Benedictine are very specific to their order and it would not be appropriate to even consider donning them for any reason. That was not an option. I did research on what they would have worn and undyed wool or linen seemed likely. Additionally, there were accounts of local people receiving worn out clothing from the monks. Further accounts and details were actually listed in the Rule of Saint Benedict as a chapter in and of itself.
A short tunic made of this fabric would be a good compromise. I could show my body from the waist up and wear a modern pair of leggings or jeans to avoid any confusion to a passerby. The final filmed product would then have me in a period garment (a top) while still respecting the others around me.
I purchased two yards of five ounce natural dyed brown linen that was sourced from Europe (specific country not known) and a skein of hand spun linen thread.
I crafted a simple tunic using a sewing machine for the unseen seams. The neck I hand sewed using handmade thread. I would have liked to have done this with a period needle to add to my experience. However, as this is not a sewing focused project but a part of another project, I allowed myself some leeway.
Once the tunic was finished I wanted to wash the linen again using an organic soap that used herbs from France. No one can smell a video but I would know this tiny detail.
Filming and the conclusion
After reconfirming my permission, the final filmed moment occurred on July 8,2022. The reading from the Rule of Saint Benedict for that day was not in the tone of my project so I chose the reading for July 10, Chapter 32. It was at that time I realized that in 1752 the calendar had changed from the Julian version to the Gregorian one. This would make my reading actually due to be read on the Julian Calendar’s July 4th.
Chapter 32 in the Rule of St. Benedict can be summed up as “ take care of things, put them away nicely and where they belong.” You can appreciate this concept even further if you have ever had a tool bench, or perhaps if you have tried to keep a home cleaned while offspring of all ages are home. Levity aside the text reads:
“1 The goods of the monastery, that is, its tools, clothing or anything else, should be entrusted to brothers whom the abbot appoints and in whose manner of life he has confidence.
2 He will, as he sees fit, issue to them the various articles to be cared for and collected after use.
3 The abbot will maintain a list of these, so that when the brothers succeed one another in their assigned tasks, he may be aware of what he hands out and what he receives back.
4 Whoever fails to keep the things belonging to the monastery clean or treats them carelessly should be reproved,
5 If he does not amend, let him be subjected to the discipline of the rule.”
When considering the time of year this would be read, the passage makes sense. Farm labor, daily labor and other activities would certainly have been ongoing for some time by this point in the summer.
Keeping this in mind, I dressed with my tunic as a top and went to the Chapter House. The recording was allowed as long as it was done on my iPhone with no sound or other equipment. I would find a well lit spot, say a few words in latin and quietly leave.
Such a brief, simple moment would be the finale of years of smaller projects, research, inquiries and interest. A lot goes into one moment.
For sources used in this project please either see my blog posts below or access them under the tab labeled “The Library”
I would like to thank the kind people at the Worcester Art Museum, my husband and friends and all of those who have supported me throughout this endeavor.