This year I finally did something I have wanted to do for years: I attended the Harvest Dinner at Plimoth Plantation. For those not from this area, Plimoth Plantation is a living history village set in the year 1627. The interpreters each take on the role of one of the people that lived in the village in 1627 and do not break that role.
Plimoth Plantation offers Thanksgiving dinner as well as a harvest dinner. Since the harvest dinner is closest to what the Pilgrims would have eaten, and I wanted an authentic experience to bring me closer to my ancestors who lived during that time period, I chose the harvest dinner.
It was a bitterly cold day and I braved the village just to get myself in the mood and to have some sympathy for my ancestors who didn’t have the warm clothes that I have. The buildings were drafty.
The dinner was wonderful. Lots of meat and fish. My favorites were a rice pudding and a cabbage dish. I don’t usually like seafood, but the mussels were delicious. We even had some of the interpreters providing entertainment and conversing with us. The full menu can be found here. Recipes can be found in the Pilgrim Seasonings blog written by Kathleen Wall of Plimoth Plantation.
It was a wonderful experience and I am glad I was able to “walk” in the shoes of my ancestors. What experiences have you taken advantage of that allowed you to walk in the shoes of your ancestors?
I recently listened to a fascinating podcast. Marian Pierre Louis interviewed Michael Bell about his book “Food for the Dead” which focused on a specific treatment for tuberculosis treatments in the 1800s. At the time, there were not any effective treatments and it was terrifying to watch loved ones suffer and literally waste away as the disease ravaged their body.
Michael explains it better than I can so you should definitely listen to the podcast. What I took away though was that people believed that evil spirits could inhabit the bodies of family members or neighbors who had recently died. They believed that some of these spirits could then feast on blood of the living.
If you think of the symptoms of consumption this makes sense. During the final stages of the disease, people would cough up blood. They would also have difficulty breathing–it often felt like there was a big weight on their chest. In the morning the patient would wake up complaining of someone sitting on their chest during the night and there would be blood on the bedclothes.
Once they had identified a likely corpse which the evil spirit inhabited, the corpse was exhumed and the heart was examined for evidence of blood. If blood was found, many believed that was evidence of the evil spirit. The heart, and sometimes the entire body, was burned so that the spirit was destroyed. Sometimes the sick patients would breathe in the smoke or drink the ashes as both were felt to be purified and could help purify the person who was ill.
As we look back, this seems a very strange practice. My favorite part of the podcast was when Michael talked about what he wanted readers to take away. He said, “Let’s not be so judgmental of our ancestors. It’s easy to look back at them from the perch of the 21st century.” The following is a paraphrase of his comments. While we have the benefit of scientific knowledge, we are not any smarter than our ancestors. They were pretty smart too. He encourages us to have empathy and gives the example of cancer in our day. Do we know the cause or a cure for cancer? We have some knowledge, but not enough to prevent it or always successfully treat it. When people have tried all that modern medicine can provide and the prognosis is not good–what do people do? They often look into alternative medicine or other therapies. They don’t want to give up on their loved one and want to try everything possible to save his or her life.
I love how he explained this because I think it is so easy to cast judgments on our ancestors. But judging our ancestors does absolutely nothing to help us better understand them. Rather, trying to understand what they did and why they did it leads us to a greater understanding as well as greater sympathy.
You may know that I have been working on a transcription of a handwritten collection of medical recipes from the 1600s that will be the source document for my thesis. I finally finished the 2nd pass through of transcription this week after working on it for at least 18 months. Accomplishing this milestone made me think back to why I was interested in this in the first place.
Several years ago I took a class in world history. After searching around for a topic for the term paper, I finally decided to write about medical advice and recipes for treatment of gynecological and childbirth issues in medieval England. I was surprised to find that suggested treatments for the gynecological issues were often right-on according to modern technology, at least if you think like a women in medieval England. It was believed that menstrual blood could be toxic if it built up in the body. Therefore, having a regular period was of high priority. Poor diet, however, often caused irregular periods and pregnancy could not be known until movement of the fetus was first felt several months after conception. Many of the herbs they used are known abortifacients (causing abortion) and others are known to restart a stalled period. While no doubt some women purposely caused abortions, others took these herbs without knowing they were pregnant. In any case, whether a woman was pregnant or not, by taking these herbs she achieved the desired result of restarting the period. (The treatments for childbirth issues on the other hand seemed very strange and superstitious to me).
Before this, I thought that medieval medicine was based on ignorant and unhelpful theories. Thankfully I have come a long way in adjusting my attitude to culture and beliefs in earlier time periods. In any case, this jump started my interest in social history, of which medicine is still an important part.
What caught your fancy and got you started in researching social history?
I was talking with a friend this weekend about some of the genealogy-related talks that I give, and what constitutes social history. I tried to explain a little bit to her that one lens through which to view social history is to take common documents that we use for names, dates, places and relationships and try to wring out additional information from those documents that can give us insight into the life of the ancestor. She replied, “I found in an obituary that my ancestor was a doctor and I used the census to confirm that he was a dentist. Is that what you mean?”
I replied that it was definitely a start, but social history would go further than that. It would involve learning about what it was like to be a dentist in the time period, how people viewed the dentist, what tools he used, etc. For example (keep in mind that I know nothing about the history of dentistry in the US, so the following example may be flawed in some ways), did he live in a time when people mostly came to the dentist if they needed a tooth pulled or if they had tooth pain? He might be viewed differently by the community (and dreaded even more) than a visit to the dentist today.
One of my favorite uses of documents to learn more about the social history is covered in three posts in my levisavage blog, starting with this one. Government documents and a president’s personal papers, along with correspondence from church representatives, lay out the formation of the Mormon Battalion in 1846. The government documents present a different side to the story, one that I had never heard. Reading through them helped me understand better the feelings and attitudes of people on both sides, and why the government came to ask the Mormons to join the military a few months after they had been forced out of their homes.
What are some favorite pieces of social history you have pulled out of some records–either those commonly used for genealogy and those that are not used as often as they should be?
With the start of the new school year comes many opportunities to explore social history through the offerings of local history and genealogy societies, living history villages, and repositories.
A great way to meet new people and be exposed to all aspects of genealogy and history, including records you can use in your social history research, is to join a local history or genealogy society. Here is a list of historical societies and genealogy societies in Massachusetts.
The Mass Moments website publishes an article each day on something significant in Massachusetts history that occurred on that day.
The Boston Public Library’s fall local and family history series is on Colonial Research. Two talks per month are scheduled on Wednesday evenings.
The American Antiquarian Society is sponsoring a one-woman show portraying boarding house life in Lowell in 1843. Check out this site for other upcoming events.
The Massachusetts Historical Society sponsors brown bag lunches, speaking events and seminars throughout the year. Most are free and open to the public. They also offer 5 seminars that are free and open to the public over the 2013-14 semesters. If you pay $25 you have access to the reading in advance. More information can be found here. The 5 seminars are: Early American History, Environmental History, Immigration and Urban History, and History of Women and Gender. All are focused on the Boston area.
There are several living history villages in the area that have fall programming. I have always wanted to go to the Harvest Dinner with the Pilgrims at Plimoth. Maybe this will be the year that I will make it down there.
Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, NH
Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA
Historic Deerfield in Deerfield, MA
Plimoth Plantation just outside of Plymouth, MA
Olde Mistic Village in Mystic, CT
My earliest memory is sitting on the basement stairs and laughing at my dad as he is trying to catch frogs in a bucket. They keep jumping out and I think it is so funny. It’s kind of a vague memory and that is all I remember. My own memories make for an amusing story, but leave more questions unanswered than are answered. The biggest unanswered question is why the frogs were in our basement. I don’t know the answer to that from my memory.
After discussing with my mom and dad I have a much fuller picture. When I first brought it up to my dad he remembered the event but said there were no frogs, only tadpoles. I remember frogs so was fairly insistent that jumping frogs were involved. Luckily my dad is a good journal keeper so he went back to his journals. There were frogs, although he didn’t write anything about them jumping. This journal entry is from August 4, 1975. “Also caught a whole bunch of frogs in the basement. The packers will be here tomorrow and the movers on Wednesday. Then it’s home Utah here we come.” Here is the fuller story revealed through another peek into my dad’s journal earlier in the summer and the collective memory of my parents and me.
My dad joined the Air Force as a medical tech, in part to avoid being drafted. He served at a military base in Montana and my parents bought a house there. We lived close to the Missouri River and because the water table was so high we had a sump pump to keep the basement from flooding. In August of 1975 my father was released from service and headed back to BYU to work on a master’s degree. As part of trying to clean up the house and sell it he mentions painting and working on the trim, and getting the frogs out of the basement.
Why were the frogs in the basement? In June he wrote about some severe flooding in the area. It was severe enough that several homes were almost completely underwater. After describing the flooding he writes that “the frogs by the thousands can be heard all night long.” Our home was fine and we were not affected by the floods, but the explosion in the frog population affected us. On the day my dad wrote in his journal, baby frogs started coming out of the sump pump into our basement. There were at least 20. My dad caught the frogs in a bucket or paper sack, and I had my own little plastic bucket on the stairs.
By having the date that this occurred from my dad’s journals, I can tell how old I was (I turned three a few months later). My mom said that she let me save a couple of frogs, but they died pretty quickly and we had to throw them out.
I share this story to show how you can flesh out your own memories by talking with other people who participated who might remember things slightly differently. By putting together all the accounts you can come up with a more full story of what was really going on. You can still separate your memories from those of other participants, especially if they have very different memories of the same event, while keeping the context of the larger picture.
What are your favorite memories, or first memories? How has talking with others about those memories helped expand them or give you a sense of the bigger picture?