History on Display: That’s Ruff

Sometimes you stumble across something small at a museum that overshadows the museum's larger purpose in your mind.

For instance, the only thing I remember about the historical museum in Galena, Illinois, is a half-smoked cigar that a child picked up after General Grant discarded it.  The boy evidently treasured it for years, handing it down for several generations until someone donated it to the museum.  Thirty years later, I can still work up a head of steam about the museum's decision to exhibit that cigar.  What were they thinking?

I was just as distracted, though in a good way, by a single artifact in the Rubens' House in Antwerp.  When the last detail of the house has vanished from my head, I'll still remember the portefraes.*

I love 16th century portraits.  Flemish families. Jolly Dutch burghers.  Tough Tudor courtiers, and their softer Stewart relatives (technically 17th century).  I love the way those portraits give you a glimpse at the personalities of their subjects.  And I love the clothes, including the ruffs.  Over the course of the century, those ruffs get bigger and bigger.  By the end of the century, really fashionable people had to eat their soup with a 2-foot long spoon.  (Honest, I couldn't make this stuff up.) * *

I've always assumed those ruffs were held up with starch.   Wrong.

The largest ruffs, known as cartwheel ruffs, were supported by a metal frame that went around the wearer's neck like, well,  a cartwheel around an axle.  The frames were covered with silver wire to make them more attractive, but not all the silver wire in the world could have made them comfortable.

Gives a whole new meaning to stiff-necked, doesn’t it?


* Also known as supportasses  and  underproppers.  The things you learn during a Google search.

** I don't know about you, but give me a 2-foot long spoon and a bowl of soup and I can guarantee you I'll have soup down my front.


Charlemagne: The Education Emperor

My Own True Love and I were standing outside the cathedral at Aachen when the memory stirred in both our brains.  Aachen=Charlemagne.*

It was the end of the day.  Thanks to my usual case of vacation/holiday bronchitis, I had no voice.  One of our Turkish/Belgian hosts was observing Ramadan and was tired from his fast.  We had not done our homework and had no idea what Charlemagne-related stuff the city might hold.  We kicked ourselves, wrote down the website posted on a nearby wall, bought some of Aachen's famous gingerbread, and walked away. **


Whether you call him Charles the Great, Carolus Magnus,  Karl der Grosse, or Charlemagne , there are plenty of reason to be impressed with the man:

  • He conquered much of the former western Roman empire.
  • He was the founder of what later became the Holy Roman Empire--and the idea of a distinctly European identity.  His contemporaries called him the Father of Europe.
  • He was an important player in the spread of Christianity into Northern Europe, though his methods did not include turning the other cheek.  In 785 he ordered the death penalty for any newly conquered Saxon who refused to be baptized  (This is roughly the same period when Christendom began to accuse Islam of conversion by the sword.  Just saying.)

Me?  I'm fascinated by Charlemagne the Education Emperor.

Charlemagne was illiterate for much of his life. He hired learned men to read out loud to him at dinner, dispensing with the usual medieval floorshow of jester, bard, and musicians.  He studied three of the classic seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and mathematics.  He learned to speak Latin and some Greek in addition to his native Frankish.  By all accounts, Charlemagne's efforts to learn to write were less successful.  (According to his secretary and biographer, he practiced writing while in bed and hid his wax tablets under his pillows.)

Though he never quite got the hang of reading and writing himself, Charlemagne was an enthusiastic promoter of literacy in others. Under his patronage, the court at Aachen took the first steps out of the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages, a little flutter of learning known as the Carolingian Renaissance.  He gathered a group of the Anglo-Saxon and Irish clergy who had kept the flame of literacy alive in Europe after the fall of Rome.  He reformed the palace school at Aachen and founded monastery schools throughout the empire with the intention of creating a literate clergy.  He sponsored the creation of a new uniform script for copying texts, the development of textbooks for teaching Latin to non-Latin speakers, and thee collection of Latin manuscripts.


*  ca. 742 - 814, in case you’re interested.

** A quick Internet search revealed that Aachen is developing a "Charlemagne route" of museums and sites in anticipation of the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne's death in 2014.   We've put Aachen on our schedule for 2014.  See you there?



Road Trip Through History: Driving the Ypres Salient

Normally I'd hesitate to describe something as a road trip that begins with a transatlantic flight.  The driving tour of the Ypres Salient* is an exception.

The Belgian town of Ieper (Ypres in French, "Wipers" in British Tommy) was the center of a series of bloody battles in World War I.  The kind of battles where 500,000 men die to gain eight kilometers of ground and a lush green landscape is reduced to black mud.  By the end of the war, Ieper and the surrounding towns were no more than rubble.  (Winston Churchill suggested that Ieper should be left in ruins as a war memorial.  A local minister responded, "Belgium does not need to keep its ruins to remember its misfortunes."  I wonder if Winnie remembered the exchange after German bombers destroyed large portions of London in WWII?)

Today thousands of visitors, most of them from the UK and the Commonwealth, drive through along a well-organized tour of Ypres Salient.  For many it is an act of pilgrimage.

My Own True Love and I set off in the morning, planning to drive the north loop of the tour in one day and the south loop the next.  We had a self-guided tour brochure, a battlefield map, two Belgian road maps, and a great deal of enthusiasm.  We immediately overshot the first stop on the tour by 30 kilometers, thanks to a badly written tour brochure (honest!) and our own confusion about the scale of things in Belgium.  (It's a really small country.)

Driving the Ypres Salient is very different from touring a Civil War battlefield in the United States.   Instead of battlefields you see cemeteries, memorials, cemeteries, the occasional reconstructed trench, and more cemeteries.  The British Commonwealth War Graves Commission does an amazing job.  More than 160 small cemeteries are beautifully maintained.  The largest of them include interpretive displays that use modern museum technologies to bring the war, the destruction, and the young men who were lost to life.

Highlights (if you can describe war memorials with such a jolly word) include:

  •  The Essex Farm Cemetery, located at the site of the medical dressing station where Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote the poem "In Flanders Field", which inspired the use of the poppy as the symbol for remembering those lost in foreign wars.
  • TheTyne Cot cemetery, where a solemn female voice intoned the names of the dead as their pictures were displayed, life-sized, on a wall
  • The Deutcher Soldatenfriedhof at Langemark, where 45,000 German soldiers are buried in a mass grave and we saw poppies growing wild against the memorial wall.  (I was close to tears for much of the day.  Those dang poppies did me in.)
  • The Yorkshire Dugout Site, an archaeological site that made the misery of trench warfare more vivid than any trench reconstruction or war memoir ever could.  The water was up to the edge of the dugout.  Even with constant pumping, the trenches and dugouts were wet all the time.  We knew this in our heads before;  now we know if for real.

By day's end, we were heart-sore, overwhelmed, and very glad we'd made the trip.  We abandoned the southern loop of the driving tour.

If you make it to Ieper, be sure to visit

  • In Flanders Field Museum.  Probably the best World War I museum I've ever visited. (And given our interests My Own True Love and I have been to a few.)
  • The Last Post:  Every night the volunteer fire brigade of Ieper plays the traditional bugle salute to the fallen soldier at the Menin Gate.  The gate itself is an imposing memorial to soldiers whose gravesites are unknown.  The nightly ceremony is moving.  Bring a hanky.


*  In military terms, a "salient" is a battlefield feature that  is surrounded by the enemy on three sides, making the troops occupying the salient vulnerable.