June 2011 Archives

The Holy Island

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Trevor Ludden, Vadnais Heights,MN, '12

On the second weekend of our most fantastic stay in England, I found myself on the rocky shore of Lindisfarne: a sandy, windy, and lonely spit of land off the coast of England. As I stood watching the sunset dance over the waves of the North Sea, wind almost blowing me off my feet, I swiftly lost myself in thought. We had arrived on the island the day before, the coach bus striving to beat the tide that would inevitably swallow the narrow causeway that was the only access to Lindisfarne. Our hotel lay on the outskirts of the quaint, touristy village that sat on the southernmost point of the island. Though we arrived late in the afternoon after a full day of travel, I did what any good student studying abroad would do: I explored. A group of us wandered the streets of the village, looking in shop windows and delighting in what lay around the next corner. Soon, we worked our way past the ruins of the priory, an institution that had been a presence on the island since the 600's. It overlooked the coast, and as I stood in the sea winds, I could begin to understand what drew St. Cuthbert to seek a life of solitude on these islands. We were able to make our way to the rock where he held his first hermitage, marked now with the shadow of a small foundation and a giant cross planted in the coarse soil. There was something about that place, something calming about hearing nothing but the crash of the surf, the call of the birds, and the howl of the ever present winds.
I began to understand the allure of being so completely alone, and after a week of essay writing and almost nonstop classes, the seeming solitude was a welcome change. It truly allowed me to unwind, and see the beauty in a landscape so far from that I have known. The solitude, the momentary peace in a trip so hectic, was fantastic. Though it refreshed me, I do not know if I would be able to be alone for years as was the hermit Cuthbert. Actually being in his place, it allowed me an insight to what his life may have been like. It gave me an understanding of the material much deeper than I would have otherwise had. That is what is truly fantastic about going abroad-- that ability to actually be there and experience what you are learning firsthand. That is what study abroad is for me, and standing there on the island, I was glad that our class was only half over. We have experienced so much, and yet there is just as much to come. And that, was a great feeling.

Clifford's Tower

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John Bliss
Minneapolis, MN '13

Being an upper-middle class white kid from Southwest Minneapolis, I've never really encountered a lot of prejudice in my own neighborhood. Even when I travel abroad, I find that people tend to look on Americans with a certain amount of pity, rather than outright disgust. This doesn't mean that I'm incapable of sympathy towards those who have suffered at the hands of others. Like most, hopefully all, of you reading this, learning of the persecution of a select group of people, any group of people, fills me with a certain loathing for those who carry out these hate-based actions.
While here in York, we scheduled in a visit to Clifford's Tower, a fortification that sits at the top of a large hill just inside the walls of the ancient city. I had passed the structure a few days before we learned of its history and commented to a friend that placing the tower on hill wasn't that great of a defensible decision; were the rest of the area around the tower to be captured, those inside would basically be trapped and left to starve. Of course, this would necessitate an enemy force occupying the whole of the city of York to be true, so it wasn't all bad.
After reading The Prioress' Tale, an installment in Geoffrey Chaucer's massive work The Canterbury Tales, we discussed how many Christians felt threatened by an all-too familiar cultural scapegoat: the Jews. The Jews, long portrayed as corrupt and manipulative due to their connection with the business of money-lending, found themselves in a difficult situation in the latter half of the 12th century. Anti-Jewish riots rocked the country, many headed by those who were ineligible to go on the Crusades and so decided to "help out the cause" at home. The new bishop of York had yet to take his seat of power in the town, and the King had moved back to London. All power in York rested in the hands of the local sheriff, whom many of the local Jews did not trust. In order to protect themselves, the Jews fled to a place of sanctuary: the castle at York, specifically Clifford's Tower.
The sheriff then began to siege the tower, and it was not long before the rioting crowds saw the siege engines as official approval for their actions, and joined the assault. Finally, over 150 Jews decided that they would rather commit suicide than let themselves be overrun by the angry Christians just outside their walls. The few that chose to live agreed to be baptized if they would be allowed to walk away freely. The townspeople agreed, but the moment the doors opened, the mob flooded in and killed all who were left.
And there we were, walking along the ruined outcropping, looking out on what was now green grass and happy families enjoying ice cream next to a strange man in a chicken suit. I barely noticed the breeze as I was too busy looking at the grounds below, imagining floods of angry villagers calling for blood. This time the thought experiment had become reality; an enemy force occupied the whole of York, and those in Clifford's Tower were beset on all sides by a brutal siege. As I trekked back down the winding spiral staircase (which I wryly noted turned the wrong way, another defensive blunder), I couldn't help but wonder if such an event were impossible in our time. I would certainly like to believe so, but the historical evidence keeps piling up, and the story is always the same: group is seen as different, group is persecuted, group dies. Hopefully, with burgeoning support for anti-hate groups all across the globe, we can arrive in a state of happy co-existence. Then we can work on actually accepting one another.

Fountains Abbey

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Sara Butterfass
Howard Lake, MN '12

We are nearing the end of our time here in York and our studies have taken us from the beginnings of recorded history about and within England as control of the country passed through many hands. Now we are near the end of the medieval period at a time when Christianity was firmly in place as a dominant force in York and England as a whole. However with that power and authority came an increase in wealth and with that increase came a corruption of many of the religious leaders and members of the monastic orders. This moral corruption is something Chaucer critiques brilliantly in his Canterbury Tales. It is the wealth these churches possessed that produced the grandiose buildings we have visited, including the York Minster, Durham Cathedral, and today Ripon Cathedral and Fountains Abbey.

Fountains Abbey was the highlight of the day. Founded in 1132 by a group of monks from the Benedictine St. Mary's Abbey in York who were displeased with the increasing laxity of monastic life, Fountains Abbey and the Cistercian monks who populated it became a highly influential place in Medieval England. I have visited the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey in York, the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey in Whitby, and the ruins of St. Mary's in Lindisfarne but the sheer size of the grounds and ruins of Fountains Abbey in Ripon makes all these others seem small. Fountains Abbey was meant to be a return to the simplicity of monastic life that the Benedictine order had started as, but the popularity of its principles turned it into a massive estate with hundreds of residents.

Wandering around the ruins of Fountains Abbey and the outlying lands the abbey possessed, one better understands why Chaucer and others in Medieval England were so critical of the monasteries. With acres upon acres of land at their disposal and wealthy benefactors, life in Fountains Abbey would have been pretty cushy as the laity struggled to survive the constant warring among royalty and the plague. Even so, the peacefulness of an abbey placed on the bank of a river and surrounded by forests demonstrates the appeal of the location. The abbey ruins, not just at Fountains but at all the other abbeys I have seen, are truly incredible. The amount of time spent constructing these massive stone buildings, stone arches, and intricate carvings show the deep significance an abbey or cathedral had. That type of dedication is almost impossible to find on a building today. The opportunity to visit these historic sites with their hulking masterpieces of masonry is one that I am extremely glad I chose to take. Not only does it deepen my knowledge of English history and culture, it gives me a sincere appreciation for the people who came before us, who lacked our modern technologies and managed to create again and again imposing and impressive structures that people still marvel at centuries later.

The End

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Courtney Driessen
Blooming Prairie, MN '12

Tonight marks our last night in this beautiful city. We will begin our journey home bright early with our 6:30 train to the airport.

So what exactly did I take away from this trip? Did I achieve everything I had hoped when I posted my first entry into this blog? With certainty I can say I did that and more.

Things I have learned:
The Middle Ages were more than just the plague.
The Vikings were not just big, scary hairy men in boats.
Old English and Middle English are in fact English.
Literacy was not nearly as rare as I had once believed.
The Anglo-Saxons arrived to find the ruins the Romans, which seemed to them ancient.
Religion was an integral part of medieval society.
Women had rights (although limited rights by today's standards).
Privacy was for the rich.

What made this different than just sitting in a classroom, though, was that each of these tidbits of information helped create an image of medieval life in England, which was supported by the physical and ever present history that covers this country.

I didn't look at pictures to get an idea of the little amount of space a family had for a home, because I stood in a medieval house and saw for myself.
I didn't look at a map of a 9th century monastery and compare it to a 14th century monastery to understand how the lives of monks changed because I stood the in the ruins or replicas of them to experience the grandeur or poverty they knew.
It wasn't necessary to read about the unpredictable weather and towering cliffs on the coast to know what it might have felt like to be attacked by Vikings, because I stood on those cliffs in the rain and sunshine.

I gained lasting knowledge in greater way than any classroom experience could provide. Studying abroad gave me the chance to do more than read words on page or look at pictures in a book. I experienced what I learned.

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