A&S Research Paper #34: Finding Enchanted Ground
The EK Gazette’s 34th A&S research article comes from Agnes Marie de Caliais where she describes a two year project she engaged in over the pandemic to fuse research with performance to create a medieval moment.
To view a video of Agnes performing, or to find out more information about this project, please visit her website.
Interested in writing your own A&S research article for the Gazette, learn more here!
Finding Enchanted Ground: Researching and recreating a spoken word moment in an extant setting with extant words
About two years ago I was trying to think of a way to have my storytelling merge with my love of research. Imagine hearing a Venetian read Machiavelli aloud, a scribe review their scroll in perfect Latin or a song echo in its original performance. 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?
Determined to recreate a moment as closely as possible I decided I would try to capture everyday spoken words. 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 had several ideas however COVID and lock downs kept me following through on my plans. I was able to do a home based outdoor spoken moment as a “proof of concept”. It was a great beginning but not where I wanted to be.
Later in the pandemic, museums and other locations opened again and I decided to revisit a real medieval room relocated to the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. In the art museum is a complete medieval chapter house taken from an abbey in the early twentieth century and moved block by block to the United States. I have visited this room with its vaulted ceiling and echoing stone for the past thirty years. It had always seemed that the past was so close I could touch it. It is a spacious room 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, such as I could only use my cellphone to record, 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:
- 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.
- He will, as he sees fit, issue to them the various articles to be cared for and collected after use.
- 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.
- Whoever fails to keep the things belonging to the monastery clean or treats them carelessly should be reproved,
- 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.
Accompanied by a dear friend I arrived with a binder of emails documenting my questions and the approvals for recording. We waited till no guest were near and then I spoke. Words that had echoed for centuries and then been silenced with the coming of the French Revolution rippled and echoed across the room. For a brief moment as I spoke I could almost envision the gardens that grew outside this room in France. I could feel the reminder to care for the garden tools bear a weight similar to one I would use when instructing my students in school or my sons doing chores. It was an incredibly transportive and profound moment as extant words were spoken in an extant place while wearing period linen clothing smelling of French lavender from the same region as the room. After, when I thought of the people I had spoken to, the connections in France that were made, the invitation to visit the ruins at some point and feeling of those words in the Chapter House I had a realization that research can bring more than knowledge.
Sources for this project:
Benedict, and Justin McCann. The Rule of Saint Benedict: In Latin and English. Martino Fine Books, 2019.
The Rule of Saint Benedict was read in Chapter Houses at the beginning of each meeting. There is a passage for each day of the week. Some are as mundane as how to assign kitchen duties in a priory. This recent edition, while the same in content, is physically easier to read the translation of the text into modern English as well as read what days of the year each passage should be read.
Benedictine Way of Life – Stella Maris College. https://stellamaris.nsw.edu.au/wp content/uploads/2015/06/benedictine-way-of-life.pdf.
This site was useful in understanding a brief history of the Benedictine Order and gaining insight into the day to day world of the individuals who built and used the Chapter House in the Middle Ages.
Catherine. “Monuments Déplacés : La Salle Capitulaire Du Bas-Nueil, De Berrie (Vienne) à Worcester (Massachusetts).” Monuments Déplacés : La Salle Capitulaire Du Bas-Nueil, De Berrie (Vienne) à Worcester (Massachussetts) – Patrimoine Et Inventaire De Nouvelle-Aquitaine – Site De Poitiers, https://inventaire-poitou–charentes-fr.translate.goog/operations/les-monuments-disparus/266-decouvertes/1090-monuments-deplaces-la-salle-capitulaire-du-bas-nueil-de-berrie-vienne-a-worcester-massachussetts?_x_tr_sl=fr&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=sc.
This French article provided an interesting viewpoint on the removal of a historical location and its becoming part of a museum in the United States. It provided a valuable path that could be used to understand how the piece/ room would have existed in its original setting.
“Chapter House of the Benedictine Priory of Saint John at Le Bas-Nueil.” – Works – Worcester Art Museum, https://worcester.emuseum.com/objects/15838/chapter-house-of-the-benedictine-priory-of-saint-john-at-le.
The Worcester Art Museum has an excellent online way to view and learn about the Chapter House.
“The Chapter House.” Chapter House Durham World Heritage Site, https://www.durhamworldheritagesite.com/learn/architecture/cathedral/intro/chapter-house.
Further research and discussion of the Chapter House as a displaced historical site and museum exhibit.
Charles, Dominique. “Prieuré Saint-Jean Du Bas-NueilBerrie (86).” Prieuré Saint-Jean Du Bas-Nueil – Berrie – Journées Du Patrimoine 2021, https://www-journees–du–patrimoine-com.translate.goog/SITE/le-prieure-saint-jean-ancienne-abb-194393.htm?_x_tr_sl=fr&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=sc.
A local French history site explaining why the architecture of the priory that the Chapter House is part of is important.
Crozet, R. “A Visit to La Bas Nueil.” Worcester Art Museum Bulletin , Mar. 1958.
A Worcester Art Museum publication now in the curatorial folder for the Chapter House.
Étienne Cholet Paul François. Cartulaire De L’Abbaye De St Étienne De Baigne. Clouzot, 1867.
This book is a 1867 translation of another similar Priory. It details the business and happenings from 800 to the French Revolution. Although not specifically about the Chapter House at the Worcester Art Museum it contains period names, information and historical insight about the same general area as the Priory in study.
Google Maps, Google.
Google Maps and Google Earth proved to be one of the greatest assets gained in this work. I was able to virtually walk around the site that the Chapter House once stood in and explore the remaining ruins. Speculation about what was became replaced with the ability to in a sense visit the place. These tools let us go to the places we seek to recreate and understand. And, while time has taken her toll, seeing the location we are researching is invaluable when trying to capture the essence of an extant moment.
“Loire Escapes.” Loire Escapes, http://www.loireescapes.com/.
An email to the current owner of part of priory barns, now used as an Air BNB led me to be able to contact their neighbor who cares for the priory remains.
Marolleu , P. Information Request about Le Prieure Saint Jean Inbox, 31 Jan. 2022.
This was a response email from the local historian and owner of the remains of the rest of the priory the Chapter House.
Sidsel. “Medieval Fabrics and the Use of Colour, Part 2.” Postej & Stews, 6 Dec. 2019, http://postej-stew.dk/2019/05/medieval-fabrics-part-2/.
When pondering what to wear for recording i wanted to understand what simple dyes, if any might have been used on the clothing of the Brothers of the Priory.
“Vestiges Du Prieuré Du Bas-Nueil à Berrie.” Retour à L’accueil De Monumentum, https://monumentum.fr/vestiges-prieure-bas-nueil-pa00105349.html.
Another French viewpoint regarding the removal of the Chapter House and the remaining ruins of the Priory
Virtue, Cynthia. “Extant Clothing of the Middle Ages Assembled by by Cynthia Du Pr Argent.” Some Extant Clothing of the Middle Ages (Photos), https://www.virtue.to/articles/extant.html.
When considering how to construct a simple tunic and clothing this site had some interesting concepts
Worcester Art Museum. “Access Magazine Fall 2012.” Issuu, 2 Jan. 2013, https://issuu.com/worcesterartmuseum/docs/access-magazine-fall-2012/20.
A Worcester Art Museum publication about the Chapter House that is now also part of its curatorital file.