Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Community Archeology

A week or so ago we got a leaflet through our door inviting us to a lecture/public meeting.  It had to do with the findings of archeological interest in  nearby Northumberland Park.  I'm not well versed on the political scene, but as I vaguely understand it, the present government wants to save money by having a 'Big Society', meaning stop paying all those public sector employees and have volunteers run the libraries, museums, etc.  This archeology lark strikes me as being in a similar vein.

They got a great turnout and I may show up in the local paper for a third time in a month (with the ladies at the sewing group in support of charity Age UK - we all being aged, you know; next doing zumba at the WI; finally preparing to do a dig).  Actually, I don't know about the last two being in the papers, only that there were journalists and cameras around.  And I have no intention of digging around in the mud, wet and cold.  The other options were desktop research, interviewing people, doing leaflet drops, planting a medieval herb garden and I'm not sure what else.  Some folks here love to dress up and do re-enactments of historical battles at the various castles along the coastline, Tynemouth Castle being one.  It does my head in when they re-enact the American Civil War - I ask you!

Anyhow, the lecture was pretty interesting.  We ran into a former work colleague, Elspeth (I just love her name) and sat with her.  She knew loads of other people from her volunteer work at Seaton Delaval Hall.  We must get up there sometime.  It's now a National Trust property, but I linked to the other site because it had more photos.  Where was I?  Oh yes, the lecture.

Algernon George Percy, the 6th Duke of Northumberland

The land was given to the town by the 6th Duke of Northumberland and the formal garden park was opened in 1855 (correction, 1885).  At that time they had discovered remains of a medieval hospital, called St.Leonard's, but had just buried the remains and got on with the present work.  Nothing else has been done except to display some stone coffins and an etching which I believe the speaker said once was plated with copper.  The etching is thought to be of a noble couple, probably patrons of the hospital.

The word hospital meant something different in medieval (middle age, being between the fall of the Roman empire in the late 400s and the Renaissance of classical learning in the 1500s) times.   I can't verify the words the lecturer gave us (Latin hospitum; French hospiter), and as I promised not to do anymore etymological posts for a while, I'll just say that the word 'hospital' is related to 'hospitality' and that in medieval times a hospital was not just for the sick but also the poor, as in a workhouse; it also served as an inn for travellers.  

He also told us about the seven comfortable acts, or acts of giving comfort, charitable acts.  It took me a while to find them on Google, as they weren't in Matthew 24 as he said, however, they are also called the Corporal Works of Mercy, from Matthew 25 and the Book of Tobit:
  1. To feed the hungry
  2. To give drink to the thirsty.
  3. To clothe the naked.
  4. To visit prisoners.
  5. To shelter the homeless.
  6. To visit the sick.
  7. To bury the dead.
Wealthy, noble families needed to earn their salvation and so patronage of a hospital was in their best interests, so to speak.

There is some question about whether St. Leonard's hospital was or was not a leper's hospital.  The speaker indicated that leprosy was at its height in the middle ages, but the incidence decreased thereafter for reasons unknown.    Though there is some documentation of the St. Leonard's hospital, affiliated with Tynemouth Priory, I gather archeologists often look to the location of a hospital to make a best guess about its status.  Regular hospitals were within the town; lepers' hospitals were on the outskirts of town, though generally along main roads in order to encourage alms.  Of course, Northumberland Park is now completely surrounded by suburbia and from the maps he showed us of other cities and their medieval hospitals, it's not as obvious to me about the locations being out of town as it was to him, but I'll bow to his expertise.

He also talked for a while about the fate of lepers during the Middle Ages.  They had to wear special clothing, including a hat and a veil, and to carry a bell to warn others of their proximity.  When they entered into the hospital they were considered as dead, with no rights, completely separated from society; I expect there were slightly different rules if one was wealthy, but we're talking about poor folks here.  He also talked about the running of the hospitals, quoting some authority has having said 'Without order there is no religion.'  Rules were strict:  segregation of the sexes, structured mealtimes, proscribed behaviour, a schedule of work if you were able.  The word of the hospital head was law.   Leprosy was viewed as a punishment from God and society feared that you were contagious; as if having the disease wouldn't be bad enough in itself.

The hospital area included a consecrated burial ground and some human remains may or may not be found.  The speaker suggested that £200 or more costs for dating the remains was outside of the budget and there wasn't going to be a lot done with any skeletons found.  There are records of burials undertaken during time of war when access to the Priory cemetery was limited, with the last taking place in 1713 or 14.  The location of the priory on the cliff top overlooking the mouth of the Tyne is also the location of Tynemouth Castle and  a Coastguard station, now closed.  But you've seen all that before.

So, everyone got a break for a spot of tea and a chat, then there was a short question and answer period during which it was revealed that the digging didn't start until June.  Then we all went home.  Elspeth asked if I'd signed up for anything and I said no.  I'm thinking there needs to be something that Bill goes out and does without me so he can come home and tell me about it.  Don't you think?


Rick Stone said...

Special clothing, a hat and a veil, and a bell to warm others to keep clear of them. Hmm, maybe we could use something like over here to protect society from liberals. ;->

Shelley said...

I was rather hoping to pack light for our next trip to the US...