Monday 1 December 2014

Dying ain't what it used to be

Waterford is one of Ireland's oldest cities, having been founded by Vikings in 853, vacated, re-founded in 914 and named Veðrafjǫrðr (ram's fjord). We often pass through on the way to the coast or Cheekpoint but rarely stop long enough to park the car. My sister was over visiting from across the water and on Friday afternoon we went as tourists to visit the Medieval Museum in Waterford city centre.  As we had shared a 60th birthday this Summer and/or because we look notably crumbly we were let in at the Senior rate and saved €1 each. Museums have come a long way since they were filled with a rag-bag of artifacts (including "the head of Sir Francis Drake as a baby" in the museum in Tiverton according to urban legend) piled into glass-topped cases.  Now they are light on artifacts from the past and heavy on interpretive boards, so that Sean Public can come out feeling more educated than bemused.

Many years ago, my father and I were passing close to Clonmacnoise [L with spacious view from its perch on a bend in the River Shannon], the most evocative and romantically situated of all Ireland's monastic settlements, and dropped in as tourists. After the toilets and the gift-shop a teeny theatre was showing a film loop about the history of the place.  It seemed to be pitched at 9 year old children or maybe adults who enjoy an extremely superficial cartoonish interpretation of our heritage. 1000 years in 12 and a half minutes, I think.  After we were as informed as we were going to get, we were ready to view the ruins.  As you leave the interpretive centre. the first thing you see is one of two high-crosses which have survived the centuries intact and remain on the site. As you do, I went up the this richly decorated artifact and gave it a rap with my knuckles; "tonk, tonk" the cross replied because the original had been taken away from the disrespectful assaults of people like me and replaced by a hollow fibre-glass replica.  Whichever way you look at it, this Disneyland solution to a perceived problem doesn't make you think of eternal verities.

Meanwhile back in medieval Waterford, I was told that archery was so important to the defense of the realm that compulsory practice was required of all able-bodied (male) citizens at The Butts just outside the city walls. Records indicate that the perpetrator of a fatal accident that occurred at such a practice was declared not criminally culpable.  Having your young son shot through the head when walking beyond the butts was deemed an unfortunate accident but I bet it didn't make the grieving parents an happier to meet the neighbour who missed his target. Weirdly, almost exactly a year ago I was writing about projectiles (cannonballs then) missing targets and doing damage. Metafilter reports that the cause of deaths in the England of the 1500s has been extensively investigated by two historians from Oxford University and reported in The Lancet who have been reading the archives of coroner's courts and tallying up how ordinary people died. Terminal accidents which we don't hear much of nowadays include:
  • falling out of trees in October while shaking acorns down for pig-food
  • fetching water from ponds and wells
  • act of god
  • haemorrhage from cut to leg while scything
  • sword-fighting
  • crushed while greasing the working parts of windmills
One of the commenters in the metafilter source recommends the medieval death bot on twitter final accounting there is short but rarely sweet.

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