Monday, January 12, 2015

Women in the Time of the Tudors: A Renaissance Refresher

Women in the Time of the Tudors

This essay complements the first MRL Adult Lecture of 2015. On January 26, Sarah Kennedy, who visited last year to discuss Altarpiece, the first novel in her The Cross and The Crown series, returns to discuss City of Ladies, the recently published second book.  The series details the life of women in Tudor England.  To prepare for this discussion, the following is intended to refresh our knowledge of sixteenth century British history.  

            By the early 1500s, a convergence of intellectual developments on the continent of Europe brought a rebirth of ancient learning and new humanist thinking to Tudor England.   In southern Europe the Renaissance renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture and learning; in northern Europe new religious thought emphasized individual will and human involvement in events.
Translations in English of the New Testament made the “word of God” accessible to lay people without reliance on interpretation by the Church.  Economic and social conditions unique to England also added to an unsettling of order.  An expanded English urban middle-class centered around the cloth trade.  King Henry VIII depleted the national treasury with costly foreign alliances and military misadventures.  Excesses in personal conduct, displays of wealth, ecclesiastical privilege, and ostentatious pomp at all levels of the Church fueled resentment against that institution by the general population.  This popular disaffection, personified in the chief royal councilor Cardinal Wolsey, provided cover for the King to eliminate him, to act against the clergy, and to convert the wealth of the Church to himself.  Precipitously, the desire of the King to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled by the Pope in order to marry Anne Boleyn created tension between the King and the Church.   While all these factors played a role, the King’s personal life propelled the passage of the 1536 Act for the Dissolution of the Monasteries causing religious chaos that lasted for years.  Though two women were at the center of the turmoil, the consensus among many historians is that women did not benefit from it.  The belief in the inferior position of women remained unchanged from previous centuries; however, from this lesser standing, women found ways of being influential and active in the secular society.   Unfortunately their sisters in the convent found their societal relevance denied. 

            Between 1536 and 1540 the monastic religious orders in England were dissolved.  Though the exact number is unknown, about 140 nunneries were closed, affecting about 1,600 nuns.   Most of the dissolved nunneries were very small; in addition to their religious role, they were an important local institution.  Their abbeys and nunneries served as a refuge for traveling gentry who wished to avoid the bread and board at the local taverns.  The sisters educated local daughters in reading and numbers and the gentry’s daughters, in addition, were taught needlework and drawing skills.  The nuns served as the pharmacists and doctors in the neighborhood. 
            The historical record is absent on what happened to these often penniless “former” sisters.  Some made their way to religious orders on the Continent.  Those who stayed faced the same environment as other women in society of the 1600s, plus being additionally burdened by being an  age unsuitable for marriage and by their own vows of chastity.  Returning to their families was not always a viable choice.  Many of the nuns arrived at the monastery as the "spare" daughters to be “dedicated to God” or as orphans abandoned on the door step.   These women came into a secular society that espoused the Biblical interpretation that women were to serve and obey a man, which not even the Reformation theology challenged.  The sole function of the woman was to marry, produce sons, and look after her home and family.   Women from wealthy families were more constrained in their opportunities than their less well-off sisters.  Usually the women of the upper ranks of society had no control over a choice of a husband.  Their health was put at risk because they did not nurse their children, resulting in frequent pregnancies and therefore at greater risk of dying in childbirth.  In contrast, common country and city women, though still enjoined by their Biblical role, found economic necessity brought broader opportunities. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Shooting in" the New Year

A few years ago, we mused about the Valley tradition of belsnickling at Christmas. (See Valley Christmas Folk Traditions, December 16, 2011.) This year, we bring to light a local New Year’s tradition that faded into memory a century ago:  shooting in the New Year.

On New Year’s Eve, a group would gather at their leader’s house.  According to local historian and author John Stewart, “To be elected captain of the community’s shooters was a great honor.”[1]  Unlike belsnickelers, the New Year Shooters were an all-male group. The men would visit farms and houses in the area during the early hours of the New Year. They called to the head of the house by name, and after receiving a response, they would sing a greeting with wishes for the coming year.  This was followed by discharging their guns, and in some cases fireworks or dynamite, and other loud noises.

Like many Valley traditions, shooting in the New Year migrated south with the Pennsylvania Germans. The New Year was generally thought of as a secular, rather than religious, holiday in Germany. According to one Pennsylvania German, “This custom of New Year wishing, like many other of our holiday customs, can be traced not only to the fatherland, but to some rite or custom of the time when our forefathers were heathen.” Apparently, many areas of Germany have New Year’s traditions that feature crowds and noises.[2] Still, some of the New Year’s Shooters did sing hymns and recite scripture under their neighbors’ windows in addition to the more “heathen” noisemaking. Though the practice of shooting in the New Year was nearly extinct in Pennsylvania by the 1860s, it continued in the Valley in isolated areas until World War I.

The tradition was a way to show concern for one’s neighbor in the days before greeting cards.  An article in the Pennsylvania-German notes:  “In that elder day, when brass-bands and other instrumentalities for serenading were not so common as now, the new-year shooting salutation also had its significance and possibly its benefits. It was a means of manifesting good will and expressing greetings which now is supplanted by less offensive methods.”[3]  After receiving New Year’s wishes, folks usually invited the group in for refreshments, like cake or mince pies and hot beverages—often alcoholic.  Shooting in the New Year was a neighborly, community-minded event.

(from google images)
Of course, while some shooters focused on being neighborly, others used the tradition as an excuse to let off steam in the dead of winter.  In some cases, men were known to skip the traveling greetings, instead meeting at the blacksmith’s, loading the anvil and firing off massive charges.  Some shooters would pour in extra powder and stuff the guns with paper, which could be dangerous.  One Valley man remembered his brother’s gun exploding and a piece injuring his head.  And while most of the traditional greetings were tasteful wishes, there was also the occasional shorter rude doggerel invented by those looking for fun.  Another reason for the eventual unpopularity of the New Year’s Shooters might have been due to incidents of young men overindulging in refreshments, particularly the Dram un Seidereil (hard cider). According to an early 20th century Pennsylvania journal article, “Probably both customs, [belsnickeling and shooting in the new year], were born of kind, friendly, pious motives, but later degenerated, as all good customs are apt to do, into practices ‘more honored in the breach than in the observance.’”[4]

In the Valley, the custom varied from region to region and between religious affiliations. For instance, it was popular among Lutherans but frowned upon by Mennonites, though some Brethren did accept greetings and show hospitality to their non-Brethren neighbors. “They use to come around to make a wish at our house…We had them come in and we’d give them something to eat, but we wouldn’t give them anything [alcoholic] to drink,” remembered one Church of the Brethren member.[5] Valley Shooters also adapted the tradition to make it their own. In Shenandoah County, guns were accompanied by big saws, cow bells, and sometimes a bull fiddle, an instrument with a strange sound that carried great distances. While organized parties of Shooters weren’t common in some parts of the Valley, New Year’s noise certainly was.  In Broadway and Timberville, shooting off firecrackers was a popular New Year’s activity. In Bergton and Criders, men fired their guns at midnight, even if they didn’t visit their neighbors’ homes. And in southwestern Rockingham County, some blasted dynamite to welcome the New Year.

Monday, November 24, 2014

SnowFlake Bentley

Snowflake Bentley

One of the greatest joys of childhood is the coveted snow day—no school, playing outside, a warm hot chocolate at the end of the day.  As we reach adulthood, snow days mean hyperactive kids, frozen pipes, and treacherous road conditions.  The excitement fades.   Many years ago, there was a man who maintained a childlike wonder of snow from boyhood throughout his twilight years.  Rather than catching snowflakes on his tongue as children do, he caught them on film.  His name was Snowflake Bentley.

Early Life

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born on February 9, 1865 on the family dairy farm outside of Jericho, Vermont.  He was interested in nature from an early age.  Nothing captured his attention more than snow, a fortuitous passion in the Snow Belt, where snowfall averages 120” annually.[1]  Bentley’s mother, a former schoolteacher who taught him at home until he was 14, encouraged his interest, despite the skepticism of his father and brother.  For his 15th birthday, Bentley received an old microscope from his mother’s teaching days, and he began to study the natural world in closer detail.  Snowflakes were the most enthralling specimens of all:
“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.  Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.  Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.  I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness.”[2]

He began by sketching the flakes, but they often melted before he was done. After three winters, hundreds of sketches, countless lost snowflakes, and with his mother’s persuasion, Bentley’s father bought him a camera and microscope that were worth nearly as much as the family farm.  The self-taught Bentley invented an apparatus of microscope, camera, and bellows that he would use for the rest of his photomicrography career.  After a season of failure, experimenting with stops, exposure, and focus, Bentley had his first success in 1884 at the age of 19.[3]  Following this achievement he said, “I felt almost like falling to my knees beside the apparatus.  I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life.” [4]


Bentley was following in the footsteps of great scientists.  Johannes Kepler first introduced the snowflake’s shape in his 1611 work, On the Six-Cornered Snowflake.  Robert Hooke first illustrated the varied structures of snow crystals in his 1665 work Micrographia.  It was Wilson Bentley, a teenage farmer with no formal scientific training, who pioneered photomicrography and took the first picture of an individual snow crystal.  Bentley showed a single-minded dedication to scientific pursuit, working in the cold and snow every winter for decades.  As a result, in 1924 he was awarded the first ever research grant given by the American Meteorological Society for “40 years of extremely patient work.”[5]  His goal of sharing the beauty of the natural world with others remained a priority. Over the years, he published dozens of general interest and technical articles in various publications, including the New York Times and National Geographic.  Clearly, he did not publish for his own acclaim; in a list of his publications recorded in his notebook, notes like:  Knowledge, London, 1912, I think” were common.[6]

In addition to his work with snowflakes, Bentley also researched frost, dew, and raindrop size. He regularly recorded weather records three times a day, as well as descriptions of 600 auroras over 40 years. He was “first to deduce that rain in thunderstorms has a dual origin, suggested that many snow crystals start growing as frozen cloud droplets, came close to explaining the Bergeron mechanism of rain formation…and proposed what was probably the first hydrometeor-related explanation for cloud electrification.”[7] Modern atmospheric scientists have said that Bentley’s work on cloud physics was decades ahead of his time.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sizzling History

Herstory:   Women Authors From the 17th Century to Today 

Karen Abbott will be discussing her new novel, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, on November 13th at the Massanutten Regional Library at 7pm..    Abbott’s book is part of a new trend in history writing—authors revealing historical characters and their stories in compelling detail by using their diaries, letters and historical documents to flesh out the details.  Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy tells the story of four women who were spies during the Civil War.  Did Belle Boyd have admiration or jealousy for Rose Greenhow--or both?  Did Rose sleep with Henry D. Wilson, Lincoln's chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs?  Whose message resulted in Confederate victory at Manassas?

American women writers have been pushing boundaries since the Colonial Era. Anne Bradstreet was the first female author from the American Colonies to be published.  Her poetry book, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was about colonial life, but was published in England in 1650. Her work was lauded by contemporaries and she continued to be an inspiration for female poets for at least a hundred years.
One of the first American novelists to gain acclaim was Kate Chopin, a Missouri native whose writings often focused on Louisiana and New Orleans. Published in 1899, The Awakening was one of the first novels to feature a strong female protagonist who rebels against society’s expectations for her. Critics immediately called it, "morbid, vulgar, and disagreeable."  Even Willa Cather said it was "trite and sordid" (  Today it is lauded as one of the best novels of its time. Chopin papered the way for future female writers to give their women characters a real voice.

In the twentieth century, many women authors gained popular and literary acclaim. One particularly outspoken figure was Dorothy Parker, a writer, critic and satirist who won two Academy Awards before being blacklisted for purported associations with the Communist Party in 1950.   In a Vanity Fair article titled, Rebel in Evening Clothes, (Oct. 1999), Parker is described as "cocktail swilling" and who "used her wit to skewer prejudice in pre-civil-rights America."  Her gin drinking, cigarette smoking, and sexy clothes were reflected in her honest and biting works.

Today, Karen Abbott’s focus on historical research and the role of women in historical events have already made her a New York Times Bestselling author.  Erik Larson says it best:
"With this book, Karen Abbott declares herself the John le Carré of Civil War espionage, with the added benefit that the saga she tells is all true and beautifully researched. Her four protagonists, exuding charm, adept at skullduggery, take us on a sweeping and bloody jaunt across the Civil War landscape, into an intimate realm of warfare that will yield for even the most hard-core Civil War buff a wholly fresh perspective on those deadly days."

— Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts

Abbott's works ascends women from traitors, prostitutes, and strippers to independent women who fought for their rights to live and work as they chose. Some call it sizzling history.

Hope to see you November 13th at 7pm at the Main library in downtown Harrisonburg.

Cheryl Metz and Kate Martin

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Short Trip by Rail

A Short Trip by Rail

In the 19th century, traveling by road in the western part of Virginia meant walking, taking the stagecoach, or riding a horse. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County was primarily rural and agricultural, and the roads were, as described by C. G. Price, “bottomless mud when it rained, impassable when it snowed and in dry weather [were] obscured by billowing clouds of dust.” [1] Local merchants went to major cities as infrequently as possible—often only twice a year.

Politics and economics controlled the railroads prior to the Civil War. Winchester was connected to the B&O by the mid-1830s and Staunton was added as a stop on the Virginia Central (later Chesapeake & Ohio) in 1854. Port Republic and Shenandoah had major iron mines, furnaces and foundries, as well as mills. The railroad followed what is now Rt. 340 from Front Royal to Staunton as early as 1834. Crossing the Blue Ridge was also a major factor. As Ed King pointed out: “A modern locomotive that can pull 1,000 tons on a flat grade can pull only 200 tons on a 0.5% grade.” [2] Competition for a railroad between Charlottesville and Harrisonburg ended with the Blue Ridge, although by the late 1800s, the train followed Rt. 33 and stopped in Elkton.

While the Civil War caused massive damage to existing rails and caused a break in construction, Harrisonburg residents began clamoring for railroad connections as early as 1866. As the northern “carpetbaggers” had no side in the pre-war politics, they began the construction of a railroad from Baltimore to Harrisonburg. The first railroad to come to Harrisonburg opened in 1868 as part of the Manassas Gap Railroad and the inaugural train was pulled by an engine named Shenandoah.
Residents, however, were still unsatisfied—this line provided transportation to Manassas, Orange and Alexandria but did not traverse along the Valley. Robert E. Lee lent his voice to an effort to build such a railroad, the Valley Rail Road Company. While this line was never fully constructed, it paved the way for the Chesapeake & Western Railroad, incorporated in 1895. [3] To this day, there is still no direct link between Harrisonburg and Staunton.

For more information on trains in the valley, please attend our program on November 6th at 7pm at the Main Branch of the library in downtown Harrisonburg. Bob Cohen will present his new book, A Trip by Rail in the Shenandoah Valley on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Southern Railway (2013). Mr. Cohen will have copies of his book available purchase and signing. He invites the public to bring train memorabilia to share.

For more information, contact Cheryl Metz @

By Cheryl Metz and Katie Martin

[1] Price, Charles G. The Crooked & Weedy. Waynesville: Don Mills, 1992.

[2] King, Ed. “Getting Them Up the Grade the Norfolk and Western Way.”  Trains Magazine, April 2004, p. 67.

[3] Price , Chapter 2.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Maplewood: History and Mystery

Maplewood:  History and Mysteries

                Depending on whom or what you read, the date of the building of the original Maplewood varies from 1755 to 1759. On Jan. 12, 1746 James Wood purchased the original 350 acres from King George II for thirty-five shillings. King George was busy fighting Charles James Stuart at the time.  What happened between 1746 and 1755 is a mystery.
                According to deeds, Robert Rollstone purchased “the house, building and orchard” in 1755; thus, the 1755 date seems accurate.  Rollstone did a quick turn-over to William Castleberry who then sold it to Archibald Hopkins for five shillings in 1757.  Why was everyone willing to take a loss on this property? The farm would remain in this Irish family for 122 years.  Although one account states that Archibald passed it to his son William in 1799, then William passed it to his son John Hinton Hopkins in 1841, a different account says that Archibald’s brother,  John, Sr.,  who  lived two miles away, married Jean Gordon and built Maplewood in 1760.  Either way, John Hinton Hopkins ended up with the property in 1841.
                According to “A Chapter of Hopkins Genealogy” by George W. Fetzer dated July 17, 1936, the Hopkins (John and his daughters, and his brothers)  were very wealthy and owned over 3,000 acres among them as late as August  1787.  In contrast, a Daily News Record article printed in 1992 states that the Civil War “nearly bankrupted John; thus, his wife was forced to sell off their land. “  The better story is that John had a son William,(presumably named after his grandfather), who was a VMI cadet and ended up fighting in the Civil War.  He was wounded in battle outside of Richmond, yet was transported back to Maplewood where, within a few days, he died.  Is it his bloody footprint that stains the hardwood floors to this day?   With no male heir, did John decide to sell?
                Either way, in 1879, the estate was broken up, and William Chrisman bought the house.  The Chrismans remained at Maplewood until 1951 when John Myers, Mrs. Shelvie Carr’s grandfather, purchased it.  Mrs. Carr and her husband purchased the home and a few acres at auction in 1981.
                Maplewood stands majestically on a rise before entering Singer’s Glen, which was known as Mountain Valley until 1860.  The original driveway is gone, but the old mounting block remains at the front portico. Double chimneys grace the ends of the front and Flemish bond bedecks the side nearest the road--American bond covers the other side!   The entire house has thirteen fireplaces, each with a different mantle. For more information, and the answers to some of the mysteries, attend the Massanutten Regional Library’s virtual tour of Maplewood on Thursday, Nov.  23rd at 7pm, presented by Mrs. Shelvie Carr and her granddaughter Emily Carr.

Cheryl L. Metz

Friday, October 10, 2014

George W. Rosenberger: Model farmer of Rosendale

George W. Rosenberger
Model Farmer of Rosendale
            George Rosenberger, an immigrant from Zurich, Switzerland, came to colonial Virginia, , established himself in what is now Page County, and served in the Revolutionary War.[i]  His son, George Washington Rosenberger was born in 1778 and died in 1858 in his eightieth year.  In about 1790, this George acquired the land at the present Rosendale location on which he built a two-over-two log house.  Evidence of the senior George Washington Rosenberger’s success can be deduced from the 1850 Census records in which his real property was valued at $24,000.  He also owned two working-age slaves.
In 1802 George W. Rosenberger married Margaret Zirkle (1780-1836) of New Market.  Their fifth child, also named George Washington, was born on February 23, 1823 at Rosendale and is the subject of the following article.   Fifty-five years later he was described as the “model Valley farmer.”  He added what is now the front face of Rosendale in 1870; the original house became the ell.  In the 1870 Census Rosenberger’s real estate was valued at $12,500, about half the value of his father’s real property twenty years before.  The difference could reflect local conditions after the Civil War.
George Washington Rosenberger married Barbara Ann Kagey in 1845.  They had eight children, five of whom died before 1887 when their mother died.  In 1892, George W. Rosenberger married Barbara’s sister, Amelia (Millie) Kagey, who had been living with the family at Rosendale for several decades.  He was sixty-nine years old and she was fifty-two years old when they married.  Of the three surviving children from the first marriage, one was Arthur Russell Rosenberger, a successful local banker and entrepreneur.  Another son, Charles W., oversaw the Rosendale operation after the death of the father and probably for some years before the father’s death.[ii]
Rosendale during the Civil War
            Documents found in the George W. Rosenberger Collection at the VMI Archives provide a glimpse of Rosendale and, by extension, the local the farming experience during the later part of the Civil War.  When the War began Rosenberger was thirty-seven years old.  Instead of serving in the military Rosenberger purchased a substitute.  From March 1862 to April 1863 Abner Canada was the substitute.   An archival document recounted Canada’s capture in Shenandoah County and his escape that returned him to his comrades.  In the Civil War Rolls found in A History of Rockingham County,[iii] Abner Canada does not appear.  The only Abner Canada listed in the 1860 Census was a sixty-one year old farm laborer in Rockingham County.   G.W. Rosenberger was listed as member of the Company H, 10th Va. Cavalry.  There is no record that he actually served in combat.