Friday, June 11, 2010

Medieval Wales

I'm doing a lot of small touristy things, using my parents house in Wales as a base. I've been here many times before, of course, but never with quite as much personal time on my hands. My sister and I visit our mother in hospital in the afternoons, but there's nothing much else to do.

That lets me please myself for more than half of each day, so I go out and about. Not far, but to places I've never had time to see before.

This time I went to Comeston Lakes Park and medieval village. The park itself is a reclaimed limestone quarry, and I've often seen gravel pits and limestone quarries in Maine that could be similarly re-purposed and used for conservation and recreation.

In this case, the limestone quarries have become lakes and marshlands, with habitat for thousands of kinds of species, including some quite rare plants and insects, while around the lakes are broad gravel paths for walking, cycling, and horse-riding. If South Wales got reliable snow I'm sure there would be Nordic skiing and sledding. There were a lot of walkers and joggers there, starting quite early in the morning.

Old photographs at the visitor center show the place as a dump during the 1950s and 1960s, so the transformation is remarkable. Nature did a lot of it herself, of course, but human planning and strategically chosen work projects helped guide the outcome.

We really need to have a class at Unity College that covers the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of ecological restoration. Usually that term is taken to mean habitat restoration including mostly biological actions, digging, cutting, culling, planting, reintroducing species, and the like.

In this case, landscape planning and heavy equipment were probably just as, or more, important.

It would be important for an ecological restoration specialist to know what bulldozers and backhoes are capable of contributing to restoring a quarry or a landfill.

One species unremarkable to Britons but rarely seen in Maine are these beautiful wild swans. They're only part-wild of course. They get a feed subsidy from the rangers and visitors. They certainly came right up to me seeking a handout, but that allowed me to get a good look at them.

The medieval village part of the park is an historically authentic reconstruction of an abandoned village that was discovered from aerial photographs. It was abandoned after the plague passed through in the fourteenth century.

A lot of British villages were similarly abandoned, and in fact it was this desertion that led in part to the founding of America, for the unoccupied community-run subsistence farmland was taken up by sheep farming for the lucrative continental wool trade, which combined with Protestantism, led to the development of a widespread individualistic and capitalist ethic in the British Isles in the 15th and 16th and 17th centuries, many years before such ideas became widespread in southern European regions.

That capitalist ethic led to the joint stock companies that founded British America, the Plymouth Company, the Virginia Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, and so on. Americans busy panning BP might do well to remember that British corporations founded America.

Prior to these developments, villages were part communally-run subsistence agriculture operations and partly feudalistic organizations.

At Comeston the guides and reenactors seem to emphasize the military aspects of feudalism over the agriculture, which is somewhat the wrong order. Most of the time these villages were peaceful communal farming operations. But the swords and arrows keep the kids interested, and the place does a steady trade in school visits. While I was there these kids were all dressed up in pseudo-medieval tabards, ready to play a historical game.

Whatever works. Maybe Unity's medievalist, Doctor Murphy, should employ some reenactors? Hire the role-playing game students and buy them some costumes and put them to work pretending to whack off each others arms and legs.

But it's true that the tradition of the Fyrd, the ancient feudal militia, was important.

In return for their land, which they received from their lord, who in turn owned it by right of grant from the king, feudal vassals owed different kinds of service to their local lords, among which was military service.

Welsh archers in particular were prominent in battle in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Together with English archers, they won the day for at Edward III at Crecy and Henry V at Agincourt.

I doubt that the villagers of Comeston, who were Anglo-Welsh, part English, part Welsh and probably bilingual, were very warlike. The place was probably moderately prosperous as these villages go. The local limestone, which is soft and shears on a horizontal plane, and so is very easy to cut into rectangles, probably made for easy building of relatively commodious houses and would have also provided for a fertile, non-acidic soil. It's one of the reasons that the park has so much biodiversity today, when it was a sterile wasteland thrity years ago. I expect these folk much preferred to spend their time growing food and drinking ale and mead.

The pig in the picture above was also a reenactor. There are several on-site. They're crossbred Tamworth/wild boar sows, and working hard here to replicate the behavior of fourteenth century Welsh pigs.

It's a hard job, but some pig's got to do it.

I keep trying to plug in all the links to the various Wikipedia and web pages for my sources for this article, but this British Telecom "BT Fon" neighborhood internet system is not working for me. Not recommended. Expensive and unreliable.

What is it about firms with "British" in their name?

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