Sunday, September 08, 2013

A Sense of Place

I was an English major in college, and I soon learned that there is no way to be a literature major without being a student of history.  As it happens, I do greatly enjoy history.  While there are many ways to learn and experience history, for me, a sense of place adds a dimension that I cherish.

One of the benefits of traveling is that sometimes when we visit somewhere, I am able to get a sense of place that gives fresh insight.  After years of taking of family vacations mostly at the New Jersey shore, with an occasional trip to New England or parts of Canada, our daughter suggested, in 1996, that we should go somewhere abroad for our summer trip.  Thus it was that we headed off for our first "European" vacation--we did a somewhat grand tour of parts of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 

And that's how I had my first experience abroad of "a sense of place."  We were visiting Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh.  Our guide took us into one room and announced "...and here is where David Rizzio was killed."  Well, believe me, I took notice.  I had read the seminal biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser, and had absorbed many of the details, including the account of the horrific murder of Rizzio, the private secretary to Mary.  Mary's closeness to him had engendered palace jealousies as well as rumors that he was the father of her child.  So a group of nobles murdered him right in front of Mary, who was pregnant.  The sense of place--that here was where a specific event in history had occurred--made my understanding of that event take on new meaning.

There are, of course, many such places around the world.  While I don't make that the only reason to see some place in the world, it certainly adds to my enjoyment.  My master's thesis research focused on the historical Thomas Becket, and how he was portrayed in two dramatic works.  So, of course, one of the places I had long wanted to visit was Canterbury.  On one of our recent visits to England, our daughter helped arrange a day trip for us to visit Canterbury.  Not only was I a Canterbury pilgrim for a brief day but I also got to stand in the cathedral that marks the approximate spot where Becket was slain by four knights who thought they were doing the king's bidding.  That actual altar in front of which Becket was slain no longer stands, but there is a candle in the floor marking the spot.

Another place where there is a palpable sense of what had happened there was in the cathedral in Worms, Germany.  We were on a family history tour in the year 2000 when we visited this cathedral.  It was to this place that Martin Luther had been summoned for the famous Diet of Worms.  (What budding history student hasn't giggled at such a thought....a diet of worms.) Luther was challenged by the pope's representative to recant his developing Protestant views.  Of course, the historical representation is Luther's famous speech:  
"Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

The historical record is not so clear that he actually spoke these words on that occasion, but standing in the Cathedral of Worms, the sense of place makes Luther's brave stand very real.

So it was that on our most recent trip, a cruise of the Baltic Sea with various stops along the way (see my prior post for the countries we visited), we stopped in St. Petersburg.  This is a city I have long wanted to see.  Many years ago, I read of biography of Peter the Great, who developed this marvelous city as Russia's outlet to the Baltic Sea and thereby eventually the Atlantic Ocean.  I had also read Harrison Salisbury's account The 900 Days: the Siege of Leningrad.  And, I have read many works about the last of the Romanovs--Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra.  

Prominent in their lives was their youngest child and only son--who would be heir to the throne, young Prince Alexis.  He was born after his parents had borne four daughters, and they were devastated when Alexis was found to be hemophiliac.  He was frequently gravely ill, suffering the bleeding episodes that threatened his life almost constantly.  Understandably, but not helpfully, his mother Alexandra was frantic.  So when an itinerant holy man--at least so styled--came into her life in the man of Rasputin and promised he could heal her son, she was primed.  Eventually, Rasputin insinuated himself into their lives and seemingly advised them on far more than Alexis' health.  The resulting jealousy and paranoia among Russian nobility led to a plot headed up by Prince Felix Yusupov, who along with his co-conspirators, decided to kill Rasputin.

So, another sense of place--on our visit to St. Petersburg, we visited the Yusupov Palace and saw the small basement dining room (complete with creepy wax figures recreating the scene) where Rasputin was lured to his eventual death.  He did not die quickly--he was first poisoned, then shot, then drowned--none of which caused his demise.  After being thrown into a canal to drown, Rasputin managed to crawl out, after his captors had left the scene and there he died of hypothermia, freezing to death in the cold Russian winter.

 A sense of place, indeed.

Where have you been where you had a sense of place for history?


troutbirder said...

Wonderful anecdotes. The connection between literature and history is so clear cut yet often missed in school curriculums. I did manage to persuade our high school principal of the fact and myself and a high school English teacher converted our separate classes into a 2 hour "humanities" class worth 2 credits of English and Social Studies for 12 graders. We team taught it and it was "oversubscribed" as we were allowed on 4 hours and 2 classes per day.

Anvilcloud said...

Great post, KG. I have some recollection of my grade 9 history teacher recounting the Rasputin death story to us.

NCmountainwoman said...

I loved this post! I've always been fascinated by Rasputin.

The most moving sense of place for me is the Gettysburg battleground. Especially the area where so many young NC men fell. Of the casualties at Gettysburg, one in four dead came from North Carolina. We go back time and again and the feeling is always as intense.

Mary Lee said...

This was very interesting! The candle on the floor sounds like .such a haunting image.

Your experiences must have been so much richer because of your advance studies.