Shakespeare can in a few words provoke emotional reactions in a reader decades after reading them. Consider these lines from Sonnet LXXIII (1609):
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
For me, the power of the four lines has always come in the next-to-last image. ‘Bare ruined choirs’ is an allusion to an enormous social, political and economic change in England. Its physical reminders lay everywhere Shakespeare went.
I thought of this phrase almost hourly on an eight-day trip to Ohio this May.
Seventy years before Shakespeare’s sonnets appeared, Henry VIII had disestablished the Roman Catholic Church and expropriated the monasteries and thousands of other church properties and their furnishings. We think of Christian monasteries as being remote, hard to get to. Some are. But most in the 1530s stood in cities (Westminster Abbey, for instance), towns or along well-traveled roads.
(This month’s Current Archaeology (not available on the web) reports on the excavation of a small expropriated church just outside York’s medieval walls. It contained a cell for an anchorite who lived there in the 15th century, walled away from the world, for more than 20 years. By the 18th century, the site was a cattle market.)
When Henry took these properties, he fired their employees — priests, monks, nuns and their lay support personnel — tens of thousands of people. The religious received more or less generous severance packages and were left to find their way in society.
The buildings they’d occupied disappeared gradually. Movables and interior decoration — from brass to gold, from chalices to altar cloths — went immediately. Roofs and leaded glasss were the next to go because their components were easily recycled. Then went the timber and stone of the structure. In York, for instance, almost nothing remains visible of a monastic complex many times larger than the Minster, now a World Heritage site.
So, bare ruined choirs, ‘strictly speaking, …that part of the church where the stalls of the clergy are’ (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia), Shakespeare saw whereever he went. ‘Where late the sweet birds sang’: think of thousands of now-vanished religious who’d chanted the daily office. And, consider the networks of everyday life that were shattered in a decade or so.
Only the effects of modern war offer apt analogies to what happened — socially, politically and economically — in England in the mid-sixteenth century. The change over the past 35 years evident in Ohio today is almost as profound.
In May, we took a 700-mile U-shaped tour on ‘blue highways‘ starting in Cleveland, then west to the Indiana border, south to just below I-70 and the old National Road, and finally east to the Ohio River.
We found, as I remembered, friendly people who aren’t paid to be, mile after mile of beautiful countryside, interesting cafes and coffee shops, and pleasant, comfortable residential streets. An almost complete absence of bed & breakfasts testifies to how few tourists sample its joys.
Nonetheless in towns from Sycamore to Steubenville, it revealed the ‘bare, ruined choirs’ of 19th and 20th century life: abandoned factories, vast consolidated corn fields, empty Victorian stores, ghostly streets, downtowns pock-marked by half-empty free parking lots, derelict grain elevators, courthouses entered only through back doors.
In subsequent posts and on the photography side of this site, I’ll share my impressions of this trip to the state where I spent most of my first three decades.
H/T: Long before I understood the image and well before I knew its source, ‘bare ruined choirs’ had struck me. It is the title of a book on the post-Vatican II church by Garry Wills written in the mid 1970s.
Current Archaeology is a superb monthly for anyone with more than a passing interest in British history. Its articles are well-written with technical explanations understandable by lay people and brilliant photography. Expensive but worth it.