Welcome to the very first of our guest blogs that form the NMGS Mini Blog Fest! Each of our guest posts over the coming weeks will look at the theme - 'What does history/heritage mean to you?' I am therefore delighted to be able to introduce you to the work of Karen and Lori, two American authors whose recently published work, The Medieval Vagina: An Historical and Hysterical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages is certainly getting a fair amount of attention on social media and elsewhere.
Threads of Heritage
By Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety
Heritage is a complex word that conjures up more than history, culture, or traditions. Yet, heritage is comprised of these very things. Heritage is a composite, if you will; an alloy or a cocktail. But heritage is much more than a simple mixture of ingredients. Heritage is a tightly woven, intricate, interconnected intermingle of seemingly random threads that, taken together, tell a story. Heritage is a tapestry.
A tapestry, of course, is a cloth, a heavy woven piece of textile art. Each tapestry is woven on a loom using hundreds or thousands of individual threads in an artistic arrangement depicting a beautiful scene. A tapestry also tells a story. On its own, one individual thread is not impressive. The thread is only impressive when it is interwoven with others of its kind. Only then, can its true beauty and importance can be viewed.
Slaves in the South of the United States during the first half of the 1800s used homespun tapestries, as well as rugs and quilts, as a means to share coded maps and instructions for escaped runaways who journeyed north via the Underground Railroad to, it was hoped, eventual freedom. The cloth was ideal; it was portable and could double as a blanket or covering. And if the slave was caught, his captors most likely wouldn't be able to decipher the symbols - even if they knew the significance of them.
Like a tapestry itself, history is filled with events that, when viewed in isolation, seem insignificant and trivial, but when viewed as part of the tapestry, we can fully see how integral each of these events are to understanding the bigger picture.
Cassopolis, Michigan, is a dying Midwestern town with nothing much to show for itself today. Most businesses have long ago left this corner of southwest Michigan in favour of larger nearby cities, like South Bend, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan - and even Chicago and Detroit. Just as the businesses have gone, so too have the residents. Cassopolis is viewed today as an unimportant, dull thread.
Yet, Cassopolis is located along the final stops of the Underground Railroad’s route into Canada. Many escape slaves, attracted to the fertile farmland and hospitality of the Quaker residents, settled in and around Cassopolis and began building their lives as free men and women.
In 1847, a group of Kentucky slave owners crept into Cassopolis under cover of darkness to recapture the former slaves, who they viewed as their missing property. They were met with resistance not only from the former slaves, but from the peaceable Quakers as well. The Quakers calmed the slave owners, and convinced them to plead their case before the local judge. The legal process took longer than expected, a purposeful delay that gave the former slaves ample time to flee across the border and into the safety of Canada.
The enraged slave owners returned to Kentucky empty handed, determined that this would never happen to them again. They took their grievances to the courts and lawmakers. This event was the catalyst that led to the eventual passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 which, in turn, was one of the catalysts for the start of the American Civil War.
We can view the entire tapestry, the entire Civil War in this case, and study what we see. This is the study of history. We can view the tapestry as a product of its time and examine the societal beliefs and attitudes that may have impacted the weaver. This is the study of culture. We can admire the painstaking dedication of the artisan who is so skilled at his craft. This is the study of traditions. Or we can start by looking at the whole tapestry - then follow each thread, one by one, to see where they start - and how they intertwine with each other. This is heritage.
Karen and Lori's new book, The Medieval Vagina: An Historical and Hysterical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages can be viewed here - http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Medieval-Vagina-Historical-Hysterical/dp/1500267619