Peter Erasmus, a Metis man who became famous in his lifetime as an interpreter, narrated an account of his life in 1920. In his book, Erasmus described the Christmas celebrations at Smoking Lake (now Smokey Lake) in 1862.
When Erasmus arrived at the settlement just before Christmas, he described how Mrs. McDougall (the mother of Erasmus’ friend and local missionary John McDougall) was quite distressed on behalf of the children because she thought it would be impossible to celebrate Christmas under current conditions. “This will be the first Christmas they’ll have without presents and all the things that make Christmas memorable for them,” she told Erasmus. He shared these worries with Mr. McDougall and they sprang into action. They collected money from various men in the community to purchase presents, and cut down a tree from down the creek. Then, Erasmus said:
We can get some white hair from that white mare of Woolsey’s if we can persuade her to keep her feet out of the skies while we cut her tail. Your Santa Claus wig and whiskers can be made by your mother and Mrs. Flett, so we are all set for the big day.
McDougall gave a token protest that he was given all the hard tasks while all Erasmus had to do was gather an audience. Erasmus said that it was his right to choose what he wanted to do because it was his idea.
Erasmus describes the event:
The time was set for the early evening of Christmas Day. Invitations were sent to the camps . . . . The presents, assembled under the tree, contained small parcels of tea, tobacco, cotton shirts for the men and dress goods for the mothers, trinkets for the children, and other articles which I have now forgotten. Mr. McDougall explained about the old man who always visited the people at this time of year. The white people believed he came purposely to see the children. His story was much the same as today except that he adapted the wording to the understanding of his Indian audience.
At the ringing of a bell, Santa Claus was ushered in from behind a curtain that sheltered the fireplace. The whole performance was realistic as the attention of our audience was centered around the ringing of the hidden bell, which the minister manipulated with his foot by a string. The McDougall children clapped their hands and couldn’t contain their enjoyment. The younger children among the Crees were somewhat frightened; but the older ones, following the lead of the white children, soon laughed and clapped their hands at the funny old man with his long flowing beard.
When Santa gave them an address of welcome in the Swampy Cree language, the elders gazed in astonishment. I had to speak to them in Cree and explain that the man could speak in all languages for he visited all countries over the Big Water. The presents were handed out and Santa took his departure. . .”
Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights, 169 – 170.
For some unknown reason, right before the bell rang, John McDougall disappeared and missed Santa’s visit.
Erasmus, Peter. Buffalo Days and Nights. Calgary: Glebow-Alberta Institute, 1976.
The Irish-Canadian artist Paul Kane travelled to what is now Western Canada in the height of the fur trade in the 1840s, sketching and drawing Indigenous peoples at a time before the dominance of photography. He spent the Christmas of 1846 at Fort Edmonton, which at the time was the largest Hudson’s Bay Company fort in the Saskatchewan District (any post along the Saskatchewan rivers). I love his description of the day because it is so evocative.
“On Christmas-day the flag was hoisted, and all appeared in their best and gaudiest style, to do honour the holiday. Towards noon every chimney gave evidence of being in full blast, whist savoury steams of cooking pervaded the atmosphere in all directions. About two o’clock we sat down to dinner. Our party consisted of Mr. Harriett, the chief [trader or factor], and three clerks, Mr. Thebo, the Roman Catholic missionary from Manitou Lake, about thirty miles off, Mr. Rundell, the Wesleyan missionary, who resided within the pickets, and myself, the wanderer, who, though returning from the shores of the Pacific, was still the latest importation from civilised life.
The dining-hall in which we assembled was the largest room in the fort, probably about fifty by twenty-five feet, well warmed by large fires, which are scarcely ever allowed to go out. The walls and ceilings are boarded, as plastering is not used, there being no limestone within reach ; but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling filled with centre-pieces of fantastic gilt scrolls, making altogether a saloon which no white man would enter for the first time without a start, and which the Indians always looked upon with awe and wonder. . . .
No table-cloth shed its snowy whiteness over the board ; no silver candelabra or gaudy china interfered with its simple magnificence. The bright in plates and dishes reflected jolly faces, and burnished gold can give no truer zest to a feast.
Perhaps it might be interesting to some dyspeptic idler, who painfully strolls through a city park, to coax an appetite to a sufficient intensity to enable him to pick up an ortolan [a small old-world bird], if I were to describe to him the fare set before us, to appease appetites nourished by constant out-door exercise in an atmosphere ranging at 40° to 50° below zero. At the head, before Mr. Harriett, was a large dish of boiled buffalo hump ; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf. Start not, gentle reader, the calf is very small, and is taken from the cow by the Caesarean operation long before it attains its full growth. This, boiled whole, is one of the most esteemed dishes amongst the epicures of the interior. My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose ; the gentleman on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow. The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, whilst Mr. Rundell cut up the beavers’ tails. Nor was the other gentleman left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose. The centre of the table was graced with piles of potatoes, turnips, and bread conveniently placed, so that each could help himself without interrupting the labours of his companions. Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton ; and long will it remain in my memory, although no pies, or puddings, or blanc manges, shed their fragrance over the scene.
In the evening the hall was prepared for the dance to which Mr. Harriett had invited all the inhabitants of the fort, and was early filled by the gaily dressed guests. Indians, whose chief ornament consisted in the paint on their faces, voyageurs with bright sashes and neatly ornamented moccasins, half-breeds glittering in every ornament they could lay their hands on ; whether civilized or savage, all were laughing, and jabbering in as many different languages as there were styles of dress. English, however, was little used, as none could speak it but those who sat at the dinner-table. The dancing was most picturesque, and almost all joined in it. Occasionally in among the rest, led out a young Cree [woman], who sported enough beads round her neck to have made a pedlar’s fortune, and having led her into the centre of the room, I danced round her with all the agility I was capable of exhibiting, to some highland-reel tune which the fiddler played with great vigour, whilst m partner with grave face kept jumping up and down both feet off the ground at once. . . I believe, however, that we elicited a great deal of applause from Indian [women] and children, who sat squatting around the room on the floor. Another lady with whom I sported the light fantastic toe, whose poetic name was Cun-ne-wa-bum, or “One that looks at the Stars,” was a half-breed Cree girl ; and I was so much struck by her beauty, that I prevailed upon her to promise to sit for her likeness, which she afterwards did with great patience, holding her fan, which was made of the tip end of a swan’s wing with an ornamental handle of porcupine’s quills, in a most coquettish manner.
After enjoying ourselves with such boisterous vigour for several hours, we all gladly retired to rest about twelve o’clock, with guests separating in great good humour, not only with themselves but with their entertainers.”
Aside from the fascinating description of all of the dishes at the head table (white fish in a bone marrow sauce! Moose nose! Buffalo hump! An entire bison fetus!), I would like to highlight the fact that Paul Kane was one of only a handful of people at the fort who spoke English. Cree and French were far more useful languages in the West, though because the Hudson’s Bay Company’s official documents were intended for the management in London, most of the primary sources from these posts are written in English.
James Douglas was born in Demerara in modern Guyana. He was the son of a Scottish sugar merchant and a free black woman. In his lifetime, he was schooled in Scotland, then headed to the west coast of North America, working for the North-West Company, then the Hudson’s Bay Company, and ending up as the Governor of the newly formed colony of British Columbia.
Douglas didn’t often speak of his racial background; in fact, his daughter told a biographer in the 1920s that he was born in Scotland. (Whether or not she genuinely believed that or just said so to protect the memory of her father is an interesting question.) Douglas became the governor of British Columbia in 1858. At that same time, across the continent, tensions were rising in the United States over questions of slavery. That conflict would eventually erupt in the American Civil War. In the States, a single metaphorical drop of African blood would mark you as a second class citizen. Yet, here, at the edge of an empire, a man like Douglas could rise to an incredibly powerful position. I find this time and place fascinating.
Historian Adele Perry (whose article I list below was a major source for this blog post) has argued that it would be a mistake to think of Douglas in simplified terms from solely an American racial perspective. That black/white dichotomy is not an entirely useful lens out in what would become Western Canada. As Perry wrote:
“Douglas lived nineteenth-century blackness in different circumstances, one where black-white hierarchies were not the only or principal racial cleavage, and where geographic distance and limited communication facilitated a degree of self-invention . . . . The disconnects between different colonial spaces allowed a man of African-Caribbean origin to serve as the highest representative of the British empire in a northern North American colony….”
Now, don’t get me wrong: 19th century British Columbia was not a perfect post-racial utopia where all lived in harmony. Douglas did downplay his background, and that of his wife and children. (More on that in a moment.) There was interracial conflict, tensions, and hypocrisy. But there were also interesting relationships between and among emerging diverse communities.
To understand the history of what is now Western Canada, you’ve got to know about the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and you’ve got to know about “country wives”. Despite the beautifully simple maps you see in history textbooks where all of Rupert’s Land is painted in one solid colour as “Hudson’s Bay Company Territory” or even “British Territory”, in reality, the HBC only ever controlled the land within the shadow of the walls of their forts. The company relied a lot on the goodwill of local Indigenous people: their customers and economic partners. Forts thrived and profited when there were good relationships. By the early 1800s, it became increasingly common for company employees to marry into local Indigenous groups. These marriages were not blessed by the church. Missionaries were discouraged by the HBC – they were dead weight in the cargo boats and only caused trouble with the locals. Instead, these marriages were according to the “custom of the country”. That usually meant an amalgam of local traditions of marriage and at times a legal ceremony by the chief trader or chief factor of an HBC post. These Indigenous women provided essential and largely unpaid labour that kept these forts going: from interpreting to tanning the hides coming in to tending to the farms that grew their provisions to keeping the staff fed and clothed. Over time, their children – the emerging Métis Nation – became the next generation of company employees, and wives for incoming company men.
After the governor of the HBC, Sir George Simpson, turned away his country wives to marry his 16 year old white cousin Frances Simpson, there was a vogue among company officers to have European wives. This influx of white women, particularly in places like Red River, caused racial tensions, as these newcomers (many from more humble classes that married up) and the high-ranking “fur trade aristocracy” (largely Métis people) both condescended each other. (See: the Foss-Pelley Scandal of 1850 for an engrossing account of the viciousness and pettiness this war of words and morals.)
All that is to say that viewing Douglas’ situation purely through a black/white racial lens removes a lot of fascinating nuance.
Douglas, like many officers of his rank at that time, did marry a Métis woman, Amelia Connolley, the mixed-blood daughter of one of his superiors (an Irishman) and his Cree country wife. Douglas also kept her as a wife even after some high-ranking officials abandoned their “country wives” in favour of imported white “exotics.” Times were changing and by the 1850s views of race and class became increasingly fraught in the region. Many of these Indigenous country wives, while not having been married in a church, were treated by fur trade society as genuine, lawfully wedded and respectable wives. Newcomers, however, saw things differently. Douglas defended the country wives against their detractors who held them to moral standards from elsewhere in the empire:
“The woman who is not sensible of violating any law, who lived chastely with the husband of her love, in a state approved by friends and sanctioned by immemorial custom, which she believes highly honourable, should not be reduced to the level of the disgraced creature who voluntarily plunges into promiscuous vice . . . who lives a disgrace to her friends, and an outcast from society.”
There is a famous story about Amelia Connolley saving the life of her husband when he was working up at Fort St. James in the 1820s. It is said that she and a female interpreter called Nancy Boucher successfully begged Chief Kwah for Douglas’s life… after she’d come at the man holding her husband at dagger point with a dagger of her own and had been disarmed. Connolley used her knowledge of Carrier (or Dakelh) customs to negotiate a peaceful solution where her husband was helpless.
Connolley was a successful figure in her lifetime because she could both navigate conflict between Indigenous groups and her husband’s company, but also could navigate high-class British colonial society. Remember, when her husband was knighted and induced into the Order of the Bath, she simultaneously became a title Lady. She, a mixed-blood woman, was the highest-ranking lady in Victoria, BC, for years.
For all that, though, the North-West Coast was changing. The question of race was an increasingly weighty one. Douglas did “pass” for white, as did his wife. In his writing, tended to shy away from mentioning his own racial background or that of his mixed-blood children children. He once advised one of his daughters in a letter she could share Cree legends with her new school friends in Wimbledon but only if she hid the fact that she knew them from her mother. Despite the fact that they’d had their marriage sanctified by a missionary in 1838, some newcomers still viewed Douglas’ marriage to Connolley (and any other marriages like theirs) as suspect. Connolley, too, was not always at ease with high society in Victoria. Though she looked remarkably European, it is said that she was far more comfortable speaking French and Cree than English, which was described as “hesitant.”
All that is to say, the question of race and class in the mid-1800s on the North West Coast is not a simple black and white one, if you’ll forgive the pun.
Douglas remains a controversial figure in some circles today, as he was the one who initially laid out the reserve system in British Columbia which still has ramifications for massive land claims today. The reserves he laid out were, to be fair, intended to provide First Nations with enough land to both practice their traditional lifestyles as well as adopt European farming practices, but were reduced by 92% by his political successor. Nevertheless, the fact remains that British Columbia is largely comprised of unceded Indigenous land and he was the first to lay out reservations alienating First Nations from the bulk of their traditional territory.
I’ll be showing off a satchel purportedly owned by Douglas at work on Sunday, November 18th, 2018, at Fort Langley National Historic Site. If you’re in the Vancouver area and you’re a history nerd, come and see me!
I drew the majority of my content for this post from Adele Perry’s article “‘Is your Garden in England, Sir’: James Douglas’s Archive and the Politics of Home.” History Workshop Journal, issue 70 (2010): 67 – 85.
To learn more about race, gender, and the evolving nature of fur trade marriages and the emergence of the Métis people, I recommend a pairing of the following two books, in this order:
Sylvia Van Kirk. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670 – 1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
Sarah Carter. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (Free downloadable PDF ebook available on the publisher’s website!)
To learn more about the People of the River (First Nations of the region near modern Fort Langley), and their relationship to the land over time, see: Keith Thor Carlson (Ed.). A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.
Moving from working from a national park in Saskatchewan to a historic site in British Columbia, I stopped by to visit friends and family for a few days in Edmonton, Alberta. One old friend with a new face that I couldn’t miss visiting while there was, of course, the new Royal Alberta Museum. Here are my impressions.
Honestly, while I know that some people aren’t fussed by the new museum, my overall impressions were generally positive. The Royal Alberta Museum had to both build on the expectations of previous loyal visitors while still doing something innovative. I think some people are up in arms along the lines of “you spent HOW much and you didn’t even include HOLOGRAMS?? THIS IS 2018?!?!” I disagree with such sentiments. A lot of folks in the museum world are moving away from big multimedia spectaculars, because a) they cost a lot to create and maintain, and b) a lot of the feedback from the average visitors show that there is a desire from visitors for more artifacts, more of “the real thing” … AKA things you can’t get except in person at a museum. The Royal Alberta did that. They had displays of interesting artifacts that drew out parts of Alberta’s history that I didn’t know, or don’t know enough about, or things I do know a lot about but the average non-historian doesn’t. That being said, I do buy some of the critiques that there wasn’t an overall clear theme of answering the question of “what makes Alberta special?” My feeling is that they did a good job of showing individual narratives, but some of the overall narrative was a bit lost for me. Nothing is ever perfect, but I did think they highlighted a lot of messages that personally resonated with me, and I think it’s very clear that they did a good job of both consulting with Indigenous communities in what is now Alberta and incorporating that content throughout the exhibits. Kudos, too, for the use of Indigenous languages throughout the exhibits, where appropriate! They chose some truly excellent artifacts and people to tell Alberta’s history.
Let’s delve into some of the displays, shall we? I for one was really excited to see things like:
I recently visited the Cypress Hills: a gorgeous landscape full of history. It’s also the site of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. This event and the early history of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) are commemorated at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.
Overall I was very impressed with my visit. In the dynamic, newly redesigned displays of the interpretive centre, they clearly made an effort to add nuance and empathy to the story of the Cypress Hills Massacre, in which over 70 Nakoda people, mainly women and children, were killed by Americans who falsely blamed them for horse thefts. This horrific event was one of the catalysts for the formation of the now famous Mounties. This police force was sent West to impose Canadian law for the first time in the territory. The new exhibits made a point of using Indigenous languages throughout. I was particularly impressed by a display which had audio recordings of accounts of the massacre from the Nakoda perspective (from both oral histories and contemporary depositions). They were available in three languages: English and French (as required by the official languages act) and Nakoda. I thought this was proper and respectful.
The site has a reproduction of the Fort itself as well as a Métis camp and trading post which interprets late fur trade history. As someone who is more used to fur trade history from a generation before (1820s – 1850s), I found the little differences from the 1870s fascinating. They had early canned goods! They also had three costumed staff there, on a weekday, interpreting Métis history, and the interpreter that showed us around was very engaging and knowledgeable. I think it would be too easy to present the Métis and First Nations history as peripheral at this site, but they did a decent job at interpreting the stories not just on the Mounties but the other folks who were living out there already. I recognize this effort particularly because I believe that it represents a shift in trying to tell a broader narrative than a narrow focus on just the Mounties.
My partner and I went on a tour of the fort itself right after we arrived. We had to skip the exhibit until afterwards, doing it out of the intended order. Luckily, we already knew some of the context of this site’s history! The tour guide was an excellent speaker and was very dynamic in their presentation style. I walked away with a clear sense of the day to day life of these men in the fort. Our favourite part of the tour was a mock trial of several troublemakers pulled from the audience. Aside from being an interesting snapshot into the kinds of crimes that were common during that period, the interpreter’s comedic timing was on point! I’m also particularly fascinated by material culture so I really appreciated, for instance, explanations about what kinds of saddles were used when and why by the Mounties. Practicality is paramount! As a whole, I was pleased with the tour and what I learned.
However, there were a few offhand remarks made by the guide that really got me thinking about the narratives Canadians tell about their history, and whose perspectives are highlighted and whose brushed aside. This isn’t a critique of our guide in particular, but of the common narratives around the history of the Mounties in Canada. Namely, one often hears about the early history of the Mounties without contextualizing a very messy history of a decade of abrupt transition from a buffalo economy to control by the British/Canadian colonial state. The guide did talk a bit about Indigenous relations throughout the tour, particularly in the introduction, but several comments really brought home to me how glossed over some of the more problematic aspects of the relationship between the Mounties and Indigenous people has been, not only at this site but whenever a triumphalist Canadian history narrative is told.
One of the key messages the interpreter had was that the relationship between the first Mounties and local Indigenous people at that time was based off of mutual respect but also intimidation. That seems contradictory to me: it can’t have been a relationship on equal footing when the Mounties were continuously doing manoeuvres with their field guns as a show of force. Mounties were also imposing a very specific worldview on the West and punished those who did not fit into that mold, criminalizing some acts that hadn’t been crimes before. I’m thinking particularly of the restriction of free movement in ancestral territories and the imposition of American and Canadian nationalities upon local people who didn’t define themselves by an invisible line (the border at the 49th parallel). Individual Mounties may have had decent and relatively respectful working relationships with some First Nations leaders, but the tour glossed over several points for me. Namely, we were laughing about arresting horse thieves at the mock trial, but who were these horse thieves? I would be shocked if they were all Euro-Americans or Euro-Canadians. Differing cultural views of what horse stealing was all about clashed in this time period and a lot of First Nations were viewed as inherent criminals because of their traditions of horse theft.
Reproduction Treaty medal at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.
Maybe this was a slip of the tongue on the part of the guide (though part of the history section of the website uses similar wording), but I think the following example really brings home the need to think critically about the narratives we’ve all been told and have told about Mounties during this time period. Namely, the guide was describing the Lakota Refugee Crisis; Chief Sitting Bull and others were fleeing conflict in what is now the US after the Battle of Little Big Horn but were refused entry into “Canadian” territory by the NWMP because, quote, “they were American.”
No, they weren’t. Sitting Bull and his people were at war with the Americans. The Americans were an invading force who had drawn an invisible line on a map from thousands of kilometres away and sought to claim Sitting Bull’s territory for the United States. Sitting Bull was not an American. He was not a Native American. He was a Lakota man at war with Americans. It is true to say that the British/Canadians at the time considered Sitting Bull to be American, or at least an American problem, and that is why they took the actions they did. But perceptions are not reality. Explaining historical perspectives is fine, but if you are speaking as an interpreter out of character, in third person, you are able to make these distinctions in a way that a person interpreting in character (in first person) cannot. I would argue that interpreters have a duty to do so, to give nuance to a story that we may understand better in hindsight with greater context than in the limited views at the time.
The decades of the 1870s and 1880s are a fascinating time of transition and conflict in the West. The near-annihilation of the buffalo changed everything on the prairies. The arrival of the Mounties and the delineation and enforcement of the border at the 49th parallel wasn’t inevitable as it is often portrayed to be. It would have been hard at that place and at that time to see the larger picture that was taking shape and just how much and how rapidly things were changing. This time of uncertain politics and culture clash is incredibly fascinating to me because it isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed in textbooks, high school classrooms, or museum exhibits. I’ve written before about NWMP encounters with people accused of being wendigos or wendigo killers. Too often we’re told the history of this messy period from the perspective of those writing the documents: the lawmen, who were too often new to to the region and had little understanding of the cultural context in which these “crimes” (according to the state) were committed. If you killed a suspected wendigo, were you a person doing what was necessary to save your community from a monster who might kill and eat people, or were you a murderer who killed a mentally ill person, sometimes at their own request? I find those messy narratives even more interesting than the misleadingly straightforward, triumphant one we often hear about: the simple narrative of the men in red uniforms coming in and imposing “peace, order, and good government” upon a lawless West.
I find it useful sometimes to think of this time period as a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Mounties arrived at a time of great disruption, after waves of disease, warfare, and the displacement of people. The near-destruction of the great bison herds wasn’t just the loss of an essential food source, but something much more profound. LeRoy Little Bear, an elder of the Kainai First Nation, has described it this way: “If you’re a Christian, imagine what would happen if all the crosses and corner churches disappeared … you still have your beliefs and ideas, but there’s no external connection to it anymore.” Imagine that every cultural institution (churches, museums), plus every shopping mall, grocery store, hardware store, and even Tim Hortons, all closed down within a single lifetime. Imagine the disruption to your life. That is the situation the Mounties were walking into.
So in summary, delve deeper into the history of the 1870s and 1880s in the West. Challenge the dominant narratives and think of how things could have been different. Seek out perspectives told by Indigenous people (yes, contemporary accounts also exist). Be fascinated, as I am, with the messy complexities and contradictions of this time period. The Mounties came in to combat the destructive whiskey trade and to stop some of the violence being committed against Indigenous people by settlers. Yes, celebrate the stories of the good things the police did, and tell the stories of early respect between NWMP and Indigenous leaders, but don’t lose sight of the wider colonial role and context of the Mounties.
The Gros Horloge (Great Clock) of Rouen is iconic of the city. It’s one of my favourite monuments of one of my favourite places in France. Many English speaking tourists to France hit up Paris, maybe the Champagne region (wine) or the Loire Valley (castles!), but if they visit Normandy normally tourists seem to skip past the interior of the region and head straight for the D-day landing beaches of the Second World War. I always encourage people to stop and explore the rest of Normandy, particularly Rouen. It’s the city where Joan of Arc was imprisoned, tried, and burned at the stake! There are narrow cobblestone streets, plus ciders, crepes, and other edible products! You can see and be photographed in front of architecture painted by Monet in the impressionist style! The beautiful Seine river that runs through Paris also runs through Rouen, but you have to deal with fewer Parisians!
The Gros Horloge itself dates from the 1300s and has an amazing little museum inside it. I really enjoyed their audioguides (available in French, English, and quite a few other languages) not only because they were informative, but also because the person speaking the audioguide claims to be the ghost of one of the former clock keepers. When he’s done talking about a particular room, he says that he’ll meet us up the stairs or wherever, and kind of implies he floats up through the ceiling. Charming!
Though it’s been run by an electric mechanism since the early 20th century, the old clockwork mechanism from the 1300s is still there, in situ, and is theoretically still in good working order if it were to be hitched back up. It was one of the earliest clocks to sound bells at the quarter of the hour, not just on the hour. The two clock faces also have black and silver globes above them that display the phase of the moon. There’s also a display showing the day of the week with Roman gods representing the day of the week: e.g., Mercury for Mecredi (Wednesday), Diana the goddess of the moon for Lundi (Monday, or the day of the “lune” / moon). In the 19th century that weekday display had been out of use for so long that it was assumed to show the signs of the zodiac! A series of reparations and restorations since the late 19th century make the Gros Horloge of Rouen an excellent functioning example of a medieval clock.
One little-known aspect of the Gros Horloge that not even all residents know is that one of the best views of the Cathedral of Rouen (famously painted by Monet) is actually from the top of the clock’s bell tower. Closed for safety reasons for many years, it reopened for the public in 2006 and have been open ever since. From there you can also see the roof of the only remaining bastion of the castle where Joan of Arc was imprisoned (now called the “Donjon” – the Dungeon). When I lived in Rouen about seven years ago, I found out that if you’re a resident of the city, when you buy your ticket you can present proof of your address and get a resident’s pass and come up any time you want to take in the view over the following year!
So please, do admire this beautiful historic clock from all angles: outside, inside, and on top!
Further Reading by Myself on Other Sites in France
On a rainy day in Normandy last month, I made an obligatory pilgrimage to see the Bayeux Tapestry. I was fairly impressed with their audio guide, which walked visitors along the narrative of the embroidery alongside medieval music. It wasn’t so busy on a weekday in April that we couldn’t go back to the start of the embroidery to revisit and more closely examine certain sections. My favourite details among many are the dwarf Tuvold holding a pair of horses and the appearance of what we now know as Haley’s Comet.
I always like to support museums through their gift shops (they often have the most meaningful souvenirs for me, a history nerd), so while there I picked up a copy of The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks.
This book delves into a series of fascinating anecdotes covering not only what we can actually know of how/when/why the embroidery was originally made (which includes surprisingly little solid documentary evidence, mostly assumptions based on material culture and lots of fierce debating over the centuries) but also what’s happened to it over the last 900+ years. Much of that is a series of anecdotes detailing how it was damaged or narrowly avoided being lost or destroyed. Here are some highlights from the Bayeux Tapestry’s biography:
It has survived more than one fire and centuries of moths.
It wasn’t stolen, destroyed, or damaged like most of the other church treasures by a mob that ransacked the Bayeux Cathedral on May 10th, 1562.
Maybe at some point it was longer and pieces were removed. Judging from the assumption of narrative and visual symmetry, there was likely a scene at the end depicting William the Conqueror’s coronation. It may have been removed early on in the embroidery’s history and it’s lucky more of it wasn’t sliced away.
It is said that the tapestry was nearly cut up and used as a canvas cart covering during the French Revolution and only the timely arrival of a local official rescued the textile from this ignominious fate.
After the Revolution, it could have been brought to the Louvre in Paris like so many other regional pieces of art and could have easily been damaged or stolen on the way to Paris or afterwards.
It was nearly sliced into different sections to be used in a parade.
It actually was brought to Paris to be displayed under Napoleon. An ancient “document” such as this displaying a successful French invasion of England was an excellent propaganda coup during the war. It was luckily returned to its home in Bayeux unscathed.
For at least a century it was displayed by being wound and unwound on a giant wooden spool, damaging the ends and distorting sections of the fabric. The sight of this damaging method of storage and display reportedly “outraged” English tourists.
At least one piece of the embroidery was snipped away in the 1810s by English artist and antiquarian Charles Stothard (not his wife as many believed). It was eventually returned.
The Bayeux Tapestry fell into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War and was once again used as propaganda, this time by Nazis highlighting the Germanic ancestry of the Norman invaders. Now the embroidery purported to show a successful invasion of England by German people at a time when the Third Reich was also aiming to cross the channel and take over England. It could easily have been stolen away by the Germans or destroyed by bombings, as so much European art was during the war.
Author Carola Hicks made the point that one of the most exceptional things about the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t necessarily its workmanship or the narrative it tells, but the fact that it survived. Other perhaps more magnificent examples of wall hangings from the same period may not have made it to the present day simply because they were made of gold or silver thread or more precious materials like silk. The more humbly made linen and worsted wool Bayeux Tapestry may have survived in large part because it wasn’t made of valuable materials. Now we consider it valuable beyond measure for the stories it tells: a 70m remnant of a very precise and yet in many ways still mysterious period of time.
The Bayeux Tapestry’s history is almost as long and storied as the actual embroidery itself. I personally find the stories of how it came to survive to present day almost more interesting than the context in which it was originally produced. The history of artifacts tells us a lot about changing perceptions of what people valued. Mainly, we today are often horrified by the carelessly cavalier way people in the past treated what are now beloved artifacts. In any case, whenever I visit a museum, I enjoy looking at artifacts and imagining where they were and what happened to them in the intervening years between their creation and when they ended up in a climate-controlled glass case in front of me.
As a Canadian visiting France, I marvel at the age of the built heritage all around me. Stained glass windows in some churches are considered relatively new if they’re from the 1500s and it isn’t unusual to see windows from the 1200s or earlier. A friend of mine used to spend the summers in the south of France in the family “cabin”: a partially collapsed medieval watchtower with a more “modern” 19th century roof. Many think of these historic buildings as somehow “timeless” or untouched, but in many cases they have lived through centuries of turbulent history and it is quite frankly a miracle they’ve survived to the present day to be seen and photographed by the likes of me.
These gargoyles look like they’re vomiting metal. Why? The massive cathedral in Reims, where generations of French kings were once crowned, was partially destroyed by bombardment during the First World War. The roof collapsed, leaving only the intricate Gothic façade. After the cathedral was hit, the lead roof melted from the heat of the flames. The molten metal flowed down through the gargoyles, which were after all designed to shunt rainwater from that very roof. These remnants are a powerful reminder of the effects of war. I had to stop and gape at them in astonishment after I fully understood what the little info cards next to them were telling me.
Once I got home, I of course felt compelled to look up historical photos from the war. I’d visited the interior of the cathedral before visiting the Palais de Tau, and at the time I’d had no idea of the extent of the damage and the post-war restoration work. It’s disorienting to see the following photographs of a place that I had just visited. The building now looks, to my inexperienced eye, nearly untouched.
We read about the world wars in books and we see archival footage in documentaries, but in North America the wars feel somewhat removed. However, the signs of war are impossible to ignore in north-eastern France. It may be random post-1950s buildings in an older quarter: signs of post-war rebuilding. Maybe it’s countryside that looks unnaturally landscaped: grassed-over trenches and battlefields. Those older buildings, too, have literal scars. Some places in some other cities, like the Palais de Justice in Rouen, kept the pockmarks from shrapnel and bombardments deliberately as a reminder of the horrors of war. In the case of Reims, they rebuilt a facsimile of the medieval building, though they have new stained glass in 20th century style in some of their windows. That restoration took over a decade and must have been a monumental effort, considering the scale of the damage. Churches and cathedrals are symbols of their communities, and having something like this happen to one must have been a huge blow. I am not surprised that it was the focus of restoration work – but also that this incident remains a point of fascination to people like me even a century later.
Reims cathedral, 1919. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (643) gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53016374d/f1.item
Soldiers and sandbags alongside the statue of Joan of Arc outside the cathedral, 1915. Bibliothèque nationale de France, [Rol, 45160] gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b69085269/f1.item.zoom
Main altar of the Reims cathedral under rubble, 1917. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (2570) gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b9045174m/f1.item
Right doorway of the Reims cathedral with sandbags and fortifications, 1918. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (2574) gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b90306414/f1.item
Interior of the Reims Cathedral after the bombardment, 1914. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (2534) gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b9041996q/f1.item
Interior of the Reims Cathedral after the bombardment, 1914. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (2534) gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b90420216/f1.item
Reims Cathedral, the morning after being bombed, 1917. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (685) gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53035955k/f1.item
Flying buttresses of the Reims Cathedral, 1919. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (637) gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b530160513/f1.item
Tower and south-facing façade of the Reims Cathedral. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (637)gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53016037z/f1.item
Interior of the Reims cathedral, 1918. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (2573) gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b90306466/f1.item
Later this month, I’ll be presenting a talk entitled Interpreting Ecology in a Cultural Context: Respecting the “Buffalo” at the National Association For Interpretation’s International Conference in Reims, France. (Come say “Hello/Bonjour!”) I’ll be arriving in France a week early to travel through Normandy, visiting friends and historic sites.
To prepare myself for that leg of the trip, I’ve been rereading one of my favourite European history books: The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. It’s a geographical and linguistic history of France outside of the history of the military, aristocracy, or Paris. (AKA the rest of the country, which is rarely spoken about.) This book shifted my entire perspective of French history, namely because Robb eloquently makes the argument that, well, French history isn’t really full of that many French speakers. France is full of hundreds of little, isolated communities, and until very recently (with the advent of trains and highways), it was a very rough country to navigate. Some of my favourite fun facts from this book:
There were in fact more accurate maps of the surface of the moon than the interior of France in the 1740s.
There are some gorgeous dialect words that have apparently made their way into standardized French. Some new and delightfully specific ones I learned are “affender” (to share a meal with an unexpected visitor), “aranteler” (to sweep away spider’s webs), “carquet” (a secret place between breast and corset), and “river” (to strip off leaves by running one’s hand along a branch).
For most of its history, French has been a minority language in the land now known as France. Only about 8 million people, or 20% of the population, of France in 1880 felt comfortable speaking French (as understood by Parisians). That’s not to say that this 20% were native French speakers – that’s 20% could hold a basic conversation in French. There were still French soldiers from Brittany in the First World War who were shot either because of insubordination (they didn’t understand their French orders) or because these Breton-speakers were mistaken for Germans.
There were shepherds in the Landes region who wore long stilts all day as they followed their sheep. Even on marshy terrain, they could apparently travel at the speed of a trotting horse. Oh, and they had a third stick they used as a seat to create a tripod, and they would knit as they watched over their flocks.
I very deliberately didn’t post this entry on April 1st, lest it be interpreted as an April Fool’s Day joke. As far as I’m aware, shepherds in the Landes actually did (and sometimes still do) go about on stilts.
Further Reading and More Images
Robb, Graham. The Discovery of France. London: Picador, 2006.
The more I delve into the history of bison over the last 200 years, the more I realize how the slaughter of these animals still has very real impacts on life in North American today. Historians and biologists writing over the last century have grown up in a world where bison are largely segregated into natural areas far away from urban centres and/or behind fences. As such, bison and their absence are not always top of mind. Out of sight, out of mind, after all. However, the near-extinction of this iconic animal has had huge ecological and social impacts on the west throughout the last 150 years and more. Now whenever I read something new about western Canadian histories or landscapes, I can’t help but re-examine these stories with a “bison lens.”
Even today, people are so divorced from bison that they may not even realize the origin of various local place names. For example, there’s a place just east of Edmonton called Hairy Hill, so called because bison used to scratch themselves there and leave behind their winter fur in the spring. Chip Lake to the west of Edmonton, I am told, is a warning on a map: don’t water your horses here, as bison have fouled it with their chips (dung). The same may be true of the myriad of “Buffalo Lakes” across the North American west. These names aren’t just whimsical – they have very real meaning.
The thing that got me thinking about the impact of the loss of bison upon events in the west in the first place was wolves. The only two real natural predators of bison are wolves and humans. We’re both pack animals that can work in groups to take on bison herds. Wolves that primarily eat bison are absolutely massive. (See this preview of a documentary on the buffalo wolves of Wood Buffalo National Park, the only place in the world where these two species have experienced an uninterrupted predator-prey relationship. In that clip, a single adult wolf stops a huge yearling bison in its tracks.) One sentence from Grant Wilson’s Frontier Farewell (page 262) caught my attention last year:
“The great herds were continually harassed by wolves that attacked the calves, the weak, and the aged. As many as 1.5 million wolves prowled the plains…” (Emphasis mine.)
The thing is, the bison populations declined very steeply. Within a single human lifetime, tens of millions of bison were slaughtered. During the height of the killing, often most of the bison carcasses went to waste: hide hiders would skin the dead animal and leave the meat to rot and be torn apart by scavengers. That means that when bison populations were in sharp decline, the wolf population, oddly, initially shot up. So when you read historical accounts of early settlers in the west being terrified by massive wolves, it isn’t just an inbuilt European prejudice against these noble creatures, borne of too many “Little Red Riding Hood” type fairy tales… there were definitely huge, starving packs of wolves roaming the prairies in the decade after the decline of the bison. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series has a chapter in which the family encounters a pack of 50 massive wolves: an event more fact than fiction, or at least within the realm of possibility.
I was trying to think of a third really salient example of the effects of a lack of bison on the landscape, and I came up with too many. Here’s a non-exhaustive list to contemplate:
Grass fires: Fire was an actor upon the landscape in the past, but the decline of bison meant that grass grew much taller and fire was suppressed by settlers. As a result, particularly in the 1880s – 1920s period in western Canada, when fire did occur, there were larger conflagrations than there would have been a generation before. (Source: page 19 of Beaver Hills Country.) We still have massive wildfires today, growing in intensity due to fire suppression and climate change. I do wonder if bison on some of these landscapes would mitigate the strength of some of these fires? What else do humans now have to manage intensely that was managed naturally by bison and other natural forces in the past?
Insects and endangered insect eaters: bison poop is an excellent incubator for many species of insects. No other native animal out west produces patties like that. There are probably many species of insects that went extinct prior to them being documented by western scientists, who didn’t come out in force until after their decline. Bison poop incubates insects, which are then eaten by other creatures. (Source: an amazing talk by bison expert Wes Olson.) Now think of all of the insectivorous prairie birds that are on the endangered species list. Their populations are declining due to lack of habitat, but are there also fewer insects than there were when there were 30 million bison roaming the continent?
Health of Indigenous Peoples: there are many First Nations who once depended upon the buffalo for food. There was starvation and hunger across the west after the slaughter. Today, diabetes is an epidemic in some Indigenous communities, due to a high-sugar diet and barriers to eating well, including high cost of food in remote communities, poverty, and lack of grocery stores or fresh produce in general. The lack of fresh bison meat in the diet isn’t the only reason for these health problems, but it certainly contributes. The Buffalo Treaty specifically cites “Health” as one of the reasons why signatories are working towards restoring bison to traditional territories today.
As you go about your research (historical or otherwise), as you drive across the prairie and look out on the landscape, and as you wander the streets of the big cities in the west, take the time to think about how the slaughter of bison has resulted in the world you live in today. The presence and absence of bison is still felt.