early modern history

Copenhagen, Denmark: National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

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I think the National Museum of Denmark was way too big for me to thoroughly review it without stretching into 5000+ words, so I’m going to do my best to give an overview, and some highlights (and still go way over 1000 words, nuts to brevity!).  The Nationalmuseet is on a scale similar to that of the National Museum of Scotland, and probably most other national museums in countries where the collections aren’t divided up into individual museums for art, antiquities, social history, etc.  Really we should have allowed two days for it, but all the museums in Denmark are closed on Mondays, and Tuesday was our last day in Copenhagen, so we had no choice but to cram it all into one exhausting afternoon.

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The first thing we noticed, thanks to the banners hanging outside, was that there was a temporary viking exhibition on (they always have viking stuff, but this particular exhibit is only on until November).  Entrance to the museum, and Viking (as the exhibition is so eloquently called, which makes me want to insert an exclamation mark after it) is free, but admittance to is by timed ticket, so be sure to pick one at the admissions desk when you arrive to ensure you get a slot. We had about 45 minutes to kill before Viking(!) so thought we’d pop into the Middle Ages and Renaissance collections, not realising that the gallery just went on and on and on, and once you got sucked in, it was a long way back to the exit.

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Most of it was the sort of stuff you’d expect: religious art (see Sad Jesus being sad above), suits of armour, and fancy furniture, but a few things stood out.  The tiny coffin above was pretty awesome; there was even a wax worm crawling out of the corpse’s nose!  I really liked the replicas of typical rooms in various kinds of early modern households.  They also had a few remaining artefacts from the Kunstkammer belonging to one of the King Christians (I have no recollection of which one it was, sorry!) which the catalyst for the foundation of the Nationalmuseet.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to give most of the galleries more than a cursory glance, as it was past time to enter Viking(!), which was in an extremely dark room on the second floor.  I didn’t get to play the Viking(!) game, as the guide was taking forever to explain it to the people in front of me, and I got sick of waiting, so I don’t know whether that would have enhanced my experience, but I wasn’t that impressed.  It was basically just a random scattering of objects with descriptions that I didn’t really get to read, as the other people in there were hogging the touchscreens (and I always get slightly annoyed when signs are all on a special screen, instead of having a plaque on each object). The best part was writing a message on a special “rock” with runes (it is my Viking name, which I have decided is Jessica the Surly.  You’ll probably agree it’s apt), but I still much preferred the permanent collections, and ended up wishing we had skipped Viking(!) and devoted more time to them.  Oh well.

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The Nationalmuseet had a tonne of ethnographic collections, but it seemed similar to stuff I could see at the British Museum, and my feet were killing me, so we skipped it in favour of Danish history.  “Stories of Denmark,” which dominates the second floor, seemingly contains something on every aspect of post-1600 Danish history.  It was another giant gallery, with maze-like hallways that wound off in random directions, so I’m  not convinced we saw the entire thing, but that didn’t seem possible without backtracking.  I don’t know much about Danish history, but this exhibit made it seem similar to much of the rest of Northern Europe, except most of the kings were called Christian, and one of them seemed to have abnormally huge eyes, or a terrible portraitist.

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There was a small collection of torture implements hidden in one corner, and other interesting bits strewn throughout, though as I said, I was genuinely quite glad to have the opportunity to learn more about Danish history anyway.  For example, I learned that they had a revolution of sorts in 1848, which led to the creation of their first constitution, and also influenced the production the excellent chamberpot shown below.  Not that I condone violence against the nobility, but the verse under the picture translates to, “Both traitors to be sure, so on you Danish piss we pour.” Ok, it’s not the most amazing rhyme (it probably sounds better in Danish), but it’s funny nonetheless.

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It was quite gratifying to see an Aebleskiver pan amongst the collections.  I know they’re a big thing in certain parts of America (not Cleveland though, we’re not really known for our Danish population), but Americans have a knack for taking the best, most fattening dishes from other countries, that are only eaten on special occasions in their country of origin, and turning them into everyday things (I’m not knocking it, it is what it is, and American paczki are FAR superior to Polish ones), so it was nice to see that Danish people do actually eat aebleskiver, even just at Christmas.  Wasn’t really helpful on my quest to eat some, but still.

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Though they’re best known as the inventors of Lego, the Danes do seem to love all toys, and the museum had a special toy gallery, with a rather good dollhouse collection. They were all open at the back, so you could peek behind to see the interiors.  The toys only took up two rooms, and then we found ourselves back into Danish social history, this time 20th century.  I put some Elvis on the jukebox as a nice soundtrack for walking around the rest of the gallery, which included a mock hashish hut like the ones you’ll find in Christiania (with authentic smells!).  I’m pretty positive we took a picture of it, but now I can’t find it.  Sorry.

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I was incredibly hungry and cranky at this point, as I’d only had two small cinnamon rolls for breakfast, but my boyfriend had heard they had a noteworthy longship in the permanent Viking collections, so we trudged through the entire ground floor to get to it (turns out we could have gone in from the opposite direction, but we didn’t realise that until after).  I saw a lot of Viking ships on this trip, so I don’t think it particularly stood out, but I was SUPER cranky.  (In fairness to me, it was my birthday, so I think I was entitled to be a bit of a brat.  I don’t know what my excuse is the rest of the time.)  We totally skipped over Danish pre-history and classical antiquities, so I can’t comment on them.

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I think the moral of the story here may be that if you want to take advantage of all the Nationalmuseet has to offer, give yourself at least two afternoons there, and take snack breaks!  Even though I wasn’t in the best mood, it was undeniably a very nice museum, and everything had an English caption in addition to the Danish one.  If you only have a short time to spend there, I think “Stories of Denmark” or the Renaissance galleries are the way to go, depending on your interests (I’m sure the Viking gallery is good as well, but there are loads of Viking museums all throughout Denmark, so I preferred to devote my time to lesser known eras of Danish history).  4/5


Kali…Kali Ma!!!!



Isle of Wight: Carisbrooke Castle

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So, I honestly wasn’t all that keen on visiting Carisbrooke CastleCharles I has never been that high on my list (he’s never been that high on anyone’s list, which was clearly part of the problem), and to add to that, Carisbrooke is a good mile and a half from Newport, which, to avoid the expensive and erratic local buses, necessitated a long trudge up a very steep hill. However, it seemed silly to take the hovercraft over to the Isle of Wight solely to see Osborne House, and as I’d been to the Needles, the donkey sanctuary, and the Garlic Farm on a previous trip, I was fast running out of island attractions.  Therefore, Carisbrooke Castle it was.

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Carisbrooke is an English Heritage property, which means they will try to persuade you to buy a membership, (even going so far as to only post the membership prices outside the door, to confuse foreign tourists) but if you stand firm, admission to Carisbrooke alone is £7.70.  The castle is most famous for being the place where Charles I was imprisoned prior to his execution, but the oldest bits of the castle date back to 1100, with various renovations throughout the centuries – the last being by Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, the other most famous resident.  The castle is also fairly renowned for its donkeys, of which more later.

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There’s a fair number of things to see around the castle, but we began with the museum, which was laid out in a handful of rooms over three floors.  I really disliked the signage in this museum; everything was in an irritatingly large font, giving the impression that the displays were intended solely for children, which I don’t think was the case, but it nonetheless infantilised the exhibits in an unpleasant way.  Captions aside, there wasn’t much point attempting to look around the ground floor, as it was packed full of children using the miniature trebuchet; clearly their parents were desperate to distract them after the donkey water wheel demonstration was postponed (I almost typed “donkey show” but I’d better not even go there).

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The top floor did contain some cool things, like the freaky doll pictured above, (her legs were in, er, pap smear position, whilst her torso was rotated the other way; no explanation for this was provided) and a player piano dating back to the 17th century that still worked! The main exhibit was on John Milne, (no relation to A.A.) geologist and pioneering seismologist, which my boyfriend was pretty excited about, but I found it kind of boring, and only perked up when I saw his paper on the Great Auk (anyone pick up on the Laura Ingalls Wilder connection?).

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There were some good Charles I artefacts in one of the attic rooms (yeah, he stinks compared to his son, but I’ll take regicide-related objects over geology any day), including the lace cap and cravat he was said to have worn on the day of his execution, and a lock of his hair, as well as some Roundhead armour and other Civil War memorabilia.

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The first floor contained Charles’s bedroom, but it has been so altered over the years, from having all the furniture replaced, to adding a useless minstrels gallery (and that’s not me being snarky, it actually was useless, as there were no stairs to access it!), that it bore little resemblance to the room he would have known.  Even the windows, which he mounted an escape attempt from, were changed, so I couldn’t even tell if he reasonably got stuck, or if he simply wasn’t trying hard enough (the current windows are much bigger than the originals would have been, so I couldn’t go by that).

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There was, at least, a rather good portrait of Charles II as a child, which wasn’t really compensation for the renovated windows, but it was something.  It’s worth noting that Charles I’s daughter Elizabeth was also imprisoned briefly here after his death, until she contracted pneumonia and died.

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Stepping out of the museum, we headed over to the chapel, which serves as both a Charles I and WWI memorial, and contains the cracking bust of Charles pictured at the top of this post.  Though the whole “remember” thing just made me think of the Guy Fawkes rhyme, which was another monarchical crisis entirely, it was a lovely quiet chapel, with a nice echoey floor.

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In an antechamber off the chapel, there was a video room showing the history of Carisbrooke Castle as told by a cartoon donkey that appeared to simultaneously rip off Shrek and Wallace and Gromit.  The actual donkeys are kept in a stable at the other side of the complex, from which they emerge several times a day to walk around the treadwheel to power the well, mainly for the delight of tourists.  They’re all given “J” names, but alas, there was no Jessica donkey; however, there was a Jill and a Jim Bob, which reminded me a bit too much of the Duggars (yes, I used to get sucked into watching that show when I was back home, because American TV is uniformly awful, with the exception of reruns of Seinfeld).  Cute donkeys though.

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Let’s see, the other main attractions involved walking up a crapload of uneven stairs to the top of the castle walls and the well, (which proved to be gratifyingly deep when I dropped a penny down it), or heading down to the Bowling Green, where Charles may have been allowed to exercise.  The top of the castle offers views of most of the Isle of Wight, and a garderobe, sans functional hole.  The Bowling Green was basically just a field, with cannons perched around the edges, and some hills that looked perfect for rolling down, but I didn’t want to ruin my dress, so I’ll never know.

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I shouldn’t neglect Beatrice’s garden, which was an Edwardian walled garden full of bees, and some butterflies, much to my dismay (damn stupid phobia).  The final part of the castle worth noting was the keep, which now contains a few replica weapons, like a crank-operated crossbow (you can turn it to your heart’s content, but obviously nothing is going to happen) and a cannon that “fires” when you touch the fuse to it (loud noise +flash of light).

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Ultimately, I think Carisbrooke Castle was middling at best.  At the end of the day, it was just a castle, and not substantially different from others I’ve seen; Charles I being kept prisoner was clearly the most exciting thing that’s ever happened here.  3/5; worth seeing if you’re interested in the Stuarts, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  And be sensible; drive or take a bus, because the walk is not especially pleasant.  They do sell chocolate “rat droppings” in the gift shop though, which I guess counts for something!


London: St. Olave’s ( Samuel Pepys’s Church)


Gate with skull details.

At the intersection of Hart Street and Seething Lane, around the corner from Tower Hill, sits St Olave’s Church, where Samuel Pepys is buried.  Despite his constant womanising, Pepys is one of my favourite historical figures, and I’d been wanting to visit St. Olave’s for a while, but had been deterred by the fact that it’s only open on weekdays (presumably one can gain entrance on weekends by attending service, but that wasn’t something I’d be inclined to do) and is near the City, which is not an area of London that I frequent.  However, my boyfriend had an afternoon off work, and we were planning on heading towards East London anyway, for the Royal London Hospital Museum (post to follow), so the time was right to visit the “churchyard of St. Ghastly Grim,” (as Dickens referred to it).


Elizabeth Pepys memorial, commissioned by Pepys after her death.

The church isn’t terribly large (and there was some building work going on during our visit, which made it feel even more crowded), but it is packed with Pepysy goodness. Elizabeth, Samuel, and his brother John are all buried in a vault beneath the Communion table, so there’s no effigy atop the tomb in the manner of Westminster Abbey et al, but there’s no shortage of memorials around the church.  The memorial to Elizabeth, shown above, was directly opposite the Navy Office pew where Pepys sat, so he could gaze upon her during services.


Pepys Memorial

On the side of the church, there’s a Victorian era memorial to Pepys, which was paid for via public subscription, largely thanks to the efforts of Henry B. Wheatley, one of the editors of Pepys’s diary (in stereotypical Victorian fashion, he omitted most of the juicy stuff). There’s also quite a few other plaques in the church unrelated to Pepys that are worth a look.  St Olave’s was restored in the 1950s, after being damaged in the Blitz, and it is a lovely little church, with an appropriately solemn air.


The “best beloved” churchyard is similarly compact, with only a few headstones, but it is nicely shaded, and contains a tablet marking the former entrance to the Navy Office Pew. Pepys used the side entrance to the church, as he lived just opposite on Seething Lane.  Unfortunately, the Navy Office and his home, which was attached, were destroyed by fire in 1673 (after Pepys went through all the trouble of saving it (and his Parmesan) in the Great Fire of 1666), so St. Olave’s is the only remaining testament to Pepys in the surrounding area.


Well, that, and the nearby street which bears his name.

Pepys isn’t the only famous person connected with St. Olave’s.  As hinted at above, St Olave’s was mentioned by Dickens in the “Uncommercial Traveller” articles, and according to the sign outside the gate, someone called Mother Goose is buried in the churchyard.  All in all, St. Olave’s is a charming piece of history, but it is still a working church, so please bear that in mind.  As I mentioned at the start, St. Olave’s is shut on weekends, and during the month of August, and you are poking around a religious building, so be respectful!  That said, if you are a fan of Pepys, it’s well worth coming in for a “pepys” around (had to work that it somewhere), as St. Olave’s is clearly proud of their connection with the diarist.