Feast and Famine

It shows enormous political confidence to build a cathedral; a declaration of the strength of the church, now and for tomorrow. ( We are richly blessed with over 40 English Cathedrals) And even during the decades of building and carving and embellishing, the construction of a cathedral serves an immediate social and economic purpose, raising public morale and providing work for thousands of labourers and craftspeople, sometimes one generation passing the unfinished work onto the next.

The construction of Norwich Cathedral in the late 11th century, following a period of great drought and famine, must at some level have served as a Medieval equivalent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s which included a huge programme of construction as a means to address the need for ‘relief, reform and recovery’ from the Great Depression; an epic human catastrophe which was movingly captured in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

Forced to leave their homesteads in Oklahoma, many thousands of ‘Oakies’ made their way, by whatever means they could, to California in the hope of finding work picking fruit and vegetables. These internal migrants often only secured work for a few weeks, or sometimes just days, before the next wave of desperate and starving people arrived, willing to work for less, or even simply grateful for the chance to eat the crop they were harvesting.

According to the UNHCR, there are currently 41 million (at 2018) internally displaced people, or IDPs across the world, escaping famine, drought, deluge, persecution or conflict. Most of these people are in the MENA region and Africa; fewer in the Americas and Asia Pacific; even fewer in Europe. Or perhaps we simply describe it differently: homelessness, irregular migration, seasonal workers. During my research for my forthcoming book, We are Pilgrims, I discovered that in the late Middle Ages such displacement was sometimes disguised as ‘pilgrimage’.

As a consequence of the multi-decadal drought of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, great bands of children roamed through central Europe, calling upon the customary hospitality extended to pilgrims in all eras and cultures: free food and shelter. But over time, towns began to lock their gates against what was rapidly becoming a social plague. The Grimm’s fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by their parents in the woods tells of such times, but yet it remains hard to imagine that such famine might strike the affluent West today.

We might empathise, but we don’t necessarily see ourselves in the actions of the Medieval peasants abandoning their children in the woods, or in the faces of the starving children of the 21st century depicted on UN fund-raising campaigns for Syria, or Iraq, or Africa. But in Dorothea Lange’s photograph ‘Migrant Mother’ Many of us find a real connection with the subject, perhaps because she and her little kids could so easily have come from our family or our community.

As I traverse these islands in this 2020 Year of Cathedrals, Year of Pilgrimage , knowing that at journey’s end I will return home, Lange’s portrait of Florence Owen Thompson, 32 year-old mother of seven children, will forever be in my mind’s eye, a reminder that there but for the fall of the dice, go I.

Migrant Mother, Florence Owen Thompson, by Dorothea Lange, 1936, image courtesy of LOC

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