Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Raining Cats and Dogs

Four years ago I was starting a new educational program, bringing all the knowledge of Medieval and Renaissance Europe that I had gained while working at Renaissance faires into interactive workshops for schools. The transition was not exactly smooth, Though I had been diligent in my research of the European Middle ages, not everyone I hired had been quite as diligent. For a good number of the workshops it did not matter so much, since they were highly scripted, with definite goals.

The workshop that was hardest to research and script was the Middle-Ages Talk Show. I wanted to give the kids a chance to ask anything they wanted to know about daily life, so I assembled a panel of three performers portraying different classes: a noble lady, a wine merchant, and a peasant girl. The presenters prepared by reading books and I sent out a few questions I thought the kids might ask, but we really did not know until we got there the sorts of things to expect. I did not put myself on the panel, I wanted to observe, but in retrospect that was probably not the smartest decision. The school was great, the teachers had worked with all the kids to come up with questions, and they raised their hands and were incredibly polite, but the presenters were still incredibly nervous. The presenter who was playing the noble lady had a lot of knowledge, but she was shy, and clammed right up when she got in front of the kids, the presenter doing peasant life was normally very outgoing, but she was not confident in her historical knowledge so she had a hard time making anything she might say interesting. The final presenter, the wine merchant had gotten his BA in history, and was full of knowledge, but he did not know much about wine production, and he was working hard to fill the silences of the other two. At one point he was going on about the sort of house he lived in, talking about the thatched roof when an amazing story came out of his mouth. I remember it fairly distinctly, though I might not remember it exactly:

“My house has a thatched roof, that is bundles of straw laid across the beams. Thatch is wonderful except sometimes the cats and dogs in the house crawl up into the thatch, then when it rains very hard they fall down and that is how we get the expression raining cats and dogs.”

I had never heard that one before, in fact, I had never heard the origin of the phrase, but knew that one could certainly not be true! I made sure after the panel was done that the presenter did not repeat that story to any of the other groups, and at the end, well, I had learned a lot even if the kids had not. The school gave us another chance the next year, and each year it got better. I did not have those same panelists back, but found people with more knowledge, who would not clam up under 45 staring eyes.

This year, when planning out the talk show, one of the regular panelists who portrayed a monk, could not make the date. I scrambled around for a while, and eventually asked the panelist who had played the wine merchant. He’d done a lot for us in the past 4 years, and had kept increasing his knowledge. He asked to play the monk, and since that was the role we had lost I agreed. He promised not to tell the cats and dogs story, and the presentations went really well. The teachers even let me know that this year’s talk show was the best they’ve ever seen. The kids learned a lot, we kept the pace up, and had fun while still being accurate and informative. I apologized to our new monk for teasing him about “cats and dogs” all those years, and thanked him for saving our presentation.

Yesterday a friend told me he had been watching a show on Stratford-upon-Avon on the travel channel. The show included a guided tour of Anne Hathaway’s cottage lead by a guide in an exquisite costume. The guide actually told the raining cats and dogs story on television, and went on to explain that that is why folks had canopies on their beds, to keep stuff falling through the roof from hitting people while they slept. It turns out this is quite a well known hoax, but still a hoax nonetheless.

I’m sorry again Tom, your story was not as unreasonable as I first thought, even if it is still false. I’m glad you could help make our 6th graders better educated than English tour guides. Read this entry on entry page