DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Open City: London, 1500-1700

London in the 1600s.
For the past 2 weeks, the 2012 Olympics have been showcasing London as a vibrant, world-class city.  But, of course, London has been one of the worlds great cities for more than 500 years. And the 1st 2 centuries of that growth is now on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library's new exhibition Open City: London, 1500 - 1700.

The exhibition shows how in the year 1500, London was a medieval capital which about 50,000 called home. Two centuries later, it was a sprawling, early modern metropolis with almost half a million residents (today London's population is 8.1 million), the seat of an emerging empire, abuzz with international commerce and new political and religious ideas.

So how did it change so much so fast? And what was it like to live there while it did? Open City explores these questions through rare books, plays, manuscripts, maps, diaries, prints, artifacts, and replicas.

The story is told through an examination of 3 public spaces:
  • the church
  • the theater
  • the marketplace
Of course, since this is the Shakespeare Library, much is made of the impact of words, both those of the Bard of Avon himself and others.  Prior to the invention of the printing press, stories and tales had to be mostly transmitted by word of mouth. Books were few and few could read. News was spread orally in commercial areas where maids and servants came on a daily basis to get water. Mass entertainment at the beginning of the 17th Century consisted mostly of church rituals, juggling, dancing, and bull and bear baiting.

But soon, across the city proper on the banks of the Thames River, new theaters - including the now world-famous Globe - arose. At the time, boosters of the city hoped theater could be used "to bring the world to London." The advent of the press with its ensuing proliferation of portfolios, pamphlets, broadsheets, and books created the 1st virtual public gathering place and sparked new ideas in commerce, travel, government, and religion.

In 1665, London endured a devastating plague that more than tripled the death rate. A year later, the Great Fire killed still more, while destroying 130,000 homes and structures. Shaken, but resilient, London began rebuilding and expanding, an expansion that continues today.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Unless you are reading this in London, you probably won't be able to see Olympic London, but if you want to get a taste of a much earlier London, you have until September 30th to visit the Shakespeare Library and see Open City.

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