Medieval Recycling and Unexpected Things

I love finding the unexpected in my sources. Much of the time the material I work with is pretty tough going at the best of times, manorial court rolls were the sources emanating from the private jurisdictions medieval lords exercised over their communities. They were the notes taken at  the courts held privately in medieval manors. They give a biased view, they tell us predominantly things lords were interested in – invariably things which involved making or loosing him (it was usually though not always a him) money. Still manorial documents are invaluable for allowing historians precious insights into the daily lives of ordinary people who left us no written sources themselves. However, such sources are only for the truly determined, they are written in abbreviated medieval Latin, often incomplete, often repetitive and slow, hard work. It is the broader patterns of behaviours which can be uncovered through them as well as the odd snippets of real treasures which makes them so worth all the effort. Those occasional ‘Eureka moments’ many historians, myself certainly included, hope for, and keep us all ploughing through these manuscripts. Occasionally such wonderful insights can also come from other manorial records, like accounts, which were drawn up annually, charting incomes and expenses at individual manors. The manor of Heacham in Norfolk is one of the most fascinating manors I have ever worked on. It is a coastal manor, and the social and economic forces at play in this place are so fundamentally different from what I have observed in other places that the manor keeps me on my toes, challenging me constantly to re-examine views and ‘truisms’ I have taken for granted from studying other manors located inland. It is a place where the sea and the land intermingle, where people live from both in ways which are endlessly exciting to explore.  I had always imagined the settlements of Heacham to reflect this interaction between sea and land quite physically and visibly. We know that in more recent centuries people re-used what the sea discarded and brought forth to the beach, so I always felt that parts of old boats and ships would have been worked into the fabrics of buildings, or fencing, or shelters for livestock.  Alas I had not seen any evidence for this in my sources – and why would I, it was not something people would have considered worth noting down, … except when money was involved. So while spending some wonderful hours in the Norfolk Record Office in Norwich, I finally came across a wonderfully rare reference to medieval recycling. A simple line, yet so evocative of late 13th century life in a typical coastal community. In a late 13th century account it was noted that sails had been bought from a ship to be made into sails for one of the lord’s manorial windmills. A Eureka moment indeed… OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Welcome to my blog about medieval peasants. Soon I will start posting some bits about my research, interesting snippets of daily life in the 13th and 14th century English villages I work on. But be warned that I am not really interested in kings and queens, or lords and ladies in any way, so you will not find much about them in these pages.