Finding things you did not really know existed.

It is nice going to archives. These places always make me feel like a ‘proper’ historian, I love the smell of medieval manuscripts, the sense of unfurling a court roll from the 13th or 14th century, the tense and excited anticipation on what one might (or might not) find. It is a connection to the past, a link, like a precious artifact retrieved from the soil in an archaeological excavation. The feeling of touching the past, the parchment once touched by a scribe, whose quill scraped the once soft, and rather precious vellum, to record daily dealings at the latest manorial court or many pages of detailed accounts recording the lord’s profits and expenses, how many sheep were lost to murrain that year, how many mares had foals, how many bushels of grain were sold and what price the fleeces fetched that year. It is precious to touch the past in this way, precious, and I feel so privileged to be able to spend so much of my time peering into the past, into other people’s lives. Almost like an an intruder, who I can only hope would not be wholly unwelcome, but rather seen as a surprise visitor who will do their best to give as honest an account as possible of the place they visited and the people who inhabited it. The Archive therefore is a gate to another world. My heart always races when I order a document to view in the manuscript room,  When I went to the British Library a couple of week – ends ago however, I did not expect to find much of interest, but since I was there to discuss research with a colleague I ordered a book of rentals and customs of the Abbey of Glastonbury, one of the richest ecclesiastical landlord’s in medieval England, While I was not sure that I would find much, if anything,on the Glastonbury manor I am working on, Longbridge Deverill, I was utterly delighted to find instead a very detailed account of an early 13th century rental and the customary arrangements for the many unfree, and the handful of free, tenants at the manor.Another wonderful little keyhole through which to spy on the past…


Thinking about Children in the post Black Death Village

This is a topic which is very much on my mind at the moment. What was life like for young people in the medieval English village? What was it like to be a child growing up in the 14th century? We know that infant mortality was very high in the medieval world, and that many children would have died young from illnesses which are now wholly preventable, we also know that many children worked from quite a young age, what interests me however is attitudes which we can glimpse through our records towards children. Few – if anyone-  doubt anymore that medieval people did indeed have concepts of childhood and child development. Such concepts were different from our own as different societies – both in the past and contemporaneous to ours construct their own cultural and social images and ideas of childhood. So constructs of what constitutes a  child are very much socially, culturally, as well as chronologically determined. It is these concepts and how such conceptualisations are arrived at which interests me. Medieval villagers had various ways of marking the progressive steps from childhood to adulthood. Rituals, such as all 12 year old boys being sworn into a tithing in the manorial court, which entailed various formal roles and responsibilities in communal policing, were important landmarks in the experience of reaching maturity. Another such ritual, and probably the one which most defined entry into the adult world was to become the head of a household, by, for example, inheriting a holding. So it is interesting to explore how villagers dealt with the particular problems caused by the Black Death, which in wiping out anywhere between 25% and 80% of the population of individual villages, created numerous heirs which were considered too young to be granted full adult responsibility of looking after a holding. Typically a young villager was considered old enough to take on a holding anywhere between the ages of 18 and 21, but after the first arrival of the Black Death in the mid 14th century, when land was untilled and the lord wanted tenants to work the land and pay his rents, some villages granted lands to some young people aged far below 18. What decisions were at play? what pressures were exerted. What qualities did a young person have to show to be considered fit to become a tenant in his or her own right?  How did the boundaries between childhood and adulthood change in the 14th century?

Longbridge Deverill in Wiltshire.
Longbridge Deverill in Wiltshire.