Gaining a deeper Understanding



One learns by doing.

Trying to explain to a child the mechanics of writing with a pen will not teach them either how to write or allow them any insights into the emotional experiences which come along with writing. Explaining how to wield a pen and make strokes to create lines on paper which carry meaning to others does very little to convey the world that opens up with the real experience of writing.

Getting children and learners to become ‘hands on’ and ‘practical’ as part of their learning experience is considered by educationalist to be an important component in encouraging  what is often referred to as ‘deep learning’ or ‘gaining a deeper understanding’. Indeed my own students referred rather indirectly to this experience when they blogged about their trip with me to the Weald and Downland Museum.

Therefore it is perhaps a little odd that the same is not generally encouraged of historians. Those who study the societies of the past are not encouraged to try their hands at the trades of the past, the methods of artistic or artisanal endeavours, try out recipes one might come across in manuscripts or listen to medieval instruments. Not infrequently such attempts are positively frowned upon and dismissed as ‘ not proper’ history. The area of re-enactment or ‘living history’ is certainly not without its problems, conceptually the past is in danger to be viewed through rose-tinted glasses, when re-enactment is a form of escapism into a pseudo past, which is a romanticised semi-fiction in an attempt to leave behind an increasingly stressful and pressured modern world, where people are haunted by social media, enthralled to mobile phones and e-mail in a bizarre serfdom to technology and stressful working conditions.

And yet .. everybody knows the past is about much more than documents and fragments of surviving artefacts. The past was lived by people with real experiences, and real knowledge and expertise which is largely lost to us now. We feel ourselves so much more superior with our mobile phones and latest apps, laptops and online memory storage. .. until, that is, it malfunctions or becomes outdated. when my phone broke I lost 400 odd images, including of medieval documents, when my laptop broke I thought I had lost most of my book. ‘Give me parchment and a quill anytime.’ I shouted in anguish at the computer repair man – who I hasten to add recovered my data. The hundreds of thousands of words we produce will not survive for 600 years or more, the words scratched on parchment in the 13th century though are highly likely to. The society we have created is as perishable as the goods we produce, a throw -away society in more senses than one. We overproduce goods for the sake of profit and for the sake of profit they must not last. For the most part things made in medieval times were made to last. The thought and craftsmanship that went into these was underpinned and itself created a mentality very different from that of modern productive processes.

To gain some sort of understanding of this mentality which is so very different from ours is worth attempting. Again such deeper understanding can be helped by the doing. A few years ago a hostile reviewer of something I had written commented rather grumpily if I wanted to try and get everybody to imagine what being a peasant was like. The comment made me smile, because, in a sense yes, of course I would love my readers to empathise with  the people whom I  have chosen to study. I know people who recreate medieval weapons, clothes and other items of daily life with eye-watering precision and an expertise few, if any, historians I know could trump. This is impressive, but it also helps me and my students to understand in a -yes- hands on way the past just a little bit better. it helps to move the past from the obscure and abstract into somewhat sharper outline and clarity.

That is why I spin, I weave, I started to learn about natural dyeing. To spin some flax – as pictured above- is not only a pleasant past time, but teaches invaluable lessons about the process, yes, there is cheating involved I did not grow the flax or have to ret it, break it etc, -it came ready to be spun, but spinning flax is not easy, and it is a great deal more difficult – I think – than, say, spinning wool. Above all it takes time. It is very very labour intensive. One might know in theory just how labour intensive cloth production before mechanised mills used to be. After all I just told you so – BUT try it out; how many evenings does it take you to spin enough flax to weave a sheet?! Or take wool. I buy a raw fleece, freshly shorn off a sheep. I now need to wash it, card it, spin it, dye it even perhaps. Then wash the skeins, hang them up to dry to fix the twist, then wind it into balls. A garment made by hand from start to finish now would be incredibly expensive even if the person making it would only be paid minimum wage. The cost for a jumper would run into hundreds, not 20 or 30 quid.

Wool takes for ever to dry – trust me – it does. In winter in my house you can find bits of washed and drying fleeces draped over the radiations in my house. So how on earth did they dry the wool in the middle ages? You would have needed a couple of warm sunny days in the summer, probably not long after shearing, in winter it would just not get dry. These were never questions which would have occurred to me before I started to spin myself. Considering these issues I asked myself if one really even needs to wash the wool then? Well, theoretically – having spun quite a bit in the wax- that is before most of the natural lanolin is washed out of the fleece – one could effectively make an almost shower-proof item of clothing, as the lanolin is water repellent, if the wool is not washed too much before spinning and weaving or knitting it. So I now think that wool preparation was very much a seasonal activity, with fleeces which were due to be washed cleaned shortly after shearing in the summer. Spinning can be done all year round, and is a good job to do in winter when the farming cycle is less busy and frankly when the wool in your hands will keep your fingers warm.

What about dyeing though? Well, to dye effectively the wool, either spun or unspun, needs to be thoroughly scoured or the dye will not stick to the greasy fibre. Does all this doing and learning and messing around with fleeces and flax  teach me anything as a historian? Many invaluable lessons. Cloth was precious. It was costly, as even the cheapest russet was labour intensive. It helps in peeling back the layers of modern world thinking, it challenges the normality of the throw away culture. It disrupts politically the blithe arrogance of our age. Doing helps raise research questions which I did not know where even there. Ploughing with horses similarly made me reconsider the prices of horses, which may well have been influenced not only by considerations of health and age, but also on the level of training the animal may have received as a plough beast.  A horse that responds to voice command easily to, say, step into the furrow, would have been worth a great deal more than a horse which was untrained. So trying to get stuck in with some ‘doing’ or ‘recreating’ not only encourages a deeper understanding, but in doing so encourages deeper and probably the asking of more accurate questions of our sources. So yes, let us try to imagine along some of the peripheries of possibilities.


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