It is sometimes so important to focus on the detail, the small facts of daily life which make up the overall larger historical narrative, but which tends to get forgotten about. The humanity of a gesture, a gift, an argument and an agreement which happened in one small place hundreds of years ago is what makes the medieval as real as any human interaction we can observe in our society. They allow us glimpses into the past which are perhaps easier to relate to more directly than more abstract theoretical frameworks which have a tendency to fit rather uneasily around human relationships which have a tendency to defy easy categorisation and rebel against constructed drawers neatly lined up by historian and sociologist alike.
I have just signed a contract to publish a book with the University of Hertfordshire Press, which aims to explore the humanity and the human relationships of the people who populated the medieval manor of Heacham in the later 13th and early 14th centuries. Landscapes and geographies imprint themselves on those living and operating within them in complex and multilayered ways. Enclosed valleys house different kinds of people fostering different mentalities than deserts, or flat easily accessible landscapes with easy infrastructures. At the root of these differences lies economics. How people make their living, how they manage to put food on the table and clothe their children, how they are able to look after their elderly neighbours ultimately defines their entire cultural and social contexts. Heacham was not an ordinary manor located on the Norfolk coast it is as defined by the fertile soil inland as it is by its salt marshes, harbour and sea. The people living there were defined and defined themselves by the sea the salt and the soil in equal measure. An adaptable ultimately very resilient society, having developed structures of support and communal bonds which are underpinned by fishing, salt making, fish selling as much as ploughing, sowing and harvesting.
Now the summer is approaching and with my students gone having sat their exams I now have space to think about my people of Heacham, people like Alice the fishmonger, who argued with everybody, or people like the inheriting son, who could not bear to see his younger brother ‘left with nothing’ after their father’s death, and who sued his neighbours for lands which he thought their father had alienated wrongly so that he could hand them over to his brother. Survival meant cooperation, cooperation meant solidarity and a network of people one could rely on for support.