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 until, that is, it malfunctions or becomes outdated.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.

Living by the Sea, Economy, Society and Culture

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. WP_20141114_16_42_39_Pro


Trip to the Weald and Downland Museum

I have just had the pleasure of taking my third year students who are studying my ‘Medieval Village Life’ module to the Weald and Downland Museum. The museum did a marvelous job in helping to bring medieval village life in 13th and 14th century England to life, by allowing my students to interact and learn from their rescued medieval buildings and the replica of a late 13th century building as found during excavations of the coastal  village of Hangleton in Sussex. It is such interactions which allow and facilitate deeper learning and a clearer understanding of the materiality of the past. The theoretical can become concrete, more ‘real’ and hence relevant.

More Hangleton

Care in the Peasant Community

Occasionally one comes across deeply touching cases in manorial court rolls, cases which allow rare glimpses into medieval peasant mentalities. In this sense manorial court rolls tell us so much more than merely that which happened in a small medieval village somewhere. Rather they tell us something about medieval society more broadly, and how communities coped in a world without formalised welfare and systems of care for the needy. In the case of orphans the community made sure to find suitable wards to look after the children and any land they might have inherited before reaching the age of majority. This task was taken very seriously and occasionally clauses were added to court entries concerned with underaged heirs stipulating that those holding the wardship were to ensure not only that the heir’s property was to be looked after, but that the heirs themselves should be clothed and fed properly.

Wardships were usually awarded primarily to the closest surviving adult relatives, and if no close relative was found wards were sought further down the line of kinship networks. I have never seen a child relocated to another village though, therefore the village community seemed to make an effort to keep the child and their inheritance close to home. This system came under severe pressure in some localities when the Black Death was responsible for leaving many children orphaned, and it is apparent that occasionally village communities struggled to find suitable wards for such bereaved young people.

Taking on the wardship over a child and their land was a great responsibiliy, could be costly and involved additional work, as the land had to be looked after, farmed and appropriate rent handed over to the lord annually. On the other hand such wardships were limited in time, they concluded upon the heir reaching the age of majority, which was typically somewhere between the age of 18 and 21. A very different scenario is created by heirs with more profound needs which were life long, such as learning disabilities.

After the arrival of the Black Death in the manor of Norton, which was part of the estates belonging to the Abbey of St Albans, a tenant who held a rather substantial holding died, leaving his heir, Alice behind. Alice, however, as the court noted, was ‘foolish by nature’, which is the wording typically used in later medieval sources to describe someone with some form of learning disability. Alice was known to simply be like this, she was born different (‘by nature’) and the sources thus imply that this was known and accepted in the community. It was also understood that because of Alice’s particular nature she could not be expected to hold a tenement in her own right, and the potentially rather arduous task of looking after the holding and the heir  until the end of her life was granted a another villager, who appears to have been related to Alice, although the precise relationship cannot be established. There is no judgement in the record, only a profound understanding that Alice was going to need looking after for the remainder of her life, together with the lands she held by right. Importantly she was recognised as the only legitimate heir, and in fact she kept her inheritance, despite her ‘nature’. This speaks to me of a mentality of acceptance and care, as well as the ability to sort out various practical problems within the community


From the local to the trans national – if not quite the global: some thoughts…

Sometimes microhistory can give startling insights into connections and significances far beyond the individual locality. Sometimes microhistorical research allows one to see glimpses of a bigger picture, which without the focus of the small, the intricacies of the locality would be invisible to us. Therein lies one of the intrinsic values of local historical research. one gets very close to the individual men and women of the one village. We can name them, reconstruct their families, we can smile at their nicknames, whether it is the gentle  ‘Agnes Blossom’, the descriptive ‘John the Red’, perhaps the judgmental or comical, ‘Richard the Pope’ or ‘William the Monk’;  we get to know and become attached to such individuals, and feel humble at being allowed to spy into their lives, their highs and lows, when they got married, when they purchased land, got into debt, stole food during the famine or buried their families in the years of the Black Death. However local history can tell us much more, and throw wide open bigger questions, which otherwise would remain hidden from our view.

At the coastal manor of Heacham in Norfolk peasants grew grain, produced salt, brewed ale and caught fish, mainly herring and cod. Their lord, the Priory and Convent of Lewes in Sussex paid local villagers to ship salt all the way along the coast down to Sussex, to Lewes. Meanwhile  he also used customary labour, that is unfree peasants, to grow and harvest his grain on his own demesne land. At least in some years of the early 14th century half of this harvest workforce was 50% male and 50% female, and they were fed fish at the harvest boons, which the lord had purchased from local fishermen and women at the village market. The lord then loaded ships with these crops to transport elsewhere, in some cases again to Lewes. At the same time local merchants bought local produce from the men and women of Heacham to ship these across the sea to continental Europe, where in the early 14th century they occasionally encountered pirates who raided the ships, and often killed all on board. Where were these goods headed to? Which markets were they destined to? I wonder, where the market stalls were, from whence Heacham’s grain, ale and salt was sold on, to other peasants and towns people far away from the shores of the Norfolk Wash…

Ship - Noa's Arc picture taken at the cloister in Girona Cathedral