Joan Thirsk’s ‘lost conversations’
I decided to wait until today because the Centre’s programme of (joint) events hit a real high this week with first Professor Louise Wilkinson’s lecture on Wednesday (with Friends of Canterbury Archaeological Trust [FCAT]), where she discussed the importance of Magna Carta for women’s rights, and then yesterday the ‘New Developments in Kent History since Joan Thirsk’ conference (with Kent Archaeological Society [KAS] and the Historical Association [HA]), also held at Christ Church. Such events are valuable for several reasons, but in particular they do allow the Centre to extend ideas of ‘outreach’ both in terms of the composition of the audience and the involvement of other organisations, which have strong and long-standing interests in the history and archaeology of Kent. I will come to these two history events in a minute, but first I will draw your attention to a further event this coming Tuesday 31 March. In this case it involves the archaeological arm of the Centre. Dr Paul Bennett will be the guest lecturer at the AGM of the Folkestone People’s History Centre, to be held at the Woodward Hall (The Bayle, Folkestone) 7.30pm for 8.00pm, where he will be speaking about the Conservation, Science and Investigation (CSI) of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sittingbourne. If you are/live in the area please do go along because Dr Bennett is an excellent communicator and his passion for archaeology is boundless and infectious.
The stair tower at Eastgate House, Rochester
At its summit is an observation platform – the watchers and the watched, but who is who?
To return to last week’s events, Professor Wilkinson’s masterly analysis of the clauses in Magna Carta that affected the legal position of women was given to a packed audience which was fascinated to learn that widows after 1215, for example, were guaranteed access to property to which they were entitled as well as ‘freebench’ of forty days in the principal marital home, as long as it was not a castle. Another clause of special value to widows was that they could not thereafter be remarried if they wished otherwise. Of course to a modern audience these and other clauses involving the rights of free women seem somewhat strange but for contemporaries, particularly the women themselves and their knightly, baronial and noble relatives, these were a major victory in their struggle again King John and his use (or abuse) of the royal prerogative. In addition to providing some fascinating examples where particular women had either suffered prior to 1215 or had been able to take advantage of these rights thereafter, Professor Wilkinson also looked in some detail at other clauses that might be said to affect these higher status women indirectly. These include those relating to the selling of wardships and the marriages of orphans, something that John had been exploiting ruthlessly in his drive to fund his attempt to regain the territories he had lost in France. As well as drawing on examples from a wide range of aristocratic families, Professor Wilkinson also provided cases concerning women from Canterbury and Dover, thereby linking the local to the national.
This connecting of local and national was similarly in evidence yesterday. As several speakers recorded, Joan Thirsk had either been a direct influence or they had benefitted from those who themselves had gained from her insights respecting the role of the provinces in the development of early modern English society. Moreover, there were a couple of themes that became increasing evident, thereby providing fascinating threads that ran throughout the day from Duncan Harrington’s assessment of the role of education in Faversham to Dr Andy Kesson’s analysis of Kentish playwrights in the early history of the commercial stage. These, I would contend, were the idea of ‘negotiating the political’ and the role of networks in the lives of those below the aristocracy – a celebration of ‘history from below’ that has been in evidence at all three Kent universities (Canterbury Christ Church, Greenwich and Kent) for at least two decades. And as one might expect such negotiations were not always undertaken in a spirit of co-operation, for conflict has been equally important in the shaping of early modern society. Thus Joan Thirsk’s ‘lost conversations’ might just as easily have taken place among the Earl of Dorset’s tenants before their assault on his deer park at Knole in the early seventeenth century, as described by Dr Susan Pittman, as between those setting out the tithe sheaves in such a way that the tithe farmer’s corn was inferior to that collected by the tenant. Dr Paula Simpson’s investigation of such low-level resistance through sixteenth-century disputes over tithe also drew attention to regional clustering, and the people of the Weald were also the subject of Dr Lorraine Flisher’s paper. She highlighted the role of radical religious ideas in the lives of a group of entrepreneurial clothiers, and among other topics she underlined how both horizontal and vertical familial, communal and occupational networks were significant for this cohort, especially in the period before and during the Civil War.
Similar ideas were equally in evidence on the other side of the county. Keeping with the inter-relationship between economy and politics, Dr Sandra Dunster pointed out how during the reigns of the later Stuart monarchs the Chatham market was the focus for differing constituencies in their ‘fight’ to supply the neighbouring royal dockyard. From a slightly earlier period, I looked at Sir Peter Buck’s Eastgate House in Rochester, an example of such negotiation in brick and stone where to see and be seen were deployed as markers of status and of commonwealth. Dr Claire Bartram, too, highlighted the value of material culture as an analytical tool through her assessment of the place of agricultural texts in these ‘lost conversations’. Consequently, it was a lovely linking of twenty-first and sixteenth century when one of her examples was a reference to Barnabe Googe’s finding of a particularly wholesome herb in Lord Sackville’s deer park, for unlike the deer poachers that Dr Pittman had just described, Mr Googe was there by invitation, and his ‘conversation’ through his comments in the pages of his translation of Heresbach’s ‘Four Books of Husbandarie’ underlined the placing of Kent as a county of consequence – its peoples from William Lambard’s governors AND the governed actively engaged in the shaping of their society through their ‘negotiating of the political’.