The last few days have been exceedingly busy, partly because we are now a fortnight away from the Medieval Canterbury Weekend 2018 – there are still tickets available from ‘Campfire Tales’, with The Canterbury Tales, on Friday 6 April for ‘younger medievalists’ to the wide range of Medieval History talks from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon – www.canterbury.ac.uk/medieval-canterbury and also because I have been involved in several meetings about the Faversham exhibition, about working with schoolchildren on History topics and drawing up details for the next Nightingale Memorial Lecture, the joint event with the Agricultural Museum, Brook.
For the last four days, History and the Centre at Canterbury Christ Church has hosted the Gender and Medieval Studies conference under the overarching theme of ‘Gender, places, spaces, thresholds’. Dr Diane Heath, the organiser, has been brilliant and the appreciative audience has been treated to a veritable feast. Live tweeting is now the name of the game and if you want to get a flavour of what has been happening, please tap into #GMSPlaces
So what is there to look forward to from the Centre in the first half of 2017? The flagship event will be the ‘Tudors and Stuarts History Weekend’ between Friday 31 March and Sunday 2 April, which primarily will take place in Old Sessions House, part of the University’s Canterbury campus.
Due to the unusually long blog post last week – there had been just so many exciting events going on – I’m going to keep it shorter this week and alert you to the next four events that involve the Centre for Kent History and Heritage. Two of these are in September, thereafter in November and the last is in early January.
In some ways the summer academic conference season resembles the grouse season, even though the timings are not as precise, in part because the end of the summer term varies to a degree (excuse the pun!) university to university. However, from the end of June for about a month and then again in early September academics can be seen travelling across England and these days internationally to take part in such occasions. Some conferences are exceedingly broad thematically and even chronologically, a couple of years ago I attended one in Durham under the title ‘Coping with Crisis’ which was indeed very wide-ranging, albeit there was a very strong strand that explored banking and bankers. This was perhaps hardly surprising in terms of current issues, but for those interested in other topics was a bit limiting.
Hythe High Street – look for potential medieval buildings (steep roofs)
Image from: www.invectis.co.uk
This year I went north again, although only as far as Hull. Maybe not the first choice for my sole ‘beyond Canterbury’ conference for 2015, but I must admit the place has changed significantly since I was there over twenty years ago. Being the summer rather than early December helped too, and I was very pleasantly surprised as I wandered around the city centre and what remains of the docks on Sunday afternoon. The conference itself took place at Hull University, which again as you would expect has expanded vastly since the early 1990s, and was organised by three members of the history department under the heading ‘Women, Land and the Making of the British Landscape’. I met Amanda Capern, one of the organisers, a couple of years ago at Plymouth where we got talking about place and space, among other matters, relating these ideas to personal, family and communal identity, and it was great to see that she is now developing such notions with respect to female sensibility and the landscape in early modern England. As you might expect, several speakers explored the use of place and space, ranging from quasi-royal progresses made by Lady Anne Clifford, a great aristocrat of the North (Jessica Malay), to Essex women in summer gathering together in the fields to spin (Amanda Flather).
This latter communal activity is also in evidence in late-sixteenth-century Canterbury, according to a church court deposition, the deponent or witness stating that she and her neighbours had sat together outside their front doors in Ivy Lane to spin. Again it was summer, being about the middle of harvest time, and as industrious, hard-working women they had begun early in the morning. Of course one of the reasons for such details was to demonstrate to the authorities, as well as others involved in the case and more broadly in the community, that they were honest, reliable and upright members of the parish whose testimony could be trusted in what was a defamation issue. Consequently, provided such evidence is used carefully, from the historian’s viewpoint these cases not only offer ideas about working practices of those below the elite, but also how such practices were viewed and understood economically, socially and morally by contemporaries.
The conference programme worked chronologically and thus opened with the sole medieval session. Interestingly this also worked from south to north. Hence I kicked-off proceedings with an assessment of what I believe contemporaries saw as the strategic value of the location of three houses for religious women in medieval Canterbury. The positioning of these houses on boundaries was, I think, less a matter of separation, liminality and vulnerability, words often employed with regard to nunneries, but instead needs to be considered in terms of negotiation, exchange and reciprocity for any assessment of the role of such female communities in the medieval landscape. I have mentioned the case involving St Lawrence’s hospital and the ‘fight’ in 1436 in an earlier blog, so it is just worth noting that the hospital sisters at St James’ had suffered similarly in 1188. Indeed, at St James’ the attack involved the theft of an unknown number of cattle and sheep, presumably from the hospital’s home farm. This incident was part of the dispute between Archbishop Hubert Walter and the monastic community at Canterbury Cathedral over the archbishop’s desire to found a college at Hackington. Yet, as in so many disputes, other issues might become attached, and here territorial and jurisdictional matters in Wincheap were ripe for negotiation among the various parties: the prioress and her hospital sisters, the master at St James’, the archbishop, the prior at Christ Church and several prominent Canterbury citizens. If you would like to know more about this episode and other examples involving competing constituencies, see the collection of essays edited by two present members of the Centre, Paul and Louise: Paul Dalton, Charles Insley and Louise Wilkinson, Cathedrals, Communities and Conflict in the Anglo-Norman World (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011).
Having arrived back in Canterbury on Tuesday night, I was able to attend a lecture given by Andy Mills yesterday evening at Hythe. Having lived all his life in the town, he has a great affection for the place and this has translated into an engagement with Hythe’s built environment. Also being a civil engineer by training he has a professional interest and considerable knowledge about buildings and their construction generally. I met him several years ago because of our shared interest in medieval Hythe and his talk last night was on the port’s medieval buildings. He touched on the church briefly but his chief concern was the timber-framed structures on either side of the High Street. As he said, in most cases the ground floor spaces of these houses and shops have been altered so many times that there is almost nothing medieval left in terms of determining what they may have looked like. However by looking up – to first floor and the roof – it is possible, at least in some cases, to get an idea of their form, their size, their age, whether they were jettied and on which sides, which the low/high end, whether they were end-on to the street frontage, and the quality of the building work. Being well-known locally, Andy (often with Andy Linklater and Rupert Austin of Canterbury Archaeological Trust) has managed to explore inside almost all of the likely buildings in the High Street and surrounding streets, but as he said there may be others hidden behind later facades, or surviving only as a few fragments in a later structure.
His illustrated lecture was full of interesting structural details from the various buildings, including moulded beams, decorated crown posts of different sizes, and fire-blackened timbers from once open hearths. Yet perhaps one of the best discoveries he has made is the few panes of a leaded light containing probably sixteenth-century very thin glass that survives because by chance it has been protected by an adjoining outer wall. His audience was, therefore, treated to a fascinating lecture about an under-researched gem of a medieval town. To be able to bring together the buildings and people who lived there in the fifteenth century still remains my aim, and hopefully I’ll be able to get back to work on the Hythe documentary records later this summer. However in the mean time I shall get on editing the final volume of the Kent History Project: Early Medieval Kent, 800–1220, which needs my attention, not least for Ian Coulson’s sake as the long-suffering series editor.
This week I’m going to start in mid sixteenth-century Cambridge because yesterday I was leading a seminar on a comedy entitled Gammer Gurton’s Needle that was probably performed at Christ’s College during the reign of Edward VI. According to the notes provided by a modern editor, the play can be seen as commenting on such contemporary issues as poverty, vagrancy and religion, and while I would not totally discount these ideas, especially religion, I think probably more pertinent are matters relating to gender and cultural divisions between town and countryside. Thus for the Cambridge dons and scholars who would have comprised the main member of the audience, the writer presumably drawn from among their number, the ignorant, superstitious and generally pretty stupid rural dwellers were in marked contrast to themselves and so ripe to become the butt of the jest concocted by Diccon, an ex-inmate of Bedlum. Yet perhaps even more indicative of this perceived gulf between educated, sophisticated urban dwellers and their poor country cousins, which has been a stock-in trade of many writers over the centuries, is the gender difference between actors and audience, and the objects of their mirth. For discounting any female servants who would have been at the back (low) end of the hall at Christ’s College, everyone else there would have been male and the prospect of seeing two scholar-actors in their late teens and dressed as elderly countrywomen battling it out on stage over a lost (‘stolen’) needle would have reinforced ideas about the ridiculousness of these granddames. And yet such women in their own rural communities would often have been seen as the holders of the community’s knowledge and memory, as midwives, as independent businesswomen (running the local alehouse) and as the custodians of local custom. Consequently such a play may be seen as symptomatic of early modern patriarchal society.
Looking east from Bell Harry Square, Canterbury Cathedral
As a way of engaging students’ interest in this ‘broad comedy–and an utterly trivial subject’, I split them into two groups with each set the task of producing a ‘play’ using as the plot line depositions from a contemporary church court case, a method that may indeed have inspired the original play. In both scenarios a woman’s honour was at stake, a matter of considerable importance in Elizabethan society which could affect her socio-economic standing, and its loss might have devastating consequences. Briefly, the first of the two Canterbury cases involved Goodwife Osborne’s meeting with Wallop at the back of her house, her husband already being in bed, and a second late night meeting which also lasted about fifteen minutes in Wallop’s chamber, Wallop apparently being one of three lodgers with Master and Mistress Osborne. The second case involved contradictory statements from several witnesses regarding just what Margaret Raven had been doing early in the morning at harvest time. The worst case scenario, and thus most damaging to Raven’s reputation, was reported by Margaret Richardson. She was said to have told others that morning that she had seen Margaret Raven and a man in Barton Field who ‘had plaid the whore and knave togither’ after which the man had crept away before ‘whipping over the hedge’, while Raven had gone along the hedge as far as the chantry stile and there ‘whipped over as she said’. This latter case, in particular, may be viewed as juxtaposing the rural (it took place in St Paul’s parish in Canterbury’s suburbs beyond the city’s liberty) and the bestial with similarities, as portrayed in Gammer Gurton’s Needle, to the countryside around Cambridge, but perhaps just, or even more importantly, it concerns a hierarchy based on gender.
This brings me to a case I decided not to give to my students which might be said to have more in common with the disturbing revelations from Oxford, Rotherham and elsewhere that have been in the press in recent months. The Canterbury case was recorded in 1571 in the city’s courts where Joane Bellinger, a fifteen-year old servant of a local tailor stated that ‘Steven Jeffrey hir master on munday last past at night being the xixth day of november aboute vj of the clock hir dame then being at supper at Goodman Somers house bad hir this deponent to come to him and when she was come to him the said Steven did take hir by the arme, and then did cast hir vpon the bed in the parler of his howse and then he shued his privy partes vnto hir and then pulled vp hir clothes and wold haue put his yard into hir’. Although she managed to escape, he pursued her and the rape itself took place on this bed in the parlour during which she tried to defend herself but was obviously so frightened that ‘she did neyther crye owte nor call for helpe to anye nor did complayne to any of yt, and she saythe that she did tell him that he did hurte hir, and he said no Joane I do not hurte the, for this dothe me good and thee no harme, and she saythe further that the said Steven hir master caused this deponent to sweare that as gode shuld iudge hir she wold nether tell ffather nor mother nor any other of yt, and she saythe further that the said Jeffrey wold haue had his pleasure of hir twyse or thryse but she with stode yt.’ Just what the outcome of this shocking case was in the courtroom is not recorded, but Joane’s bravery is clearly manifested both through her actions in her master’s house and in her court room appearance and testimony.
For the historian such windows on a distant world are fascinating in their own right in terms of the insights they provide on social relations, the significance of patriarchy and the role of the judiciary, but they also indicate that in some ways human nature does not change, albeit the cultural constructs of early modern society are different from our own. Power relations between individuals can be expressed in many ways, and, of course, not all relate to gender, but looking to the past can sometimes be an uncomfortable mirror of the present however distorted the image as a consequence of time difference. Yet this is not a reason for not looking and the research on Kent’s history that will be on show at the ‘New Directions’ conference on 28 March and the ‘How the Great War changed Kent’ study day on 23 May will demonstrate just how rich the county’s archival sources are for these respective periods. Moreover, these events will showcase the work of a considerable number of early modern and modern scholars who not only wish to share their findings with the academic world, but believe it is important for all to extend their engagement to the wider public.
The last week has brought to light some fascinating discoveries. Firstly it was great to hear about the uncovering of Sandwich’s own copy of the Magna Carta that was unearthed in the town’s collection at Kent History Library Centre by Dr Mark Bateson. Dr Bateson, as an accomplished Latin scholar and archivist, is a great asset to the county’s archive service and thus it is not surprising that he was able to identify this charter even though it is in a poor condition. For as I noted last week literacy and civic record keeping were major features of medieval Cinque Port society and this discovery fits very neatly into the history of developing self-government at Sandwich from the reign of Edward I that Dr Justin Croft discussed in an article in Archaeologia Cantiana (1997).
View from Bell Harry
This fitting together of the pieces of the jigsaw from the archives to provide a better understanding of the past can also be seen in Professor Jackie Eales’ exposition of the career of Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1756), a writer who spent much of her childhood in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral in the household of her uncle the Rev. Charles Elstob. Her love of learning was apparently fostered by first her mother, then as an orphan by her aunt and uncle, before she joined her brother while he was studying at university and finally at his clerical living in London. As a result she became an expert in French, but far more importantly in Anglo-Saxon which for a woman was a remarkable accomplishment at a time when women’s education was seen as an exceedingly low priority by society. Even though she was justly celebrated during her lifetime, having a considerable number of prominent aristocrats among her patrons, including Robert Harley, the 1st Earl of Oxford (whose collection of manuscripts will be well known to users of the British Library), she was later largely forgotten and thus it is great to hear about Professor Eales’ rehabilitation of her and her pioneering scholastic work on the Anglo-Saxon language – this nation’s mother tongue.
I learnt about Elizabeth Elstob at Professor Eales’ lecture on Wednesday evening to Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society and this inter-relationship between town and gown is a vital part of the Centre for Research in Kent History and Archaeology’s activities. Moreover this is a two-way process, because questions and comments from members of the audience drew out, for example, the importance of clerical links to several prominent Huguenot families within the Canterbury precincts under the later Stuart monarchs. Several members of this audience were similarly present at another meeting of city and university, although this time ‘up the hill’ at Kent’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies research seminar. Again past members of the cathedral community featured heavily, but this time as the protagonists in what has come to be known as the Prebendaries’ Plot of the early 1540s. This plot by the religious conservatives to oust Archbishop Cranmer is especially interesting for the wealth of material uncovered in the Archbishop’s subsequent investigations, which highlighted the polarised nature of the cathedral community between the conservatives and the radicals. Furthermore, such divisions were equally visible across the Canterbury diocese, particularly in certain ‘hotspots’ such as Lenham and surrounding parishes, Sandwich and its immediate hinterland and a cluster of Canterbury parishes. I’ll select just one example to give you a flavour of this religious turbulence and it concerns the activities of Alderman John Toftes in his home parish of St Mary Northgate. This church that once spanned Canterbury’s Northgate (or at least what remains of it) is now owned by Kings and some of you may have attended plays there. The drama involving John Toftes may have been equally riveting for his audience because he was said, by the conservative witnesses, to have read in the church ‘openly and with lowde voice’ the Bible (in English) to several women, including his wife and the local midwife. Presumably the Bible in question was Henry VIII’s and Cranmer’s ‘Great Bible’ that all parishes had been directed to purchase, and because this would have been the responsibility of the churchwardens rather than the incumbent, Toftes and his fellow reformers were in a sense able to taunt the deeply conservative vicar through their possession and use of the Bible in the nave – lay space within the church.
All three of these examples for this week would seem to highlight just how interesting history ‘from below’ can be. Although much is made of the grand history of kings and queens on TV, in books and on history courses, and I’m not decrying its worth, there are other ways of exploring a society’s history, as Michael Wood to a degree did in his account of Shakespeare’s mother last night. And speaking for myself I would want to extend this further, to men such as John Toftes and even further down the social scale to Thomas Makeblyth, a Canterbury barber, whose commitment to ‘Protestantism’ was so strong that he was prepared to risk censure from his fellow parishioners by refusing to process carrying a palm on Palm Sunday and instead read the Bible, and then the following Sunday again refused to process and went into a corner. Even though these men will not feature in the ‘New Developments in Kent History’ conference at Christ Church next month, their counterparts in early modern Kent will be there, men who objected to paying tithes to lay farmers or who sought to get an education for their sons so that they could make a good living in the changing times of Tudor England.
Last night I attended a fascinating lecture on ‘The Men behind the Pen’ by Imogen Corrigan and I was struck once again by just how vital the preservation of books, other artefacts, standing buildings and archaeological records are in our understanding of ourselves today. She was discussing the role of the scribe in what we might describe as the Anglo-Saxon period, primarily drawing on examples from across western Christendom and she noted the relatively frequency with which the scribe identified himself in the written manuscript. Although many of these men (we also know of a few women) were monks, others were professional scribes and their motives for writing or the complaints they recorded about cold or other difficult conditions chimed, as one would expect, with a modern audience. However there may be one critical difference in terms of comparing how the written word was viewed in about the year 1000 and today, for then it had for all, among other connotations, the idea of Christ, the Word from John’s gospel, a sense of mystery and the divine that could save, yet also damn if wrongly produced or used by the reader. This is certainly not to suggest that modern men and women are superior beings compared to our medieval ancestors, rather that, as in England for example, the move from the Victorian period towards a universal education system that privileged reading and writing has meant that we are inclined to forget or underestimate the power of the written word but also paradoxically that it is merely one form of communication – just one of a number of tools that we can use (and abuse). Indeed, perhaps the events in Paris over the last week have again awakened that debate over the relative balance of power between ‘the pen and the sword’ that has shifted many times over the centuries.
Copy of Agnes de Clifford’s early 13th-century will that includes numerous bequests which relate to Canterbury. The document is in Lady Anne Clifford’s ‘The Great Books of Record’ that she had made under her supervision in the mid-17th century.
copyright: Cumbria Archive Service, Kendal
Of course, one reason for the written word’s value is its potential permanence, which is, I guess, where I started. Today if we are thinking about old books, manuscripts, tablets or other places where we can find such words we generally think about archives, libraries and museums, although some are still in situ on buildings, for example. Nevertheless it is these three types of repository that I want to mention, and most particularly the first. Having spent yesterday in Canterbury Cathedral archives working on someone’s papers – in many cases copies of earlier written words, I was delighted to see among the other readers were postgraduates from Canterbury’s two universities. All were exploring topics related to Canterbury’s medieval past and it was great to see one of Professor Louise Wilkinson’s students researching the involvement of women in the life of the 13th-century city. The excitement of handling documents created hundreds of years ago to discover what they can tell us about our predecessors is known by academics, local and family historians, to mention but a few groups, yet it is vital that this understanding passes to the next generation of potential researchers. This means protecting the nation’s repositories, as well as providing access and the knowledge of what is available and how that potential may be explored. Much is being done across Kent through the enthusiastic work of staff and volunteers belonging to the various archive, library and museum services, but universities also have a role to play. One way this is being undertaken at Canterbury Christ Church is through the different activities at this Research Centre and I hope as many readers as possible of this will participate in the workshops, talks, exhibitions and conferences that are being organised for 2015 and beyond.