The Year 1000

the year 100I’ve been time-travelling again.  I bought this in an Exeter charity shop, for my research shelf, a couple of weeks ago, then got stuck into it during the train journey home.  I’ve been dipping in ever since.

It’s not a heavy tome, based as it is, on a small document from AD 1020-ish, called The Julius Work Calendar.  There are twelve beautiful line drawings from that document.  They act as chapter headings.

For instance, January is titled, ‘For All The Saints’.  It explains not just how and why saints were important, it begins by building character:

If you were to meet an Englishman in the year 1000, the first thing that would strike you would be how tall he was – very much the size of anyone alive today.

…the bones that have been excavated from the graves of people buried in England in the years around 1000 tell a tale of strong and healthy folk…Nine out of ten of them lived in a green and unpolluted countryside on a simple, wholesome diet that grew sturdy limbs – and very healthy teeth.

I love this kind of detail, combined with the cartoonish drawings, it brought the book to life.

How does it connect to saints?  Well, because  there was the need to replace the:

‘…legion of little people, elves and trolls and fairies, who inhabited the fears and imaginings of early medieval folk… the Julius Work Calendar was to provide a daily diary of encounters with [saints]…’

Isn’t it beautifully logical?  It is also, of course a little more complicated, but I’d have to quote the whole chapter to explain.

This book is about the practicalities.  Here are hay-makers, from the middle of the year:

Julius calendar July

…the toughest month of the year…since the spring crops had not yet matured.  The barns were at their lowest point and the grain bins could well be empty.  Tantalisingly, on the very eve of the August harvest, people could find themselves starving in the balmiest month of all…

The rich could survive on the contents of their barns, and they had the money to pay the higher prices commanded by the dwindling stocks of food.  Grain and bread prices could soar to exorbitant levels.  But this scarcity made July the month when the poor learned the true meaning of poverty…grinding up the coarsest of wheat bran, and even old, shrivelled peas and beans to make some sort of bread.

November: Females and the Price of Fondling, addresses the fact that there is no mention of women in the Julius Work Calendar.  Documentary evidence is slight, but Lacey and Danziger interpret what there is in a positive light:

All human beings were menn, the term being used for both sexes. …In the year 1000 the role that women played in English society was more complex than surface impressions might suggest.

Using wills and divorce laws (yes, it seems people could easily, and fairly, divorce then), they provide some examples of powerful women taking control of kingdoms and religious houses.

But, what happens if a wife commits adultery? Canute’s Law 53 says ‘…her legal husband is to have all her property, and she is to lose her nose and her ears.‘  There’s no mention of what happens to the man…

Already I’m at November, only one month and a short conclusion to go, how will I survive my return to the digital age?

Actually, I might time-travel in that region again, but with a different companion.  Michael Wood’s Doomesday has been gathering dust on my shelf.

 

The things we save.

This week we discovered squatters in the roof.  By the mess, they’ve been there some time, but the night before last they decided to party, and they seemed to be wearing heavy boots.  Actually, I think I’ve been aware of their slippered-presence most of the winter, but inertia was easier than sorting out the loft ladder and torch, and I couldn’t imagine that there was much up there to interest them.

How wrong I was.  Mice, it turns out, will chew anything.  They’ve stripped the insulation off the water pipes, and shredded holes out of some spare carpet-underlay I had stashed away.

Amongst the debris though, I salvaged some oddments, one of which was the project-book we infants made, after a trip to the zoo.  It’s a tattered remnant, but I’m glad our guests hadn’t got round to feasting on it.

Our village school was small: so small that it was closed-down around the time I left senior school.  Because there were only half-a-dozen or so children in each year, I had no trouble putting faces to the names on the brief reports and drawings of our day out.  Besides, I have a photo of our class with our teacher, Miss Johnson… somewhere.

The project also reminds me of my last few days in the Junior school, when the flimsy collection resurfaced from the back of the school stock-cupboard. ‘Who would like this?’ Mrs Gwatkins asked, after we’d flicked through it, laughing at the artwork.  A few of us put our hands up, so she put names in a box, and mine was drawn out.

It couldn’t be said that I’ve treasured these pages, tucked away amongst my old diaries in the roof.  As you’ve seen, it came perilously close to being a mouse-nursery.  It’s possible I wouldn’t have missed it greatly, like those other fragments of school-life I thought I’d kept, but haven’t seen since I can’t remember when.

pelicanOn the one hand, the project is just a collection of shaky calligraphy examples and scrappy drawings. On Monday we went to Birdland and we saw some Pelicans, I wrote, capitals and long letters touching the line above as well as the line they were resting on.  And, We saw some pennies in a glass tank and there was some penguins swimming in a glass tank.

On the other hand, that repetition, and that,‘was’, was my six-year old voice, and, this project is able to link me back to the rain outside the mina bird house; the feel of my school uniform, and the way I felt as we crowded in to the small room where the Myna bird whistled, and recited, Sing-a-song-of-sixpence.

So for now, I’ll tuck the old folder into the bottom of a drawer, out of sight and mind.  It’s resurfaced so many times, that I can’t help feeling it’s not finished with yet.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – research sources for writers.

I have a 1907 copy of the Harmsworth Self-Educator, volume 6.  It’s a battered old thing, that seems to have spent some time in places other than dry, safe, bookshelves. The cover is not so bad as the interior, which is not just stained, it has several damaged pages.

For non-fiction, I do appreciate a straight-forward title.  The Self-Educator is a collection of harmsworth-self-educatoressays exploring ‘life’ in Britain.  I don’t think it should be called an encyclopedia, because apart from not being in alphabetical order, these read like academic papers.  There are 29 groups of topics, dealing with the sciences; commercial activities; arts, crafts, languages and academic ideas and theories.

Who was it for?  I’m not sure.  It doesn’t seem child-friendly to me, but am I a good judge of what Edwardian children did, and liked?  I think of it as a paper forerunner to internet search engines, except that this one is all edited by one man…Arthur Mee (1875 – 1943).

It’s not a book I turn to regularly, but when I do, invariably I find something intriguing.  Do you know, for instance, how an Edwardian child should be dressed?  Dr A. T. Schofield can tell you:

There can be no doubt that a combination flannel undergarment is the most comfortable and healthy arrangement. The legs especially should be protected in this way, and not left bare, or with a single covering of cotton.  Over this, with girls, there should be a stout quilted bodice on which the lower garments can be buttoned, and then a plain dress over all.  The stockings, of course, are suspended.  A sailor costume is a capital one for girls, and very healthy.

unidentified-poss-claptonImagine getting strapped into that lot every morning.  No doubt such padding would have been useful in the winter, but Dr Schofield doesn’t offer a lighter selection for the summer.  Perhaps that’s why there are no smiles in this picture.

Children’s dress…should not leave any vital parts exposed.  Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten, and children are dressed in a fashion that their parents would not endure for a moment if applied to themselves.

photo-from-daily-mail-article-about-slum-childrenI wonder if he’s referring to the families struggling to survive?

It’s worth stating the obvious here, and remembering that in research, we should always find more than one source.  The clue to the Self Educator is in the title and sub-title.  It is an aspirational book, ‘A Golden Key to Success in Life’.  The only reference I’ve been able to track down about the original cost of the volume, was that one bookseller had marked it up for ten shillings and six pennies.

Given that in 1910 the Army and Navy Stores were selling a ‘maids’ dress for four shillings and one penny, and that an average income for a working class family would have been around twenty two shillings per week, it seems likely that only well-to-do households would have owned any of these volumes, let alone all eight.

However, Mr Mee does provide the kind of detail that makes me think that in a post-apocalyptic, google-less situation, these volumes might be useful.  In this copy alone are instructions on how to farm, build houses, make cheese, manufacture hats, weave cloth, lay out a sewerage system, run a bank, speak Esperanto, play a flute, sell postcards…  Is there anything else necessary to keep us safe, dry and entertained?

Actually, looking again at some of those stained pages, I wonder if this copy was kept in a workshop.  The worst damage does seem to be in some of the applied chemistry sections.

I feel a story forming.

 

Our WEA heritage

wea-heritage-projectThursday evening I went along to Blackfriars Priory, where the latest exhibition of the South West WEA Heritage Project was being launched as part of the Gloucester History Festival.   What a lovely event.

blackfriars-gloucesterThe priory is a beautiful building, and the weather was perfect.  Sunlight slanted across the ancient stonework, and those heavy walls kept the air comfortably cool.

The Heritage project has raised some fascinating stories.  Essays, minutes of meetings, branch brochures and newspaper accounts and photographs have been tracked down in attics, cupboards and archives; memories have been jogged and research skills honed and practiced.  A map of the way the WEA has developed, expanded and adapted to suit the changes of the last one-hundred and thirteen years is building.

The stories have circulated.  Last week, for instance, I was told about classes being held in a railway carriage, during the home-going journeys of commuters.   Imagine that…

During the 1930s, the Gloucester WEA Branch had a separate Dramatic Section.  The one surviving Programme I’ve seen, for Four One-Act Plays to be performed on two nights in February 1937 had a cast of 26, 14 front-of-house and back-stage staff, plus an orchestra, under the direction of Arthur S. Morrell.  The background notes about the WEA Players says that in seven years they staged ’60 plays of varied types.’  That’s quite an achievement for a small city.

Those were different days.  To get back to that kind of commitment we don’t just need to remember times when there was no social media, we have to think about no tvs, and the majority of us relying on public transport, bikes and shanks pony.

A Minute book that survives for this group makes interesting reading, not just for the level of commitment the Players had, but also for the incidental references to events in the local area and occasionally, the wider world.

At the end of a meeting on March 8th 1939, Mrs Sparrow read a letter from Mrs Edwards, thanking the Players for their efforts on behalf of the food ship for Spain.

The thing I like about research is the way it invariably widens my horizons.  I’ve had to revise my cosy assumptions about The WEA Players, and think about what their engagement with world events suggests about the learning that was taking place.  In the programme notes for the Four One Act Plays the Players say:

To promote and develop a love for the Drama seems to be, in these days, not only worth-while, but very necessary.

The Study and performance of these plays also gives much satisfaction to the players, who are glad to think that they afford their friends an evening of pleasure and entertainment.

We would also bring to the notice of our audience the opportunities existing in the Worker’s Educational Association for the study of a wide range of subjects.  If you are interested…please leave your name and address with one of the stewards.

I think The Players would have ticked the six points of WEAs ‘mission’ today:

  • Raising educational aspirations
  • Bringing great teaching and learning to local communities
  • Ensuring there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning
  • Developing educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged
  • Involving students and supporters as members to build an education movement for social purpose
  • Inspiring students, teachers and members to become active citizens

glos-history-festival

Thoughts from inside the time capsule…

We had a guided tour of the local archives this week.  It’s one thing to use the search room, and tap into the expertise of the staff who patiently help us unravel our lines of research, quite another to be given a tour of the store-rooms that support that.

I usually go in with a list of prepared questions, and though I often find my ideas morphing into new areas, they’re always linked to my original enquiry.  Monday, I got a glimpse of the archivists archives, which meant not just a better understanding of how much material is held, and the practical aspects of storage, we were shown some of the backroom favourites from the collections.

ink damage to document

Photo – NEDCC: Paper Conservation Centre, USA

This meant stories, and lots of them.  Some were about the origins of the artefacts, others about the finding or donating of them.  What stood out for me?  A document fragment that is kept between two pieces of Perspex.  It looks like any other old piece of writing, until you hold the page up to the light – and see how, with age, the ink has become so acidic that it is dissolving the paper.  The top rows of words are perforations, and if the page hadn’t been protected by the Perspex, the slightest touch would have caused it to disintegrate.

 

Back in the days before biro pens, or bottles of Quink  or even Swan Ink, people wanting to write cut pens from goose quills or reeds, and made ink by mixed crushed oak galls and iron pyrite in wine or vinegar, which seems to have been fine on parchment, but then paper was developed.

deskIt took time for the problem with the ink to be discovered, and not all documents suffer in the same way.  The damage depends on how much the colour has been watered down.

ink-corrosion travelingscriptorium photo

Photo – NEDCC: Paper Conservation Centre, USA

 

 

This leads me to two strands of thought, first is the reminder about writing on the backs of photos in soft pencil rather than biro – aargh, if only I’d known that years ago.

The other is the permanence or otherwise of our wise words.  I keep hearing how everything we put on the net is there to stay.  Some say this as a warning, others with a sense of wonder.

Perhaps they’re right, but is it too early to tell yet?

Whimsical Scratchings.

‘Writan, an Old German verb meaning to scratch, is the origin of our English word, writing,’ I tell Rusty, as he makes a vigorous attack on an itch behind his ear with his back foot.  ‘It says so in chapter one of this writing book.’

rusty scratching0001Rusty pauses, considers what I’m saying, then goes back to scratching his ear, with a blissful expression.

Meanwhile, I’ve drifted onto another line of thought. ‘It doesn’t make so much sense since we’ve got tied to keyboards,’ I say, ‘because now we tap.  But in those days, it was not just that the marks probably looked like scratches: if the author was using some kind of pen and ink, then it would have sounded like scratching, too.’

I can say this with certainty because I once made a quill pen, from a goose feather, and used it until it was too bedraggled to function.  This was despite the fact that on certain weights of paper the nib squeaked on the same tortuous level as dry chalk on a board.  I cringe, just remembering the sound, let alone the ridiculous romanticism of my adolescence.

‘All the same,’ I say, ‘I’m glad Writan became writing.’

Rusty sighs, he’s done with his itch, and I know he’s waiting for me to mention biscuits or walks.  It’s tough for canines in a bookish household. Instead of discreetly keeping my work out of sight, I can frequently be seen squandering valuable play-time, and who’s to know whether I’m really working?

Here’s me pondering how ‘scraping with a fingernail or claw…to relieve itching’ came to be so satisfyingly onomatopoeically renamed scratch while the afternoon is darkening into evening.  Am I incubating the germ of inspiration?  Only time will tell.

 

 

 

One for the non-fiction shelf…

ISBN 9781514255537This week I finally got round to ordering my copy of Close to The Edge, by Sheila Williams.

This is a lovely, readable collection of stories about the Holderness Coast.  It’s not intended as a definitive history, rather a highly personal selection of fascinatingly quirky stories.

Daniel Defoe dismissed the Holderness coast, when he passed through on his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, back in the 1720s,

…the most that I find remarkable here is, that there is nothing remarkable upon this side for above thirty miles together; not a port, not a gentleman’s seat, not a town of note…

What Mr Defoe missed, Sheila Williams supplies*.

Chapter One – Growing Pains, begins with what the Holderness coast looked like at the time of the last ice age.

The North Sea was relatively dry, known as Doggerland and linked the UK to the rest of Europe.  The Holderness coast, indeed inland Holderness too, was a soggy, boggy stretch with meres, creeks and inlets all intermingled with ‘carrs’ – wet woodland and brush.  The whole provided a useful area for the hunting and fishing folk of the Stone and Bronze ages and nothing much more.

It takes us through the following centuries up to William the Conqueror:

After the Conquest, however, rebellion smouldered and broke out intermittently in the North of England until eventually William became tired of it and, his patience at an end, killed off as many of the recalcitrant Northerners as he could, together with their families, pets and livestock.  Not content with that early bout of ethnic cleansing he destroyed crops salted the land…and made a wasteland of the North from the River Humber to the River Tees.

This, you must be beginning to see, is a book about people in the landscape.  It’s the stories of characters who are not all Gentlemen, or even men, but who lived for a long or short time, on the Holderness coast.

You could, as I did, buy this book for the stories.  But be warned, you get more than a fireside read.  Before long you’ll find yourself checking road maps and thinking about experiencing for yourself the ‘huge grey-blue sea that transformed itself seamlessly into the sky so that is was hard to know where one began and the other finished.’ 

Photo: Sheila Williams

Photo: Sheila Williams

*Defoe was, of course, reflecting the understanding, values and preoccupations of his era.