Tudor Monastery Farm Episode 1


Tudor Monastery FarmI made notes from last night’s episode of Tudor Monastery Farm for those of you who don’t have access to UK TV channels. Please excuse any mistakes, I was scribbling notes very quickly and typing quickly to get this posted as soon as possible…

The programme opened with the narrator, actress Geraldine James , explaining that after years of war, plague and famine, England saw a time of peace and prosperity under Henry VII. Savvy farmers boosted food production and half of England’s wealth came from its wool. The monasteries were the biggest landowner apart from the King and they were at the forefront of not only religion, but also of education and farming. The monasteries did not farm all the land themselves, they relied on tenant farmers.

Viewers were then taken to the setting of the series: the Weald and Downland Open Airm Museum in Sussex – you can find out more about this museum at www.wealddown.co.uk/. Historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold are going to be showing viewers what it was like to be living as tenant farmers in 1500, fifteen years into the reign of Henry VII. England had just emerged from dark times – the Black Death had had a huge impact, taking the population from 4 million to 2.5 million – but things were improving and it was a period which forged the identity of England. It was a Catholic world. Ruth explained how everything was suffused by religion and the monasteries were almost as powerful as the state. England was a God-fearing nation and people believed that they had to attend church at least once a week to save their souls. Church was central to every-day life and it was religion, rather than science, that explained everything.

Ruth, Peter and Tom are being helped by Professor James Clark, an expert in monastic life. Professor Clark explained that tenant farmers paid rent to the monasteries and took all the business risks. He took Ruth to the farmhouse that the team are going to be using and explained that it would have housed the tenant farmer, his family and their domestic servants – probably around 8-10 people. The house had a large downstairs room and then the “solar”, or upper chamber, was the farmer’s private bedroom. The bed in this room had a truckle bed underneath it which slid out for use. To be able to pay the rent, the farmer had to turn a profit. This farm has 5 acres of its own land and then also the use of common land. The main farming was sheep (for wool), but barley was also grown and pig farming could be an extra private enterprise.

The team moved into the farm in the spring, so it was time to get things up and running quickly. They had to get crops sown as quickly as possible, and also get livestock. Ruth explained that wool was “the jewel of the realm” and British wool clothed the whole of Europe. Good wool was all about the grazing, the quality of the grass. In winter, the sheep grazed down on the arable land and then in spring they were moved to the hills where they could graze on lush grass. A farmer only knew the quality of the wool when it came to shearing time.

Most Tudor households kept a pig. A pig was cheap to feed because it could be fed household scraps. The Tamworth pig is the closest to a Tudor pig, so that’s the breed that the team are going to have. Pigs were not allowed to run free because they could cause damage and attack people, so the team need to build an enclosure. Jon Roberts, an expert in coppicing, cuts hazel for Peter and Tom. He explained that farmers were restricted to how much hazel they could have, either by the cartload or by how long they could spend cutting it. The area Peter and Tom are using for the pig enclosure is already fenced on three sides, so they just need to close off one side. They do this by weaving hazel between stakes to make a wattle fence. On the other side of the enclosure is a “dead hedge”, made of branches twigs, and this just repairing with unwanted twigs such as hawthorn and brambles. All the materials are sourced from the local landscape.

Farming was a side-line for the monasteries, a way to earn money, and their primary focus was obviously religion. The oldest order is the Benedictines, a 6th century order founded by St Benedict of Nursia and who took vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Peter visits Downside Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, because he wants advice on setting up a guild for farmers. He is told that a likely patron saint for his guild is St Benedict, because he is the patron saint of farm workers, or also St Scholastica, the patron saint of good weather. Peter is told that every area of life was represented by a saint and prayer books showed the “saint of the day”. The Church intervened in daily life.

Peter decides to create a register for the Guild of St Benedict, his new farmers’ guild, so he commissions an illuminated register. It is made using vellum (calf-skin) and the lady doing the writing uses a quill and ink to write on the vellum on an angled board. Once she has finished the writing, it will be given to the illuminator/artist.

The farmer’s day started at sunrise. Peter explained to the viewers that a farmer wore woollen hose and the job of a doublet was to hold up the hose – they were laced together. He joked about how the Book of Manners advised that it was best to go to the privy before being laced up in your clothing and this is because it was obviously very difficult to go when you were dressed! However, a man did have a codpiece, a flap of fabric laced to the front of the hose which worked like a fly and could be unlaced when a man needed to urinate.

The woman’s first job of the day was to light the fire in the farmhouse. Ruth used a flint and steel to make a spark in some charred cloth which she was using as tinder. Farmhouses did not have glazed windows so they really needed a fire to keep them warm. With fires in chimneys, around 70% of heat is lost up a chimney, so it was more fuel efficient to have the fire in the middle of the room.

Peter and Alex were getting water from the farm’s well. A tread wheel (a bit like a hamster wheel!) was used to drive machinery and to get water from wells, so Peter and Alex use one to get the water from the well which is over 20 feet down. Water could only be drunk by animals, it had to be purified to be consumed by people. The best way of making water safe to drink was to make it into ale because the alcohol killed the bacteria.

Ruth explained that indoor work could only be done in daylight hours because the only light was from rush lights, made from rushes and sheep fat. It was impossible to work with such dim lighting, so a farmer would go to bed when it got dark.

Tudor farmers tended to breed sheep, pigs and geese, as well as crops like barley and wheat, for ale and bread, and peas for pottage. Potatoes did not arrive in England until the 1580s. The team use Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry for advice on sowing peas. The advice is all about the sound of the earth. If it makes a noise when you walk on it, i.e. squelching, then you should not sow. Peas should be sown when the earth is dry. The team need to prepare the land by ploughing and in Tudor times oxen were used, not horses. Gwyn (or Gwen) and Graceful are two cows who have pulled a plough before, but it’s been a while and they need to get used to it again. They are fitted with a yoke which is held in place by ox bows that will fit to the plough. Once the oxen are used to the yokes, the team fit a light plough and try to get them used to that and also used to walking in a straight line. It is also important to keep the oxen moving all the time. It took Tom and Peter a week to get the oxen used to working with the plough but the animals are still exhausted after a couple of farrows.

In the meantime, Ruth has been boiling sheep fat all morning. It is then cooled, leaving the tallow on the surface. She heats the tallow and then soaks rushes in it. The fat soaks into the pithy parts of the rushes and the green rind part acts like a wick. Ruth explains that the only fat or grease available in this period was animal fat.

Peter explains that a farmer thought that the key to success was belonging to a religious guild. He goes to visit the illuminator making his guild register. The artist makes a paint brush from cutting up a feather and pulling part of the feather through the quill bit of the feather – very clever! To help with fine details, the artist would use a glass globe filled with water to act as a magnifying lens. Illumination was complex and expensive, so was only used for special books and documents. Guilds would fund an altar in a local church and pay for a priest to pray for their cause and to perform masses for the guild. Ruth shows viewers the Chapel of Fagham which has been restored to how it would have looked in 1500, before Henry VIII stripped churches of their splendour.

Now that the pig enclosure is finished, Tom and Peter have to build a shelter. Pigs don’t like draughts and won’t breed unless they have a suitable shelter. Tom and Peter based their shelter’s design on archaeological remains and build a framework which is filled with hazel wattle and covered with daub, a mixture of clay and horse manure. Most houses were built in that way.

Ruth is sorting out utensils and tableware for the farmhouse. She visits Robin Wood, a wooden dishmaker, who makes bowls from hardwood such as beech. He shapes the wood with just one tool – an axe – and then turns it with a foot-operated pole lathe, which was used in England from the 10th to 20th centuries, and uses chisels. The main meal was eaten at around 11am because farmers and farm workers had risen at dawn. Salt had pride of place on the Tudor table because it was used for preserving meat and fish. Ruth explained that laying the table was like Christian symbolism. The dinner table looked like an altar in church, like God’s table. It was a reminder of Christ and the Last Supper.

It was the week before Easter and the peas really needed to be sown. The field has been ploughed and harrowed, and now Tom and Peter need to sow. They consult the husbandry book again and learn that Peter needs to step forward with his left foot and then scatter a handful of peas as he steps with his right foot. This hand broadcasting was hap-hazard, but it’s all there was at this time. Hopefully, they should have a crop to harvest by summer. Ruth explained that Lent was a time when no meat or fish could be eaten, so vegetables from the garden were essential. This was the “Hungry Gap”, the time when supplies ran low before harvest. Alexanders were a popular vegetable at this time and were very versatile. Their leaves were edible as they were and their flower heads were delicious poached. Ruth also explained that primrose petals were used, and are delicious in salads.

Palm Sunday marked the beginning of the last week of Lent. From 1490, people dressed as prophets. Peter decides on John the Baptist and dresses up with a beard and costume, carries a cross and processes with the locals to church for mass. Mass is delivered in Latin. The common people could not understand the service, but they could understand and enjoy the rituals. Greenery is blessed, symbolising palms, and then the branches are turned into crosses before the people process back from church. The crosses were taken home and placed over the doorway to protect the family from misfortune and witchcraft. The cross was a reminder of Christ’s message and the greenery also symbolised spring and new life. By the 1500s there was a raucous side to the Palm Sunday celebrations. The procession ended with a spring version of a snowball fight, with people throwing greenery at each other.

At the end of the programme, it is late spring and Ruth is digging up leeks, the pea crop is growing well but the pig sty is still not finished. Peter and Tom finish it by making a roof of overlapping shingles (wooden tiles). Two sows and six piglets are then delivered.

As soon as Lent is over, meat can be eaten again, so Ruth cooks veal. It is necessary to kill a calf at Easter because the household would need rennet for their cheese-making. Ruth uses the veal to make a veal pottage. She explains that although pottage was eaten daily, there was variety because the ingredients changed all of the time. The team and the farm workers then sit down for an 11am meal of veal pottage and bread.

The Tudor Monastery Farm team have a blog at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/posts/Tudor-Monastery-Farm and the book to accompany the series is available now from Amazon UK, Amazon.com or your usual bookstore.

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6 thoughts on “Tudor Monastery Farm Episode 1”
  1. Thanks so much for this great post–very informative and nicely done–I can just imagine you scribbling away as y ou watch it. Anyway, thank you! Hope all is well.

  2. This looks similar to something I watched not too long ago.Except it was about the every day struggle of the common people in Elizabethan England.Really interesting!You get a sense of how things were done and what sort of things people had to do just to survive.If crops failed two years in a row already the people were starving.It was vital to work the land.

  3. Please note I haven’t watched the show yet but as an amatuer brew-mistress I must correct your report regarding ale brewing. And thanks for calling it ale. Beer is ale flavoured with hops. Ales can be flavoured with anything or nothing.

    It’s not the alcohol that kills bacteria or any other microbes, it’s heating the mash in the mash tun and then later boiling the wort. Contamination of undiserable and possibly unhealthy microbes can occur following cooling the wort.

    Then the brewer by adding yeast directly if they have harvested the yeast from a previous batch or more likely in Tudor times, the brewer relied on spontaneous fermentation as Belgium brewers in the Brussels and surrounding areas use to produce lambic ales. SF is a bad statergy if you want to brew ales free of contamination.

    Alcohol is part of the lack of re-infection but only once the alcohol by volume is above 16%, ie higher than the vast majority of wines. I’ve brewed under far more sanitary conditions than I imagine the average Tudor brewer could ever be able to create and still got contaminated beer.

    Secondary fermentation has always been a worry for brewers especially if you are bottling your product. My 8% ABV mead refermented in the bottle to produce a very light, fizzy, slightly sweet champagne style wine with an ABV of high hang-over proportions…

    The addition of hops in the early 16th century wan’t encouraged even though hop resins are effective against may bacteria eventually became the norm in English and later Scotish and British brewing. Heavily hopped India Pale Ales and stouts were essential in boosting morale in far-flung British Empire postings.

    Used grain was used animal feed as was the discarded apples and pears from cider and perry production.

    Beer was used in many monastries on fast days as away of adding extra calories, the higher brews being 8, 10 or 12 % ABV. There are several Belgium monasteries anmd one Dutch brewing for thier own and eternal consumption which are EU certifed as Trappist Ales. While several Belgium and some from other countries brewers produce an equivalent series of brews which have to be labeled as Abbey Ales.

    1. Hi Anyanka,
      Thanks for the correction, but that’s what they actually said in the programme, that bit wasn’t from me and I have no idea about brewing ale, only making wine. Thank you so much for explaining it. It was just a one sentence explanation from Peter, so I assume that either he didn’t know or he was just trying to keep things simple in a very limited time. I’m hoping that they will actually make ale and then explain it in more detail, as that would be really interesting.

  4. One of the best reconstruction of ancient life programmes I have watched in a long time and well woth the license fee. Thank you for the complex and extensive notes on the programme.

    Life was not the simple laid back thing that I think some people imagine when they think of the late middle ages and country life was complicated. Religious ideas of the universe and the religious hours marked the passing of the day and the way everything was faced in life. Diet, sex, marriage, the way you went about your daily taske, even as in the article and the documentary the way you set out the table to remind you of the Last Supper; the way you viewed the natural world and the universe was explained in religious terms. Every task was complex and hard work. The building of the fence for the pigs looked very complicated; intricately weaving the cross bars of the fence in between the free standing posts. Even a simple carved out wooden bowl had to be done the right way or it fell apart. That was a lovely item, even if it was plain and simple; that made it beautiful. Strict rules had to be enforced just as they have to do today or the farm would be in chaos: imagine pigs running around causing damage, especially the more fearsome Tudor ones with tusks.

    Order was the heart of the monastic community and so it was the heart of the farming community that served it. By now monastic institutions were economic and social business centres and it made sense to give land to tennants and have them do much of the farming and wool production for them. Wool was essential to the English economy and our wool was of good quality. Imagine how much of the essential economy we lost when the monastic houses were destroyed. Tenants and servants would have lost their homes and their livings and protection from having to beg and so on. It was not just a religious centre; it was a total community. It is ironic that the later Tudors made harsh penalties against begging when they had created the situation in the first place by closing the monastic houses.

    The church was beautiful with its authentic paintings showing the gospels and the stories of the saints as they would have done back in 1500 and the Palm Sunday service was lovely. it was good to have someone explain the ceremonies as well and the meanings of the palms and so on. The procession was joyous and I think the experts enjoyed it. Seeing the old ways of doing things was exciting.

    Watching the planting and preparation of the fresh food and veg and the rushes for the lighted tapers brings home just how quickly diet changed from season to season and how expensive candles were. The production of the wicks gives us the phrase burning the light at both ends.

    Can’t wait for next week.

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