Tudor Monastery Farm Episode 2

Tudor Monastery FarmHere is a rundown of last night’s episode of Tudor Monastery Farm based on my notes (scribblings, actually). Apologies if I missed anything…

The episode began by explaining that in 1500 England was at a crossroads. Farming was changing. Subsistence farming was becoming more commercialised as a new force, money, came into play. The monasteries had controlled all farming up until this point, but now more and more of their farms were being rented out and tenant farmers were realising that they too could make a profit. Tenant farmers were becoming business men/women and farming was changing because farmers were thinking like merchants.

The calendar was still shaped by the Church, by cycles of religious festivals, and seven weeks after Easter saw the feast of Pentecost/Whitsun on the horizon. It is May on the farm and the team are getting ready for Pentecost. Tom and Peter are raising geese to sell at the Whitsun market. Some of the geese are sitting on eggs and are hissing at the boys. These geese need to be fed while they’re on their nest, so Peter and Tom feed them pottage. Tudor farmers kept geese for eggs, meat and fat.

In 1500, the farming landscape was very different. Common land had not been enclosed so farmers could graze their sheep on lush fields of grass. Wool accounted for 75% of English exports and the monasteries dominated its trade. In May, the sheep were driven from the uplands down to the farm for shearing. The team consulted an expert on shepherding who explained that farmers would use a shepherd’s crook (or houlette) to help drive the sheep down to the farm. This was a stick with a cow horn on the end and the shepherd would fill the horn with pebbles to throw stones ahead of the sheep to startle them and to stop them going where he didn’t want them to go. Gathering the sheep in the open is a very tricky process, so the team get help from Hugh and his dog, Bess. Bess is a bearded collie, a breed which dates back to 16th century Scotland. Hugh explains that the shepherd needed to use just three commands: go left, go right and stop. Tudor shepherds/farmers lived on a knife-edge because a third of sheep died from disease. Sheep were valuable assets so there is lots of advice in manuals from the period, including the advice that the sheep should be washed before shearing. This would usually be done in deep water and the team’s farm pond is quite shallow, so Tom and Ruth get in with the sheep to wash them. If the fleeces were stuck together with dung they were unusable and unsellable, so it was important to wash the dung off. The fleeces had to be impeccable to guarantee a good return. The sheep then need to dry in the sun for about a week before shearing.

Illness was the next topic. Tudor people believed that the saints interceded for them, bringing them good health and curing ailments, but people also turned to nature for cures. Peter has a summer cold and so mixes ground ivy (alehoof), which is rich in vitamin C, with honey and hot water. He enjoyed the drink.

Ruth is milking a sheep. Although sheep milk was beginning to go out of fashion, because cows could produce more, it made sense if you had a big flock because it was another source of revenue. She plans to make cheese to sell at the Whitsun market.

Peter is making a shearing bench which “is like a slatted ladder on legs that tapers to a seat at one end”. A bottle-shaped bench. He has to steam bend some hazel for it. He digs a pit, lines it with stones (which will act as radiators) and builds a fire in it. While the fire is burning, he boils some water and then uses that to soak grass and straw. Peter spreads the wet grass/straw over the fire, adds the lengths of hazel and then covers it over with soil to keep all the steam in. The rule was that an hour of steaming was needed for every inch of the wood’s diameter. Once the hazel has steamed for three hours, he quickly bends it around stakes. The bent hazel will form the sides of the bench and slats and legs will be added.

Ruth is in the farm’s dairy. The dairy was a vital part of the farm and was run by the woman of the house and the profits made from it belonged to her. Ruth is making cheese. She heats milk over a fire to blood temperature and then settles it in water bowls, which provide insulation. She adds rennet and leaves the milk for around 30 minutes so that it sets into curds and whey. While it sets, Ruth explains that the dairy was attached to the north-facing side of the farmhouse so that it was shielded from the sun. Windows gave it lots of light and ventilation and the floor was covered with non-glazed tiles, which were porous and held water. Ruth pours a bucket of water over the floor and explains that the water sank into the pores of the tiles and then evaporated, cooling the room. The dairy stays at around 5 or 6 degrees whatever the weather outside. Ruth “cuts” the cheese with her fingers, to separate the curds and whey, and then strains it through cloth in a cheese mould. Once it is drained, the cheese can then be pressed on both sides. Ruth then sprinkles it with salt and wipes it with brine and leaves it to mature and develop a rind.

Meanwhile, Tom is making a salve for the sheep first aid cut, which will be used at shearing. Farmers would usually use tar to seal wounds but this salve is a budget solution. He makes a salve using broom, suet, brine and urine. Broom is a medicinal plant and can be used to treat anything from a hangover to parasites. If urine is left for around three weeks it turns into ammonia, which gives the salve its cleansing and healing properties. The broom and suet were melted together and then the brine and ammonia was added. The mixture solidified as it was strained and cooled.

The 19th May was St Dunstan’s Day, the day for spring cleaning the farmhouse, Ruth has made a brush from butcher’s broom to get into all the nooks and crannies. The geese are fattening up nicely but no eggs have hatched, so there aren’t any new geese to replace those which will be sold at market.

The sheep are now dry and ready for shearing. In some areas of England, astrological signs and the phases of the moon were used to choose the right time for shearing. It was important to get it done at the right time because if sheep were sheared too early then they could die from the cold and if they were sheared too late then maggots could grow. Specialist shearers were often brought in and the team are helped by Ed and Doug. The sheep are laid one-by-one on the shearing bench and a production line system is used:

  1. Experienced shearers remove the best wool
  2. Less skilled shearers remove the rest

The good wool is separated from the scraps. Tom is shown how to shear but he cuts a sheep slightly and so puts salve on the wound. The shearing bench protected the fleece and also the shepherd’s back, and it only stopped being used in the 19th century when mechanical clippers started to be used.

Sheep were not organised into breeds at this time, so wool was classified by colour, length and coarseness. Quality varied enormously and tenant farmers had a reputation for inferior wool, whereas the monasteries were known for the best wool. This was because the monasteries were able to choose good breeding stock and had access to the best land for grazing. Ruth weighs the wool and is pleasantly surprised that 10 fleeces weigh 20 pounds, it’s a good weight. The value of sterling had fallen in Henry VII’s reign, so now was a good time to buy English wool. English wool also grew longer than European wool. Peter and Tom take the fleeces to the monastery to have the wool checked. The monasteries would look for even colouring and strong fibres. If they liked the wool, it would be included in the deal done with the merchant. Prices fluctuated so farmers might gamble and delay selling their fleeces. Selling the wool was a long process. The monasteries would deal with a middleman, who would deal with a merchant, who would deal with the European market… so it was a long time before a farmer would see his money.

Ruth explains that contributions to the church were obligatory. At Pentecost, a live dove was often released in the church, but Ruth is making a mechanical one. She uses soft cheese and lime to fix feather to the dove. While she makes it, she explains that the church calendar was used for everything. If a farmer had to arrange a meeting, for example, he might say “I’ll meet you on the day after St Agnes’s Day”.

Meanwhile, Peter and Tom are making “boots” for the geese. Geese had to be driven miles to market so their feet needed protection. Farmers would often coat the feet with tar and sand, or make boots out of cloth or leather, but Peter and Tom make “booties” out of sacking.

Manufacturing was the growth sector in 1500 and cloth was at its centre. Demand for woollen cloth was rising and there were high prices on the Continent. England was known for its fine cloth and it earned £1.5 million in revenue from cloth every year. Fleeces were sorted, combed and carded, and then spun using a great wheel, also known as a walking wheel because a spinner could walk around 30 miles a day while spinning. Interestingly, a “spinster” was the female form of “someone who spins”. The yarn then had to be woven and this was done on a “counterbalance treadle loom”. I couldn’t write fast enough for this bit, so I’ll quote from the book that accompanies the series:

“The warp threads were wound onto a beam held at the back of a large wooden frame about the size of a four-poster bed, then brought horizontally forward to be wound onto a second beam at the front. On their journey from the back to the front of the loom, each individual thread passed through two shafts which could lift alternate threads; they then passed, in pairs, through the ‘reed’ which held them evenly apart across the width of the fabric. The two shafts were connected to the treadles so that the weaver could raise first one set of threads and then the other set of threads by pushing down on the appropriate treadle. The reed was free to move horizontally, rather than vertically and was used to beat each new pass of the weft thread back into place.

Once the meticulous business of threading all the warp threads had been done, and the tension of each thread adjusted, the weaver sat and took a shuttle loaded with yarn. As one foot depressed a treadle, half the threads rose and the other half were left in place; the shuttle passed through the gap (called the shed) between the alternate threads leaving a single yarn behind. The foot was then lifted from the treadle and the reed was brought forward, easing the yarn into place. Now the second treadle was employed to raise the other set of warp threads, with the shuttle passing between that gap and the reed again, pushing the weft thread into place.”

This was done again and again until a piece of cloth was made. The finished cloth looks a bit like sacking, so Ruth takes the cloth to the monastic mill to be “fulled”. Fulling tightened the cloth so that light didn’t shine through it. The cloth was pounded by huge hammers powered by a water wheel. Ruth explained how the cloth was also soaked in urine to whiten it. The monastery charged its tenant farmers to use the monastic fulling mill, so it was another way of “taxing” the tenants. Fulling was the only mechanical part of cloth production until the 18th century. Fulling took six hours and the resulting cloth was quite fluffy.

Peter has made Ruth some tenterhooks from iron so that she can stretch the cloth. The hooks are attached to a frame and then the cloth is stretched on the frame and out under tension by being weighted down with rocks. It needed to be stretched to regulation size so that it was perfect and consistent and could be sold.

In Henry VII’s reign, farmers were exploring other ways to make money. In 1496, England was preparing for war with Scotland and so needed iron. The blast furnace was developed and farmers produced their own blast furnaces. The team visited a replica Tudor blast furnace at the Rural Life Centre to see how it worked. Charcoal and iron ore was fed in at the top and then the iron melted into liquid iron and ran out into a mould. Every twelve hours, a ten foot length of iron could be produced, weighing about half a tonne. Bellows provided the oxygen needed by the furnace and the key to powering the bellows was water from a water wheel. Blast furnaces would run for months at a time, from after harvest and through the winter, when there was a plentiful supply of water. The iron was then re-melted in a refinery and hammered to get rid of the impurities. This produced bar iron which could then be used by a blacksmith. This plentiful supply of iron opened up all sorts of possibilities and the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the development of the bast furnace in Tudor times.

It is Whitsun and the team attend Church to see Ruth’s mechanical dove take flight. They then attend the Whitsun market, taking their geese and cheese. These markets were attended by the whole community and the usual strict trading regulations were lifted so that everyone could sell their produce. Cheese and butter were traded across considerable distances. Peter sees some lemons and spices, this type of produce was new and was due to new trade routes opening up. Entertainment consisted of morris dancing, ale and music. Whitsun was one of the most popular feasts of the year. Professor Ronald Hutton, a folklore historian, explained to the team that Whitsun was “party time” because it was a gap in the farming calendar, a time to relax and enjoy the warm weather. The Maypole was the central feature and this was decorated with foliage to symbolise growth and new life. The new craze in 1500 was morris dancing, which Professor Hutton described as “cutting edge”! The Church made its own ale, Whitsun ale, which was made from raw materials provided by the villagers. The Church then charged an entrance fee to the entertainment and everyone enjoyed it.

In the next episode, the team will explore the rhythm of life, what sustained the people of Tudor times and how summer was celebrated.

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.

Notes and Sources

  • Tudor Monastery Farm, Episode 2, shown on BBC2 at 9pm on 20th November 2013
  • Tudor Monastery Farm, Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold (2013), p171

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