Here are my notes from last night’s episode of Tudor Monastery Farm. Apologies for bits I’ve missed…
It’s now late spring at the farm and the team have been running the farm as tenant farmers for two months. They’ve bred from their Tamworth pigs, the sheep have been sheared and the fleeces sold, and they’ve mastered driving oxen to sow the pea crop. Now, they need to turn their attention to making the staples: ale and bread.
An average Tudor person consumed one 2lb loaf of bread and 8 pints of ale every day. They drank ale for its calories, but also because water from wells was not safe because it was contaminated. Ruth commented that although it looked like Vitamin C would have been missing from the diet, it only took an apple or a small amount of vegetables to rectify that. Wealthier Tudor people would supplement bread and ale with meat.
6 acres of barley per person were needed to make ale, but 1 in 4 harvests failed. There was little understanding of agricultural science at this time and the people turned to superstitions and God for help.
It is Rogation Tide, 40 days after Easter, the traditional day for “beating the bounds”. Parishioners would walk the boundaries of the Parish, praying for farms and for a good harvest. Not only did it bless the land, it also reminded people of landmarks and the boundaries of the Parish. Landmarks were impressed upon children’s minds, in particular, by dangling them upside down at a landmark (a stream or a tree, for example) or beating them there, and then rewarding them with a treat. Peter dangles a boy upside down in front of a tree and then gives him a bit of fruit cake.
The Tamworth sows have produced 12 piglets between them and the piglets are now 10 weeks old. They are ready to be weaned and separated from their mothers so that the sows are ready again for breeding. Peter and Tom try to separate the sows and piglets by driving the piglets into the sty, but a piglet burrows under the gate! They manage it in the end though and take the piglets into the woods. In Tudor England, piglets were fattened on common land, in woodland where they could eat things like nuts, chestnuts and acorns – this practice was called “pannage”. It was good for the land because the pigs cleared it and it was good for the farmer because it was free food for the pigs. It would take about 3 months to get them up to weight. While the piglets are in the woodland, a boar can be introduced to the sows. A successful pig enterprise depended on a continual supply of piglets and gestation is 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days.
Tenant farmers like Ruth, Peter and Tom would have employed about 10 workers and would have had to accommodate and feed them, with ale and bread. In a monastery, 300 gallons of ale per monk were needed.
Yeast was needed for both ale and bread making. Yeast would be captured from the air. Wild yeast grows on grain and on the skins of fruit, so Ruth captures wild yeast by mixing flour and water in a bowl and standing it in a field of grain. After a while, if it has been successful, it will start to ferment and bubbles show that there is yeast present. The main raw ingredient of ale was barley and this needed to be malted to transform the starches in the grain to sugar. Ruth and Tom spread the barley grains out on a clean wooden floor, raking it out evenly, and then they “watered” it. This would make the grains swell and encouraged the barley to sprout. Warmth was needed, so after watering they heap the grain into a smaller, deeper pile to allow the warmth to build up. It’s a time consuming job because it has to be regularly stirred to make sure that all the grain is moist and warm.
Farmers and their workers worked from dawn until dusk and had little idea of time. Monastery life, though, was more structured with seven services during the day and one during the night. There was a time for eating, a time for reading, a time for praying etc.; everything was regular and the monastery bell dictated the rhythm of life. The bell would have been made in the monastery foundry. The craftsman shows Tom how a bell is made. First a mould is made by shaping daub with a wooden jig to make the inside of the bell. Layers are then built up in wax over the daub and then this was is covered in more daub . This is the lost wax method – when the mould is heated, the wax melts away and is replaced by bronze, which fills the gaps between the two layers of daub – a bell-shaped cavity. Bell metal was bronze: an alloy of tin and copper. The craftsman had only one chance to get the bell right, a single bubble would ruin the bell, so foundries were blessed by the abbot.
Early medieval monks would rely on sundials and water clocks to know when to ring the monastery bells, but in the 13th century a mechanical clock was invented. The key to this clock was the foliot which provided the clock’s rhythm/constant rate and controlled its unwinding. This part of the programme was rather complicated and I got lost with my notes so see The First Mechanical Clocks for how the “verge and foliot” mechanism worked.
The complication with making the clock for the monastery is that religious services were split between day and night. The clock needs to measure 12 hours at day and night, whatever the season, so that prayer could be regulated. The weight on the foliot could be moved to make hours shorter for a winter’s day or a summer’s night. Peter installs the clock in the monastery and sets it to ring Tom’s bell. He has to make several adjustments to get it working properly, to ring 7 times during the day and once during the night, but he manages it in the end.
Clocks eventually spread from monasteries to church towers across the nation.
The barley has been malting for a week and has started sprouting; it is ready for the kiln. The starch has been turned to sugar now and Ruth needs to stop that process. The barley is dried out in the kiln to stop it sprouting any more. While it’s drying out, Ruth explains that ale did not contain hops, beer was ale with hops added. I got the following information from the book because I couldn’t write fast enough while Ruth was making the ale in the programme. Once the barley has dried, water is boiled to sterilise it and then it is poured over a measure of the malt (the dried barley) which has been put in a wooden tub. Herbs could be added at this point to add flavour. The tub was then kept warm by wrapping it with a blanket. The resulting liquid, the wort, could then be drawn off into a fresh tub and another batch of boiled water poured onto the malt to make a weaker ale which could be used for daytime drinking. Ruth explains in the book that the frothy captured yeast was then added to the first batch which was then kept warm again to brew overnight. The next day, the froth (ale balm) could then be taken off the ale and added to the second batch of ale with flavourings like elderflower and honey. Ale balm could also be used in bread-making. The ale recipe Ruth is using dates back to Neolithic times. When cooled, the ale is strained. The butts of ale were kept in the “buttery”. Ruth explained that the “service” end of the house consisted of the buttery and the pantry, where bread, bowls and things associated with mealtimes were kept.
While Ruth is making ale, Peter is finding out about bread-making. Wheat flour was ground at the monastery’s mill. The windmill Peter visits in Sussex only dates back to the 1750s, but it is similar in style to those used in the Tudor era. Millers were at the mercy of the wind and had to turn the whole windmill to catch the wind. He does this by lifting the steps of the mill and turning the whole thing. Wheat was carried up to the grindstones by a winch powered by the sails. There are two grindstones: the bed stone at the bottom, which doesn’t move, and the runner stone on top, which does move. Both have deep furrows which acted like scissors and “sheared” the grain to make flour. The miller tested the consistency of the flour by “the rule of thumb”, by feeling its texture with his thumb to see if it’s fine enough.
Peter then takes the flour to the monastery bakehouse where three types if bread are produced: unleavened bread for communion, fine white bread for the abbot and maslin bread, which was a mixture of flours and which was the general all-purpose bread for the monks. Peter uses Ruth’s yeast to help the maslin bread rise and he explains that yeast was referred to in one medieval book as “God is good” and that it was not understood how it actually worked. It is the reaction from the yeast and sugar that results in carbon dioxide which makes the bread rise. The dough is proved, knocked back and then proved for a second time, before being baked in the bread oven. The oven is heated by a wood fire, which is then scraped out and replaced with the bread. While that’s baking, Peter makes manchet bread with white flour. This flour was sieved and so was expensive and associated with high status. It produced lighter loaves which were softer and greater in volume. This time, the raising agent is ale balm, rather than yeast. The dough is cut into portion for baking and is left to prove before it is baked. The manchet loaves are then delivered to the abbot and the maslin bread is used by the monks.
Wax was essential for church candles, the light of God. It burned brighter and cleaner than tallow, and had a very pure flame. Monasteries kept bees for wax, the only wax available at this time, and the by-product was honey. Tom puts on special outfit, which includes a wicker face mask, to protect him from being stung. Bees were kept in “skeps”, upturned wicker baskets, and goose feathers were used to gently brush the bees off the combs. The bees in these hives are black honeybees, the sort that were common in Tudor times. The Queen bee can live up to 9 years and honey was the hive’s food for the winter. The bees produce around 40-50 lbs of surplus honey each year and this can be separated from the wax by crushing the comb in the hand and letting the honey drip out. Once the wax and honey have been separated, the wax can be used for candle-making. Wicks were repeatedly dipped into wax to build up layers, allowing each layer to harden before being redipped. It was important to keep it as straight as possible so that the candle burned cleanly and evenly.
Ruth explains about Tudor hygiene. Early Tudor people feared washing with water because of disease, so they used a dry cloth to remove grime and sweat. Hair was cleaned without water too, and was combed thoroughly twice a day with a fine-toothed comb to remove excess oils and dead skin. Ruth commented on how this really did keep the hair clean.
It’s now Early June and the summer solstice is only two weeks away. The sows are hopefully pregnant and the cereal crops are thriving, but the pea crop is not looking good – something is eating it. Peas and beans were essential for carbohydrates and vitamins, in a time when potatoes did not grow in England. The farmer was at the mercy of nature, of God. Religious guilds were set up by businesses, tradesmen and farmers so that prayers would be said for the success of their businesses. Masses were said for specific causes, such as the success of a crop. The services were in Latin, which the general people could not understand, but the people did get used to the form of services and would recognise different parts of them. At Holy Communion, the priest would bless the unleavened bread which then transformed into the body of Christ (transubstantiation). To have this bread, you had to be free from sin, so most people would take blessed normal bread, panis benedictus. This bread was thought to have special powers and so could also be used by farmers to scatter on his crops. Peter scatters it on the pea field, which then recovers nicely.
Sheep were the real money spinner for the farmer, with woollen cloth accounting for 75% of England’s exports, so the boys check the health of their sheep. They trim the sheeps’ ‘toe nails’ as these are not being worn down by the soft pastures. Sheep that were past their prime were slaughtered for mutton and Ruth has some mutton to cook. Removing the bone made roasting more efficient because bone was a barrier to heat. She removes the bones from the joint and rolls the meat into a cylinder which she ties up and then puts on a spit. She roasts it in front of the fire so that it cooks properly. If it was done over the fire then the outside would blacken and the middle would stay raw. She bastes it with its own fat and then “dredges” it with flour or oatmeal flavoured with spices. The mutton is served to the household at their 11am main meal. This will keep them going to their evening meal, which only consisted of bread and ale. The mutton is served to the top table first. The farmer would then reward others with meat. This meal was the formal, central ritual of the household and it reinforced people’s positions in the household.
It is Midsummer’s Eve, a special mystical time. The team have gone up a local hill to celebrate. Professor Ronald Hutton explained that it was a time when it was believed that the fairy folk were abroad and humans could be magical. Fire was at the heart of the celebrations and jumping through fire was thought to bring good luck. It was also believed that evil spirits were roaming free and that the fires warded them off. The actual evil that was around at this time was disease, brought by fleas and mosquitoes which bred at this time of year and which spread malaria and the Plague. One fire that was lit at this time was the “bone fire”, or bonfire, which was made up of bones. Its pungent smell was believed to ward off evil and scare off dragons. Fire could also be used to predict the farmer’s fortune. A cartwheel was wrapped in straw, set alight and then rolled down a hill. If it was still burning when it got to the bottom then the farmer would have a good harvest.
In the next episode, the team will be looking at how monasteries made money apart from farming – mining lead, fishing, running inns etc.