Here is my rundown of episode 5 of Tudor Monastery Farm based on my frantic scribblings, apologies if I missed anything…
In the early 1500s the state did not provide any help for the poor, they had to rely on the hospitality of others and hospitality was seen as a measure on which good Christians judged themselves. Monasteries offered help to the poor and needy, having alms houses and giving hospitality to a wide range of people. Professor James Clarke explained to the team that charity, or loving kindness, was at the heart of monastic convention. But they didn’t just feed the poor, they also offered hospitality (lavish meals) to the nobility, as a way to encourage large donations and their patronage. Nobles believed that they would go straight to heaven if they gave money to monasteries. The team is going to help the monastery prepare for a lavish feast for the monastery’s patron.
The monasteries also housed the elderly, people who were retired long-serving monastery staff members or generous donors. These people were granted a “corody”, a grant or pension which entitled the person to accommodation and food over the course of a year, and sometimes other necessities like fuel for the fire. The team need to prepare a room for someone who is being given corody by the monastery and this room needs work, particularly the floor which is all cracked and uneven.
Peter and Tom are examining the pea crop which is nearly ready to harvest. Peas were important as food for people and as fodder for animals. Field peas were left to dry on the land until harvest, but this meant that the crop was at risk from birds. Bird control was a serious business and people could earn themselves a bounty of one penny for three birds’ heads. The boys make a bird scarer, to protect their crop, by threading shells onto string and stretching it between posts.
Ruth is preparing for the abbot’s feast by making butter for the table in the farmhouse’s dairy. Butter was good because it provided calories and because it was thought to be good for the health, particularly for chest complaints. She has left yesterday’s milk to settle in a bowl in the dairy and she scoops the cream off the top and puts it into the butter churn. As she churns the milk, Ruth listen to the sound it makes so that she knows when it has turned from milk to butter. It can turn to butter in as little as 15 minutes. The final stage of butter-making is squeezing it into a lump. You couldn’t do this with your hands, they were too warm, so Ruth uses wooden paddles to shape it. She then uses salt to preserve the butter and commented that butter could actually last up to one year. Ruth also explains that butter was known as a “white meat”. It had been consumed by everyone because people had access to milk, being able to graze their cows on common land but by 1500, however, landowners were beginning to take back common land to use as parks for hunting. People were forced to rent fields for grazing land and this meant that butter became associated with wealthier peasants.
The shadow of plague and disease was ever present in the Tudor era so people had systems of waste removal and cleaning. Ruth is cleaning the equipment she used for butter-making and she explains that there were three lines of defence using in cleaning such equipment:
- Salt – Ruth uses a damp cloth to scrub things and to kill bacteria.
- Boiling water – Ruth scalds all of the equipment with boiling water.
- Sunlight (UV rays) – She places the equipment out in the sun to dry. The UV rays kill bacteria and sterilize the equipment.
Peter and Tom turn their attentions to the floor of the monastery room which needs renovating. They’re going to make a lime-ash floor because it will be flexible and will also offer good insulation. Lime-ash came from lime stone, or chalk, which could be found in the forest, which was heated up and then put in water to make a putty. When this putty was laid as a floor it then changed from a putty to a stone. Lime-ash was usually gathered from the bottom of kilns, but the boys need to make their own by heating lime stone to 900 degrees Celsius. They “roast” the lime stone they’ve collected for three hours to drive off the carbon dioxide. The result is quick lime, a very volatile product, which is then “slaked”, or put into water, to turn it into a putty. They leave it to slake overnight. They mix the resulting putty with sand, clay and flint, to give it strength, and blend it with curdled milk, something which has been used in this way since Roman times. The casein from the milk bonds with the lime making the floor durable and waterproof. After they’ve laid the mixture on the floor, the boys stamp it down and then rub milk onto it with cloths to make it even more waterproof.
The room also needs floor mats and sleeping mats, and these would be made out of rushes. The shape of waterways and wetlands in the 1500s would be completely unrecognisable from today and these waterways gave people a wealth of resources: wildfowl, fish, peat for fuel, and rushes which could be made into mats, chair seats, mattresses and baskets. Rushes were cut between May and September, and usually as close to mid-summer as possible. The rushes are dried before use, so that they are flexible, and then Ruth plaits them together. She then sews the plaits together to make mats. When she takes the mats to the monastery room, she scatters strewing herbs over the floor. Floors were strewn in this way to get rid of “miasma”, a bad air or bad smell which was thought to cause disease, and also to act as an insecticide.
The influence of the Church extended into all parts of life and it also controlled the spread of ideas. Monasteries were the custodians of knowledge, with their libraries, and they would make books for prestigious gifts. These books were traditionally made on vellum, but by 1500 paper was beginning to be produced. Tom is learning how to make paper from linen and water. Waste rag has been soaked in water and Tom uses a hand mould to drop below the surface of the water, flood the mould with the mixture and then shake to form a sheet, leaving the fibre on the surface. The sheet is then “couched”, or laid flat. Although this method of making paper was established in England in 1490, paper was mainly imported from Europe and so was costly. Manufacturers were recognised by their watermark and Tom adds a watermark to his paper before it is pressed for one hour and then hung to dry.
Tom’s paper is going to be used for a book which will be presented to the Abbot’s patron. By the reign of Henry VII a printing press with moveable type had been invented by Guttenberg. This invention changed book production completely. Tom sees how the type was set upside down and back to front. These type sets were called “sorts” and if a printer ran out of a letter while he was setting the type for a page then he was “out of sorts”! The type was then put in the “chase” which was held in place by wedges known as “furniture”. Ink balls were rubbed over the type and the paper was prepared by putting a “mask” over it so that only the parts of it that were meant to have print got ink on them. A whole sheet was printed in one go and a good printer could allegedly do up to 250 pages an hour. This new printing technique was produced by entrepreneurs, not the Church, and made books more affordable and changed the world.
It is now time for the book to be bound and Eve, Ruth’s daughter, shows Tom what was done. The sheets of papers are folded, sliced in half carefully with a knife and then folded again to make sheets. The pages were then taken to a bookbinding shop where a small press held the pages in place while a spine was marked out and slits cuts. Books were then sewn together before being trimmed to size and having their spines rounded with a hammer to make their spines stables and to form a ledge for the cover. Books were originally covered in vellum, but, by 1500, books for the wealthy could be covered in leather. Once the cover has been added, the books is put in a press to set overnight.
Lay workers helped with the general day-to-day running of monasteries. These workers were mostly men, but old women, who were deemed as being beyond the temptations of the flesh, would do things like the laundry. She explains that lay people wore linen undergarments next to the skin, but monks traditionally wore wool, however, as cleanliness was essential to monks some did start to wear linen. Ruth is doing the monastery laundry and she explains how washing was done. First, she makes lye. She does this by using a bucket with a hole in the bottom and adding straw and river stones to act as a filter. She then adds wood ash and pours water over it. The water leeches out the chemicals from the ash to make a strong lye solution. The next step involved Ruth putting some linen in the bottom of a large basket and then making a shelf in the basket out of sticks to support the next layer of linen. Adding a shelf prevented the linen at the bottom getting crushed and allowed the lye to filter through all the linen properly, dissolving the grease. Once the lye had removed the grease, the linen was then washed. Ruth explains that the key to washing was “brute force” because it forced the molecules of the water under tension through the fibres of the material. She is washing the monastery linens in wetlands and is bashing it hard. The laundry is then wrung out and laid on the grass to dry. The lye and the sunlight have a bleaching effect on it.
Meanwhile, Peter is keeping the farm running. There is a shortage of food for the cows so Ted Green shows Peter how to harvest tree hay for the livestock. First, Ted makes a ladder out of a tree by simply picking a dead trunk with lots of strong branches sticking out of it at regular intervals. This is then put against an ash tree to allow Peter to climb up and collect this year’s growth of ash leaves. Tree hay was the perfect solution for animal feed for the drier months because trees keep their leaves hydrated. Ted explains that tree hay actually pre-dates grass as animal feed and that this technique of managing the trees is known as pollarding and is one of the earliest forms of woodland management. The tree hay goes down very well with the team’s cows.
It is time to harvest the pea crop and the team use scythes to cut the crop. They load it into a wagon and then beat it, or “thrash” it, to remove the dried peas. The stems can be fed to the cows. A good crop was a Godsend because it would feed the household and their cattle.
The elaborate food served at the monastery was very different to what normal people would eat. We see the abbot saying Grace and it is explained that talking was forbidden and that monks communicated at mealtimes with sign language. Each monk had an allowance of 2 1/2 pounds of bread, 1 gallon of ale and 2 pounds of fish per day. The Church decreed that meat should not be eaten three days a week and on holy days, and that only fish was allowed. The general public had to rely on dried or salted fish, but the monasteries had ponds and so had access to pike, salmon and carp. Ruth is preparing a carp for the abbot’s feast. It is a luxury food and a statement of wealth and status. She stuffs it with anchovies, bread, herbs and spices, spices also being a valuable commodity. Monks supervised chefs to keep an eye on things and to keep account of the food. She then makes a cage to support the fish during roasting.
The Church was instrumental in the spread of fine dining. Ruth talks about a pastry castle that was served by the Bishop of London and she replicates this, complete with a custard moat.
Wine was an expensive commodity so it was distilled to make brandy which lasted longer. Peter uses a still to make brandy. The first alcohol that is produced is methanol, the bad, harmful stuff that has to be discarded. You have to guess when the ethanol starts coming through. The tube is cooled in a bucket of water to condense the ethanol. The name “spirit” comes from the idea of the vapour of alcohol, or “spirit”, leaving the “body” of the wine.
Tom and Peter have been chosen to act as servers at the abbot’s feast, an important job which would have been given to gentlemen’s sons. They have to learn Tudor etiquette, how to serve and carve. A serving towel was worn to show your role and the boys learn how to bow in the Tudor style, so that they can bow with platters in their hands.
It is the day of the abbot’s feast, the monastery’s opportunity to express hospitality and to win favour and donations from their patron. The senior monk would wash the feet of guests before dinner and there would be a seating plan, with only distinguished guests sitting at the high table with the abbot. The sugar platters, pastry castle and carp are all presented to the abbot for his approval before being served to the guests. Peter carves the carp carefully into bite size portions, but keeping it in its original fish shape. The drinks are kept on a board, the origin of the word “cupboard”. The abbot presents the patron with the book Tom made, The Life of St Edmund in English. Entertainment would include revelry and music. Such events were important, they kept monasteries funded. Scraps from such feasts would be put in alms bowls for the poor. After the dissolution of the monasteries in Henry VIII’s reign, the government had to confront the issue of poor relief because the hospitality of monasteries was gone.
In the next episode, the team will be looking at salt processing and will be enjoying Tudor style entertainment.